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Methods Used To Weave Wampum

What Is Porcelain Wampum? Previous Page in Article Series Next Page in Article Series Wampum Designs

On This Page:

You Have To Be Warped

Warp With Plant or Animal?

Single- and Double-Thread Weaves

Bias Wampum Weaving
Finishing The Ends

eagle feather You Have To Be Warped
Though it was the only early beadwork woven on looms throughout the area we now call the United States, not all wampum was woven on a loom.  Much wampum weaving was also done by a sort of finger-weaving technique.  Regardless of the method used, lengthwise strands called the "warp" provide the foundation on which beads are woven.  Hence the age old adage, "You have to be warped to weave."  Horizontal threads holding beads onto the warp are called the "weft" threads.

eagle feather Warp With Plant Or Animal?
Many wampum peace, alliance, and history belts have survived to the present day.  Studying them we find a variety of materials used for the warp threads.  Few were woven on buckskin strands.  Many more, though, were woven on a warp of twisted plant fiber.  The Lenape used various plant fibers, including dogbane, milkweed, and cedar bark.  The Iroquois preferred cordage made of the elm's inner bark.  Others used whatever the strongest flexible fiber in their region may have been.

Most people today use a buckskin warp for wampum weaving.  It's easier and much faster to cut off a strip of buckskin than to make traditional cordage.  It's also often cheaper, since it can be cut from available scraps.  For most personal items, though, a buckskin warp is a poor choice.  Buckskin degrades and tears much faster from perspiration and body salts than properly prepared plant fiber.

Original personal items we have seen, and many we were informed of by curators and other researchers, show a similar variety in materials used for warp threads.  Certain plants - namely dogbane, milkweed, flax, and Indian mallow bark - have a much higher tensile (pulling) strength than buckskin, and, therefore, will last longer under repeated use.     [Top of Page]

eagle feather Single- and Double-Thread Weave
Relatively few original wampum pieces were made using a "single-thread" weft.  A single thread is run back and forth through the beads, with one pass under and the return pass over the warp threads.  Since so few were made with this technique we assume they were made by beginners just learning their craft.  Most wampum weaving today, though, is made using this method.

The predominant method of original wampum weaving, including all peace and history belts we know of, used a "double-thread" weft.  Two threads of sinew or plant fiber go through the beads in the same direction - one under the warp threads and the other, of course, over.  The threads are crossed on the outer edge to secure each row of beads in place.     [Top of Page]

eagle feather Bias Wampum Weaving
Another form of wampum weaving, a sort of finger weaving method, is very time consuming and tedious.  Therefore, the finished items are rather expensive compared to other wampum weaving.   It was used extensively by Native Americans for personal items like bracelets, arm bands, belts, and necklaces (referred to in many old journals as "collars").  The wife of Chief Shingas was buried with 5 large "collars" of "real" wampum, each about 2" to 3" wide and from 16" to 24" long.  Few crafts people today use this method, or even know how to.

Bias Weave EndWampum beads run lengthwise with the warp instead of perpendicular to it.  A row of beads is slipped on the warp threads (two through each bead).  When a bead has been placed on each pair of warp threads, an outer pair of threads (always work from the same side) is run between the two threads of each of the other pairs of warp threads at the bottom of the row of beads. Another row of beads is then added and the process repeated until the desired length is reached.   Ends are finished by running the warp threads through a buckskin end cap and knotted off. The end caps are doubled over and a thong added to each for tying the ends together.     [Top of Page]

eagle feather Finishing The Ends
Many crafts people today do not finish the ends of their wampum projects, in order to keep their costs down.  That was okay for originals, since the ancestors rarely removed such items after tying them on.  We have seen a number of originals, though, finished with end caps (as in photo above).  Warp threads were simply pushed through holes in the buckskin, and tied together on the other side.  End caps were then folded at the middle with a thong run through both sides for tying on and easy removal.

What Is Porcelain Wampum? Previous Page in Article Series Next Page in Article Series Wampum Designs

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Copyright Jan 1999, 2015, Gary A. Reneker. All rights reserved. All text, graphics, programming, and coding are protected by U.S. and International Copyright Laws, and may not be copied, reprinted, published, translated, hosted, or otherwise distributed by any means without explicit permission from Gary A. Reneker.