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Published: 27 April 2016

By Andy Ross

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Beads, beads, beads

I would not have expected to find beadwork of such stunning quality in Greenland of all places...

The history of the beadwork of the island, as well as of embroidery and other types of decoration, is, as is customary in this remote part of the world, bound up inextricably with animal and plant life. The original "beads" were made of stone (soapstone amulets up to 4000 years old have been found - evil spirits were kept at bay because they slipped through the hole in the piece), or bones from the spine of the small capelin fish (which gave their name to the district, Ammassalik) or from birds, with sinews or grasses acting as threads. In the 17th Century, apparently, glass beads started to make an appearance and the craft took on new colours and forms. And what forms they are. In this landscape of snow, brightly coloured collars and cuffs dazzle. In the "old days" these would have been made from skins with the beads sewn onto them after having been strung together. Nowadays the skins have been replaced by cotton or some other manufactured textile, and the beads are sometimes plastic, but the effect is still to brighten and make the wearer stand tall. 

On a visit to the children's home in Tasiilaq, we saw a collar on the wall which I asked if we could see. One of our party tried it on and it was just "like a hug" as she described it. Is that a marvellous way to think of something so inanimate and yet so full of life?

The pictures on this page are of a belt with beadwork, a sculpture with a bead necklace in the East Greenlandic style, and costume with intricate beadwork, all in the Tasiilaq Museum, and our colleague wearing the collar (in the West Greenlandic style) from the Children's Home. The latter, according to our Greenland host, grew in size over time, showing status and wealth. Doesn't it look fab-tastic!?