Art teachers were STEAM-ing before STEAM was cool!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Wampum Designs

Today I started my four week after school course on Tribal Art of North America. Love it! I wish I had more time to dedicate to the art of Native Americans (I bet I could spend a whole year on just North American tribes), but I only have four classes. 

The first lesson I thought the kids would enjoy is learning about wampum--traditionally, beads made from the quahog shell and strung on string in intricate patterns of purple and white (although some sources say that red and black beads were used sometimes too). Quahog's are endangered today and, I guess, artisans can only get one or two truly purple beads per shell, so one wampum bead costs around $5--way too pricey to use for large belt designs. The beadwork we did today had 72 beads per child so each child would have used $360 worth of beads for their project. The children loved hearing that!

We used plain old pony beads I bought from Michael's for our designs. I had been looking for a way for students to easily realize their own bead designs without sewing or doing crazy things with string (my students are in 2nd-4th grade) and I finally found a solution on the blog Mrs. Erb's Art Page. Mrs. Erb uses pipe cleaners (chenille stems) to hold the beads in each row. Perfect! I had the children fit them onto matte board that had been donated to me. This allowed a nice way to display their original designs along with the finished wampums. They came out great and didn't take long at all.

Beaded Wampum

Supplies Needed:
  • Worksheet for practicing designs
  • Crayons in purple (and red and black if you want to use those)
  • Six chenille stems-white
  • Purple and white pony beads (ours were more royal blue)
  • Matte board (ours were red and about 8" square)
  • Clear tape (I used packing tape because it's stickier than regular tape)
  • Scissors
  • Glue stick

1. I passed out the worksheets and instructed the children to create a couple different designs using geometrics shapes and using pattern. My worksheet had two 6x12 grids so the children could try out a couple of designs before beginning to bead. We looked at real wampum for inspiration. Word of advice: only put out the crayon colors that correspond to the colors of beads you will be using. If you are only using purple beads, only put out purple crayons for them to diagram with. Trust me.

2. Once they had a couple of designs down on paper, they could bring them to me and we'd discuss which one they wanted to do. 

3. Our designs were 6 rows of beads, each with 12 beads per row. My directions will reflect that. I had them start off with the first pipe cleaner (which represents the first row) and follow their diagram to place 12 beads on it. After that, they worked down the rows, using their diagram as a guide. I cautioned them to keep their rows in order so they didn't get mixed up. If you are doing this with a group you could have them label the chenille stems with a piece of tape or prepare the matte board (as in step 4, below) and have them transfer each row, as it is finished, to the matte board.

4. Once all of the rows were completed, I had them affix them to matte board, again using their diagram as a guide. The way I did it was to cut 1/4" slits on the right and left side of a piece of matte board. Since we have 6 rows, I cut 6 slits in each side of the board (one for each row). The children then slipped the chenille stem in the slits (pulling tight) and we wrapped the ends around the back and secured them with the packing tape to the back side of the matte board. I thought this looked tidy, although there was space enough for the children to do a much larger design (maybe they could repeat their design twice next time...).

5. I then had the children cut out the diagram they had used to create their wampum and affix it above the beadwork on the matte board using glue stick.


  1. Dear Mrs. P.,

    Thank you for making this project so accessible. I know Phyl, over at, There's a Dragon in my Art room, has done this many times and posted great instructions. I just didn't have the energy to do it her way (sorry, Phyl!)I can definitely see myself doing it your way with the chenille stems and the mat board. Thanks for a great post!


  2. I know, I LOVE Phyl's project, too, but I wanted to make it a positive experience for my students (in this case, in grades 2-4) and a positive experience for me as well! Even my 5-year-old made one (he's super proud of it--it's the main example in the post). :-) Go for it, it'll be great!


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