Ndebele design development, colour and innovation in the 20th century is revolutionary. The impact on viewers was a big, bold aesthetic that took your breath away: initially, in the 1920s, with its pristine clarity and technical finesse and by the 1970s, with bold colour and audacious proportions. The abstract imagery, classical symmetry and rhythm of architectural design is distinctive only to the Ndebele people.

In this 2nd part of Ndebele beadwork, I propose that a history of disruption, engendered a determined resilience to express and establish themselves through this unique and dynamic art form. A leading factor for the survival of Ndebele art is the cultural importance placed on girls’ puberty ceremonies,  performed every 4 years. This period of seclusion perpetuates painting and beading skills, hones knowledge of aesthetics and drives the development of style. Here, older women teach young girls about beauty, resilience and how to be leaders in the future: leaders of their families, clans and the wider community.

After 1880 Ndebele beaded art developed in a state of flux. It was susceptible to social, political and economic upheaval.  Perhaps as compensation, women made images that enforced stability, harmony, integrity and the home. Cross cultural influences are pervasive: Although the Ndebele people stem from the Nguni tribe, their garments, like murals were influenced by the Sotho and Pedi.  Intermarriage resulted in stylistic inconsistencies. Regional differences in beadwork arose from being spread over a large area. After 1875, gold discoveries in Lydenburg, Mac-Mac and Barberton resulted in an increase of European seed beads imported into the Transvaal, appropriated by immigrant populations to furnish saloons and the indigenous people for body adornments. One can speculate that Ndebele people indentured to Boer farmers in 1880- 1885, were exposed to new ways of needlework and beading.

In Southern Africa beads have diverse functions:  Organic, stone, metal and glass seed beads for therapeutic and apotropaic magic and glass beads used for adornment and the elaboration of costume.  European glass beads were numerically graded into sizes (aughts) by factories. Size determined price, with smallest being most expensive. Distributors sold beads on clumps of strings, or by weight and wrapped them in newspaper for the purchaser.   Bead sizes, relevant to historical research today, fluctuated over time.

Colour choices changed due to supply disruption, effects of tourism, apartheid, economics, urban fashion and style. In 1880-1930, the Ndebele used a larger proportion of white beads.  Evident at this time were different shades of white, from different batches, due to a varying percentage of tin incorporated into glass recipes to produce this colour. Besides Czechoslovakia, beads also came from Italy with villages or families operating cottage industries. A particular shade of pink beads, found in early 20th century beadwork of the Swazi, Zulu and Ndebele people, was never repeated after 1939, the Italian village having been destroyed during the war and the technology related to proportions of metal imparting colour, lost.  In the 1900s, European rods of glass beads were hand cut, resulting in angled edges due to human error, evident in beadwork at this time.  Corrected after 1940s with mechanization, the bead shape became standardised.


Beading techniques used by Ndebele women developed through discourse, consensus and application. Initially beads were strung with needles on muscle fibre, but this is fragile, deteriorating when wet, so waxed cotton became a resilient substitute. The simplest method was to string a quantity of beads on a single long strand of cotton.  Necklaces are made like this, as are grass anklets covered by a long strand of wound beads. The amayirhani is an apron, worn at the back by girls at puberty celebrations, comprising multiple strands of beads, hanging from the waist down like a waterfall behind the knee. The aesthetic perfection of this design, and the colour (white) remain unchanged, for over 80 years.

The decorative practice for most aprons required stringing identical quantities of beads on cotton loops and attaching these loops, next to each other, in rows, to a leather or canvas backing. (This is similar to Sioux and Lakota lane technique). Tension was paramount for an even finish.  Rows were aligned and enclosed within borders beaded horizontally, edging the aprons. The amount of beads and rows used depended on the design and girth of the wearer. (On average the size of a row was 1 inch).

In the 1920s, due to the bead size, this technique comprised 200 beads per square inch. Amounting to approximately 60- 80 000 beads per amaphoto (married woman’s apron). Rows varied between 10 -12.  These aprons contained less beads than the iJocolo, or 5 panel ceremonial apron, worn by married women. An average amount in 1920s used for ijogolo would be 120-150 000 beads. They comprised 17 rows on the rectangular body of the work and 6 rows on each panel. Each bead picked up by a single needle, resulting in months of labour.  After 1940s, the dimension of beads increased as did the scale of beaded rows, requiring less time and financial resources to complete.

Beading without a backing required other techniques.  For ngubu (blankets), ilinaga (capes) or inyoga (veil or train) beaded strips and panels are made with the brick in the wall technique, often using 2 strands of cotton at once. (first taught by Europeans at the Cape to the khoi-khoi in the late 1700s). However the Ndebele people could have used a similar technique for centuries prior to this time, considering existing bead trade with Arabs down the East Coast.

Decorative edges on certain items result from innovative solutions. Examples would be found on inyoga (veil),  isiyaya (face veil), blanket strips and the central fringed area of amaphoto.  By their craftsmanship and invention this filigree beading identifies particular families, clans and regions of origin.

Women visualized the proposed beadwork designs: The position, proportions, spacing and alignment of details and linear elements needed to be calculated prior to starting. In the 1920s, perhaps women worked straight onto backing, as beads were predominantly white.  But techniques changed when coloured motifs in blue, pink, red and black beads required more sophisticated methods of alignment in relation to one another, so designs and symmetry were then sketched onto skin or canvas backing for an effective result.

Constructing motifs required intense discipline and constantly adding and subtracting coloured beads.   These were added into the cotton loops with white beads in varying amounts. Loops sewn next to each other in rows caused blocks of saturated tone to systematically build up a design across the face of an apron. Harmony of the image was created through the choice of colour, modulation and symmetry. 

Architecture, bridges, mod-cons, lettering, signage and number plates were utilized as starting points for motifs. The newspaper wrapping sold with beads may have sparked an interest in the design elements of lettering. These motifs were sometimes inventively reversed, or placed back to back with the negative space between, becoming equally important. Images grew in complexity to largely dominate the surface of the Manala and Ndzundza clans aprons in 1960s, as described in part one.  One can speculate that the change in artistic expression, the choice of darker blues, green, brown, black and the replacement of a white background with black could specify the political chaos of the times, as also discussed in part one. This implies a greater link between the significance of colour, communication and expression than previously acknowledged.

A sub-style developed in the Middleburg area, in the 1960/70s, where thin white lines superimposed over dark colour, designated interwoven geometric shapes. This conveyed a three dimensional or kinetic effect to the viewer. The blossoming of the artist’s conception, geometry and skill was bold, expanding the beading repertoire from the representative, to abstraction.

After the Anglo Boer war in 1901, aprons were backed with (concentration camp) tent canvas.  Leather and canvas were mediums for aprons until mid-1980s, when women experimented with polyurethane, pieces of thick printed plastic tablecloth, braid and insulation tape, in a highly inventive manner, while remaining true to the aesthetic, spacing and original conception. It is likely that this change developed in response to economic hardship at the time. These items were considered unusual and today are sought after by museums. After 2000 women reverted to canvas again for its greater degree of permanence

Metal jewellery is an ancient tradition and according to Levy, D. 1990, Ndebele families famous for their metal production were the Mashabango, Mahlangu and Masombuka. The Nguni people historically wore thick brass and copper anklets and bracelets in the 1800s. Amongst the Sotho living in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal, large metal collars were worn at ceremonial occasions till the 1980s. Ndebele married women adapted the stylistic conventions of thick brass jewellery, making it more affordable by wearing conglomerations of thin dzila brass and copper rings, highly polished, at particular sites on the body.  Small linear indentations, made with a chisel-like tool, added refined detail to the surface of older dzila from the 20s to the 1940s.  Wearing dzila of progressively diminishing scale also had the effect of visually elongating the neck, so viewers could appreciate the wearer’s regal and stately deportment.  After the 1990s, plastic replacements with metal foil strips mirrored this style and are still worn as fashion statements by urban dwellers today.

Several rows of hand-made brass beads were attached to the top 1/3rd of Ndebele aprons and back skirts (isithimba). These were made by the men folk or metalworkers, illustrating collaboration between the sexes.  Metal studs, described below, were also used on Isigolwani (large grass hoops, shaped with cotton, hardened with sugar in the sun, then covered with tightly wound strings of beads). These are worn around the neck, arms, legs and waist.

In the 1920/30s the Manala clans wore a narrow dimension, predominantly white in colour at puberty ceremonies, as depicted by Barbara Tyrell’s drawings. By the 1950/60s the dimensions of Ndzundza clans hoops, had swelled to 3 or 5 inches, imparting a bulky appearance to the figure when worn. Each hoop was one colour and this changed from white to dark blue, black, brown.  In the 1960s and 70s, these isigolwani were also impregnated with metal studs, attached in geometric patterns in a fabulous shiny array.  Commercial jewellery, toy watches and found objects likewise embellished the surface. After the year 2000, surfaces reverted to a greater simplicity, and some lighter colours, in pale greens, blues and white but the dimension remains large. Besides brass, women wore headbands, umdereso, till the 1970s incorporating old silver English currency.

Worn with artistic flair and verve, street fashion invigorates traditional garments in the 1980s, in the form of: large plastic beads, umbrellas, peaked berets, sun glasses, white cotton gloves and tennis shoes, perfectly styled to assimilate into the existing heritage.

By the year 2000, Ndebele Nzdundza women still display their beautiful beadwork at ritual and ceremonial occasions, documented by selfies. Today, girls’ puberty rites are still embraced and aprons beaded. The style is specific to this decade, being predominantly white with small dark motifs, and a focus on the horizontal line.   Talented artists Esther Mathlangu and Francina Danisile Ndimande have work exhibited in international museums and still strive to perpetuate their skills into current time.   The international fashion industry continues to be inspired by Ndebele designs and colours, for example in the work of designer Stella Jean based in Italy, 2016.

But beading extends beyond the parameters of fashion, being captured by the world of high art: Contemporary artist Kendal Geers in collaboration with Ndebele bead workers, designed two aprons, for a show in Cape Town in 2010. His items termed “ritual slip”, rely on similar conventions of lettering, symmetry and pattern, blending tourist art, so called high art and social commentary in a smoothie of wordplay and appropriation.   Besides his controversial approach, what Geers does do, unconsciously, is take Ndebele beaded art to another level, to a new generation of viewers, by keeping the conversations going, about the possibilities of the material, about Ndebele style, its influence, and relevance today and into the future. ©       continued in part 3

References and reading:

Levy. D.1990. Continuities and change in Ndebele beadwork circa 1883 to the present. Dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand.

Mashiyane. Z.J. 2006. Beadwork- its cultural and linguistic significance among the South African Ndebele people. Dissertation, University of Zululand.