The joy of beaded cardigans

Today I’m listing part of a collection of fabulous beaded cardigans.

I consider beaded cardigans to be an vintage fashion essential, but they’re getting harder and harder to find in good condition these days.

When I first started out collecting,, wearing vintage fashion I befriended all the lovely old ladies who worked in the local op shops. A particular favourite was a North Perth op shop which seemed to be full of treasures: the darling ladies would put presents aside for me.

One of their gifts ended up in my book “Love Vintage” – a ’50s cardigan with embroidered grub roses. It was a particular favourite because it went so well with my floral ’50s frocks and I wore it and mended it until it was in shreds – in fact, the condition is now so poor that Tira and I weren’t able to take a full photo of it for the book, it’s that shabby, so what you see is a detail of the embroidery. Even though I’ll never wear it again I can’t bear to part with it. It holds too many personal stories.

I like to say that I’ve made all the vintage fashion mistakes, so that you don’t have to and this story is particularly embarrassing – those wonderful old dears in North Perth, who did a great deal to help me on my voyage of vintage education, one day presented me with a beaded ’50s cardigan. It was cream with diamantes and pearls and other beads and quite wonderful…but beaded cardigans were very much out of fashion at the time and it seemed too fancy for my teenage wardrobe so being a sewer, I did something awful of which I’m still very ashamed of: I removed all of the beads and threw the cardigan away.

Are you horrified at me? Can I mention that I was only fifteen? Needless to say, I never did get around to using those beads and shame of shames, I still have the bag – it’s a very big bag, there are a lot of beads on a decent ’50s cardigan – but maybe now in my role as vintage vendeuse and restorer I can use those beads to fix up other cardigans and pay penance?

I’m still shocked at myself.

Back to beaded cardigans – I’ve had many since then, including a black one that I was wearing in my UK passport photo in 1991, along with an angora scarf and an early ’40s princess line coat with shoulders like rocket launchers – I still have the coat, although it quickly proved too heavy to wear so was substituted with a ’60s peacoat from Camden markets that I liked in crimson silk. The beaded cardigan was worn until it was in shreds. You can’t say I don’t love my vintage.

But really, back to beaded cardigans. It’s a common myth that they are a ’50s fashion but most of them were made during the hey day of beaded fashions: the ’60s. I’ve heard there were big workshops holding as many as a hundred Chinese ladies in Hong Kong, meticulously hand sewing beads on Western fashions – a forefront of our current “Made in China” days. They were made in standard designs or to order, and sold to fashion companies around the world who put their own labels in them: this is why you’ll find similar designs from different designers.

The last time beaded fashions were so popular was the ’20s, when the best work came from Paris but the French were doing them mostly with beading machines. It horrifies me to think of those poor Chinese ladies, hand beading – which is a slow and laborious task – when there were machines that could have done the job. Their wages were cheap of course, but I do worry about the toll it took on their hands and their eyes.

I can’t do much to prevent the exploitation of workers in other countries – other than purchase responsibly – especially when it was fifty years ago, but I can cherish the work that these ladies have left us with, and preserve it for a future generation.

Here are some things you may not know about beaded cardigans:

1950s beaded cardigans
– tend to have more shape (difference in size between the bust and waist)
– sit on the waist rather than the hips.
– sleeves are more likely to be shorter too: bracelet or three quarter length, to show off gloves and bracelets.
– colours and designs show more variation, with soft pastel shades popular.
– usually just the body is lined, but not the sleeves.

1960s beaded cardigans
– are boxier in shape (less difference between the bust and waist)
– sit on the hips rather than the waist.
– sleeves are long, to the wrist.
– colours and designs are more standardised: instead of pastels they tend to come in cream or black.
– fully lined with the sleeves and body.



How to look after your beaded cardigan:

– Firstly, gently hand wash in luke warm water and wool wash or dry clean. You need be sure that there aren’t any critters in it, as moths love the soft fibres.

– If you can’t launder or dry clean right away, put into the freezer for a week – especially if you find any moth nibbles.

– Dry flat on a towel: the beads are heavy especially when the garment is wet and can pull it out of shape if you line dry.

– Press with a warm iron, carefully avoiding the beads and pearly buttons if present.

– If you’re missing pearly buttons, they can usually be found at haberdashers or craft shops. I keep a stash as they’re very handy.

– Check for loose beads and secure using a beading needle (very thin and long, see your haberdasher) and a strand of matching thread.

– If there is only minimal bead loss, simply securing the existing beads will probably be all that you need to do but if there are visible patches, replacement beads can be found at bead shops, haberdashers or online. Many vintage beads of the ’50s and ’60s are indistinguishable from modern versions and come in a wide range of colours.

– another option for larger bead loss is to apply a beaded applique.

– beads and appliques also are great for covering mends, moth holes and marks, not just for beaded cardigans but in general.

Share!

8 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I just bought my first beaded cardigan, its black with lovely ‘bunches’ or grapes in white round dangle beads. And lined in silk, so ti doesn’t drag on the clothes underneath. Divine, and all these examples are just lovely. Are they for sale in your store? I might just be a little bit addicted now…

  2. Congrats Melanie, I’ve seen a few of the grapes design and it’s one of the best. Yes, all of these are for sale and better yet, there is a good range of styles and sizes – just click on one of the cardigan images and it will take you to the webshop’s knitwear department. I’ve got more to list too, I love them all.

  3. Thanks Nicole, this was really helpful. I love a good beaded cardigan, but had assumed that the ones I own were from the 60’s. I’m always on the look out to add to my collection, so will pop over and have a browse at your selection. xx

  4. I have a black-on-black beaded, fine-knit wool, vintage cardy straight from my grandmother’s wardrobe. I don’t know how old it is but it was indeed made in Hong Kong and has some nice lining for comfortable wearing. LOVE it 🙂

  5. Informative and interesting, as usual, Nicole.

    And oh, so sad but true, I know just how you feel about your youthful “upcycling” indescretion! In my teens I mutilated an undamaged 50s dress (which I’m now fairly sure was a designer label), to turn it into skirt for a video I was dancing in. We had to have a costume, and it was all I could come up with at the time. I still feel terrible about it.

  6. I have seen knitted cardigans these days (as new vintage is now in apparently!) and they are decorated as per original. Why don’t you consider doing the same and copying the bead work on a new hand made cardigan ? http://www.ravelry.com/ is a good place to start.

    Oh and the Mary Jane shoes…. I found a fab place near me which does dance shoes in Mary Jane and peep toe style.. I would suggest you try one near you. Sometimes they can do custom design or may know a cobbler…. If you look down Italian lane as I call it in the city there are leather shops which do say they make shoes. I’ve not tried there as I would imagine it’s quite expensive! A lot seems to be closing down tho 🙁

    Must must must visit your shop!

  7. Hi everyone,
    I’m a private collector of vintage/beaded/decorated cardigans so this site is of real interest to me. I have a collection of about 30 cardigans mainly from the 50/60s & imported from the U.S. where they seem more plentiful. I’ve managed to find a few really good examples on-line & have a couple of really great Dalton cardigans. Love to hear from other collectors etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *