Tran Tan Vinh
Traditional clothing from ethnic minority groups along the annamite range featured rare and valuable lead beadwork.
The traditional brocade of ethnic people living along the Annamite Range typically features colorful patterns depicting nature, mountains and daily life. Among the patterns on the costumes of the Co Tu, Ta Oi, Cham Hroi, Ba Na and Gie Trieng ethnic groups, those using lead beads were among the most valuable and were a distinct feature in the region’s folk decorative and visual arts.
Before lead beads, local people typically weaved decorative patterns using colored threads or beads made from grass or trees. However, beads made from these natural materials did not last long and were later replaced by those made from lead, which are significantly more durable. Making lead beads is difficult and only villages with skilled craftspeople could create patterns using lead, while only wealthy families could afford such products.
Craftspeople sourced lead from rivers and streams then melted it in a clay pot before pouring the molten lead on a rock and separating it into small beads of 2.5mm – 3mm in diameter using a bamboo stick. The flat tip of the bamboo stick would be used to shape the beads and the sharp tip was utilized to punch a hole in the beads before they were thrown into a container of water where the lead hardened.
In some villages, craftspeople melted the lead then poured the mixture into a small bamboo tube. In the middle of the bamboo tube, a small toothpick was placed as a core for the lead to attach onto. When the lead cooled down, the bamboo tube was split in half to get the beads inside. The lead that stuck on the bamboo core was cut into tiny pieces. Thanks to the bamboo core, each lead bead had a hole in the middle. However, as they were freshly cut, the lead beads still had sharp edges which need to be polished to create the finished products.
The ethnic groups living on the south side of the Annamite Range used lead to make small pieces to be attached to the shoulder and upper body parts of the costumes, mixing with other types of beads to create their distinctive patterns.
Lead bead patterns are muted and blend well with the black fabrics often used. Initially, the idea was not to create patterns of lead beads but to arrange them into dense strips on a loincloth or jacket or along a hem. The reasoning was that, in addition to adding to the value of a garment, the lead would also add protection for fighters, helping them to avoid injuries in combat.
Later on, the groups used beads to weave more diverse and complicated patterns such as geometric shapes, zigzag lines and others that require high creativity and skill, including stars, leaves and triangle patterns. However, the lead beads were quite heavy and each loincloth required numerous beads, making it difficult to find enough materials. Most ethnic groups have switched to using plastic beads to completely replace lead, while maintaining their unique and highly aesthetic beadwork techniques.
Textiles, loincloths, skirts, jackets, capes and baby carriers with lead beads were especially prized and often reserved for the wealthy, the powerful and the elderly. Beads on brocade, together with the patterns and colors of the fabric, added to the beauty and sophistication of ethnic costumes. Today, brocade decorated with lead beads is a rare and valuable artifact stored and displayed in locations such as the Da Nang Museum, Quang Nam Museum, Museum of Ethnic Culture, Southern Women’s Museum and Phu Yen Museum.