Antique Beadwork - African Beadwork

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April 2009 - The "Amathumbu" or Xhosa collar



Collars are one of the most widely recognized items of beadwork and are almost iconic when thinking of Xhosa beadwork.

Collars are one of the most widely recognized items of beadwork and are almost iconic when thinking of Xhosa beadwork.

Collars are one of the most widely recognized items of beadwork and are almost iconic when thinking of Xhosa beadwork.




Collars are usually referred to as "amathumbu" by the Xhosa people in the area to the east of the Kei River. There is an enormous amount of variation among the collars with styles being quite specific to districts and groups of Xhosa - speakers who share a common history. In the area to the west of the Kei, previously referred to as the Ciskei, collars are found, but with different Xhosa names. Among the Imidushane and Gqunukhwebe branches of the Xhosa they are referred to as "icangci" or "amacangci" (plural). 

Colours & styles

In coastal districts, collars tend to be made using light turquoise and pink beads, with larger milky white "Queen" beads, in a fringe. West and north of King William's Town, turquoise tends to be replaced by a teal blue, often with a white background, if made by Gqunukhwebe women. Mfengu-style collars (such as X1260 depicted above) are found mainly in the Peddie District and around East London. Mfengu collars usually have a richer palette of colours, which include red white-hearts, turquoise, white and cobalt blue and often have a border of mother-of-pearl buttons.

Beyond the Kei, the Gcaleka of Cofimvaba use pink, teal blue with milky white Queen/Empress beads, but use different detail to the collars found in the west. 

The collar X1260 (depicted above) is in the Mfengu-style often found in Cofimvaba, Cala and parts of Lady Frere districts, whereas the collar X3120 (also depicted above) is typical of the Western Thembu / Xhosa - style collars of Lady Frere. 

Mr. Nelson Mandela in beadwork (see the beautiful collar) - once the ANC was unbanned and Mr. Mandela released.


This photograph taken of Mr. Nelson Mandela in beadwork (see the beautiful collar), was released by the African National Congress in the 1960's, but was not published in South Africa before 1990, once the ANC was unbanned and Mr. Mandela released.



Comparison - old and new

The old collars featured here were generally made, using size 11'0,10'0 and 9'0 beads. These old collars are now seldom found in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. Modern collars are still made by Xhosa speakers in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, however larger beads are used (in a size 8'0), as it takes too long to produce a collar using tiny beads. Also, the colours used today are different to the colours used in the old necklaces, because the manufactures in the Czech Republic are no longer saturating the glass with pigments when making the beads (probably in an attempt to control costs). The old Venetian beads (as used in these collars – depicted above) have been unavailable since the mid 1950's. Many subtle shades were lost when the Czechs started monopolizing the manufacture of beads. More recently Czech beads are being replaced in many instances by Chinese beads, because they are so much cheaper than the European beads. 

The older collars were usually threaded on animal sinew, usually that of oxen, horses and goats, as these animals were the most readily available and also produced the strongest sinew threads. Sheep sinew was never used because of its inherent weakness. The sinew or "isinga" was removed from the tendons of these animals… running from the neck area to the bottom of the back. Horse sinew was regarded as the best because of the very long threads obtained and the strength of the thread.


The old collars could easily have taken the people about a month and a half to make, but beaders didn't sit beading the whole day as they had other chores to attend to. The modern collars tend to be made using harsh colours, large sized beads and very wide gaps between the rows. They are also all made on cotton and seem lifeless and without character compared to the old ones. They are however very popular among the Xhosa themselves, because generally the Xhosa prefer modern, new items to old, “second-hand,” pieces of beadwork. Collars have been around since about the turn of the twentieth century and continue to be popular. New collars are popular among the Xhosa, while old collars are sought after by collectors of traditional beadwork. 


I have a collection of various old collars available for sale as individual pieces, priced from around R2250 ($250 US) – excluding delivery costs. Please feel free to contact me should you be interested in purchasing such an item for your collection.




Mark Howes

+27 84 5880015




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