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The history of the term "lazy stitch".

The technique used to create the superb beadwork artistry of the Central Plains is frequently described using the term, "lazy stitch"; more recently this technique has been referred to as, "lane stitch". And while it may not be unique to Native Americans, it is probably true that no other people have produced the volume and variety of objects using this technique as they have.

I first heard the term "lazy stitch" in the early 1950s when I became interested in Native American material culture. I cannot remember specifically from whom I learned it, but it was likely either Chottie Alderson who taught me the technique or Ben Hunt in his book, Indian Crafts and Lore. At the time, "lazy stitch" was the predominant term used to describe the technique.


I first heard of the objection to this terminology from a noted bead worker, Adam Lovell. That led me to wonder who coined the term and when? I obtained one clue when I read Georg J. Barth's book, Native American Beadwork. In this excellent work, the author quotes Bill Holm: "A fifty year-old term known to a few thousand people ought not to be that firmly ensconced! (HOLM, 1984:28)".

This is a reference to a paper that Holm delivered at the Crow Indian Art Symposium in 1984. Using Holm's math; we can date the term back to about the 1930s. I began my inquiry using that time frame. (I note here that Bill Holm is credited by others in the field as having created the term, "lane stitch" and proposed using it in this paper to replace "lazy stitch".)

I started by consulting the two classic works on Native American Beadwork: William C. Orchard's Beads and Beadwork of the American Indian, published in 1929 and Carrie A. Lyford's Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux, published in 1940. In the former, Orchard writes, "The second method has been termed the lazy stitch." (my emphasis). The use of the passive form of the verb, "to have", makes it sound as if Orchard did not coin the term, but he cites no reference. However, his book is completely devoid of references, making it impossible to sort out any of his unique contributions from those of others. Lyford's reference to the term is intriguing: "[Lazy] stitch may have acquired its nickname of lazy because it is less firm than the overlaid stitch, and beadwork in which it is used is said to pull out sooner." Here, too, there is no reference and the reasoning involved is hazy at best.

Yet another intriguing reference is that of William Wildschut and John C. Ewers in Crow Indian Beadwork published in 1959. These authors attribute the term to Orchard, also: "Fig. 41 B illustrates a second beadwork technique which Orchard termed lazy stitch." (Orchard, 1929 pp 129-130).

I have looked at numerous publications issued prior to or in the same era as Orchard and have not found one that used the term. Some of these are scholarly and some are directed at craftsmen. For example, Wissler's numerous pre-1920 articles do not use the term. His 1919 article, used by the American Museum of Natural History, refers to the technique as, "Bead embroidery in bands resembling quillwork." In addition, all other publications from that era that I have been able to find describe the technique, but do not name it.

On the other hand, in post-1929 publications one begins to see more frequent use of the term. In addition to Lyford there is Bernard Mason's The Book of Indian-crafts and Costumes published in 1946. W. Ben Hunt describes the technique in his 1938 book Indian and Camp Handicraft, but does not use the term lazy stitch. The same book, in the 1945 version, still does not use that term. Thus, it was still not universally adopted by writers in the field.

In their 1951 book, American Indian Beadwork, Hunt, with co-author, Buck Burshears, used the term in a seemingly pejorative form: "lazy squaw stitch". It may be that Hunt coined that unfortunate term in the 1940's, but his first application appears to have been used to describe a Native American basketry technique. It seems, though, Hunt abandoned that term and used "lazy stitch" in his The Complete Book of Indian Crafts and Lore published in 1954 and in all subsequent works.

Julia M. Seton used "lazy stitch" in her 1962 book, American Indian Arts. This use of the term typifies virtually all post-1960 references to this method of beadwork. It became so well accepted that luminaries such a Norman Feder, Robert Lowie, inter alia used the term without quotation marks or explanation.

Never-the-less, the question remains: is there a documented use of the term "lazy stitch" that pre-dates Orchard?

One of the notions we have discussed is that the term may have been a substandard translation of a Lakota term recorded early on by a collector or other interested person. Some authors have indicated that the Lakota term for the stitch is "hump stitch". I have spoken with a few native Lakota speakers and none had heard that term. When I asked what they called it, the answer was, "beadwork". It is possible that the best clue is in the notes of William C. Orchard; I am trying to determine if his notes are available for review.

Recently an increasing number of authors and craftsmen have been using Holm's term, "lane stitch". Whether this will become the standard is still not certain. There is an appeal to using terms that are more accurate in their description of technique. However, traditional terms have their own special appeal, as well. In the long run, acceptance of new terms will probably depend on how well they roll off the tongue.

I am indebted to Adam Lovell, Benson Lansford, Bill Holm, Marshall Ellis, and Clyde Ellis for sharing their information and thoughts. However, all errors in citation or interpretation are mine.



Barth, Georg. (1993). Native American Beadwork. Wisconsin: R. Schneider, Publishers.

Holm, Bill. (1984) Crow Indian Art Symposium.

Hunt, W. Ben. (1938, 1945). Indian and Camp Handicraft. New York: The Bruce Publishing Company. (1954). The Golden Book of Indian Crafts and Lore. New York: Simon and Schuster. (1973). Lazy Squaw Coiled Baskets. Originally published in the 1930s and 1940s. Republished in The Complete How-To Book of Indian Craft. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Hunt, W. Ben and J.F. "Buck" Burshears. (1951). American Indian Beadwork. New York: The Bruce Publishing Company.

Lyford, Carrie. (1940). Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux. Washington, D.C. United States Department of the Interior.

Orchard, William C. (1929). Beads and Beadwork of the American Indians. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.

Mason, Bernard S. (1946). The Book of Indian-Crafts and Costumes. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Seton, Julia M. (1962.) American Indian Arts. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Wildschut, William and John C. Ewers. (1959). Crow Indian Beadwork. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.

Wissler, Clark. (1915). Costumes of the Plains Indians. New York: American Museum of Natural History (1917). The American Indian. New York: Douglas C. McMurtrie.
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Author:Rosenthal, Joe
Publication:Whispering Wind
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2007
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