Sioux Beadwork
Western Sioux Beadwork - Designs and Colors

by Chuck Bousquet
originally published as CIHA Indian Craft Series No. 1020

The following information is a very, very brief resume on the Western Sioux beadwork designs and colors. It is assumed that Sioux-style hobbyists are already aware that the beadwork is done in lazy stitch directly on the item they are going to de­corate (with a few exceptions such as shirt and legging strips which are beaded on separate pieces of leather and then the piece is sewn onto the par­ticular item in the appropriate place). With this assumption, therefore, let’s get into the designs and colors with just a little background history first.

Before glass beads were introduced to the Plains by traders, the Sioux had perfected the art of using porcupine quills to decorate their clothes and belongings. The quills were dyed red, bright yellow, weak blue, bright orange, weak green and purple. Vegetable dyes were used until about 1880 when the whites traded aniline dyes and the colors became brighter and more varied. This quill-work was done on pipebag fringe, kneebands, bustle ties and other large objects using the simple wrapping technique; the sewing and weaving methods were used for moccasins, pipes and feather decorations.

By the late 1880’s to 1890’s, the Sioux had a style of beading using certain colors and designs that were different than any other tribe. There are many techniques involved in making beadwork look like the style of the tribe you desire to represent. Not only colors and designs, but the method of beading, are very important. The fol­lowing are guidelines to help you make your fin­ished beadwork look Sioux.

As mentioned above, the Sioux had a distinct beadwork style of their own. Their designs were mostly geometric with some men’s beadwork that re­presented life around them including figures, hors­es and birds. After the 1890’s more intricate tri­angles and spidery designs were introduced. If you carefully examine photographs and the actual articles of Sioux beadwork, you will note the following:

  1. Designs geometric and usually symmetrical.
  2. Designs spread out to cover most of the background.
  3. Many lines and geometrical figures held together by a central design.
  4. Triangles and lines with three-pronged forks.
  5. Large spaces of background broken up with lines and crosses.
  6. Small squares added to crosses, lines and larger squares.
  7. Small designs added to give a finished look to the whole design.

Many times a hobbyist will do a piece of beadwork and the designs will be perfect but the colors will be wrong, or vice-versa. This is because the person failed to study photographs and/or the real thing, and has simply copied diagrams of designs only. Here are a few simple rules about colors, then an analysis of each color and its proper use:

  1. The Sioux beaded mostly on a white background.
  2. The designs were outlined with a dark color to contrast with the white.
  3. Colors often used together were green and yellow (Italian “greasy yellow”), rose and yellow, and rose with blue and green.
  4. Avoid using similar colors together such a light color or pastel on a white or light background.
  5. Several shades of blue or green are seldom seen on the same piece.
  6. Most common color sequence used in the classic period is blue, yellow, red and green, in that order. As Conn states in his article (see reference 3.) Sioux beadwork colors were limited mainly to red, white and blue, plus one or two other colors and ...... the Sioux were the only people who could use red, white and blue so often without making it look overly-patriotic.”
Sioux Beadwork - Beaded Leggings and Moccasins

Sioux Beaded Pipebags

Sioux Leggings - Beaded Strip & Cowries

Sioux Beaded Cuff

Sioux Beaded Moccasin

An analysis of the most commonly used colors are as follows:
  1. White: A true flat white as background —covers most areas broken by lines and block de­signs. Sometimes a milky or “pearl” white was used. Light blue background seems to be a more modern technique. It was sometimes used for very small squares in a design. However, light blue was a fairly common background color in Sioux dresses, cradleboards, tobacco bags, pouches and some legging strips.
  2. Dark blue: Dark (almost black) or royal blue used in outlining large block designs, fine lines, crosses, borders.
  3. Light blue: Almost turquoise; used for inside of designs.
  4. Periwinkle blue: A medium, sort of pur­plish blue, darker than light blue but not as dark as royal blue. Used for medium size blocks.
  5. Green: Medium, slightly dull green. Used for inside of designs.
  6. Dark green: Very dark, transparent. For large blocks of color with or without darker border. Used quite often on moccasins.
  7. Reddish brown: For borders and small squares within lighter blocks of color, and thin lines and designs extending from basic blocks. Interchangeable with dark blue.
  8. Yellow: Pale, dull Italian “greasy yel­low.” For semi-large blocks of color and for center, or near centers of designs. This is the old-time Sioux yellow. The modern is a flat, bright yellow.
  9. Metallic: Silver and gold colored facet­ed metallic beads for very small, intricate squares in center of designs. Only one or two rows wide; usually bordered by dark color; ends of crosses.
  10. Rose (Red): White center red; a transparent red bead with white center through hole. Gives a rose or pinkish effect. Used to outline metallic beads and for thin lines, small squares and tri­angles, The modern color is a true red. A dark ruby red was used occasionally also.
  11. Miscellaneous colors: Dull orange ap­peared on some beadwork but not very often. Pink was very rarely seen and black was practically never used.

To sum up, remember that the best place to find your proper Sioux designs and colors is from the real thing. Go to museums, trading posts or Indian art and culture shows/exhibits. Examine the actual items, particularly the kind of item you are mainly interested in or working on. Check the designs and colors. Take photos of them or make sketches and be sure to record the colors you see. Then do yours that way. Don’t try to experiment. Check closely color photos and pic­tures, too. The Sioux have a definite style and if you’re a Sioux-style enthusiast do it the Sioux way


  1. “Old Time Sioux Dancers” book by M.S. Tucker (A.I.C.C.)
  2. “Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux” book by Carrie A, Lyford (U.S. Dept. of the Interior)
  3. ‘Western Sioux beadwork” article by Dick Conn published in Vol. VI, No. 9 & 10, Summer 1960, American Indian Hobbyist.


Last modified on April 29, 2019
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