Beetles in Textiles
by Victoria Z. Rivers
Research Assistance from
Laura Mills (Senior Research Assistant)
and Janet Revoir (Student Assistant)
Victoria River’s article includes Beetles and Humans, Facts about Beetles, Beetles in Food and Trade, Beetle Elytra in Art History, India, Beetles in Mughal Textiles, Why Beetles?, Beetles in 18th-19th Century Indian Textiles, Northeast India- Nagaland, Highland New Guinea, The Shaur of Amazonia, The Pwo Karens, and Victorian Craze for Beetles.
Beetles and Humans
Young Pwo Karen girls wearing bright red shawls thrown over one shoulder dance as the fringes clack and tinkle with brilliant green beetle wings, miscellaneous metal objects and beads added to the celebratory costume worn for funeral gatherings. An Angami Naga warrior from North East India prepares for a Feast of Merit, his ear rosettes gleaming with bright green beetle wing centers surrounded by fringes of scarlet hair. In Mughal times, a Jaipur noble’s prized patka or sash, flashes in the sunlight, resplendent with gilded metallic work, and accents of iridescent blue-green-violet gleam like the most rare enameled jewelry. Shaur (Jivaro) peoples of Amazonia, collect and save iridescent greenish-violet wing covers of enormous beetles which are incorporated into many kinds of ceremonial ornaments and headdresses. And in Europe, Victorian ladies of fashion sweep through ballrooms with dresses, shawls, and fans embellished with glittering, verdant touches of “exotic” from distant, evocative lands. These are but a few examples of some of the most interesting and imaginative textiles and ornaments known to us, where natural, metallic green beetle wings have been used as embellishment.
Human beings have always been fascinated with unusual and beautiful forms of mineral, animal and vegetal life, rapidly employing found treasures for decorative as well as often, symbolic purposes. The use of beetles in personal adornment, whether alive or deceased, have appeared in many places around the world, from Amazonia to Northern Thailand, among Australians, the Highlanders of New Guinea, among Mexican and Central Americans, in the West Indies, and of course, in ancient Egypt. Striking behavior or appearance have placed some beetles in a position of veneration, as with the scarab or dung beetle, associated with the sun and with the concept of the eternal renewal of life. Not only was the scarab respected, but Frank Cowman in his 1865 book called Curious History of Insects, tells of a brilliant metallic green beetle which was also held in high repute by the Egyptians, one having been found embalmed in a tomb at Thebes.
Some beetles from the family Elateridae, as well as true fireflies from the family Lampyridae produce glowing light and have been captured and used as decorations in hair or attached to clothing for special occasions, adding to the festivity of the event. C.H. Curran in Insects of the Pacific World, referred to ladies from India and Sri Lanka, having kept 11/2 inch long, iridescent greenish coppery beetles of the species Chrysochroa ocellata as pets. These living jewels were worn on festive occasions, probably with a small chain attached to one leg anchored to the clothing to prevent escape. Afterwards, the insects were bathed, fed, and housed in decorative cages. Living jeweled beetles have also been worn and kept as pets in Mexico.
Facts about Beetles
Like the insect mentioned above, large numbers of attractive beetles are found in the family Buprestidae, appropriately nicknamed “metallic wood-boring beetles” or “jewel beetles.” This huge family contains over four hundred genera and over fifteen thousand species. Buprestids are plant feeders, adult females laying their eggs in bark crevices or in soil near tree roots whereby the larvae can burrow and feed on the host tree’s or shrub’s tissue, pupate, and emerge as adult beetles.
Once the adults emerge, they may or may not feed, depending on the length of their life cycle. Some of them eat the leaves and stems of their host plant, others feed on flower pollen and nectar. Trevor Hawkeswood’s Beetles of Australia, describes the behavior of some Buprestids which become intoxicated after overindulging in too much nectar and can therefore be easily plucked from their flower-dining tables. They are strong fliers, some going as far as fifty kilometers in one day, and often love to lie in the heat of direct sunlight. It is said that they are shy, and as a defense when danger approaches, either fall off the branches where they’ve been seen and then fly away or hide in the litter of the forest floor. More interestingly, they can go into thanatosis, or feigned death, whereby they are capable of lying upside-down for a long time with their legs and antennae tucked.
Beetles have two sets of wings. The hard pair of wings or elytra, meet in straight lines down the beetle’s body and during flight, are elevated to allow the second membranous pair to function. While the hard pair are extremely light-weight, they are also extremely sturdy, composed of chitin. Some beetles are brilliantly colored throughout, while others have only isolated iridescent patches. The Buprestids’ brilliant metallic coloration is due to a phenomenon called interference, and occurs in the physical structure of the insect’s chitin. Multiple layers of cuticle in the elytra are composed of minute spacings that allows light waves to reinforce, weaken, or eliminate each other. Hilda Simon’s The Splendor of Iridescence explains that interference colors are not static, but fluctuate with shifting rays of light. Some green beetles such as Sternocera aquisignata vary from dull bronze to bright emerald to blue and violet as the light shifts. Interference colors are the most pure and brilliant of colors and no other form of pure pigment can match such intensity of brilliance. Therefore, the seemingly magical coloration of metallic beetles has made them extremely fascinating, and since the elytra are hard and the brilliant color is permanent, their decorative uses have been seen around the world for centuries.
Beetles in Food and Trade
At one time numerous quantities of shining green Buprestids were harvested for use in textiles and ornaments. Akyab was the chief town and center of this activity, located in the district of Arakan lying along the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar (Burma). Presently, Bangkok is the chief market for Buprestids. Arakan forests were filled with valuable timber and also hosted several varieties of Buprestids, referred to as “chenk puri” or “thungon puri,” harvested in the rainy season. The Cyclopedia of India, revised in 1885, refers to beetle wings as an article of commerce, harvested in Arakan, then sent to Calcutta, from where the wings were further distributed. The Cyclopedia says that up to five thousand maunds were procurable during the rains, a maund being a measure of weight varying from twenty-five to eighty-two and one-eighth pounds, depending upon the substance weighed. In the Bengal bazaar, a maund equaled eighty-two pounds and two ounces, and in Akyab, beetle wings fetched six to seven rupees per maund. Most likely, these millions of imported wings were of the species Chrysochroa from the Buprestid family, a beautiful brilliant green and coppery color.
Some beetles have even been prized as delicate edible morsels, in both adult and larval stages. Where a people’s diet is often rather limited, insects can contribute welcome supplements of fat and protein. F.S. Bodenheimer in his book Insects as Human Food, discusses many diverse groups of people throughout the planet that eat insects. One insect, Sternocera aquisignata of the family Buprestidae, is eaten by some Northern Thai, Lao, and Chinese peoples, and its brilliant green elytra are used throughout that region, including Nagaland, for decorations.
Beetle Elytra in Art History
The oldest documented example of the use of beetle wings is seen in the Tamamushi Shrine, dating from 650 A.D. Its name is derived from the Japanese word for a kind of beetle called “tamamushi,” whose wings were placed under bronze filigree ornaments on the shrine. Housed in the Treasure Museum of the Horyu-ji in Japan, this masterpiece is dedicated to the Buddhist deity Shaka. The rich and sumptuous mixture of native woods, lacquer images, and gilded metal, created a shrine of rare beauty enhanced by the exotic gleam of metallic green beetle wings.
In India some of the oldest documented uses of beetle wings are found in early Basohli School miniature paintings from the Pahari Hills, an area which now lies within parts of the northern states of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, the Punjab Hills, and Uttar Pradesh. Paintings of the Basohi School are quite distinctive for their strong colors, stylized, abstracted simplicity, and for their use of beetle wing shapes from as early as 1690 to about 1730. While there are a few isolated examples of other painting styles that also use beetle wing pieces, their use remains a noted characteristic of the early Basohli School.
In Pahari Miniature Paintings in the N.C. Mehta Collection, Karl Kandalavala presents an interesting theory about how the use of beetle wings may have come about in Basohli painting. Apparently the ruler Raja Kirpal Pal established an atelier employing multi-talented artisans, some of whom were skilled in jewelry making as well as carving, sculpting, and painting. It was customary in Pahari to utilize pieces of beetle wings to symbolize the effect of emeralds in highly detailed drawings of jewelry designs, and perhaps this practice carried into the paintings, whereby expensive jewelry was illuminated through golden pigment, raised dots of white for pearls, and small green beetle wing shapes for emeralds. Heavily ornamented figures with beetle wing encrusted jewels can be seen in several series of Basohli paintings. No one knows exactly why the Basohli painters began and then stopped using beetle wings, but their use disappeared after 1730.
India has been a rich source of beetle wing embellished textiles and ornaments for many centuries. Most likely, there is a long history of beetle wings used as decoration by indigenous peoples in many parts of India, in spite of a lack of dated examples kept in collections. Well-known objects such as “desert jewelry,” dolls and playthings, decorative fans, Jain sacred book covers, and torans (hung over niches or doors) decorated with beetle wings have been made by Rajasthanis. While the production of some of these pieces may be more recent, one wonders how old the greater tradition of using beetle wings really is.
Beetles in Mughal Textiles
Some of the finest and most elegant examples of beetle wing work comes from the Mughal era, in which various costume accessories and garments, all expensive outer wear, used small pieces of beetle elytra often incorporated with heavy precious metal work. Many of these pieces were owned by royalty or were treasured gifts, obviously loved enough to have been spared the flames that often destroyed beautiful fabric in order to reclaim the ready cash value metal embellishment. Two institutions, the Bharat Kala Bhawan at Benaras Hindu University and the National Museum, New Delhi, house in their collections splendid examples of Mughal style patkas (sashes) and turban cloths of such an exquisite quality and with such expensive materials that they could only have been made for royal taste and budget. Two of these patkas, illustrated, were crafted sometime between the mid to late seventeenth century, since their sizes are slightly larger than ones typical of the early 1600’s. They were probably made in the same workshop as the level of workmanship and way in which the materials have been handled is similar. All are of white muslin, the two patkas with heavily worked pallus of gilded and silver badla and other metallic elements applied to the surface in various zardozi techniques. The National Museum’s patka utilizes fine shapes of blue-violet-green beetle wing pieces as accents to three large buta motifs filled with chevron stripes of alternating silver and gold. At the ends are kiran fringes in alternating gold and silver badla. The National Museum’s turban cloth is a repeated fish scale motif of gilded badla with a three petalled plant motif of beetle wings inside each scale, with each stem stitched in red silk floss. The Bharat Kala Bahaman’s patka has an elegant tree of life motif and border of delicate flowers and leaves, carefully accented with green silk motifs stitched in patterns over gilded badla trims with tiny blue-violet and greenish beetle wing pieces forming leaf and flower petal shapes. Some of the beetle wing shapes are sewn through a hole punctured in the center, like a sequin would be sewn into place, while very small beetle wing pieces were anchored down with overlapping stitches of silk thread.
A patka in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston dated from the early 18th century shows a more simplified design than the above pieces. The pallus are embellished with badla worked directly onto cotton muslin, creating a shimmering ground around which five large buta shapes representing tree forms with individual leaves of blue-violet -green beetle wing pieces are placed. The badla and beetle wing worked edges create a floral vine and leaf motif. The piece is elegantly restrained with a high level of workmanship, showing techniques very similar to the older patkas from Indian collections. Patkas were also decorated with gold leaf, block printed and gummed onto muslin, incorporating beetle elytra pieces. Two fine examples of this type are located in the Cranbrook Academy collection.
The most striking similarity of the old pieces mentioned above is that heavy metallic work is seen, with each beetle wing shape treated as if it were a jewel, outlined in kalabatun thread, much like an emerald would be mounted in a bezel setting. In fact, all of these pieces appear like fine, flexible jewelry with their “mounted” shapes of brilliant color, suggesting a close relationship to the art of the metal smith and enameller. Perhaps the wearer hoped that the beetle wings would look like gem and gold studded cloth, or perhaps the wearer was simply fascinated by the uniqueness of such a humble but beautiful material. One is instantly reminded of Kandalavala’s statement about the Pahari metal smiths’ practice of using beetle wings in jewelry sketches, and a link to Basohli miniature painters’ use of beetle wings.
Perhaps there is a connection between the use of beetle wing textiles with heavy metallic work and green enameled jewelry, especially with the Mughal enameling tradition of red or green on white, so well developed at Jaipur. Many beetle wing textiles preserved in the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum are known to have been made in Jaipur, and perhaps there is some connection to imitating the look of green enamel or emeralds, whereby a novel garment could appear like something more splendid than it actually was.
Another theory on the motivations for using beetle wings in textiles may have been to achieve a color that was otherwise, very unusual. It may only be a coincidence, but most of the Mughal Indian pieces with beetle elytra reflect predominantly blue-violet colors which would have been a color either exceedingly rare, hard to reproduce, or non-existent in other materials. Perhaps the use of beetle wings provided a novel, intensely brilliant and otherwise, unobtainable color in times of great pressure upon the artisans to create unique designs. There is no doubt, though, that the above textiles are some of the loveliest old examples known, produced in response to extreme pressure and competitiveness to make increasingly novel and innovative pieces.
Beetles in 18th-19th Century Indian Textiles
Several later textiles using beetle elytra embellishment can be found in the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum of the City Palace, Jaipur. The City Palace’s earliest recorded example of a textile with beetle wings is dated circa 1750. Carefully kept records at the Palace indicate that this piece was embroidered at Jaipur, and was probably not the first of its kind. The majority of their costume pieces using beetle wings have a distinctive, unifying style, in that they have been worked on cotton and use metallic gota ribbon, kiran fringe, and other zardozi techniques. Beetle wings embellished children’s caps, ornate plate covers, dress material, patkas, odhanis, ghagharas, and even phoondas or tassels. One of the oldest garments utilizing beetle wings was a jama of now faded red, rich with gota ribbon, kiran fringe, and beetle wings, said to have been worn by Maharaja Pratap Singh on his wedding day, about 1790.
Northeast India- Nagaland
In the mountainous Northeast corner of India live approximately one-half million peoples of the Mongoloid group speaking Tibeto-Burmese languages, quite different in appearance, lifestyle, and culture from Hindus of the lowlands. The collective name “Naga” refers to many cultural groups, lying principally within the state of Nagaland, with other Naga groups in Assam and Manipur. Naga groups have experienced tremendous social upheaval over the past centuries, first with British rule and resulting political changes, then at the beginning of the twentieth century with the invasion of Christian missionaries, and then after India’s independence with growing separatist movements to isolate Nagaland. Many Naga have now abandoned their ancestral traditions, and the culture has shifted from a social order once based on power and balance obtained/maintained through head-taking to Western models of social order.
Although the area occupied is small, each group varies widely from the other with some instances where one groups’ language is incomprehensible to another, as well as different customs, beliefs, and manner of dress. But with the various Naga groups, ornaments and dress have been used for centuries as a language to communicate bravery and prowess, wealth, rank, and prestige in completing various social obligations.
Various Naga groups have used beetle elytra from Sternocera aquisignata as well as Chrysochroa bivittata, incorporated with other decorations to provide some of these social cues about the person’s status in society. Because the kinds of ornamentation on garments and other forms of personal adornment were a well understood language indicating a sense of individualism, rank and privilege within the group, and tribal identity, these have also undergone extreme changes as their makers’ life styles have changed.
Some of the groups who have used beetle wing decorations are the Angamis, the Rengma, the Zemi, the Sema, and others from Manipur. In many instances, there is a connection between one’s social status and the privilege of wearing beetle wings, either through social elevation achieved by making successive Feasts of Merit, or through head-taking. The Feasts of Merit were elaborate ritual feasts in which large numbers of animals were sacrificed in an ostentatious display of wealth, accompanied by the erection of large commemorative monoliths. Examples of women’s clothing in the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford collected by the anthropologist J.P. Mills show that females assumed the right to wear certain decorations, based upon the husband’s/fathers’ accomplishments. These garments consist of women’s wrap skirts and breast cloths embellished with rows and fringes of beetle wings. In the Rengma Nagas, Mills also speaks of women’s garments decorated with colored woven lines, bands, and stitches, giving an exact tally of the number of cattle a husband sacrificed at a feast.
T.C. Hodson, in his book Naga Tribes of Manipur, refers to men wearing on festive occasions, cloaks embroidered with a fringe of green beetle wings. Angami head-taker men wore elaborate ear ornaments in which a button-like rosette composed of beetle wings surrounded by white seeds and a ruff of scarlet goats’ hair was worn in front and pegged into a boar’s tusk which hung behind each ear lobe. On special feast days those who had taken heads, had been involved in head-taking, or in some cases had warrior status were entitled to wear hornbill feather headdresses, cowrie shell gauntlets, and garments with three rows of cowries or even four stitched onto dark colored wrap-around kilts indicating an exceptional warrior.
To Nagas, the essence of soul force and life-giving energy, called “aren” was concentrated in the head, and thus, by capturing heads one could accumulate its inherent psychic force for one’s own benefit as well as for the entire group. Other representatives of human heads, such as monkey and carved wooden skulls (sometimes decorated with beetle wing “eyes”) were believed to contain the same soul force. Aren was also connected with the fertility of humans, livestock and crops, and therefore, of survival. Whether the Naga ornaments were used to communicate superiority through warrior or head-taker status, or to indicate wealth, as rich men were believed to have powerful aren, these degrees of rank are associated with an abundance of aren. Therefore, hornbill feathers, cowrie shells, pieces of animal or human hair, skull symbols, animals’ teeth and tusks were an expression of aren. Since metallic beetles and their grubs were food supplements, as well as displaying intensely vibrant color, it seems then that the often restricted wearing of beetle wings may have also expressed aren. Because the beetle’s bright color doesn’t fade when the insect dies, there may be some symbolic meaning associated with this phenomenon, much like keeping skulls for the life force contained within.
Highland New Guinea
Intricate interconnected expressions of beauty, wealth, and spiritual power are also seen in the ornaments and dress of dwellers in the Mount Hagen area of New Guinea. Here, many ornaments are believed to contain a kind of magical power which helps their wearers seem more powerful, attractive and successful over others. A variety of occasions warrant the wearing of elaborate decorations and adornment of ones’ self, ranging from everyday affairs to religious rituals and courtship activities.
An important book by Andrew and Marilyn Strathern called Self Decoration in Mount Hagen, describes various types of materials used to decorate ones’ self including items traded and gathered, such as shells, furs, and feathers. Since many non-local elements needed to create the desired look need to be obtained from others, elaborate exchange and trade patterns have developed, relating to rivalry from old warfaring days. Today, the spirit of competition as well as co-operation provide a stage for elaborate forms of personal adornment which express ones’ creativity, wealth, power, and attractiveness. Certain materials are believed to have inherent qualities which assist the wearer, such as the quality of brightness. Wearing something bright not only expresses a quality of wealth, but attracts it.
The Stratherns discuss a particular kind of ornament worn by men throughout the Wahgi Valley and neighboring areas to the east for the purpose of attraction and enhancement of male strength, which is sometimes decorated with iridescent green beetles. This elaborate wig-like headdress takes two forms, one which falls below the shoulders called peng koem and one that falls just short of the shoulders called peng koklnga. These large bell shaped wigs, made of human hair from the wearer (and sometimes other donors) stitched onto a framework and covered with bright red resin, are intended to enlarge and thereby draw attention to one’s head. There are some interesting parallels between the Mount Hagen people, the Shaur of Amazonia, and the Naga groups of Northeast India in the focus on the head and mystical associations with hair, as well as in the use of beetles for their colorful vitality.
The source of the red resin used on peng koem and peng koklnga further helps to explain the purpose of these wigs. The kilt tree, (Rutaceae) Evodiella sp. and Evodia sp., provides this resin, and the tree is also noted for its bright red flowers which attract birds. Like the bright red flowers’ powerful ability to attract, by association, men use the bright red resin from the kilt tree for its ability to attract human females. Whole beetle bodies are attached in rows along the front sides of the peng koem to further draw attention to the face and head of the wearer. The vitality of the bright green beetles, contrasting with red resin and some other materials such as yellow orchid straw, contributes to the Mount Hageners’ concepts of brightness and attraction, and, as seen in the wigs, enhances sexual conquest.
The Shaur of Amazonia
The use of beetle wings in ornaments may also have a psychic as well as decorative function in the material culture of the Shaur peoples, formerly referred to as the Jivaro. Numerous Shaur groups who often named themselves after streams or tributaries nearby, occupy about a twenty-five thousand square mile region of the Amazon forest encompassing the lower eastern slopes of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes. The Shaur have also, like the Nagas, until recently maintained culture based on head-taking. Perhaps we know more about the Shaur for the shrunken heads they made, than we know of other aspects of their culture.
The Shaur groups are the only Amazonian peoples that use beetle elytra incorporated into rich varieties of ornamentation. (Some beetles and grubs are also eaten by the Shaur.) These ornaments are essential to the wearer’s personality and express concepts of richness, well-being, personal and soul power. Rafael Karsten, in The Head Hunters of Western Amazonias writes that ones’ dress and ornaments enhance one’s power and protect against mysterious influences. Many Shaur ornaments using beetle wings are incorporated with other objects such as toucan feathers, human hair, and the femur bones of oil birds (Steatornis) called “tayu.” These objects not only may be brightly colored like the beetle wings, but have mystical associations. To the Shaur, toucans are believed to possess magical powers and in the spirit world can haunt humans. In some ceremonies, men wear waist ornaments with whole bodies of stuffed toucans hanging as protective pendants. Human hair is believed to contain vital power, just as the head is the seat of the soul force called “wakani.” Tayu birds live in caves often inhabited by jaguars as well as powerful jaguar spirits. The gathering of tayu femur from the cave’s floors would indicate that a person possessed extreme bravery and sufficient soul force to protect one in surviving such an ordeal. In societies where the forces of nature are respected and understood in psychic terms, most elements of personal adornment take on greater meaning. Perhaps, by association with these other materials, beetle wing ornaments serve another purpose besides providing vibrant color.
Ornaments are treated with great respect, and while some are worn every day, others have certain regulations about when and where they are worn. For example, with head taking, there were certain regulations, feasts, and practices which had to be carefully followed to prevent one or one’s family from accidental death. After an enemy head had been taken, the war party stopped as soon as it was safe to make the tsanta or shrunken head. The idea was that since the head contained the deceased’s soul force, when a person was murdered, there emitted a “muisak wakani” or avenging soul. By shrinking the head, one was able to contain this force and prevent it from doing great harm. Once one returned to the village with the tsanta, through rituals and ceremonies, the village absorbed the positive energies from the essence of the captured soul force and returned the spirit that could otherwise wander, back to its village. Part of the ritual entailed empowering the head-takers’ and his wife’s clothing and ornaments, after which one had to abstain from wearing these ornaments for a period of time while also following certain dietary restrictions.
Men wear many more ornaments than women, and perhaps to absorb their magical or protective force, carry them with them when they travel. Great care is taken when dressing for ceremonial festivals and also when visiting houses of strangers, where men were vulnerable to attack. When an important person of great status pays a visit, that is also occasion for wearing one’s finest ornaments. Both sexes wear earrings called “cuishi tuitui,” and other types of ear decorations appear in great variety. Some are attached to incised bamboo tubes which are inserted to holes in the earlobe, some are pendants with multiple strands of elytra terminating in toucan feather tufts, and some are extremely long pendants called “kuishi,” over 2 1/2 feet long, draping onto the shoulders.
Two types of beetle elytra are used by the Shaur. One comes from Euchroma gigantea, the largest Buprestid in the New World which can measure over 2 1/2 inches long. Its elytra, called “wauwau” are somewhat dull greenish-reddish violet, and are quite flat, which causes them to stick out when gathered into bundles. The second type, Chrysophora chrysoclora, is a member of the subfamily Rutelinae of the Scarab family. Its wings, called “tuik” are densely punctured so that the color appears to be a frosty, iridescent greenish golden, and its elytra curl under slightly, so that when tightly strung together, the ornaments form a cylindrical curl of wings. The beetle’s iridescent legs are also strung into necklaces and bracelets. The elytra appear in a great variety of ornaments for both sexes, including arm bands, neck and chest pieces, and head gear.
The Pwo Karens
The Karens are a large group of Hill-tribe peoples living in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). There are several subdivisions of Karens often grouped by the colors of their traditional dress. The Pwo Karen, living throughout Northern Thailand traditionally wear red and white, and make sharp distinctions between the dress of married and unmarried women. Certain groups of Pwo Karens use beetles called “malaeng tong” or “golden insect” to decorate various objects. Sometimes, large, bright green beetles are even tied to a string to amuse babies.
Girls, from childhood until the time they are married, wear loose white shifts called “hse” which are woven with chenille-like red angular designs occurring at the shoulders and from the knees to hem of the dress. As the girls get older, the elaborateness of the dress increases and the decorations are most splendid as the young woman reaches courtship age, at twenty years.
On festive occasions, both boys and girls wear their finery, and funerals are the most festive of all times. The purpose of the gathering is to send the spirit of the deceased to the afterworld, but in three day-long ceremonies, people come together to sing, dance, form friendships, and to court. For festival dress, the girls wear their cleanest and best “hse,” adding a row of long red fringe which encircles the dress. For the funeral gathering, they also wear a bun of artificial hair on top of the head which is decorated with many shinny and incised hairpins, often made and presented by male admirers from scrap aluminum. The last festive touch is the addition of a long red and white striped cotton shawl or stole, flung over one shoulder, called a “singing shawl.” One end is elaborately decorated with inexpensive materials easily obtained, such as pearly buttons, seeds called Jobs’ tears, glass beads, bright colored yarn pom-poms and beetle wings of Sternocera aquisignata. Often the beetle wings are attached to the shawl end as well as strung into the long fringe, making a tinkling sound. E.M. Hinton, who published an article in the Journal of the Siam Society speculates that the origins of the “singing shawl” were inspired from the ornateness of jeweled and sequined goods from the Burmese and Mon courts.
One characteristic feature of the “singing shawls” is that they all have repeated lines made with white beads, seeds, or buttons forming three or four pointed star or diamond motifs. Perhaps these motifs are related to some of the games played at the funerals, which are intended to have symbolic associations with the departed souls’ safe journey. These games use bamboo poles, symbolic rice pounding pestles, in which agile boys jump in-between moving criss-crosses or three pointed patterns. Since the white motifs seen against the red shawls used only at funerals occur in shapes similar to the configuration of the symbolic games, perhaps there is some relationship between the two.
Only a few isolated villages make and use the “singing shawls.” In fact, many groups of Karen are unfamiliar with the “singing shawl.” More commonly, Karens sometimes use green beetle wings to embellish bamboo baskets and pointed bamboo hats worn in the fields. The wings are inserted into spaces around hexagonal plaiting. One type of basket called a “ku,” shaped like an egg on a base, is used for storing goods or for hauling things from the fields, and often is embellished with beetle wings.
Victorian Craze for Beetles
In mid-eighteenth century Victorian England and Europe, the desire for examples of expertly worked curiosities from foreign lands using unusual flora and fauna such as iridescent feathers, hummingbirds, and beetle wings created a large market for the production and export of such goods. India and South American provided many of these “exotic” things. The book Victorian Jewelry by Nancy Armstrong mentions an 1865 French tulle ball gown with thirty-seven yards of fabric strewn with beetles, butterflies, spangles, mother-of-pearl and so forth. Artisans in numerous cities in Europe as well as India produced these often excessive textiles and ornaments. George Birdwell in the Industrial Arts of India refers to peacock feathers made up with cuscus grass and beetle wing pieces into fragrant and showy fans and mats. Workmen in the Punjab and in Delhi embroidered beetle wings and metal threads onto Kashmiri woven cloths and machine-made net fabrics for sale to Europeans, and Madras was also well-known for its black and white net embroideries.
The 1851 Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, held in the Crystal Palace in London presented many beautiful textiles and objects from around the world. The Illustrated Exhibitor of the Great Exhibition mentions the display case of Miss Mary Kettlewell of Ireland, containing among other objects of Irish lace and embroidery, a lace dress in which part of the pattern is composed of entire beetle wings stitched onto the dress in leaf and flower motifs. As recently as 1928, Liberty’s of London offered a beetle wing embellished dress for sale, but today, few if any new examples of this kind of work exist.
Changing tastes and values caused the production of these Victoria goods to disappear, while in some tribal areas, traditions continues. Much of this little known aspect of embellishment remains a fascinating and retrospective chapter in the rich history of expertly crafted and innovative textile and personal adornment traditions- the marriage of imagination with the beauty of a humble insect!
Victoria Z. Rivers is an artist, writer, and Professor in Textiles at the University of California- Davis. She received an Indo-U.S. Subcommission on Education and Culture Indo-American Fellowship in 1992, and studied light-reflective textiles throughout India. Research for this article has also been funded partially by a University of California Faculty Research Seed Grant and is part of a project preparing a book on world-wide light reflective textiles.