-Originally appeared in Black Purl Magazine Fall, 2007.
Photo: A velvet baseball cap adorned with sequined embroidery in the Kalaga style.
When we think of sequins we tend to think of glitz and glam. We think of Liberace in Vegas or our daughter’s Halloween costume. But sequins have a rich history and to this day are a vital component of many folk art traditions around the world. The dictionary definition of a sequin is “A small shiny ornamental disk, often sewn on cloth.”(1). Today, sequins are most often made of plastic surfaced in a variety of metallic colors. They can be bought loose or pre-stitched in long strands or appliquéd figures ready to be applied as trim. Often they are faceted to better catch and reflect light.
Before the invention of cellulose plastics by British inventors in the late 1800s, sequins or “spangles” as they were also known in English were made of metal. Ancient cultures in places as far flung as Egypt, India and Peru sewed metal disks onto cloth as decoration and symbols of wealth and status. The word “sequin”, itself comes from the Arabic word sikka, meaning “coin” or ”minting die.” In the 13th century Venice produced gold coins known as zecchino. The French later referred to the coins as sequin, and this was the form later adopted into English. (2).
Gold coins with variants on the name sikka or zecchin were produced in the Mediterranean and Middle East for centuries. Stitching the coins to the bodices and headdresses of traditional costumes of the region was and still is, to some extent, common practice as a way of displaying and storing wealth. This was especially practical way of storing wealth for gypsies and other nomadic people who literally carried their possessions with them at all times. However the coins could also serve a different purpose: coins and shiny objects are also strategically placed and worn in many cultures to distract and deflect evil spirits. The reflective shine of the metal not only reminded onlookers of the wealth and power of the patrons, but also evoked the light of the divine.
The use of sequins in tapestry has evolved into unique art forms in different parts of the world. Kalagas of Southeast Asia draw upon traditional tapestry techniques existing in the region for hundreds of years and originally produced exclusively for the court using precious materials and jewels. The arrival of British merchants in the 18th century provided both inexpensive non-precious metal sequins and a market for less expensive Kalagas. These tapestries continue to be a popular tourist item today and depict beautifully rendered figures of animals, epic and religious parables and courtly scenes in gold colored sequins on a velvet background (3).
Another very different sequin tapestry tradition has evolved more recently in Haiti. Haitian Vodou flags or drapo, make spectacular use of the wide spectrum of sequins available today. Originally produced for ceremonial purposes, artists now also produce art flags for collectors. Both religious and art flags typically depict Vodou deities, drawing from a mixture of Catholic and African beliefs and archetypes, though art flags naturally have a wider range in subject matter. In the religious flags, as has been the case in many cultures, the sequin has more than a decorative significance: they embody what Robert Farris Thompson referred to as the “Flash of the Spirit,” the creative spark imparted by the divine (4).
1. sequin. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sequin (accessed: September 05, 2007).
2. Wikipedia contributors, “Sequin,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sequin&oldid=146849371 (accessed September 6, 2007). Wikipedia contributors, “Sequin,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sequin&oldid=146849371 (accessed September 6, 2007).
3. http://www.asianartmall.com/KalagaArticle.htm (accessed: September 05, 2007)
4. Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit. Random House, Inc. New York, 1983.