Friday, February 18, 2005

Simple rosary instructions

I had a good time last month teaching a class I called "Rosaries, Relics and Rings in the Renaissance" at a symposium in Palo Alto (California) for participants in Renaissance Faires. Both my classes were well attended and those taking the class were generally very enthusiastic.

The only problem (if you can call it that) was that I spent about the first third of the class laying out some (I think) necessary background about what it was like to be a Roman Catholic in Elizabethan England. This meant that we didn't have time at the end of the class to actually sit down and assemble a simple rosary, as I usually have people do when I teach a medieval rosaries class.

I did have kits for sale, and by the way, thank you to everyone who contributed money to help cover the cost of photocopying class handouts (one of which was in color and cost [shudder] $2 for one little piece of paper).

This kit (see What's in a Kit) makes a simple rosary of bone, wood, or glass beads, strung on a silk cord, ending in a cross or other pendant. This is a type of rosary that I think might have been seen just about anywhere in Western Europe, over a wide range of times between about 1400 and 1600.


A couple of people have asked me to post the directions for assembling the kit, so here they are. (First, do read What's in a Kit if you need to refresh your memory.)

Also, for those who were there, a numbered "key" to the items on the color handout is Comment 1 under this entry.

If you weren't at the class, don't have a kit, and aren't interested in the details of bead-stringing at the moment, you're invited to skip this (since it's rather long) and read something more interesting ;).

Besides what's in your kit, you will need scissors, and depending on how you're finishing off your rosary, you may also need a small pair of pliers.

If you consult other bead-stringing sites, you'll discover that the way I use a little "clamshell" finding to secure the knots isn't exactly orthodox. The reason I do it is that I have an inherent distrust of knots, even if they are glued. I prefer to have a mechanical "stop" of some kind — like the little hole in the hinge of the finding — that keeps the knot from wriggling loose even if the glue doesn't hold for the next 50 years. The "clamshell" is also a tidy way of hiding the knots and ends. If you want to use other methods of securing your knots, feel free.


(1) Thread the end of your yard of silk cord through the eye of your twisted wire beading needle. You'll use a single thread (not double) to string your rosary.

(2) Pick up one of your five gauds (the bigger marker beads) and thread it onto your cord. Slide it down to about 8 inches from the far end.

(3) Run your needle through this bead twice more, in the same direction as your original threading, being careful not to pierce the thread anywhere with the needle. (This is temporary and you're going to need to remove the extra threadings later.) This keeps all the beads from sliding off the free end as you thread them.

(4) Thread onto the cord ten (10) of your Ave beads (the smaller ones). Count carefully — you don't want to discover a "decade" of 9 or 11 after you've tied the final knot!

(5) Add another gaud.

(6) String a total of five groups of ten Aves each, with a gaud between each group. You'll end with ten Aves. Leave the needle threaded.

(7) Lay the string down on a flat surface where it won't roll, like a towel. Carefully remove the extra threadings from the first gaud, leaving just one thread running through the bead.

(8) Take your still-threaded needle at the end of your strung beads and thread it through that first gaud, going from the direction with beads to the direction without beads (the free end). You now have a complete loop, ending in a gaud with two parallel threads through it in the same direction and two free ends lying side by side.

(9) Adjust for length. You'll want to leave some slack in the loop -- most of the period rosaries I've seen have anywhere from an inch to as much as two or three inches of empty thread in the loop. This allows you to slide the beads along the thread as you "pray" each one. Adjust your beads so you have the length of bare thread you want between the beads and the end gaud. Take both free ends of the thread and tie them in a knot. (This knot is a place marker — it won't be big enough by itself to keep the end gaud from sliding off, so be careful if you pick the string up.)

Options for finishing

From here, there are several options, depending on how you're constructing your rosary.

(A) The five-bead "tail" you see on modern rosaries came into fashion in the mid to late 16th century, but it wasn't a universal part of all rosaries until at least the 18th century. If you have three extra Ave beads (most strings do have a few extras) and a sixth gaud, you can add this "tail" if you want. Go to the Beads with Tail instructions below.

(B) If you are not adding any more beads, and want to finish off your rosary with a tassel (rather than a cross or other medal), go to the Beads with Tassel instructions below. You'll need about 10 to 20 yards of thread to make a nice tassel -- pearl cotton is nice, silk is even nicer but more expensive. My experience is that store-bought ready-made tassels tend to be made of rayon, which shreds rather quickly.

(C) If you are not adding any more beads, and want to finish your rosary with a cross or medal, continue here.

Finishing with a cross or medal

(10) Thread both of the free ends of thread through the eye of your twisted wire needle. (You may need to widen the eye with a stout pin, first, if it's been squeezed narrower by going through small bead holes.)

(11) If you're going to (as I recommend) use the little "clamshell" finding included in your kit to hold the finishing knot, pick it up, open it up a little, and hold it with the hinge down (the hinge has a hole in it) and the two "cups" up. For a rather silly analogy, think of a swimsuit top worn by a lady who's lying on her stomach sunbathing (grin). Run the threaded needle through the hole in the hinge from top to bottom (the direction is important). Push the clamshell along the threads until it is right up against the knot you tied in Step 9.

First threading illustration

(12) Now run the threaded needle through the eye of your cross or medal.

(13) (This is the slightly tricky part.) Run the threaded needle back through the hole in the hinge of the clamshell finding. Depending on exactly which thread you got in your kit, this may be a tight fit. If the needle won't go through with both threads in it, try doing one at a time. Be careful not to let the needle "split" any of the threads in the process, since this makes it impossible to adjust for length. If that does happen, unthread the needle and pull on the thread to untangle it.

Second threading illustration

(14) Now adjust the length of thread between the clamshell finding and the cross. At least a little of the thread will show -- it has to, to make a loop big enough so the cross can swing freely. Snug the clamshell up against the overhand knot that closes the loop.

(15) When everything's adjusted to your liking, separate the two threads between the overhand knot and the end gaud, creating a loop. You can push the rest of the beads up out of the way (since you thoughtfully left some slack in the loop) so you can see what you're doing. Take your needle off the free ends of the threads and separate those two threads. Pass one thread through the triangular loop and tie the two free ends in a square knot. This puts the square knot right on top of the overhand knot, so the clamshell can cover both.

Third threading illustration

(16) Don't cut the ends yet. Put a drop of glue on the knot and let it dry.

(17) When the glue is dry, carefully trim the ends of the knot short. Last, put another drop of glue on the knot and, before it dries, use the pliers to gently close (not flatten) the clamshell around the knots. Adjust the clamshell so that it's centered on the threads at top and bottom and allow to dry thoroughly.

Beads with Tail

Use these instructions if you're adding the "tail" with extra beads that's common on modern rosaries.

(1) (from Step 9) Adjust the knot you just tied in your loop so that one of the free ends coming from it is longer than the other. The short end only needs to be 3 or 4 inches long, and the other should be as long as possible. The long end is what you'll use to add the extra beads. Re-thread the longer end into your needle.

(2) If you're going to (as I recommend) use the little "clamshell" finding included in your kit to hold the finishing knot, pick it up, open it up a little, and hold it with the hinge down (the hinge has a hole in it) and the two "cups" up. For a rather silly analogy, think of a swimsuit top worn by a lady who's lying on her stomach sunbathing {grin}. Run the threaded needle through the hole in the hinge from top to bottom (the direction is important). Push the clamshell along the thread until it is right up against the knot that closes the loop. (See the illustrations above, except that you'll have only one thread where it shows two.)

(2) String three more Ave beads, then one more gaud.

(3) Now run the threaded needle through the eye of your cross or medal.

(4) Take the needle carefully back through the last gaud, then back through the three Ave beads, and last, up through the clamshell finding. Be careful not to let the needle "split" any of the threads in the process, since this makes it impossible to adjust for length. It's also difficult to undo once it happens.

(5) Pull on the thread so that there is a small loop above the cross (large enough for it to swing freely) and about half an inch of bare thread between the last Ave bead and the clamshell. Push the clamshell down away from the knot that closes the loop. You can push the beads of the loop out of the way as well (since you thoughtfully left some slack in the loop) so you can see what you're doing.

(6) Carefully tie the short free end of thread hanging from the gaud that joins the loop together, and the end the needle is on, in a firm knot right next to the knot that closes the loop. It's important that these two knots be very close together so the clamshell can cover them both. If you want to be sure they stay together, tie your knot, wrap one or both ends around the closing knot and tie again. Don't trim the ends yet.

(7) Follow steps 16 and 17 above.

Beads with a Tassel

First, make or buy your tassel. There are good tassel-making instructions online here and elsewhere. Don't bother to trim or "even up" the bottom of your tassel before using it.

This is probably the easiest way to finish the beads (but also not quite as secure as the others given). You won't need the little clamshell finding for this — you can toss it, or save it for another project.

(1) If the knot you tied in step 9 isn't a secure, permanent knot, make it one. Push the beads up out of your way (since you thoughtfully left some slack in the loop) so you can see what you're doing. Now separate the two threads that lie between the overhand knot and the end gaud, creating a loop.

(2) Your tassel should have two free ends of a binding or hanging string sticking out of the top. Take one of these ends and pass it through the triangular loop in one direction. Now take the other end and pass it through the same loop in the opposite direction. Pull snug and tie the two ends in a small secure knot. This snugs the tassel right up against the knot that closes the loop.

(3) You now have four free ends to get rid of. For each one, do this: thread the end into a large sharp needle, and plunge the needle downward through the top part of the tassel, not too far from the outside of the bunch of threads. Let the needle emerge below the "waistband" of the tassel. Bring the needle out below this line and insert it again above it several times, spaced around the tassel. The last time, plunge the needle back into the middle of the tassel and down, coming out the bottom where all the free ends are.

(4) Trim off the remaining ends when you trim the bottom of the tassel. (Tip: it's easier to trim a wet tassel evenly than a dry one!)



Blogger Chris said...

This is the index to the illustrations in the color handout, Rosaries, Relics & Rings in the Renaissance, from the class I taught in January.

FRONT COVERThe bottom half of the front of this handout has some of the illustrations from Bernard Garter's woodcut titled "Some of the Popes marchandise lately sen[t] ouer into Englande."

(1) Labeled "Superaltare," I think this is a portable altar stone, used when a priest celebrates Mass anywhere that's not a consecrated Roman Catholic church.

(2) This represents a type of wooden standing cross, perhaps 18 inches high, made from interlocking pieces of wood. I think it's intended to stand for all such movable crosses that might sit on a table, a home altar, etc.

(3) An IHS medallion. This monogram (IHS) represents the name "Jesus". It continued to be used as a motif by Protestants, so I'm not sure why this medallion is here; perhaps it's a hollow case containing Communion hosts or something of the sort.

(4) A medal with the head of a saint.

(5) A papal pronouncement or "bulla", so called from the wax seal it's signed with. The two circles below the arms of the cross (both labeled "15") are closeups of what this papal seal actually looks like on both sides.

(6) A small pouch containing "Bauarie granum benedictum", whatever that is. I think "Granum benedictum" literally means "blessed flour", but I have no idea whether this is wheat flour, incense powder, or something else.

(7) and (8) are clearly rosaries, #7 ending with a pomander (pierced with holes for the fragrance to escape) and #8 with a cross.

(9) and (10) are medallions with both sides of each shown. #9 has a crucifixion scene on the front and #10 looks like the head of a saint. The fact that the back sides of both show an "Agnus Dei" motif (lamb with flag) suggests these medallions are hollow containers for the small wax disc called an "Agnus Dei", which is made from wax from the Easter candles used in Rome and blessed by the Pope in a special ceremony. It was popular among Catholics of the time to wear or carry this for protection against fire, flood, storms et cetera.

(11) and (12) are illustrations I didn't include (these are Bernard Garter's numbers I'm using). (13) and (14) look like simple beads, but I don't know what (if anything) is specifically Roman Catholic about them.

(15), see #5.

The rest of this consists of photos of period objects, ranging in date from about 1500AD to about 1650.

ROSARIES (left hand page)

(16) A gentleman (who looks like he REALLY doesn't like having his picture painted!) holding a man's ten-bead rosary in his right hand.

(17) A simple ten-bead rosary with a ring at one end (which can be slipped onto a finger or thumb), a cross made of beads, and a medallion.

(18) One of many portraits of wealthy German ladies with very large red-coral rosaries.

(19) The "Chatsworth paternoster," a ten-bead rosary given to King Henry VIII by Cardinal Wolsey, before Henry's break with Rome. It is a marvel of intricate carving in boxwood.

(20) A simple rosary of wooden "Ave" beads (the small ones) and silver "Paters" or "gauds" (the big beads). This shows the short "tail" with extra beads that was sometimes added to rosaries in the 16th century and is universal in modern rosaries.

(21) Another simple rosary of bone beads, with a bone cross.

(22) A 15-decade rosary, for praying a complete rosary with all 15 of the "mysteries". Note that this ends in a medal -- not all rosaries have a cross.

(23) A rosary of jet and silver from the 15th century, a souvenir of Compostela.

(24) A rosary ring with ten knobs and a flat bezel, now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert museum.

(25) A cast bronze rosary ring, a modern copy of a supposedly 16th-century original.

(26) A rosary of cylindrical beads ending in a tassel.

(27) The gold rosary worn by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution.


(28) A jewel of gold and pearls, of a lamb resting on a hollow "book" which contains an Agnus Dei (see #9).

(29) An IHS jewel set with diamonds, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

(30) A Spanish devotional pendant showing the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus.

(31) A drawing of the head of Christ in an elaborately enameled pendant frame.

(32) A reliquary: in this case, a hollow pendant containing bits of saints' relics. The front is engraved; the back shows the relics under glass.

(33) and (34) Medals showing the heads of male saints or Christ.

(35) A flat openwork pendant in gold, showing a religious scene.

(36) A thumb-sized emerald mounted in gold, probably Spanish, with the Cross of the Inquisition. Jewels like this were worn in Spain as a sign of one's support of the established church.

(37) A small cylinder of glass or rock crystal, capped with gold and rubies at top and bottom, and containing a tiny figure or a saint carved in boxwood.

(38) A hollow gold pendant which could have contained relics.

(39) A silver "book" pendant which could have contained either relics (behind the grille) or scented herbs.

(40) A figure of St. Anthony of Padua and the Infant Jesus, gold enameled with jewels. This type of figure could be worn as a pendant or attached to a rosary.

(41) A carved ivory St. George medallion.

(42) A tiny gold "box" shaped medal, showing St. George and the Virgin on the inside.

(43) A "girdle book" belonging to Queen Elizabeth, with gold enameled covers.

(44) A "memento mori" jewel in enameled gold, showing a coffin with a skeleton inside and a skull and crossbones hanging from it.


This shows a variety of 16th-century crosses and other pendants (#55 is an ivory carving set into the cover of a locket). Unfortunately it's difficult to find crosses in these shapes today.

Numbers 46 and 53 belonged to Mary Queen of Scots.

Numbers 49, 50, and 57 are made of jewels in gold settings.

Number 51 contains saints' relics under the small oval frames.

Number 58 shows the "Instruments of the Passion," such as the spear, ladder, chalice, hammer, etc. used for Christ's crucifixion.

Number 59 shows Christ on the cross, with figures of Mary and the apostle John standing on the ground on either side, each with one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus above their heads.

Number 60 is another set of very tiny boxwood carvings, displayed under rock crystal.

12:31 PM  

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