Women’s bead aprons (keweyú)

Women’s bead aprons (keweyú),

20th century

WaiWai people


A.1963.27.[as] and [at]

What are they and who wore them? These are a pair of bead aprons or keweyú of a type that used to be popular amongst women and girls all over the northern tropical rainforests of South America. These aprons were made and worn by WaiWai girls from Guyana.

Image: Collection of Sir Gordon Lethem A.1963.27.az.21

What are they made of? The aprons are made of glass beads strung onto cotton threads that were woven together on a frame made of bent sticks. One of these aprons is also decorated with cut Caimito seeds (Chrysophyllum sp.) which would have rattled as the wearer danced. They almost always use blue and white beads, sometimes with a different colour near the edges. These keweyús have some red beads at the top and bottom.

How did they get the glass beads? Originally, polished seeds collected from the forest would have been used to make the aprons. European traders introduced glass beads 200 years ago and traded them for hunted game from the forest. Glass beads are still very popular throughout the Amazon region.

Do the patterns mean anything? Almost all of the patterns the WaiWai use have names. The women’s patterns are different from those used to decorate men’s objects.

They represent animals and plants that the women gather for food. On these aprons the ‘T’ shapes represent the head of a fish the WaiWai called a warakáka.

Are bead keweyús still made today? Today, WaiWai women and girls dress in skirts, jeans and T-shirts but they still make keweyús, just like their grandmothers did, so their skills have not been lost. These days the WaiWai make keweyús to sell as crafts.

Linked objects:

Pair of bark armlets (apomí)

Men’s vanity basket (pakára)

Ceremonial dance club (shawaraha)

Man's hair tube

Dance collar

Ceramic bowl