Saturday, 28 May 2011

History: Steampunk

Steampunk as a concept came to prominence in America in the mid to late 1980s as a sub genre of science fiction writing, focusing on an alternate reality where the world is still moving forward on the basis of steam power. It is typically, though not exclusively, centred on Victorian era Britain, enveloping all aspects of life including technology, fashion, culture, art and architecture, but with an underlying science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural twist. This setting, both in terms of location and time, presents a crossroads in history when the modern world of industry, science and technology was born and the world could travel in any number of directions.

It is sometimes thought of as having a similar fan base to Cyberpunk but this is not the case, and it may well owe its existence to a reaction against the themes of breakdown and radical social change through technology that this overly dystopian genre embodies. Although Steampunk does have an element of social deconstruction and rebellion, it has a far more positive overall outlook on the world in general, as well as an aesthetic focused on a specific historical time period and a strong do it yourself ethic. As a philosophy it embodies the Victorian’s optimism for the future, founded on the Industrial Revolution and Empire, alongside the somewhat purer ideals of creativity and self reliance. In turn it creates a striking contrast between the rampant commercialisation, mass production and waste in our world and a nostalgia and appreciation for the hand crafted artistry, quality and beauty of the vintage and antique of yesteryear.

In taking technology as an example, the Steampunk vision would include such fictional machines as those envisaged in the writings of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, alongside real technologies such as the computer, but developed as the Victorians may have envisioned them. Other examples of Steampunk focus on the path not taken, taking forward technologies that have fallen by the wayside or not reached their full potential in the 21st century, such as dirigibles, analog computers, and other mechanical forms. To look at this concept in reverse it would be like giving a Victorian era inventor, such as Charles Babbage, Alexander Graham Bell, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Edison, or George Stephenson the briefest look at the technology of the future and then sending them back to their respective workshops and offices to design and build something from what they had glimpsed.

Pausing to look at the work of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells it is worth noting that these authors described theories and technologies that were far in advance of their time:

The portraits above show Jules Verne (1828 to 1905) and H.G. Wells (1866 to 1946).

  • French author, Jules Verne, wrote about space, air and underwater craft decades before these modes of transport had taken a practical mechanical form. This startling point is underlined by the publication dates for each of his most notable works – Voyage au centre de la terre 1864 (Journey to the Center of the Earth); De la terre à la lune 1865 (From the Earth to the Moon); Vingt mille lieues sous les mers 1869 (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Even more remarkably, in 1863, Jules Verne had written a novel called Paris au XXe Siecle (Paris in the 20th Century) about a man who lives in a world of glass skyscrapers, high speed trains, gas powered cars, calculators, and a worldwide communications network, yet cannot find happiness and comes to a tragic end. Verne’s publishers thought the novel’s pessimism would damage his growing popularity, and strongly suggested he put off publishing it. Verne put the manuscript in a safe, where it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989. It was finally published in 1994.

  • The first non-fiction bestseller by English writer H. G. Wells was Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought 1901. Originally serialised in a magazine it is considered by many to be his most futuristic work, as he anticipates what the world will be like in the year 2000. Wells tells of trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs, the decline of morality as men and women seek greater sexual freedom; the defeat of German militarism, and the existence of a European Union. And in an interesting contrast to Jules Verne, he does not expect to see successful flight before 1950, and declares that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea! His early novels, called scientific romances, invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time MachineThe Island of Doctor MoreauThe Invisible ManThe War of the WorldsWhen the Sleeper Wakes, and The First Men in the Moon. In 1933 Wells went on to predict in The Shape of Things to Come that the war he feared most would begin in January 1940. As we know the Second World War broke out in September 1939 just four months earlier than he predicted.


The term Steampunk is said to have originated from science fiction writer Kevin Wayne Jeter (born 1950), who was was looking for a general descriptive term to describe works by Tim Powers (born 1952) – The Anubis Gates; James Blaylock (born 1950) – Homunculus; and his own book Morlock Night.

The image above shows the front covers for books The Anubis Gates (1983), Homunculus (1986) and Morlock Night (1979).

Each of these novels was set in the 19th century and followed the general conventions of the speculative fiction of the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It was this commonality that Jeter was looking to capture in a single word or phrase. In a letter printed in the April 1987 issue of science fiction magazine Locus, Jeter wrote:
“Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night … it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in the Powers / Blaylock / Jeter fantasy triumvirate was writing in the gonzo-historical manner first. Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like steampunks, perhaps … “
The term was then later attributed to Jeter by Michael Berry writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987:
“Jeter, along with fellow novelists Tim Powers and James Blaylock, seems to be carving out a new sub-genre of science fiction with his new book. Whereas such authors as William Gibson, Michael Swanwick and Walter Jon Williams have explored the futuristic commingling of human being and computer in their Cyberpunk novels and stories, Jeter and his compatriots, whom he half-jokingly has dubbed Steampunks, are having a grand time creating wacko historical fantasies.”

Having coined the term it is typically thought that Jeter’s novel Morlock Night established the genre, but looking back to the 1960s and 70s, earlier proto influences can be identified suggesting an evolution rather then a fixed point in time. Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium 1962; Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb 1967; and Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air 1971 all have Steampunk qualities. In turn, Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! 1972 describes an alternative British Empire set in 1973, with atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, and ornate submarines, all set off by Victorian dialogue. In 1992, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling brought the genre real attention and popularity with The Difference Engine. This centred on an alternative Industrial Revolution where the historical figure Charles Babbage, mathematician and engineer, is able to realise his plans for a programmable, mechanical, analog computer. Babbage’s Difference Engine brings the Information Age into the Steam Age, along with the resulting struggle between the working classes who fear the new technology and the Upper Classes who embrace it.

Moving away from science fiction literature and into mainstream media the world of film and television has also played its part. An obvious example being Walt Disney’s Academy Award winning 1954 motion picture adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in particular the depiction of Captain Nemo by James Mason, and the visualisation and design of his "submerging boat", the Nautilus. Another example would be the figure of the eccentric inventor Caratacus Potts, played by that master of accents Dick Van Dyke, from the 1968 musical film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, along with his many promising inventions including, of course, that car. From television the key example is the American series The Wild Wild West, running from 1965 to 1969. It starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as two secret service agents, James T West and Artemus Gordon respectively. This half science fiction half western production, followed the two agents as they travelled aboard a private train across the West fighting evil as they went, with Artemus designing the gadgets.

The images above show cinema posters for Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Warfield Productions Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, plus promotional material for The Wild West television show.

In turn, in the last few years the influence of Steampunk can be seen in computer games such as the Bioshock series, graphic novels (building on the success of writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman), the Japanese anime film Steamboy from 2004, and the latest Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jnr in the lead role. Steampunk also brings vaudeville, musical theatre and the circus to music, with the likes of Battle Circus and Abney Park. In May 2008, multimedia artist and sculptor Paul St George exhibited an outdoor interactive video installation linking London and New York City, all wrapped up in a Victorian era-styled telectroscope. In fact, in terms of mainstream interest Google Trends took note of the Steampunk movement in 2006 and has registered a steady gain in its popularity ever since.

The image above shows the New York end of Paul St George’s Telectroscope installation.

With all the contraptions and gadgets detailed in novels and films, it was only natural that some people would want to start building these gadgets and bring Steampunk to life. Everything from computers, furniture, musical instruments, telephones, watches, and vehicles have been Steampunked. It is at this point that Steampunk becomes a design aesthetic built around creativity and imagination. There is no better place to view some of these makes than at the Steampunk Workshop, but by way of a small example here is a borrowed image from the site, depicting a LCD computer monitor. Home decor allowing, which screen would you rather be sat in front of you right now?

The image above shows two views of a fully functional Steampunked computer monitor.

Steampunk Jewellery & Components

This design aesthetic, and do it yourself ethic, most easily carries over into personal style with both clothing and props being made in a Steampunk style, both by the individual and commercially, for example at the Steampunk Emporium. Clothes are largely Victorian, alongside American Western, but with the addition of technology hinting at a more adventurous life than a typical Victorian may have actually enjoyed! And with this clothing comes a need for jewellery and the components necessary to make Steampunked jewellery. By way of an introduction, here are four distinct Steampunk jewellery items.

The images above show a Fondobjects Spanish Pill Box ring; an Antige Steampunk Jewelry Vintage Watch Topaz earrings; a Ghostlove New Era brooch; and lastly a Catherinette Rings Black Rose Cameo necklace.

To see further examples that you can make yourself, you could do no worse than purchase a copy of Jean Campbell’s Steampunk Style Jewelry, as it captures the essence of Steampunk across 30 different projects and is full of photographs, both to supplement the step by step instructions and to display the finished article. Another book released more recently is Steampunk Emporium by English jewellery artist Jema Hewitt which comes in hardback and Kindle versions! Jema designs and creates unique objects d’art incorporating vintage and found objects with polymer clay, filigree, and beads. Both books go a long way towards answering the question – just what is Steampunk jewellery?

Steampunk jewellery components are based on a basic colour palette of brass, bronze, copper and iron along with dark silvers such as gunmetal, brushed aluminium and titanium. High sheen gold and silver are rarely used as they do not reflect the antique feel and industrial solidity that Steampunk embodies. That said there are several do it yourself methods for darken these metals, take a look here

This metal foundation is often then softened by blending in the romantic femininity of the Victorian age, so alongside the hardness of the metal you will often find coloured beads integrated into the designs. With amber, cranberry, ivory, olive and pastels reflecting the traditional colours used during the Victorian period. Alongside the beads antiqued paper, filigree, glass, lace, leather, and pearls, in varied tones and shades, can be used.

Other elements that are core to this form of jewellery are motifs, usually though not exclusively, reflecting age, industry and time. The most popular steampunk motif is the gear which is obviously symbolic of industry. Watches of all types, including wrist and pocket watches, are used to reflect time and the idea of clockwork. Old-fashioned antique skeleton keys are also popular, as are other found objects such as belt buckles, chain, charms and milagros, hinges, metal beads, military medals, monocles, pill box cases, stampings, thread cutters, and old metal buttons. Again industrial hardness is often softened by the inclusion of Victorian style cameos, filigree work, lockets, as well as embellishments depicting blossoms, flowers, petals and leaves, along with other naturalistic components such as animals, birds and insects. There are also some less obvious motifs that may not be as readily connected with either industry or the Victorian era. For instance, the fashion for cephalopods, namely cuttlefish, octopuses and squids, which is based on their links with pulp fiction and also the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne.

The montage above shows a range of largely vintage Big Bead Little Bead beads, embellishments, findings, and other components that might one day find themselves alongside a found object in a piece of Steampunk jewellery.

In addition to the actual jewellery make, many resulting pieces also come packaged with a story, firmly placing the object in the wider Steampunk world. This may be in the form of a simple leaflet, or something more elaborate such as a wooden presentation box with an engraved brass plate, concept drawings, instructions for use, and a 'history' for the object.

Resources & Further Reading

This article was only ever intended as an outsiders view - looking through a small window into the world of Steampunk! However, if it has stirred your curiosity then have a look below for some hard copy and on-line resources written and undated by genuine Steampunkers. These will undoubtedly lead you to other areas within this fascinating genre!


The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer details the principles and values of the Steampunk subculture, whilst tracing its roots through the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, on to its most recent expression in films and other media. In its own words it is “the definitive illustrated guide to the world of imaginary airships, corsets and goggles, mad scientists, and strange literature!
Jean Campbell’s book Steampunk Style Jewelry describes exactly what Steampunk style is all about from a number of different individual perspectives. It provides step by step instructions for 30 individual jewellery projects provided by well known figures from the world of Steampunk. In addition, sidebars throughout the book provide information about Steampunk related books, films, fashion, animations, bands, and sculpture. The book is full of beautifully shot imagery to highlight the ornate intricacy of the designs.

The images above show the covers of the Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and Steampunk Style Jewelry by Jean Campbell.

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Thursday, 5 May 2011

Making: Paper Beads

History of Paper Beads

Making paper beads is a traditional craft that goes back, in England at least, as far as the Victorian age. Young ladies would gather socially in their dining rooms, whilst making beads from scraps of wallpaper rolled on knitting needles. They would then polish the beads with bees wax and string them on to long pieces of yarn. They would then be used to make door curtains to divide rooms.

This practice was then revived in the 1920s and 30s for jewellery making.

More recently paper beads have been made in cooperatives as part of development projects in countries such as Uganda. This sees a move away from charitable aid towards business enterprises that provide sustainable income and development opportunities. The techniques used remains largely the same as used in Victorian times, but with recycled paper from printing companies and recycling markets, rather than wallpaper samples.

Paper beads are also made by independent bead making artists around the world and sold through their own web sites or online market places such as Etsy and Artfire.


  • Paper – Magazine pages, wrapping paper, wallpaper, and coloured art paper, or more specialist papers such as handmade Japanese Washi or Chiyogami paper. 
  • Pencil – for marking up the paper. 
  • Ruler – for measuring up. 
  • Craft Knife, Rotary Cutter or Scissors – for cutting out. If you are using scissors you should use the longest pair available so as to reduce the number of cuts required along each length. 
  • Straight Edge – for cutting against. 
  • Self Healing Cutting Mat – for cutting on. 
  • Metal Skewer or Thin Wooden Dowel – for rolling paper against. Commercially made bead rollers are also available. 
  • Soft Paint Brush – for applying glue to the paper. 
  • Glue – for securing your rolled beads. Undiluted PVA is perfect but there are many other alternatives. 
  • Wooden Cocktail Sticks – for holding your rolled beads when drying or when varnishing. 
  • Soft Paint Brush – for applying varnish. A quality brush is preferable at this point as it is less likely to leave bristles on the surface of your beads.  
  • Varnish – for waterproofing your rolled beads. Quick drying marine varnish is perfect and is usually touch dry within 1 hour and ready for a second coat in 4 hours. Experiment with gloss, satin, matt, and antique finishes. 
  • Oasis Florist Block, Polystyrene Block, or similar – for securing the beads whilst varnishing and drying. Push a cocktail stick holding an individual bead securely into the block.

Basic Technique
  • Place your paper face down on your work surface so that the side facing you is not the side that will form the outside of the bead
  • With a sharp pencil mark up the reverse side of your paper sample by marking-up one short edge of your paper with divisions spaced 30mm apart. On the opposite short edge of your paper make a mark 15mm in from the edge and then continue with divisions 30mm apart. In this way you should have the makings of a long isosceles triangle when you join two adjacent marks on the first edge, points A and B, with the central mark on the opposing edge, point C.
  • Continue marking up the paper until you have the desired number of triangles to cut out. To simplify this step and to aid repetition you could make a template to draw around, or if the paper is of a suitable size use a computer, a graphics package, and a printer to print the layout on to the paper.
  • At this point it is worth noting that these measurements have been provided as a starting point, but ultimately it is the ratio of these measurements, combined with the overall length of the paper you are using plus the shapes that you use that will determine the dimensions and shape of your finished bead. Experiment!
  • Carefully cut out the triangles using scissors or for a more accurate cut use a straight edge and a craft knife or rotary cutter.
  • Take your skewer or dowel and starting at the wide end of your paper sample roll the paper around the skewer slightly so that it starts to form a cylinder. Once you are happy with the alignment roll this back and with a brush apply a little glue across the width of the paper immediately below the line of the skewer. Now carefully roll the paper past the glue and continue onwards ensuring that each spiral at the side of the bead is symmetrical as it forms.
  •  At intervals apply another line of glue to secure your work so far. This is far cleaner than covering the whole triangle in glue at the outset.

  • When you have approximately 3 cm remaining, cover this remainder with a thin coat of glue leaving a border around the edges. When rolling the glue will be forced over this border without squeezing out over the sides of your beads.
  • When the paper is completely rolled make sure the end is securely stuck down before rolling the bead through your fingers with a light pressure to ensure it is cylindrical and secure.
  • Slide the bead from the skewer or dowel and transfer it to a cocktail stick and set to one side in your florists block or polystyrene block to completely dry.
  • When you have a good number of beads prepared you should then brush each bead with a few coats of varnish to make them water resistant. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but ensure that when touch dry you rotate them on the cocktail stick so they don’t stick when fully dry. Several thin coats give a much more polished result than one thick coat.
Refinements to this Technique
  • To make beads with different shapes, vary the size and shape of the paper triangles that you cut. The following options are a guide but it is possible to add your own permutations:
  • To provide a neater finish to your bead and to show more of the paper, simply cut the tip from the triangle as indicated in the diagram above. This will give a broader end to the last part of the roll. This is particularly effective if you are using patterned paper or paper with text, as it will show the detail of the pattern or lettering.
  • To provide a stronger, neater, flatter core to the finished bead add a rectangle of paper to the long base of the triangle as shown in the diagram above. This doesn’t need to be more than 1.5cm long, and should simply allow for a few turns of the paper around the skewer or dowel. It also makes initial alignment of the paper easier. It has the added bonus of making the beads sit better against each other when strung. On the downside, the initial stage of laying out the paper for cutting becomes more involved, but in the end it is worth the extra effort.
  • To monitor progress and to ensure ongoing symmetry it is worth while adding some parallel pencilled lines to the back of the paper at the marking up stage.
  • Once you have a set of finished beads experiment with finishes and embellishments to add extra interest – be it gilding, wire wrapping, adding fancy papers, using specialist glazes, or simply painting them, the options are endless.
Paper Sources

The main criterion for selecting paper comes down to weight. If the paper is too flimsy it is likely to tear whilst it is being rolled and if it is too heavy it will prove difficult to roll resulting in a loose and uneven bead. The only other issue is likely to be with finish. Before settling on a particular paper check that it will stick to itself with the glue that you are using and that any applied colour or print will not run when glue or vanish is applied to it. Otherwise, as you will see from the few examples provided below, the options are endless.

Art Paper
    A trip to a local art supplier will present you with a rainbow of artists’ papers all neatly stacked in a display cabinet and available by the sheet! Used for pastels, charcoals and pencil drawings most of these papers are also the perfect weight for paper beads. In addition to the range of colours many of these papers are also finely textured or grained, which will add a little something extra to the resulting bead. A name to look out for is Fabriano Tiziano. When compared with wrapping paper this is a far cheaper solution albeit minus the patterns.
    Copy Paper

    This paper is perfect for making solid colored beads. It comes in a wealth of different colours and because it is designed to go through a printer or copier it is the ideal paper to use with a template image. With a little work on a graphics package on a computer you can set up a template document, which will print out cut lines on each sheet, removing any need to measure prior to cutting! Another positive is that it is always likely to be in stock should you want to do a re-run of a particular set of beads in the future.

    Specialist Paper
      For that really special bead, or a paper bead embellishment, there is nothing finer than using a specialist paper be it Japanese Chiyogami, Italian Fiorentine, or French marbled. These are the preserve of fine paper and book binding suppliers.
      Junk Mail

      These largely unwanted additions to newspapers and letters can be used in much the same way as magazines. A better end for them than the bin!

      Magazine Pages

      This is a great way to recycle old magazines and the resulting colour combinations achievable are endless. When selecting pages remember it is the edges of the strips that will be visible on the finished bead as well as the end of the roll. Unless you are using paper from the large format magazine, typically fashion related titles, it may be worthwhile opening the staples on the magazine and using a double page spread.

      Newspaper Pages

      The weight and composition of newspaper means it is best used for tapered beads. On the plus side most modern newspapers use colour fast inks but it is worth checking how it works with the glue and varnish that you will be using. A second benefit of newspapers is the width of the sheets particularly if you make use of the Sunday broadsheets.

      Paper Shopping Bags

      Whether plain or printed this paper makes for really good beads. Plain brown paper provides a wood-like appearance when varnished, which can be enhanced by selecting antique effect varnishes. Printed brown paper bags tend to have pleasant earthy tones, which again give a vintage feel to the resulting beads.
      Parcel Paper

      Like the plain brown paper bags this paper gives a lovely wood-like finish once varnished and is a nice weight to work with. Plus there are more colour options available than previously.

      Wrapping Paper

      Wrapping paper is an ideal medium simply because of the breadth of colours and patterns available. However the heavier better quality papers can be expensive and unfortunately it is these that are less likely to tear when damped or lose print when handled.


      Having been varnished paper beads will survive a rain shower but they don’t like to go swimming or to do the washing up!

      Paper beading is highly addictive!

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