Christopher Venn & The Beaded Dress Project.
My name is Christopher Venn, I'm 45 years old and I'm a full-time carer to my wife Cate Venn. I've been beading for about 3 years and I fell into it almost by accident.
Cate is a beader too and creates some wonderful designs so I had been around beading for several years before I picked up a needle myself.
I had always been amazed at her skill and was convinced that I'd never even be able to spear the beads onto the needle let alone make them into something beautiful. Then Cate made one of her signature neckerchiefs, this one called “Janice”, in silver size 15 beads and using right angled weave for the stitch. The small size of the beads combined with the stitch created what can only be described as a fabric, a fabric made of glass beads!
I was utterly enchanted with the way it felt, the way it moved and the way it looked and the more I thought about it the more convinced I became that someone should take the pattern but expand it into a full-size dress.
Needless to say when I approached Cate with the idea she agreed that it would look and feel amazing but she told me in no uncertain terms that she wouldn't be the one to make it.
I ran the idea by a few of Cate’s beading friends who, like Cate, agreed it would be amazing but it would take a special kind of idiot to actually attempt it. Enter me!
Since I couldn't convince Cate or any of her friends to make it and since I just could not shake the idea I decided that there was only one thing for it, I'd have to learn to bead and make it myself!
I told Cate my plan and asked her if she would help me? Luckily she knows how stubborn I can be when I get an idea in my head so although she had doubts about whether it would work she had no doubt I'd do my upmost to attempt to make it work so she agreed to teach me what I needed to know.
She wouldn't teach me RAW right away though and insisted that I start with simpler stitches first so I started with a simple peyote stitch to make my first project, a black bracelet with a gold zig-zag pattern. Then came my first true design, a necklace made in square stitch and inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Finally Cate let me lose on RAW and I made a gold clutch bag as practice for the big project. It worked pretty well but because the gold coating on the beads came off on my fingers as I beaded I had spray paint after I'd finished.
After an excelerated 3 month foundation course in beading Cate declared me ready to begin the real project. The first thing to do though was to get the pattern for the dress itself.
Luckily Cate’s mum Mo Fisher, as well as being a gifted beader in her own right, is also an excellent seamstress so it was a no brainer to drag her into my crazy scheme too.
I said that I wanted it to fit the diminutive Aussie pop princess Kylie Minogue who is a UK dress size 6 so Mo drew out a pattern for me and like a fabric dress it was designed in sections, 5 separate pieces that would be sewn together at the end of the project. (At this point I thought that the project would end with this dress but things kind of snowballed).
It took me 5-10 hours a day, everyday for 9 months, during which time there was many an occasion when I was sure I'd bitten off more than I could chew. There was a lot of swearing, a few tantrums and even a tear or two but there was also pride and a sense of great accomplishment as each section was completed.
Each part felt so sensuous and slinky that I knew that the project was worth all of the hard work and tears because I'd created something unique.
Unfortunately my skill level was unequal to my ambition and the separate sections were uneven and difficult to join up together so once again Mo stepped in to help and somehow managed to wrangle the whole thing together into the finished dress.
Everyone who saw it was amazed by how much I'd achieved as a novice beader and they all wanted to know how long it took (9 months), how much it weighs? (2.5 lbs), how many beads it took (approx 500,000) and what my next project would be?
I'd fully intended to quit beading when the dress was completed but I wasn't satisfied with the finished project. Purely due to my own failings it wasn't what I'd had in mind and I knew I could do better so the answer to what comes next was easy, another dress! This time it would be 2 dress sizes bigger and rather than a thigh length cocktail dress like the Kylie dress this would be a floor length ball gown!
It was about this time that I launched another crazy project also inspired by Cate which developed into a world-wide community project called The Universal Nebula Dress Project (that's what happens when a name is chosen by committee).
The idea came to me when Cate had completed yet another of her signature designs, her Nebula Necklace made from bezeled rivolies, chattons and her own creation floating montees.
When it was all put together she had several rivoli's left over and I casually said that there must be thousands of beaders around the world with left over pieces that if someone could coordinate it could be used to create something.
Again the idea percolated and after discussing it with Cate an Mo, who once again stepped in to make my crazy idea into a workable concept, we decided on a ball gown made of silk with a bodice made from rivoli's to Cate’s Nebula design writ large. Mo had to go back in time centuries to research how a dress could take the weight without losing the shape.
We decided that we'd make it with the idea to auction the completed dress for charity, the money to be split between Macmillan (a UK based cancer support group and The Head and Neck Cancer Trust because it was neck cancer that invalided Cate.
The next step was to get donations of bezeled rivoli's so I asked Anita M. Anderson of the Seed, Beads, and More Facebook group if we could ask for contributions which she very kindly agreed to.
We estimated that we would need around 2000 rivoli's but we eventually amassed an amazing 4000! The silk dress was handmade by Mo whilst Cate and I put the rivoli's together to make the bodice.
We had so many rivoli's left over that we also made a handbag and a stole to go with the dress as well as 6 Nebula necklaces that we raffled off along with branded tote bags, postcards, gift tags, a jigsaw and an array of other Nebula merchandise.
Unfortunately Covid-19 then brought the world to a standstill and we had to abandon the auction idea but by the end we had raised £6000 for charity!
Meanwhile my new dress was taking shape. I have at time of writing this completed the first panel which is a meter long and I am currently 1/3 of the way through the second panel which is even wider and longer than the first.
It's taking much longer this time as I want to make it perfect so I have had to strip off many dozens of rows that didn't make the standard.
I've learnt a lot about how to make fabric from RAW having at this point surely done more of the stitch than people who have been beading for decades. I've learnt that tension is indeed, as Buckminster Fuller declared, "the great integrity" and it’s vital to maintain a solid foundation and symmetry.
I've also learnt that the slightest mistake will result in a line that only becomes visible days after forming, meaning that I've often had to scrap a whole week’s worth of work to remove it.
Still the project is coming along well and I think I should be finished by the summer of next year. The sheer length of the project however has given me plenty of time to think and I've come up with several more designs for other dresses using less time intensive stitches.
I currently have definite plans for 3 more dresses and the germ of an idea for another 2 or 3. My eventual goal is to stage an exhibition somewhere of all of the completed dresses showing the progression from one to the next but this is a few years from being realised yet.
A HUGE thank you to Christoper Venn for sharing his story and work with us.
- Heather Kahn