Gallery I
Snake Book
Historical Snakes
Errata Sheet
Classes, Kits
Istanbul Trip

Some information on the various types of antique and vintage bead crochet snakes.

bead croceht belts
Balkan bead crochet belts

Beadwork belt, snake, bookmark, and purse
made by Turkish POWs during WWI

The story of bead crochet snakes is a rich one that involves the geographical area formerly referred to as the Balkans and known today as Southestern Europe.  Crochet, with or without beads, was well established in the Ottoman Empire by the 1870s.  Like the belts shown above, most bead crochet items made before World War I were done by women for their own use. 
     There are few examples of beadwork souvenirs made by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century civilians incarcerated in Ottoman prisons, but the bead crochet snakes that intrigue people today were made after 1915.
     The majority of beadwork reptiles made in the Balkans can be divided into three types: snakes and lizards made by Turkish soldiers imprisoned in British military and civilian internment camps during World War I, snakes made by villagers in parts of Southeastern Europe for their own use, and less elaborate snakes made to be sold at markets as souvenirs or made specifically as jewelry.
     Some of the 150,000-250,000 Turkish soldiers captured by the British, Australian, Russian, and French armies were housed in camps located in Egypt, on the island of Cyprus, and at Salonika.    
     To combat the boredom of imprisonment, prisoners of war were allowed to craft souvenirs that could be given as gifts, bartered for amenities such as extra food, or sold in local shops and by street vendors.  Many Turkish soldiers used beads to make handbags, purses, necklaces, bracelets, bookmarks, belts, covered bottles, snakes, and lizards.
     While most of the beadwork snakes and lizards were undoubtedly made in Middle-Eastern camps, some of them were made by the one hundred Turkish men interned at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man.  Family legends tell of Turkish prisoners trading beadwork snakes to locals for food. 
     Whether made in Egypt or England, the snakes share similar design characteristics.  Snakes might seem like a strange choice today but they were actually regarded as good luck symbols in parts of the Ottoman Empire.  The beadwork versions range in length from 13 inches (33 cm) to 18 feet (5.5 m) with a common size being around 60 inches (152 cm)long and 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm) around.
     The snakes were done with bead crochet: beads were strung in a pattern and the snake was crocheted around in a tube from tail to mouth.  The common patterns for the top decoration were a zig-zag or diamond shape.  The mouth was a two-part constuction, sometimes holding a beadwork tongue that is sewn in afterwards.
     Large snakes were stuffed with fabric strips, used yarn, horsehair, and string to prevent them from collapsing.  The large snakes usually have some kind of writing on the belly: a date or phrase such as TURKISH PRISONER or TURKISH POW.  The jaws of the snakes were usually decorated with a triangle, diamond, or what looks like a capital A.
     Turkish POWs also made bead crochet lizards or salamanders but in fewer numbers than the snakes.  These range in size from 3.5 inches (9 cm) to 9 inches (23 cm) with a common size being a little over 7 inches (18cm).  Some of the lizards are caught in the mouths of snakes but many stand on their own little legs.
     Common decorations are stripes, zig-zags, diamonds in various forms, and an all-over dotted pattern.  Like the snakes, the lizards have a two-part mouth that sometimes contains a beadwork tongue.  The lizards may have a phrase or date worked in beads on the belly.           

Diamond pattern snake made by
Turkish POWs

Zigzag pattern snake made by Turkish
prisoner of war in 1919.

Writing on the underside of two snakes made by
Turkish POWs during WWI

Three lizards made by Turkish prisoners of war
during World War I

BETWEEN WORLD WAR I AND II:  Village women in parts of Greece and Macedonia made bead crochet snakes for local use and to sell as souvenirs.  Locally, the snakes were used as part of a line dance or as an engagement present from a girl to her fiance.
     Different in style from the Turkish POW snakes, these reptiles range in length from 18.5 inches (47 cm) to 29 inches (73.5 cm).  The common beadwork patterns for the body were either flowers set among a central zigzag or a line of oval medallions.  The mouths could be either open or closed.
     Some snakes have a security strap by the mouth that can be worn around the wrist when the snake was held by the head during a line dance.

Village-made snake with a central line of
oval shapes (medallions)

Snake with a zigzag pattern made by a
a rural woman sometime between the two World Wars.

SNAKE JEWELRY:  Starting possibly in the 1930s, there was also a small cottage industry that turned out bead crochet necklaces.  These snakes range in size from 19 inches (48 cm) to 26 inches (66cm).  The common beadwork pattern is a flower motif separated by plain rows.  The head of such snakes has a mouth that holds a spring-operated metal fastener that can grab on to the tail to make the necklace.

Snake necklace made as part of
a cottage industry

Spring-hinged metal fastener for a necklace
The second snake necklace has lost its fastener

Here are a few interesting links:

TRENCH ART. This is Jane Kimball's website on souvenirs made by imprisoned soldiers throughout history.

MIRIAM MILGRAM. Website devoted to Balkan crafts, particularly those of Bulgaria and Macedonia, plus Miriam's own beaded snakes.

BEAD SOCIETY OF GREAT BRITAIN. The bead society publishes a number of articles on historic beadwork.

Questions?  Email me at