What Is It About Beads?
Q: What does the word "beading" actually mean? And what are some of the different ways to use beads?
A: "Beading" is a general term that refers to making or embellishing something with beads. And the word "bead" is a broad category that includes any small decorative object that has a hole in it or has been pierced to form a hole for stringing. Beads then can include drilled seeds, shells, pearls, and stones, as well as beads made of glass, wood, and plastic.
You can string a group of beads to create a necklace or bracelet; weave beads together with a needle and thread to make everything from jewelry to sculpture to tapestries; sew beads to embellish a garment or other fabric; and even knit and crochet with beads.
Q: Why do people make such a big deal about beads?
A: Throughout history, people have decorated their bodies with beads, so much so that beads help date the earliest existence of human life on the planet. The use of beads is thought to indicate a certain level of cultural complexity and development, and beads are among the oldest human art forms. Several beads made from Nassarius shells are thought to be the earliest known forms of jewelry. Until recently, the earliest beads were assumed to date to 38,000 years ago, but newer discoveries in Algeria and Israel may push the date back to 75,000 or even 100,000 years ago.
Q: Why is beading irresistible? I find myself very attracted to beads, their colors and patterns, and to the idea of wearing them.
A: If you're attracted to beads, you're in good company. Just about every culture for thousands of years has incorporated beads into their clothing, rituals, and religions. From protecting newborn babies from evil spirits to celebrating weddings to anointing a king, beads have been there. If you'd like to learn more, I suggest that you watch the DVD series World on a String by Diana Friedberg. (See Resources.) After watching, you'll wonder why everyone you know isn't into beading! (What's wrong with them? Do they have any idea what they're missing?)
Q: I saw a "beaded" sculpture made entirely from pencil points woven together. Why does this piece qualify as beading?
A: The definition of a bead includes just about any small object with a hole in it. If the pencil points have holes drilled in them so they can be strung together, then technically, each pencil point is a bead. Dramatic beaded jewelry and sculpture can be made from traditional, expected materials such as glass beads and chunks of turquoise, or from surprising, refreshing materials such as drilled pencil points, metal washers, nuts, mesh hardware cloth, and clear plastic tubing cut into bead lengths. Once you start to tune in and notice beading, the diversity will delight and inspire you. For more on these unexpected beading materials, check out the work of Jennifer Maestre and Ingrid Gold-bloom Bloch. (See Resources.)
Q: A lot of beadwork I've seen is made with teeny-tiny beads. I don't think I can work with them! Can I still enjoy beading?
A: The tiny beads you refer to are called seed beads. You may already know whether you enjoy working with tiny objects. If you don't, or you're not sure if you'll have the patience, start with larger 6° seed beads, 4mm squares and drops, and 4mm to 6mm and larger Czech glass and semiprecious stone. When it comes to bead sizes, it's important to remember that the larger the number, the smaller the bead. So, 6° are the larger, easy-to-see seed beads and 15° are the really small ones.
After you've become familiar with some of the techniques, and are using good magnification and adequate light, you might consider trying smaller beads. But aside from broadening your beading options, there's no reason why you have to use the small beads. There's a lifetime worth of projects you can make using larger beads.
Q: Is beading an expensive hobby?
A: If beads weren't so darn addictive, I would say it's one of the most affordable hobbies! You don't need an expensive sewing machine, for example, or really any machinery at all beyond a needle, thread, and a couple of hand tools. Nearly everything you purchase for beading goes into the finished product. So, no, beading doesn't have to be an expensive hobby. That is, unless you decide you immediately must have every single type of bead in every color made.
Q: I'd like to experiment with beading without spending a lot of money. Since I'm just learning, doesn't it make sense to use the cheaper seed beads I've seen in dime stores or children's kits?
A: It's fine to start with small quantities, but in my opinion, it's always better not to scrimp on quality. The quality of your materials affects the outcome of any project you decide to make. If you're going to put your time and ideas into a piece, I think it makes sense to use good-quality beads, supplies, and findings. This doesn't mean that you have to purchase the most expensive of everything, but you'll find, for example, that sterling silver and gold-filled clasps tend to be smoother and better made than many similar findings made of base metal. And they often cost just a little more.
Although the inexpensive beads in some shops may look like a bargain, they will actually cost more than you think when you factor in the waste. These beads may be okay for a more organic piece, or for a lamp base that you want to cover with glue and beads. But they're often uneven in size, and may have sharp or irregular holes. To find beads that look smooth and uniform enough for a strung or woven beaded piece, you'll spend time culling or separating out the defective beads, and end up throwing beads away. Be sure to calculate this waste into the cost of your project.
I suggest that you choose beautiful materials in colors you love, that will make you proud every time you see or wear the piece. Good-quality beads and materials are more important than a fancy or complicated design. One way to save money on beading supplies is to consider buying good-quality beads and jewelry at tag sales and thrift stores. You can take these pieces apart and recycle the beads and findings into your own new and exciting projects.
Q: Do I need to learn a lot of fancy knots to do beading?
A: You don't need to know a lot of knots to do beautiful beadwork. There are just a few essential knots, and you probably already know some of them from Girl Scouts. Check out the next four pages for a look at the basic knots and when you'll use them.
How to Buy Beads
Q: Where's a good place to buy beads?
A: I suggest that you always shop first at your local bead store, if you're lucky enough to have one. Selecting bead shapes, seeing the way they reflect light, and choosing color combinations is so much easier when you can actually touch and arrange the beads. I recently had to buy a certain type of bead online. Because my work is all about color, I had a very difficult time selecting an interesting four-color combination using only the small flat squares on my computer screen. I couldn't even move the color squares around. In fact, the task was nearly impossible. So for me, buying online only works when I already know exactly what I want.
Q: The prices in bead stores are higher than the same products online, so why shouldn't I purchase my supplies online?
A: Companies that sell beads online are able to operate from a pared-down warehouse with relatively low overhead. They also may sell beads in larger quantities, which helps to keep prices down.
A retail store has higher overhead costs for rent, décor, and utilities, plus it pays employees to keep the store open six or seven days a week, assist customers, and answer questions. Your local retail store can give you personal service, advice, and guidance. You can see and touch the beads before you buy them, and see how they work with other beads. This usually results in fewer buying mistakes and disappointments.
As in other things, you get what you pay for. If you love the advice, help, camaraderie, and instant gratification of your local bead store, you'll need to make your purchases there to help keep them in business.
Q: In my local beading shop, why do two different beads of the same size and shape have such different prices?
A: Sometimes, two similar beads may have different prices because one arrived recently, while the other has been hanging in the store for a number of years. But more often, the variance between prices is a result of different colors, finishes, or treatments used to make the beads. (See a list of finishes.) Transparent and plain opaque beads tend to be a bit less expensive, although certain colors are more difficult or costly to make. Those with matte finishes, lusters, and metallic coatings are progressively more expensive. The most expensive beads are made with 22- to 24-karat gold.
Q: If I pay more for beads, does that mean they will last longer?
A: Not necessarily. Sometimes, the most expensive beads, like the gorgeous gold-plated ones, are relatively fragile, and the coating may eventually wear off from repeated exposure to skin acids. My opinion? Either way, they're worth it for the rich and beautiful effect they provide.
Many of the less expensive glass beads are made in India and China. Although these beads may last as long as other glass beads, you'll need to discard more of the beads because of their irregular shape. In general, more expensive Japanese and European beads tend to be smoother, more uniform (far less waste), and of higher quality than the less expensive beads made in China or India.
Q: When buying beads for a project, I'm frustrated because the packaging for different beads varies so much. My pattern may call for 200 beads, but they're sold by the gram or tube or ounce. How do I know how many beads I'm getting?
A: Seed beads are generally sold in 1-ounce packages, in tubes or small zip bags by the gram, or on strands in hanks. There's little standardization between types of packaging, so it's helpful to be able to figure out the numbers yourself. The Seed Bead Size/Quantity Guide shows approximately how many beads of each size, lined up hole to hole, measure 1", and how many beads are contained in a gram, in an ounce, and in a standard 12-strand hank.
It's important to realize that these counts are approximate. Beads of the same size from various manufacturers in different countries can be slightly different sizes and shapes, and may have larger or smaller holes (which can drastically affect the weight of the bead). Even beads of different colors and finishes from a single manufacturer can vary slightly in size and weight. Using this information and a calculator, you can usually get a fairly accurate idea of how many beads you're buying. It's always best to purchase extra beads, so you don't run out of the color or dye lot.
How Do I Learn Beading?
Q: The bead store feels overwhelming. I look around, buy one or two things, and dash out. How am I ever going to make anything?
A: First, allow yourself enough time at the bead store to browse. Take a few deep breaths as you walk around and look closely at the beads. Sit and leaf through a couple of books or magazines to see what sort of beaded designs attract you. Reading about the techniques and how a piece is made can give you an idea of what you'd like to learn first. Go with what attracts you. Really, it's up to you.
Second, if you're attracted to certain beads, it's okay to buy them before you know what you're going to make. Beginners sometimes worry that they're spending money on beads but don't have a clear goal. If you see a color or shape that attracts you, buy it and take it home. This is the beginning of your bead collection, or "stash." The beads you like will start to "get friendly" with each other, and you'll begin to have ideas about how you want to combine them.
Q: What's an easy way to jump in and get started with beading?
A: Stringing beads on wire or cord is an easy way to start, and you'll find a lot more about this type of beading in chapter 5. If you're looking for some immediate gratification, try making a bracelet by stringing beads on stretch cord. Since the cord stretches to slide over your hand, you don't even need to add a clasp. The style possibilities are endless.
Q: Once I get my feet wet, how do I pick up skills?
A: When you're first learning to bead, it's important not to become overwhelmed by the abundance of bead choices and techniques. Yes, there are many, but the best path is to master one technique at a time. You have years to learn and gently progress from one technique to the next. Pay attention to what attracts you, and follow that direction.
I would venture a guess that there's not a single beading expert who knows and practices every beading technique. There are just too many choices. So, you are not alone! We are all beginners at something.
Take advantage of the classes offered by your local bead store or adult education program. Beading with a group can be relaxing and fun, and you'll gain confidence and learn from observing the bead choices and ideas of the other students, as well as from the teacher's samples and suggestions.
Once you take a class, continue making more of that item until you feel comfortable with the technique from start to finish. In fact, I tell my students to keep making that bracelet until they're sick of it! Then when you're ready to move on to another class, you'll be building on your knowledge. After a few classes, you'll start to feel like a pro.
Q: How do I retain the information I learn in beading class? I understand the instructions when the teacher is explaining them, but it's hard to go back to it later.
A: If you really want to build a solid foundation of beading and jewelry-making knowledge, I suggest that you begin to keep a notebook of the things you make and the techniques you learn. Jot down the name of the technique, notes about what you made, the date, and details on the beads and colors you used. If you learned the project in a class, include the class handout in a plastic sleeve. If it's from a magazine or book, add the title and page number so you can find the pattern again, or photocopy the instructions and place them in a plastic sleeve with notes.
After taking a few classes, you'll start to notice similarities between projects and techniques, and you'll reach the point where you won't need to take a class for every new design. Carefully read through the instructions in beading magazines to see if you understand the steps. When you notice that the instructions don't seem too alien, you may be ready to attempt the project on your own.
Working with Color
Q: When I shop, I always seem to go for the same colors and color families. Won't this make my work boring?
A: Not necessarily! This is one way to develop your own color sense and preferences. If you continue to buy beads you like, you'll find that they start to work together, and a combination or new design idea may begin to develop. When shopping, buy beads that are calling out to you (You know what I mean, don't you?), even if you're not sure how you'll use them. When you get home, experiment and play with your beads.
One thing I love to do is design a piece around many different shades of the same color. Maybe these two shades of green don't look good together when they're alone, but combined with a few other greens, it can become interesting, like the many greens in a garden. A variety of shades of the same color can create texture and depth in a piece. Choose another color, possibly one from the opposite side of the color wheel, to use as an accent color, to provide balance. For example, if I'm combining several shades of green, I might use copper or persimmon red as an accent color.
Also, you don't need to make your color combinations too pretty. If everything matches in a too-tidy way, it can give the feeling that there's no motion, nothing to look at. Adding some "wrong" colors can create tension in the piece and make it more interesting. Try using "rude" shades of yellow, chartreuse, or orange to give a piece a shot of energy, wake it up, and give it some life.
Q: I feel as if I don't have a good eye for color. How can I make things that I'm going to like?
A: Every time I teach a class, I hear someone say, "I don't have a good color sense." But your color sense is like a muscle that hasn't been exercised for a while. When you start to use it, it may feel a little rusty, but then it will start to develop and grow. As it gets stronger, you will become more confident about what you like and don't like, and more courageous and willing to explore new ideas and take risks.