Bright, bold ... beads

Learn the basics of beading - including common techniques, the history behind this art, and even how to make your own bracelet.

When most people think of beads, they picture jewelry - earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. But while beads are often used to make jewelry, they also have many decorative and practical uses.

Many fisherman use beads on their flies, for instance. The bright colors attract fish. Beads can be sewn onto purses or used to decorate picture frames, greeting cards, and book covers. Beads can even be woven like yarn into clothing.

One of the reasons beads are so prevalent is that they can be made from many different materials. Some common ones include bone, glass, metal, wood, clay, crystal, stone, and even teeth. In fact, one of the most popular types of "beads" that boys like to wear is sharks' teeth, says Mindy Brooks, editor of Bead & Button magazine in Waukesha, Wis.

"Anything you can put a hole in can be a bead," says Christy Puetz of The Bead Museum in Glendale, Ariz. "Every culture has some sort of bead they wear or use."

The art of beading has been practiced for thousands of years, and many techniques have been developed to put them together. The most basic is stringing beads onto a thin wire or thread. This is an easy way to make a necklace, bracelet, or anklet.

First, pick out your beads and supplies at a craft store or bead specialty shop. Then choose wire or thread for stringing and some sort of end clasp. Most bead shops sell clasps in silver, bronze, gold, and more affordable imitations of those.

Seed beads, which are tiny glass beads that typically come from China or the Czech Republic, tend to be colorful and inexpensive. Sometimes bead stores sell little tubes of them for only a few dollars. The total cost to string them into a necklace can add up to less than $5!

Other beading techniques involve stitches, where beads are organized to form patterns. Some common stitches include peyote, brick, herringbone, and netting. The patterns are often used on purses, clothing, and scarves.

"They're all similar in that they are a process of beads being connected to other beads, which makes beaded fabric," says Cynthia Rutledge, a beading designer in Crestline, Calif.

Peyote stitch is common in native American beading and involves interlacing, with one row of beads raised over another to create a layered look. Brick stitch is similar, but the pattern looks like bricks.

Herringbone, named after the fabric, has a different look, with a bunch of little "V's" stacked on top of one another. Netting, on the other hand, is an open, lacelike beading.

One of the best things about beading, Ms. Rutledge says, is that there are no rules. It is useful to learn about techniques, but there is no right or wrong way to put beads together.

"It's a creative process - that's what's so fun about it," Rutledge adds. "It's starting with this puddle of supplies, and in the end ... we've made something."

A very ancient art

Beads date back many thousands of years, and were used worldwide in different ways - from storytelling to meditation to counting.

Until recently, the oldest beads were thought to have been made of ostrich egg shells in Africa, India, and China more than 45,000 years ago. But even older beads were discovered last year in Tanzania. They were made from small, oval-shaped cowrie shells and date back more than 100,000 years. This means people were using beads a good 35,000 years before the so-called "creative explosion" in about 65,000 BC, when people first began painting on cave walls and making jewelry.

Scientists think the cowrie shells were not only used as jewelry, but also as currency. The types of beads people carried or wore said a lot about their social standing and even their relationships. Today the equivalent would be wedding rings or friendship bracelets.

The important thing to remember about beads, says Christy Puetz at The Bead Museum in Glendale, Ariz., is that they have always been a means of communication.

"Without written language," she says, "beads were a form of storytelling."

Native Americans, for instance, chose to wear bright beads with bold patterns over lighter-colored clothing or saddles so that messages could be relayed from a distance. Chiefs and wives of chiefs wore certain beads to signify their roles. Good hunters often wore "beads" such as bear claws and wolf's teeth, to show their accomplishments. This was also a way to honor the animal by not wasting any of it, Puetz says.

Even the beads' colors were important. Red often signified blood or war, whereas blue was a more peaceful color representing the sky.

The earliest glasslike beads came from Egypt around 1400 BC. Egyptians had been making shapes out of clay and then started to glaze clay beads.

Mummies were often buried with nets of these colorful ceramic beads because they were thought to aid in preservation. Beads were also meant to convey information about the person buried.

Before long, beading was considered a fine art. People worldwide used pieces of stone, porcupine quills, or animal teeth to carve shapes out of beads or make holes in them for stringing.

Over time, various techniques used to carve beads became top secret and prized - sort of like secret recipes or computer codes that are valuable today. Many bead producers use machines to cut beads and sell large quantities of them, yet you can still find intricate beads made by hand. Either way, the techniques used to make them are highly valued.

The basics of beading

Once you learn to crimp and string, you'll have the skills you need to make jewelry for yourself and your friends. Here's how to make a beaded bracelet:

Supply list

You can buy most of these items at a bead or craft store.

• Assorted 3-to-7 mm beads
• Flexible beading wire
• Lobster-claw clasp and split ring
• 2 crimp beads
• Crimping pliers
• Diagonal wire cutters
• Paper
• Scissors


1. Measure your wrist using a strip of paper. You don't want the paper tight around your wrist, but you don't want it so loose that it slips off. Fold back the paper where it meets the end and cut.

2. Cut a piece of flexible beading wire 5 inches longer than the piece of paper. String a crimp bead and the clasp on one end of the wire. String the wire through the crimp bead again, leaving a short tail. Slide the crimp bead toward the clasp. Make sure the loop of wire around the clasp is large enough that the clasp can move. Flatten, or "crimp," the crimp bead with crimping pliers.

3. Lay out your beads on a flat work surface and arrange them into a pattern you like. Thread them onto the wire. String the first few beads over both the wire and the wire tail until the tail is covered. Finish stringing the beads.

4. Using your paper strip as a guide, string beads until your bracelet is within 1/4 to 1/2 inches from the end. Attach the clasp to the split ring. String a crimp bead on the wire, then go through the split ring. String back through the crimp bead and then through several adjacent beads. Pull on the wire until there's a small loop around the split ring and no big spaces between beads. Flatten the crimp bead. Finally, trim any excess wire. You're finished!

Source: BeadStyle Magazine

Resources that can help you learn more about beading: 'Getting Started Stringing Beads,' by Jean Campbell; 'Beads: A Book of Ideas and Instructions,' by Laura Torres; 'Easy Beading' by BeadStyle magazine. See also www.

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