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Beady Tips and Tutorials
"I am a bead artist with well over twenty years of experience...
Here are a few of the things I've learned so far!"
Robin Atkins, bead artist
If there's one thing I've learned in nearly three decades of beading, it's that I'll never know it all. There's always something new and wonderful around the corner - new beads, new beading tools and supplies, new ideas, old designs that become new again in someone's hands... This never ending discovery is one of the main attractions of beading for me, and I bet for you as well!
The following tips and tutorials are included on this page:
NEW! How to Frame Bead Embroidery NEW!
Are Your Seed Beads Colorfast?
Great Knot for the End of Your Beading Thread
Shank Buttons - Ways to Attach Them
Sewing Shisha Mirrors to Fabric
Using Nymo Thread for Bead Embroidery
Buying Beads - How Many to Get?
Bead Storage Ideas
Getting Unstuck when You Are Not Liking Your Work
Understanding the Inner Critic
Fooling the Inner Critic
IF and MIGHT
As a beader who enjoys making pieces that can be displayed as art on a wall or display stand, I've had to learn about mounting and framing textural work. Although some of my learning is pure trial and error, much of it comes from several professional framers who generously shared their knowledge about framing fiber arts. Using one of my pieces as an example, I've written a photo-tutorial, covering the various steps involved in selecting a frame (including glass, mat, and risers), preparing the work for framing, and assembling the frame.
This tutorial is available as a free, printable PDF. Or, you can read it on my blog, Beadlust.
Nowadays, because of great stringing products like Soft Touch, most of us are stringing necklaces and bracelets without any knots between the beads, even though the manufacturers tell us their wires are knotable. But should we be knotting? What does knotting accomplish? For years I taught "Japanese Pearl Stringing Knotting," which is a great technique for tying knots between beads without using tools. I always asked my students to name five good reasons for knotting. Here they are:
Because of these reasons, whenever I string valuable beads, especially pearls and lampwork beads, I always use a suitable thread (see Threads and Waxing below), and knot between the beads.
- If the strand breaks, you won't loose all your beads.
- The knots protect the beads, which otherwise can become damaged from rubbing against each other.
- Knots (and color of thread used) are a design element, adding "spacers" between significant beads.
- Knotted strands flow or move with the body much better than ones which are not knotted.
- Knots are economical. They take up space and cost less than beads (ex. pearls).
You can learn the technique of Japanese pearl stringing knotting (without tools), fast and easy once learned, from step-by-step photos in my most recent book, The Complete Photo Guide to Beading.
You've all seen vintage knitted bags where some of the beads look dark and tarnished. If the artist had known her bright, shiny silver-lined beads would tarnish in the future, would she have used them? Would you? Sometimes I want to create something just for me - just for right now. I don't care if it will look good in 2014. But, many times it seems important to believe my work will last, perhaps to be used by a grand niece down the road a while. When this is the case, here are some ways I test my seed beads to be sure they are color and lightfast:
These tests seem like they would take some time and effort... and they do. But, if you've had the color rub off of some of the beads in a favorite necklace, as I have, then you know that sometimes it's worth the effort to test your beads.
- Put a small number of beads in hot soapy water to soak. After a few hours, rinse, dry, and compare them to untested beads.
- Test a sample group, soaking them in bleach for an hour. Then compare them to an untested group of beads.
- Test another sample group, rubbing them with lighter fluid, mineral spirits, or paint thinner. Then compare them to an untested group of beads.
- Set a fourth sample group in direct sunlight for several days. Compare them to an untested group of beads
- Test for abrasion resistance by filing the surface with a nail file. If the beads are coated with paint or stain, and it easily files off, you might not want to use these beads on something that might be touched or rubbed, or that will rub against clothing, etc.
- If you're making something that will be washed or dry-cleaned, sew a few of each color of beads on a swatch of your fabric. Test by washing or dry-cleaning the swatch.
- To test for tarnishing, mix a sample group with mayonaise and let it sit for a day or two. Rinse off the mayonaise and compare to a group of untested beads.
My students are generally a little shocked to learn that at one time or another during the process of making it, I have disliked every single piece I’ve made, including the ones in the gallery on this website. When I get stuck, it often means I’m holding my work away from me, at arms length, looking at it skeptically through my “harsh critic” eyes. You recognize that situation? Here are some things I do that seem to help:
Remember that the artistic process is just that – an artistic process, not a finished piece. Sometimes if a piece just isn’t working for me, I simply let go of it, allowing the work and the expense to be "educational." At least I learned what I don’t like.
- Bring your work close to your heart and hold it there for a few moments. Give it a little TLC.
- Pick up a bead, or button, or something you love very much, and put it on your work somewhere.
- Think of a person who loves you and is always supportive of your artistic efforts. Look at your work through their eyes. Talk to yourself about it out loud using words they might say to you.
- Turn your work upside down. Work on it that way for a while, until the critical moment passes.
- Here’s a really big one! Remind yourself that you do NOT have to be perfect (or original, or better than your best friend, or as good as your teacher, or… you fill in the word).
- Sometimes you might have to tell yourself, “This is just a piece of beadwork; it is not so important in the history of the world.”
Here’s a marvelous knot I learned from a student, who happened to be the President of the Fiber Arts Guild in Seattle. It won’t come out, it’s easy to do once you learn how, and you can control the size of it. Here are the steps:
- Thread your needle. This techniques works for a doubled or single thread.
- Hold the needle pointing straight up in your dominant hand.
- Grab the tail of the thread, where you want the knot to be. Hold it above the needle, so the tip of the thread points down at the point of the needle.
- Bring the tail of the thread parallel to the needle. Release one of your fingers holding the needle and grab the tail against the needle. Now you have a continuous loop, with the tail hidden in against the needle, held in place with the hand holding the needle.
- With your non-dominant hand take the thread just above the tail end, and wind it around the needle. The more times you wind the bigger the knot will be. Wind snuggly, but not too tight.
- Adjust your grip on the needle to include the wound thread.
- Grab the tip of the needle and sew right through your wound tail, pulling the needle away from where you are pinching the wound thread, until the knot pulls tight at the tail end of the thread.
You can learn how to make this knot from step-by-step photos in my most recent book, The Complete Photo Guide to Beading.
All the best buttons seem to have shanks? Not a problem! When you sew a shank button onto fabric, say on a quilt, as embellishment rather than as a closure, you’ll find that it will tend to tip, twist, and stick up above your other stitches. To keep it from tipping, you can sew a few seed beads under the button. But, here’s another possibility:
Use a ball-pointed awl or knitting needle to work a hole in the fabric. Don't actually cut any threads, just spread them apart enough so you can fit the button shank into the hole. Then cut a thin strip of selvage (from any
scrap of fabric you have on hand) and angle the cut on one end of it to a sharp point. You could also use a narrow piece of grosgrain ribbon for this. Then feed the point of the selvage strip or ribbon through the button shank on the wrong side of the fabric or quilt top, and pull it half way through. Finally, sew the strip in place under the button top. This holds the button flat against the fabric and prevents it from turning.
Shisha mirrors, used in many fabrics and textiles from India, are attractive and eye catching. Although small, seeing yourself in a shisha mirror may lend special meaning to your work. The traditional method used to attach shisha mirrors to fabrics is a type of needle lace or needle weaving, where a web of threads is built up around the mirror to hold it in place. However, being a bead artist, I looked for other ways to attach the mirrors, using beads, of course. Here are two ways to do it.
One way is to use back stitch or couching to stitch a ring of beads to the fabric around the mirror, and then use peyote stitch to build a bezel to hold the mirror in place. For the top row or two of the bezel use smaller beads so it will draw in, or decrease as you go. When the bezel is high enough, sew through the top row of beads one or two times and snug it firmly around the mirror. Then sew back through the rows to the back side and knot off.
The second way is easier, especially if you don't know peyote stitch. Make little stacks of beads around the mirror. Use two size 11 seed beads at the bottom of the stack, then one or two smaller beads (size 14 or 15) for the top of the stack. Sew up from the back side of the fabric next to the mirror, add the beads for the stack, sew back down through the stack to the back side skipping the top bead. Make another stack right next to the first. Continue making stacks around the mirror until it is completely circled. Now, sew back up through the first stack to the top bead. Join all the top beads in the ring, pulling the thread to gather the stacks snugly around the mirror. If the holes are large enough, sew around the top beads of the ring twice. Then sew back down through the 2nd stack and knot off on the back side.
Hint! Most of the little shisha mirrors I've seen are rough cut and square. I like to make them smooth/round, and slightly bevel the top edges of them by sanding them with one of the following: nail files, sand paper, or Dremmel tool with emery disks. This makes them much easier to use!
Another hint! Some people like to glue the mirror to the fabric and then bead around it. I happen to have an aversion to glues, so I just sew across the mirror from several different angles, taking a little hitch at the point where the threads cross the top of the mirror. This is temporary. When the bezel is complete, I just cut the threads and pull them out.
With due respect for those of my colleagues who advocate the use of other threads, I'm a Nymo (size D, not B) fan for bead embroidery. In all my years of doing bead embroidery, and with my work being handled constantly by my students, I've never yet had a bead come off. I use a single thread for most applications, but sometimes make two (or more) passes through the beads. I like the color selection of Nymo. Once I got a bobbin that was really bad - the color (dark purple) ran when dampened (not good when beading on light color fabric) - and another time I got a bobbin where the thread tended to fray. Other than that, I've used well over 100 bobbins of Nymo D thread, and have not had any other complaints or problems. Although I've tried a few of the newer threads, I just don't see that they’re worth the extra cost.
If you decide to give Nymo thread a try, here are a couple of hints.
- If you're having fraying problems, try a different needle.
- To remove the curl that's normal for a thread wound on a small bobbin, unwind your length and give it a good firm stretch with a steady pull, then cut it off the bobbin.
- If the end frays as you try to thread it, try the other end and/or the other side of the eye of the needle. If you get part of the end through the eye, you can pull the rest through and snip off the frayed end.
- Especially when sewing beads on fabric, don't wax the thread! It attracts dirt and accomplishes nothing.
- You'd be smart to avoid using sharp beads (like most bugles) in your bead embroidery. They can cut ANY thread. But if you need to use them, bracket them with rounded seed beads, one on each side of your bugle. If you're sewing a line of bugles, after sewing them down, sew back through the entire line with a double thread.
- If you don't want your thread to show, it's better to match the color of the beads than the fabric. However, it's also fun sometimes to choose a contrasting color of thread and let it be part of the picture!
You’ll love my rule of thumb on this one: If you see beads you absolutely love, buy as many as you can afford. Time and again, I’ve broken my own rule of thumb, and regretted it deeply. For example, take a look
at “Moss and Wildflowers” on my gallery page. (Click on the picture to make it bigger.) See those little, white, square, vintage sequins? They’re precious, right? Well I bought them at one of the bead conferences years ago. They were so expensive that I only bought one little package. Wrong! I used them all in this one piece, and have never seen them since. That’s the way of beads, especially vintage beads. You get just one chance, and then they’re gone.
Are you a container junky? I am. I just love little boxes, little round screw-together stacks of clear plastic containers, tubes, watch maker’s storage boxes, and just about any box within a box. However, over the years, I’ve had to curb my container passion in the interest of available storage space. If you're accumulating beads and wondering where and how to store them, you might be interested to read about the evolution of my storage system over the past 16 years:
Compartmentalized storage boxes were my first choice, and I still use them for a few of my larger, specialty beads. But for smaller beads and seed beads I found them frustrating because inevitably the beads would slide under or over the dividers, getting mixed together. Also it was difficult to get the beads out when I wanted to reorganize the compartments (which was often). So then I tried various tubes, but decided as my stash grew (and grew) that they take up too much space. Also, I wanted all of the containers to be the same size (is this a Virgo trait???), and therefore had to buy them with money I'd prefer to spend on beads.
Finally I hit on the start of my current (and long standing) method of storage. I bought 2" x 3.5" zip lock bags, and to my surprise, filled 300 of them in no time at all. Also to my surprise, those 300 bags filled with beads, took up much less space than the tubes or storage boxes, and were much easier to use. I sorted them by color into pint size freezer zip lock bags. After a while, I discovered that the 2" x 3.5" bags, which were only 2 mils thick, frequently split their little seams, or if they got folded, developed a horizontal split. The many beads spilled in the bottom of my freezer bags finally dictated a new tactic. I bought 1000 (good price
break) 2" x 3.5" zip lock bags, this time of 4 mil thickness. Finally I've got it! They don't split or have any of the problems of the 2 mil bags. So for the past six years, 4 mil bags are my saviors!
For my seed beads (all sizes and shapes), I organize them (in 4 mil bags) by color in Rubbermaid "servin'savers", the 7-cup size. These great containers (available at grocery stores and places like Fred Meyers) are only 11" x 6.5" x 2.5". They easily hold 60 to 75 of the little bead-filled zips! Turn the
covered container upside down, and I can easily see what's inside. I have about 2 dozen of them, each with a different color grouping of seed beads. I also have several this size and a couple smaller ones for my "project boxes." It's a struggle to put the beads in my project boxes back into the main system (as I'm sure most of you know), but I try to do it at least once a year.
As for my other beads, I have quite a large selection of pressed glass beads (too many for the 7-cup Rubbermaid containers) so those I again store in 2" x 3.5" 4 mil zip lock bags, one style/color per bag. But then, I group similar colors together into the pint sized freezer zips. Then I put color families of freezer zips together and store them in larger (11" x 16" x 6" high) Rubbermaid containers. Again by holding the container up and looking at the bottom, I can see what's inside, though I also have them labeled by color. One exception to my color organizing is flowers and leaves. I have all of them together (mixed colors) in one of the Rubbermaid containers.
That's most of my beads. But some - my special lampwork beads, African trade beads, and a few very tiny, special pressed glass beads - I store differently. I am fortunate to have found a beautiful old dental cabinet with many wonderful shallow drawers. I keep most of my lampwork beads in plastic trays in these drawers, where I can look at them often without the distortion of looking through plastic bags. The precious little pressed glass beads, organized by color (of course) are in fancy jars that I found in antique stores, on top of the cabinet, where I can always see and love them. Most of my African trade beads are on strands. I'd like to hang them some day, displayed so I can see them all the time. But for now they're in 11" x 16" x 6" Rubbermaid storage boxes, tied up in bundles by color. By the way, I also store my fabrics in the same size Rubbermaid containers, and my buttons as well. One last category of stuff - metal beads and findings. These I put in the small 4 mil
bags, and then group them by type of thing in my old compartmentalized plastic storage boxes.
When I read this, I'm almost embarrassed by the number of beads I have. But then, I've been making my living with beads since 1988, and feel that having a decent palette to work from has contributed a lot to my artistic process. No doubt about it, I LOVE my beads! All of the above containers fit into a relatively small shelf space, as they are easily stackable. This system has worked well for me for a good many years now. I recommend it.
A good friend of mine is an accomplished professional artist (fabric designer). As a hobby, she also creates fabulous beaded jewelry for herself and gifts. But in both areas, she sometimes abandons her art because of frustration, and the voice of her inner critic saying it’s not good enough. We, who are her friends and co-workers, find this difficult to understand, because to our eyes her work is very attractive and original.
She is not alone. Many of my other artist friends and students have complained about how their inner critics prevent them from completing projects, sometimes even from starting them. Some are never satisfied with their work. A few give up their artistic pursuits completely.
Are you in the habit of visualizing your completed project before beginning to work on it? Is your inner critic active? If so, it may be partially because of this habit, one that is at the same time both a gift and a burden.
In some ways dreaming, visualizing, and planning a project is a blessing. It is pure creative energy at work. It makes us feel excited and happy. It provides a goal for the work of our hands. In our mind’s eye we can see the perfect blend of materials, work of our hands, originality, and creative force. We are satisfied with our visualizations.
However, once the project is begun, we may find that our grand and perfect visualization has glossed over some practical problems, such as limits of time, materials, or skills. Our work doesn’t quite live up to the perfection of the mind. That’s when the inner critic begins her critical tirade. The voice sometimes goes on and on, “Who are you kidding? You are not an artist. Look at this work. It’s not even close to how beautiful it could be if only you did it right.” I’ve heard that voice. Have you?
It helps to understand that the inner critic uses the impossible perfection of our dreams as the yardstick by which to measure the success of our art. Would you want your child’s art teacher to display paintings by masters such as Van Gogh and Monet as inspiration, then criticize her and tell her she’s a failure because her painting didn’t look like those she was shown? That is similar to what our inner critics do to us.
I’m not suggesting that we put a damper on our imagination, because visions and dreams provide important inspiration for our work. But, in the real world of making art, we can calm the inner critic by giving ourselves freedom to modify and adjust our dreams. We can train ourselves to let go of judgments, to respect both the process and the tangible results, and to value each creation as a baby step toward improvement.
One way to fool the inner critic is to play, rather than plan. Play with the objects you love. Go sit with your beads. Fondle them. Run your fingers through them. Put them against your cheek. Pick a couple that seem compelling, and set them aside. Ask yourself this: “If I were to make something with these beads, what might it be?” Instantly something will probably pop into your mind. Go with that. Don’t give any thought to any other possibilities. Just go with the first thing that came to mind. Start immediately. Play; don’t plan.
The name for this is working improvisationally – without a plan. It fools the inner critic because there isn’t a yardstick in the mind by which to judge your work. The inner critic feeds it’s terrible criticisms by comparing your work to your visions, your dreams, your plans, and to the plans and visions of others.
Let’s say you are making a kit or following a pattern. If you follow it exactly, the inner critic may say you are not original, and therefore not an artist. If you deviate from the original, the inner critic may say your version is not as good.
In my opinion, the inner critic is most harmful with those who attempt to create original art by first conceptualizing and visualizing. The more you dream, the more you create visualized perfection, the bigger the yardstick against which your work is measured. Understanding this phenomenon can help. It may also be helpful to play more and plan less.
When you do any kind of beadwork, you may find yourself asking, “What should I do next, what should I put here, or how should I solve this problem?” Do you see the word should in each of these questions?
Should is a terrible word to use in connection with our beads, our passions, our art. It implies that there is a correct answer, a right and a wrong way. It’s quite normal to feel stuck, after asking a should question. When we make a decision after asking a should question, the inner critic jumps right on it, because of the implied perfection. It says, “Your work doesn’t look perfect, and therefore you are not an artist, and you might as well abandon your project.”
The trick is to use the words if and might, rather than should. Here are some examples:
No: What beads should I add to give more zing to my work?
In each case, the yes version of the question gives you way more artistic freedom, and takes away the fear of making a mistake. Try it! You may find it a lot easier to make artistic decisions. It may also send your inner critic into semi-retirement!
Yes: What if I wanted to give more zing to my work, what beads might I add?
No: How should I finish my work?
Yes: How might I finish my work?
No: What should I make with these really cool Mali Wedding beads?
Yes: What if I wanted to make something with these really cool Mali Wedding beads, what might it be?
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