Bead Embroidery: Bead Embellishment for Clothing, Quilting and Decoration

Rissa Peace Root © 2004

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When I started doing bead embroidery in college, I had the advantage of learning the art of beading from two very different types of people, Native American craftsman and costumers. Both of them were excellent resources for learning and both gave me great insight.  The only book I had on the subject was Joan Edward's Bead Embroidery.  Luckily for me, that was a wonderful text. The fluorescent highlighter of my youth has faded to a dull yellow in my dog-eared copy, but I still refer to it now and again.  Despite the lack of colorful plates and specific patterns, it is a wonderful reference.  After all these years, I am still actively using beads in my embroidery and clothing embellishment. 

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from the costumer was "bead it right the first time, so there are fewer repairs."  I learned that although couching, 2 needle appliqué,  and lazy stitch were simple and quick, if the inevitable happened, you lost a lot of beads it took more work to repair the design.  So I started using a lot more thread in my designs and making more small backstitches as anchors on the backside of my work.  After a while, I got very comfortable using what I call "Beaded Backstitch" (see diagram below).  Basically, it is the same as 3-bead backstitch, except that you pass your thread through more beads with each stitch.  Bead embroidered motifs work well as decoration on clothing, handbags and quilts.  All of the projects shown here were created using this method.

In addition to specific bead embroidery techniques, you can also add beads to almost any traditional decorative stitch. Instead of calling this bead embroidery, I prefer to call it beaded embroidery, a subtle but meaningful distinction. Beaded Herringbone, Beaded Fly, Beaded Extended Fly, Beaded Open Cretan, Beaded Chain and Beaded Feather Stitch are just a few examples of stitches where the addition of beads creates charming stitches, well suited to seam work in Crazy Quilting. Beads can also be added to traditional cross stitch and needlepoint designs.  The example below is a piece of quilting fabric with envelopes, that I embellished with beaded embroidery stitches as an exemplar for class.   

Just as there is wide range of uses for beads in embroidery, there is an extraordinary variety of beads available for that purpose.  While this list is not exhaustive, it covers most of the beads used in bead embroidery.

  • Seed Beads - small beads usually made from glass canes that are chopped and cooled.  Czech and Japanese seed beads are the most common are are available in a wide range of sizes and finishes.
  • Delicas (Antique, Delicious) - Japanese glass beads that are uniformly cylindrical with a large hole.  The two most common sizes are 12º and 8º.
  • Bugles - long tube beads of cut glass that vary in length are are sized by numbers, 1 being the smallest, 2 being the most common.  The diameter is similar to a size 11º seed bead.
  • Pressed Glass Beads - glass beads made by pressing hot glass rods into special shapes like flower, leaves and drops.
  • Pony Beads - glass, plastic or wooden beads shaped like seed beads, only larger.  The most common sizes are 5º and 8º.  
  • Hex-Cuts - hexagonal glass beads from Japan, commonly sized in 8º and 11º.
  • Lampwork Beads - handmade beads worked from glass canes using a torch.
  • Gemstone Beads and Chips - semi-precious stones in a variety of shapes and sizes that are drilled with a hole.
  • Heshi - small shell discs or short tubes made from natural material like shell.

Seed Beads are extremely versatile and deserve a little discussion, since they are the most commonly used bead in bead embroidery.

  • Bead sizes roughly correspond to needle sizes.  The larger the number, the smaller the bead.  Also, a size 10 needle will easily fit through the eye of a size 11 seed bead.
  • The most common size seed bead is 11º, but sizes 10º through 15º are widely available in the US.  The larger sizes, 5º and 8º, are often actually Pony Beads.
  • Anything over a size 18º is rare and often antique.
  • It can be very difficult to find a needle to accommodate the smallest seed beads.
  • Native American work was often done with Charlotte's, size 13º true-cut seed beads.
  • A "hank" is usually 12 (but sometimes 8) 20" strands of beads tied together. 
  • Japanese seed beads are more uniform and more expensive than Czech seed beads, which is why they are most often sold by gram weight than by hanks or tubes.  They are also available in fewer sizes.
  • The Czech's refer to all seed beads as "rocaille" (pronounced row-kī) and many older books on beading have adopted this same nomenclature.  However, contemporary sources use rocaille to refer to silver-lined beads.

One of the big advantages of glass beads, is that they can be made with a wide variety of finishes. Finishes are usually achieved by applying salts and heat to the beads, but not all finishes are permanent.  Plastic pearls eventually peel because heat can not be used in the finishing process. 

  • Opaque - light does not pass through the bead.
  • Transparent - light passes through the bead easily, often these beads are lined with metal or color.
  • Translucent - some light passes through the bead, but not clearly.
  • Opalescent - this finish is milky like and opal, hence the name. 
  • Iridescent or Aurora Borealis (Irid, Iris, AB or Rainbow) - any color bead with refractive coating that shines with a rainbow type effect.
  • Luster - a transparent refractive coating. 
  • Ceylon - a combination of opalescent with a luster coating.
  • Pearl - a combination of opaque beads with a luster coating. 
  • Matte
  • Semigloss
  • Satin
  • Metallic
  • Painted
  • Dyed

Not surprisingly, there are nearly as many thread choices as there are bead choices.  Which thread you select will often depend on the function of the finished item.  Nylon thread has excellent strength and durability and is available in many sizes and colors.  Nylon's weakness is that it cannot stand up to the hear of a dryer or iron.  Nymo® and Silamide® are the most commonly used threads in beading.  Both come in sizes 00(finest) through FF, but Size B and D are best suited for modern seed beads.  Nylon thread sometimes stretches, so it is best to grab both ends and pull on it firmly before you start your work.  Cotton embroidery and sewing threads are also available in a wide array of colors and sizes, but it not as durable as nylon.  The threads from many antique items are often rotted.  Beeswax can help ameliorate this problem. While polyester sewing threads are not prone to rotting, durability can still be a factor, because of the rough edges of the beads.  Silk thread has the same disadvantages of cotton, but it is the best choice when you want your thread to be an important element of your beadwork. It is best used in decorative items like Crazy Quilts.

There are also many fabric choices available for beading, because you can bead on almost anything, although you will need a stabilizer for very lightweight or stretchy material.  Ultrasuede® and denim are very popular choices for bead embroidery, because they are so firm, a hoop may not be needed.  Silk and satin work very well, buy may require more care, since it tends to wrinkle and hold hoop marks.  Almost all bridal/couture work is done on satin and silk.  Just make sure you use a very sharp needle to avoid picks. Garment weight suede and leather are also wonderful for bead projects, but you may need to use a glover's needle.  Quilting cottons are very popular, but need to be stabilized or worked in a hoop.  Even AIDA cloth and needlepoint canvas can be used in beading, it all depends on the project. 

Needle choice, like fabric, can often depend on the project. Beading needles are long and thin with very small eyes, but are often too flexible for bead embroidery.  Sharps, in size 9 to 12, are often a better choice, the eye is small enough to pass through beads and the short needle is more comfortable for sewing.  Basically, any needle that will accommodate your thread and your bead will work.

It is not required that you use a hoop.  Sometimes it depends on your background.  I find that most beaders who start to do bead embroidery hate hoops and most embroiderers can't imagine working without them. If you do use a hoop, make sure you wrap the inner piece to protect your work.  Thin fabrics can often be beaded in a hoop without stabilizer.  Some beaders use paper as a stabilizer and no hoop, but I find that it blunts my needles too quickly and is harder to handle than fabric in a hoop.

As a final note, I want to leave you with some basic tips for putting beads onto fabric. 

  • Always match your fabric, thread and stitches to the use of the item.  Don't use all silk for something that will need to be washed and dried regularly.
  • Always place your needle into the fabric just after the last bead, keeping it perfectly perpendicular to the fabric. 
  • When there is not enough slack, the beads crowd and the hole of the last bead will tilt upward.
  • Where there is too much slack, the bead do not line up and will slide around on the thread.
  • String a seed bead before and after each bugle to help prevent it from fraying and cutting your thread.  This is especially important if you are using a natural fiber thread.
  • Keep an emery board nearby to file rough edges smooth and to shorten bugles.
  • When covering fabric with beads, it is best to work from the inside out or the outside in.  Remember that the interior beads will cramp together as each successive row is added, so allow a little more space between rows in the middle.
  • Never force just one more bead.  It is better to leave a little space than to crowd your beads.  Once you remove your project from the hoop, it will pucker if the beading is too crowded.
  • If you are working on a project that will be worn, you may want to knot more often to prevent losing large amounts of beads if your work is snagged on something.
  • If your finished item needs to be ironed or put into the dryer, avoid nylon, since it might melt.
  • When trimming an item with fringe, add a knot between each row, so that a minimum amount of damage will occur if the fringe breaks.
  • Bead fringe as a trim can look lavish, even when it is not.  Fringe looks best when it is longer than 1.5 inches.
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