28 September 2015

Beading for Beginners

When starting out on a new hobby, I would understand if you want to minimize the financial commitments in the beginning. However, contrary to popular belief, jewelry making does not need to be an expensive hobby. The jewelry making tools will also depend on the jewelry making technique.

The minimal ‘investments’ you require to pursue beading as a hobby are just 3 things: (1) beads, (2) beading thread, and (3) beading needle. At this stage, other beading tools can be considered as secondary items, and some can be substituted by common things you can find in your household.

Beads

Going into a bead shop can be overwhelming, even for the professional beader! I often feel like a kid walking into a candy shop, wanting at least one of everything! There is a HUGE variety of beads, from the colors and the sizes, to the materials and country of origin… Well, apparently I am not the only bead-hogger - many of my facebook beading friends from all around the world often joke that we have more beads lying around than in our completed beadwork haha!

Bead size can be rather confusing for a beginner, where a larger number represents a smaller size. For example, size 6 beads are bigger than size 15 beads. Also, beads with the same numerical size may differ in their exact measurements as they are created by different manufacturers. I would recommend that you start with round seed beads (or rocailles) at size 11 as they are the most versatile for many beading techniques and beadwork projects.

If you prefer not to deal with picking out odd shaped beads before each beading project, you may want to consider Japanese brands like Toho, as opposed to Chinese and Czech seed beads.

My preferred choice of round seed beads are from the Japanese manufacturer Toho, also partly because my local bead store tend to carry a wider variety of Toho bead sizes and colors compared to other Japanese brands. Toho seed beads have larger holes, allowing more passes of beading thread. This is a crucial factor for me, as I reinforce my delicate beadwork through multiple thread passes. Also, Toho seed bead walls are thinner, making the overall beaded creation more lightweight. This can be particularly important when you are making earrings with a lot of beads, such as beaded fringe earrings. You wouldn’t want a strain on your ear lobes.

Comparatively, Czech and Chinese seed beads are much cheaper and with a dollar or two, you can get quite a volume compared to Japanese seed beads. However of course there’s the issue of uniformity. I find that Japanese beads tend to be more uniform than the Czech or Chinese brands, though different finishing may affect the beads’ uniformity too. For instance, I do find lots of Toho matte beads have blocked holes or odd donut shapes.

You would have to separate beads which are in weird shapes and sizes, and those without bead holes. We call this process “culling”. Have you ever mixed red and green beans together by accident, and then having to separate them one by one? This is similar to culling, and requires much focus and patience. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer to spend the time and efforts on the beading process :)

And if you are using peyote stitch in your bead weaving project, you may want to consider using cylinder beads as they allow you to ‘zip’ up your beadwork nicely. Some brands include Miyuki Delica, Toho Treasures and Toho Aiko beads, and they are generally pricier than round seed beads. Perler beads can be economical alternatives if you are looking for cylinder beads to practice peyote stitch.

Beading Thread

When I started beading 15 years ago, beading supplies were not as easily available in Singapore and I could only get my hands on fishing line and ordinary sewing thread from most handicraft supplies stores. Based on my personal experience, I would not encourage their use as your beaded creations become brittle and break apart pretty soon.

Fireline is good when working with crystals as sharp edges can fray and cut your beading thread quite easily. However Nymo remains my utmost preferred beading thread after all these years as it is quite cheap at USD 1+ for a bobbin of 64 yards (about 58.5 meters) and can be easily bought from many good bead stores in Singapore. A single bobbin can be used for quite a number of beading projects.

Many beaders also prefer using Nymo in their bead weaving and bead embroidery projects as the durable thread is designed especially for beading purposes and is much stronger than ordinary sewing thread. But just like any embroidery thread, Nymo frays easily when pierced with a needle, and knots and tangles are not easily undone. That is also why many beaders recommend conditioning the thread with Thread Heaven or bee wax before use. My personal preference is Thread Heaven as I do not like the strong smell and stickiness of bee wax. And of course the alternative to not using thread conditioner is to simply snip off the frayed or knotted portion; after all Nymo is relatively inexpensive.

Nymo is available in different sizes with the thinnest threads sizes “OO” and “O” to the thickest thread sizes “F”. I found that size “B” and “D” are the two most commonly stocked Nymo beading thread sizes at many bead shops. For me, I use size “B” as that’s what’s available at my local bead shop. In fact, size “B” is good enough to allow multiple passes through size 11 seed beads (the size I would recommend for most beading projects)

I also like that Nymo comes in a wide range of colors. While some bead shops retails Nymo in tubes of 10 mixed colors, I normally use white or black colored Nymo thread for my beadwork. As they are fairly inexpensive, you may want to buy a few colors so that your thread color matches the color scheme of your beadwork. By the way, I find that the light tan colored thread (image below) is a good replacement for white thread in many light colored beading projects.

Beading Needle

As a beginner, you can use a normal sewing needle for beading, so long the eye of the needle is slim enough to pass through a bead at least twice.

Beading needles tend to be longer and slimmer than your average needles in a sewing kit. Many beaders (including me) favor Japanese beading needles to English beading needles. While Japanese beading needles are more expensive, they are more flexible and hence less likely to snap in the middle of beading projects.

I had a few painful pricks from broken English beading needles previously. (Note: if you have to pull out broken needles from your beadwork, as a safety precaution, always use a pair of pliers, not your fingers!)

How to Thread a Needle Easily

Threading a needle can be most frustrating (just ask my mum!) If you often face difficulties in threading a needle, here’s my technique to thread a needle easily:

  1. Using your dominant hand (the hand you use to hold a pen when writing), hold the needle near its eye between your thumb and forefinger
  2. Using your other hand, hold the strand of thread with its end peeping out slightly between your thumb and forefinger
  3. Now the trick is to use your dominant hand to press the needle eye onto the end of the thread

Viola! And your needle should be threaded!

Tips on Threading a Needle

If the above steps do not work as easily, you can also do either or all of the following:

  • Condition the end tip of the thread with Thread Heaven (heard there's a new thread conditioner in the market called Thread Magic)
  • Flatten the end of the thread with your fingers. If you are using braided beading thread, use a pair of flat-nose pliers instead of your fingers
  • Cut the end of the thread with a pair of sharp scissors
  • Simply turn the needle to the other side of the eye

For those with vision difficulties or clumsy fingers (... like me! opps!), I understand that needle threading can be quite a hindrance to your bead work completion. You may want to consider using a needle threader or a big-eye needle.

More Beading Tools for Beginners

Once you have the 3 essential beading supplies ready, you may also want to grab hold of the following items to aid you in your beading process. When you put your creative juices to work, these items can also be easily replaced by most household items you may already have.

  • Beading Tray, Beading Board
The main purpose of a beading tray is to have something to hold your beads or the entire project when you work on it. Some jewelry makers also like to use bead boards to plan their designs, in especially when using stringing methods.

While a normal tray will do, you can use a shallow plastic container, such as those sold in Asian markets for sushi, so that you can secure the container cover for incomplete projects. I got creative and used the empty container of a shallow square box of Ferraro Rocher chocolates.

  • Beading Mat
The main purpose of a beading mat is to keep your beads from moving all over the place. While a beading mat is relatively cheap, some handicraft stores do not keep stock on this.

A good substitute is a piece of microfiber hand towel, which is commonly found in most kitchens or garage. If you do not have a microfiber hand towel at home, an ordinary hand towel will suffice, but you may face some frustration when picking up tiny beads hiding in the little thread loops of the towel.

  • Beading Pliers
Other than attaching jump rings and jewelry clasps, beading pliers can be used for providing some leverage to pull your needle through difficult beads. As a beginner, you can also use normal pliers from your hardware toolbox. In fact, I used my dad’s! Shhh….

When I decided to buy my first pair of pliers, I got mine at a hardware store. It had a wire cutting section and solved my headache of getting a separate pair of wire cutters.

However, when you intend to build your jewelry making skills into a business, I would recommend you to get good beading pliers as they do not have ‘teeth’ that will create dents in the metal jewelry fixings. A pair of flush wire cutters would also be required so that you get a clean flush cut off the wires.

I still keep my handy hardware-store pliers close by as its ‘teeth’ helps with the pulling of needles from difficult bead holes.


If you have any questions on beading, I am happy to share my knowledge and experience with you :)