Engagement, experimentation, and happy accidents

These three routes seem to be key to unlocking variation in design possibilities.

Around the time I started this site (that is, very recently), there was a very big question in my mind: how do people come up with original designs? How do you graduate from being someone who follows patterns other people write, to being someone who can write their own patterns? I’m still learning the answer(s) to this question, but at the very least, I do feel like I’m making meaningful progress. At this point, I’ve begun to work with popularly-known techniques to see what I can bring out of them, as a way to ground my vision in technique prior to attempting to launch into freeform beadwork.

If you would like to skip ahead to what I’m actually doing, look for the separator bar down below, and start reading there. This earlier section is actually more about joining what really feels like a beadwork community; also, my own breakthrough with not wanting to infringe on the intellectual property of others — and where other peoples’ patterns and my own learned techniques fall into that.

Last night I was reading in Marcia Decoster Presents: Interviews with 30 Beaders on Inspiration and Technique (2014, Lark). I didn’t have great expectations that this book would help me understand what goes through the mind of a designer, as so much of it is taken up with representative photos of each artist’s work…but having the photos actually helps illustrate the way people think and use their skills to create. I haven’t gotten too deeply into the book yet, but I’m hoping that it will help in discerning what possibilities I might be able to achieve with my specific aesthetic and skill set. It’s actually really comforting to find that a lot of these people also have experimented (at least!) with various other forms of creative output.

Just a last note on that, before I move on for now: most of the text of the book is in the margins of the pages. It’s not a text-heavy book, but what Marcia has chosen to reprint from her interviews of the featured artists, is targeted and effective. I was also struck by the fact that I’ve been beading for a longer time than a lot of the people I read about (I started doing this when I was about 12)…which means that maybe I shouldn’t underestimate my experience or skill level. Of course, I haven’t been beading full-time for all those years, but the launch I’ve been provided in giving myself permission to do so, has been both unexpected and welcome.

There seem to be a couple of poles where it comes to the utilization of patterns. The negative approach, which I was stuck in for years, was thinking that in order to create unique things, I needed to work creative problems out on my own; that I couldn’t use help from others’ designs. The positive approach, which I seem to be moving into, is curiosity about how other people have achieved the effects they have, and more openness toward learning and inspiration. Community, in effect. I don’t, that is, have to keep my head down and ignore the rest of the beading world and isolate so that I don’t infringe on others’ intellectual property. (I believe this is called, “reinventing the wheel.”)

That, in turn, really makes things a lot richer for me. I feel that there’s possibility and support, and like I’m a part of something; not just a craftsperson working things out on my own (though I am that, too).

In this, I think of a pattern I saw for sale at a beading convention — I don’t even know how many years ago — where someone had created a beaded cuff that was reminiscent of lace. I picked up the sample and started looking at it, trying to figure out how this person had done this work. It was extremely intricate. However she had done it, I really think that there were layers and layers of work and thought that went into this design.

I…was likely in my early twenties, at that point. I didn’t want to rip her off, and I was afraid I would “copy” unwittingly, should she show me the answer to this puzzle — so I left the pattern behind. At this point in my maturity, I’m thinking that if this were to happen again, I would buy the pattern just so I could see the thinking that led up to its creation. Buying the pattern would basically have been paying for a lesson.

The point in this is that it’s okay, sometimes, to let someone show you (who is offering to show you) how they solved one or more problems. I guess I should remember as well, that when people teach you how to do something, they don’t expect you not to learn. I mean, the latter basically goes against the entire reason for teaching. Maybe the big thing is to really be creative, with what you do learn.

Another thing I’ve been learning is that…there’s a lot to be gained from just playing with stitches and knots, to see what works and what doesn’t (instead of assuming what works and what doesn’t: because reality will surprise you). For the past two weeks, I’ve been focused on learning and playing with Flat Spiral stitch. From my last posts, I can see that it’s probable that most people don’t know what I mean by “Flat Spiral.” Flat Spiral stitch is a variation of regular Spiral Rope stitch — itself a very simple beadweaving technique — in which one pushes the spiral embellishments (loops) to either side of a core in two-stitch sets, instead of letting them spiral around the core individually. It’s also possible to form a double spiral (like a caduceus), though that’s a little out of scope, for this writing.

Of course, neither can I assume that my readership knows what Spiral Rope stitch looks like. This is where photographs come in handy:

A sample of Spiral Rope stitch in purple, red, and pink.
Left and center portions are woven in Spiral Rope stitch.

The left and center portions of the above image are all done in traditional Spiral Rope stitch; the segments of four 11/0 seed beads (dark red) and one 8/0 seed bead (light pink) spiral around a core of 8/0 seed beads in a contrasting color (dark purple). As I mention below, my camera didn’t pick up the rainbow coating on the dark red beads (this happened with some dark blue beads as well). The portion on the right is what happened when I messed up in trying to create a Flat Spiral with four size 8/0 core beads, and forgot that I needed to make one looping element on each side before moving up a half-step…but that itself was the source of a new design idea I haven’t tried out, yet.

Note: keep a journal on hand to draw out design ideas! Even if it’s scrawled in the middle of the night, and no one but you can decipher what you meant. It’s much less work than trying to make things without having figured them out, yet, though drawing isn’t a replacement for working. In particular: there are certain designs which are easier to think through in drawing them out first — particularly via thread path — than trying to think them out in-process. Chevron Stitch is one of these examples which seems inherently counterintuitive — you kind of have to know what you’re going for, from the first stitch. But again, that’s beyond my scope for this entry: I should touch on it in the near future. (I’m working roughly from easier stitches, towards more difficult ones…though I’m making the easy ones difficult for myself, I’m sure you can see.)

I was also using size 8/0 beads (the light pink ones) to emphasize the middle of each stitch, which really doesn’t look great with Flat Spiral stitch, although it’s workable with traditional Spiral Rope. In the below, I learned that it’s OK or even good to use higher-quality beads both for the core and to draw the eye to the embellishments.

A sample of Flat Spiral stitch in blues, with some copper-lined beads introduced toward the end.
Trial samples of Flat Spiral stitch.

The above segment is something I was playing around with, recently, changing up the colors of the smaller (11/0 Czech) seed beads. (In the seed beads I usually use [Czech and Japanese], larger numbers mean smaller beads…this is only true to a point, however: there are some super-large beads with numbers in the 30’s.) Flat Spiral stitch needs more beads per outer loop than does Spiral Rope; I’m not entirely sure why, yet. Each unit in the blue sample above traverses two core beads (4mm Fire-Polished rounds), making each stitch 8mm long. That in itself would be a reason why the embellishment needs to be longer; typically, one takes shorter steps in traditional Spiral Rope. (Each “half-step” up for this version of Flat Spiral is one bead, or 4mm…though I’m not sure anyone uses the term, “half-step” but me — and I know it’s not used in Spiral Rope directions, as you’re generally using more than two smaller core beads, there.)

The two attempts on the left are embellished with one 3mm Fire-Polished round at the center of each loop (the dark Cobalt Blue faceted beads), while the one on the right has one 2mm Fire-Polished round (the tiny silvertone things: they’re still glass), in the same place. This is what I was talking about in my last entry as so sparkly that everything blends together… At this point, I’ve slept on the design, and have decided to go with the center color layout utilizing the turquoise-colored beads, for now. The stitch definition is just much more visible.

As I’m uploading photos, I realize that I did in fact make a completed bracelet…before I realized that the 3mm beads for edgings, worked just fine (or better)…the finished work reminds me of a snake in the way it curves, though mostly you see that when it’s on a table. I have thought of making the 11/0s different on the front and back of the work, so it would really look like a snake, and be reversible, to boot: but I haven’t gotten around to it, yet.

A finished Flat-Spiral bracelet in blue and purple, as it is being worn.
A finished bracelet made in Flat Spiral stitch.

Unfortunately, daylight plus my digital camera has a tendency not to pick up rainbow or Aurora Borealis (AB) coatings on glass beads. The small blue beads above (size 11/0) are opaque Cobalt Blue with an AB finish, making them look a little multicolor and violet with a dark blue background (in life); but the AB is essentially invisible, here. I should put in some time to see if I can get my lighting to work with me.

Anyhow, those small reddish-purple beads on the sides are the elusive 2mm faceted Fire-Polished rounds (it’s hard to find these in nice colors, let alone transparent ones — the above are “pearl-coated”, and, as I discovered when I accidentally split a bead trying to end this thing, whitish and relatively opaque on the inside), while the center shiny beads are 4mm opaque Purple Iris druks, or round pressed-glass beads with an iridescent coating and purple overtone. Again, my camera isn’t picking up the iridescence so well. I suppose I could try and deal with using my phone as a camera, but then I’d have to watch security issues…

My original clasp design, utilizing bullion/French Wire/gimp.

And, of course, the most difficult part of any of this, is ending the thing. As I was finishing the first version of the above completed bracelet, my work decided it had had enough, and severed my 6-lb. FireLine (6-lb! it’s not even like it was lightweight!). I learned at that time that I needed to keep my thread tension lower, so that I wouldn’t put stress like that against the edge of a bead with a thread (it was almost undoubtedly a druk that cut it, and I haven’t observed any cut-glass edges in this batch of druks). I believe this has happened to me twice in the last two weeks…tension is one of the things that will make FireLine vulnerable, as I’ve observed when trying to cut it with scissors (it will cut most easily, if held taut across the blade).

I was able to obtain a Xuron model #441 thread cutter recently, which…makes cutting FireLine, much less of a hassle. It even makes it pleasant for me when I need to cut my work apart to reuse beads…which would be a headache to try and do with regular cutters. Especially when going through multiple passes of FireLine. I would not risk my good wire cutters on this; they cut wire too well, and I don’t want to replace them. As for where to find the Xuron #441 cutters, Micro-Tools is a vendor I’m familiar with through the local bead circuit; they also sell on Amazon. They have some really…nice, and niche, stuff there.

The image just above is my original termination design, which…looks rich, right? However…it’s way more practical to use size 15/0 seed beads where I have those little wire coils. Those coils are referred to variously as gimp, bullion, or French Wire (not to be confused with French Hooks, which are the sleek findings you put into your piercings). You can get it in precious metal, but that tends to be prohibitively expensive (at least in goldtone). I’ve found sterling, but it’s probably still more than anyone wants to pay.

Bullion, in a beadwork sense, is basically superfine wire that has been coiled up like a spring. You cut off however long a piece you need, then thread your cord or thread (it’s traditionally used with silk, for terminating strands of knotted pearls) through it, reinforce it (if you’re using it for beadweaving), and weave back in. The point is to protect your thread from friction and breakage at the point where you attach a metal clasp. Without this, the termination of your line is a physically weak point in the design (as I can attest to from having lines of seed beads explode on me as a youth…though that could have been a knotting problem, to boot).

Unfortunately, there are two caveats. One is that it’s difficult to weave back through this after you’ve gone through it, once: the coil tends to split, and then you’ve got a problem. (You can see the effect of this on the lower coil, in the above image.) The second is that it may be vulnerable to tarnish (say if it’s silverplate or goldplate over brass or copper), and my gut tells me that I don’t want to try and clean tarnish off of a fine coil of wire.

Of course, I may be wrong. Reality is variable from expectation. But I’ve had even sterling chains turn coppery on me after long periods of wear. I’m not sure how this happens with some sterling alloys and not others — I also have chains with no problem with oxidation, after years of use — but it’s something to take into account.

My final clasp design, utilizing size 15/0 seed beads in place of the bullion.

The tried-and-true method of termination for a beadwoven piece like this is essentially to use tiny seed beads to protect the thread from abrasion. As much as I didn’t want to do it, I ended up doing it, and it ended up working pretty well.

To the left, or just above if you’re using a mobile device, you should be able to see how I was able to use three seed beads in place of that bullion. This was much friendlier to my needle (which adores moving in straight lines), and allowed me more passes through those ending beads to reinforce the piece, than I could get with the bullion.

It doesn’t look as pretty, but it does the job.

Two other things I’ve realized, through this: I need to pay attention to established thread paths when weaving back through the work to tie off the threads, and to be aware of where my thread already is. The former is to prevent unprotected lines of thread popping up at the very end of construction!!! The latter is to prevent splitting beads — again, at the very end of construction. Do you know how disheartening it is to work for hours on a piece and then go to finish it off, and a thread decides to pop, or a bead decides to break, or you find exposed thread where you don’t expect it, which makes the piece then not-reversible? Right.

But the secret does seem to be just to learn from those mistakes, and to change something, next time. That’s how you learn, right?

Published by Haruna

Haruna is a Librarian by training, currently pivoting from Public Services into Technical Services. Their undergraduate major was English -- Creative Writing, and they hold an additional small degree in Art (i.e. Visual Arts). They are now pondering whether a career in Academia is viable or desirable, given the current situation.

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