Beads

Shaped and multi-hole beads

In the sense of creating a well-constructed piece, bead shape, dimensions, and piercing location plus thread path, matter more than color scheme. In this sense…I have found it useful to buy very small lots (7.5 to 10 grams) of, say, two-hole beads, which I have no immediate plans for, but which I want to keep in what I term a designer’s stash.

Sometimes this turns out to be useful — but only if you allow yourself time to actually play with them! (Play is underrated. Seriously. And don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t deserve to be paid because you get to play. You still have to eat and have clothing and housing and utilities, right? You’re still providing a valuable service, right? You’re not a phantom that appears only to bless the world with free jewelry, right?)

This “stash” is essentially meant to enable me to work with shapes of bead I haven’t worked with before. It’s a nice thing to have when I want to step out of my comfort zone, or try out another designer’s patterns (to get a taste of a thought process that isn’t my own). It is not, however, at all necessary to becoming a good designer. There are plenty of designers out there who have found a few favorite patterns that they re-make in different colors and color combinations (particularly when their basic patterns are used more like grounds for beaded paintings).

I have given a good deal of thought to producing a few things very well (and am presently undecided on whether I want to take this path); the difference with my own work is that I tend to operate more sculpturally instead of flatly, and that means I need to work with different sizes and shapes of bead. This has been my predilection since Wood Shop in Middle School. Why? I really don’t know. What I do know is that for my own work in specific — collecting beads all of the same size and shape, with the only difference being the color, tends to lock me into a certain type of work. Being locked in, in turn, leads to my losing interest in that work.

A positive thing about multi-hole and shaped beads (many of which, aside from basic shapes such as rounds, drops, briolettes, rondelles, and cubes, have come on the market within the last 20 years or so) is that they do expand design possibilities. At the same time…I haven’t yet tried this out to verify it, but it seems some beads (for example, QuadraTiles and QuadraLentils) work best with techniques I don’t currently know or use (for example, Cubic Right-Angle Weave). I haven’t gotten good enough yet at pattern-surfing to be able to tell what beads are best for which projects, but Potomac Beads has a neat little section where you can sort patterns by beads used. Note that at the time of this writing (July 2021), Potomac Beads does not carry all the beads that are in the patterns they sell.

It’s very possible to create new things without using the newer beads, but so long as they exist, I suppose, “why not?” Even small lots of simple things like drop beads or Pinch beads do come in handy — especially when the drop beads are 5mm wide, and the Pinch beads are also 5mm long.

Hmm. You see what I did there. Especially if you click that link.

When you find a shape that works well with other shapes, then it might be a good idea to look for colors that work (although I suspect that color combinations have led more than a few of us to new patterns!). Note that what appear online to be the same bead in different colors may in fact come from different suppliers, and thus, they may be cut differently, or otherwise work differently within your patterns. Also, somewhat annoyingly, the exact same bead may be sold under different names by different vendors, and they’re just photographed under such different light sources that you don’t know that until you get them. Trade names do not seem to be regulated, that is.

While it’s ideal to be able to source one’s beads from an in-person bead store, so that you can see the reality of what you’re buying before you buy it; at least in my area, bead stores were shutting down even prior to the Pandemic. Things were just moving online. This happened after the debut of the new Czech multi-hole beads, and (far) before the magazine Bead & Button ceased publication in October 2020.

There are a plethora of online bead retailers, however, and within the beading market, our economic system is actually seeming to function, with each retailer focusing on different angles of beaders’ needs. Wholesale access is available if you possess a Seller’s Permit, as needed if you run a business, or — for example, within the state of California — if you sell three or more things within a year. (Note I am not a legal expert and cannot give legal advice.) However: if you have a Seller’s Permit and use it to avoid paying taxes to a Wholesaler (say for beads, to make jewelry), my impression is that you cannot then keep that tax-free jewelry for yourself. I don’t think that’s an issue if you go into it as a consumer, and do pay sales tax when you buy those beads.

Always be aware that bead dimensions, piercing locations, shapes, sizes, and colors change in availability over time. Therefore, beads used in 2015 may be significantly different than beads of the same type bought in 2021, requiring pattern alteration (yes, even if it’s your pattern). It may seem at first that the pattern won’t work at all with the new beads. Don’t give up! You can always be inspired by the original work, and create something new.

I am linking here to a page on ScaraBeads’ website as regards multi-hole beads. I haven’t personally used ScaraBeads at this point in time (July 2021), but this should give you some idea of the variety of new pressed glass and multi-hole beads available. It’s a pretty page, right? Most of these beads should also be available around the Web from various retailers. Essentially, once you know what they’re called, you can search for them. A specific detractor from this is the “ONE” bead. I don’t know why they called it ONE (capitalization matters, here). It’s…really hard to search…

Expensive beads

Yes, sometimes it actually does help to have some expensive beads! A few of them, at least, for things you need. At times you may have a primary or secondary focal point which you might want to spend money on. Or, you may need something (like tiny 15/0 goldtone seed beads) to finish off a piece. You may only need eight at a time, but they’re really handy to have for a lot of pieces.

Some online stores like Fire Mountain Gems & Beads offer quantity discounts which can blunt the pain of purchasing expensive items…if you buy enough stuff, and if they decide to substantially discount it. As can happen quickly, if you buy more, it may cost less. However, this dynamic can get you to purchase more than you need. If you’re already set on buying in quantity, you can get a good amount of cash taken off of a staple which you don’t have (and wouldn’t have bought unless it was ~$5.50 off). This can run away from you, however; be mindful.

A note about Fire Mountain: they’re really good if you’re on the business side of producing jewelry, but for some beaders, the minimum quantities at which they sell can be so large as to be impractical. At this point in time (July 2021), I have seen them selling Miyuki seed beads in 25-gram packages, which I don’t remember ever seeing before — although Tohos have been available in 7.5-gram lots (and up) from them, for as long as I can remember.

Beaded beads

Here, I’m not talking about daisy spacers or metal beads with surface granulation (a silversmithing and goldsmithing technique), but rather self-contained components made out of smaller beads which are themselves used as units within designs. I have had at least one design on this in mind for years, which I have not yet brought to fruition. Suffice it to say: a lot of people have had a lot of fun making beaded beads (and yes, there are patterns out there for this). Once you realize that you can make them, in whatever colors you want, with whatever beads will work…I’d think they could become addicting.

Off-size beads

Oh, the “augh” of the off-size bead. You think you’re ordering a size 6/0 bead, you get it in the mail, you open it, and then you look at it. “What is this?” you think. “Is this a 7/0 bead? It can’t be, right? This was sold as a 6/0.” Lo, however; all the beads on the hank are consistently smaller than the rest of your 6/0 Czech materials, and larger than the Czech 8/0s. For that matter, some of your Czech 6/0s, you now notice, are noticeably heftier than others.

What happened? Is it a manufacturing problem? A quality control problem? Intentional? I can’t say for certain. All I know is that I’ve been there. I can also say that, when a beader is backed into the correct corner, off-size beads can come in handy (say, if you’re making a Cellini Spiral, and could really use an in-between bead for size gradation).

I also want to differentiate, “off-size beads,” from, “poorly made beads.” Poorly-made beads are inconsistent on the strand or in the vial: not just multiple widths, but with angled edges or glass blobs causing the beads to kink.

Note that bugle (tubular; distinct from Tubelet, which are only sold by Potomac Beads as of August 2021), two-cut (a.k.a. Hex beads, after their shape that evokes hardware nuts), and three-cut (fully faceted seed) beads; may have relatively sharp and at times slightly angled edges, compared to rocailles (standard rounds). Cylinder beads such as Miyuki Delicas may also butt up to their neighbors unpredictably, but to the best of my knowledge, they don’t cut thread (Toho Aikos are supposed to be more uniform as to the angles at which they meet other beads, which seems to be the main distinction they have from Toho Treasures, another cylinder bead line by the same manufacturer — I’ve never seen Aikos in-person, however).

Bugles are particularly known for slicing through threads other than the ultra-durable polyethylene threads (WildFire, Fireline), which is why they are usually strung with a rocaille on either side, or blunted by hand on their edges. (I can’t recommend this, due to my caution around ground colored glass.) I also don’t mean to infer that beads intentionally made with uneven lengths, such as three-cuts, would be poor quality. In my mind, three-cuts (with all their sparkle) are made for stranding, where the length of the bead from piercing to piercing does not need to be the same for every bead.

However: poorly-made beads, where there’s just a lack of quality, often lack in precision required for a stitch like Peyote, where bead uniformity is necessary…or, at least, makes your world a lot easier. They may also have dye that comes off on your fingertips as you try to use them, or — as has happened to me — a finish which wears off of the bead before you’re even done weaving with it. This happened to me with a set of California Gold Rush SuperDuos, and I’ve seen documented evidence about Capri Gold and Sliperit finishes. Don’t believe that a lack of durability can’t also happen with expensive, popular, and (initially) beautiful beads.

Consistently sized but off-sized beads, are not necessarily low-quality. They will simply not relate in a regimented, standardized way to other beads. But as mentioned, there are size differences between bead lots, even within the same aught. I’ve found this to be particularly true with Czech seed beads.

Czech and Japanese beads are also different in uniformity, on the whole: Czech beads are known to have slight variations along the stringing length, which is useful if you’re making sculptural, organic works and have to make increases or decreases within the beaded fabric. Narrower beads can be used to ease increases (for example, in Peyote Stitch, where you might have to put two beads into a stitch instead of one), while longer beads can be used to ease decreases.

Of course, this does mean that you need to check the beads you’re using before you weave them in. This is referred to as culling, within the beading world. It can be done either before beading begins, or — in my case — as beading is occurring. It’s much easier for me to feel the difference in size, than it is for me to see it.

As much as it would seem to be nicer to have things standardized, there is the point that standard doesn’t always work. I know that sometimes this pains people to understand, but if one is looking for organic flow, sometimes it’s nice to have choice and not be restricted to only 6/0, 8/0, 11/0, and 15/0 beads. The drawback to this is lack of mechanical reproducibility — which is in our favor as bead artists. The moment complex beadweaving becomes automated is the moment at which our income streams become jeopardized.

On that note, I have even seen differences in quality between beads from within one (Japanese) company — the example I’m using, being Toho (although I’ve also noticed consistent size differences between packs of beads from Miyuki, that were both labeled as 11/0). I’m not sure what this is about, either…but the Toho beads I used very apparently looked different in monetary value — one being a PermaFinish metallic, and the other a matte Semi-Glazed color. The metallic was obviously much more regular in size and shape, whereas I had to cull a number of beads from the Semi-Glazed lot. I’m not certain if this pattern holds over the entire collection; I have only very recently begun to be able to differentiate between Miyuki and Toho in my unbranded seed bead vials from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. It is also only recently that I’ve sought out Miyuki beads intentionally.

As much as I hate to get into it (we’ve been talking about this for a while) there is a difference as well between bead shape and dimension between Miyuki and Toho beads. Toho beads are, well, “rounder” in dimensions than Miyuki beads (roughly squarer in profile than Miyukis, which are more rectangular in profile — Miyukis are shorter along the stringing length), although in my short experience in mixing Czech and Japanese seed beads within the same piece, Miyukis have blended well with Czech beads of the same “aught” (size). This was within the category of Preciosa silverlined 8/0s. I don’t know if the pattern holds outside of the silverlined beads, as the beads I’m talking about are noticeably smaller than many of my other Czech 8/0s.

Thereby: I can’t depend on this pattern to hold steady between all Preciosa and Miyuki beads. It doesn’t help that I have found visible size differences between two sets of beads of the supposed same size on hanks, which at this point I cannot prove were both from Preciosa, due to my vendors’ labeling practices (and my lack of keeping track of where, when, and from whom I purchased one of those sets of beads).

For that matter: Czech beads tend to be more softly donut-shaped, with rounder edges, and to run smaller overall (and have smaller holes, permitting fewer thread passes or requiring finer thread and needle) than Japanese beads of the same aught. I should note that the roundness of the edges (or “shoulders” of the bead, as I call them) in Japanese seed beads varies between brands and between aughts within those brands — and sometimes between colors, within aughts.

Although at this point I’m unaware of the source, I’ve also found a number of beads on the market; particularly silverlined transparent rocaille beads of Japanese origin (which from a quick visual lookup, I suspect to be Matsuno); which are noticeably more cylindrical (more angular in profile) than Toho, Miyuki, or Preciosa. They are less angular, however, than straight-out cylinder beads like Miyuki Delicas or Toho Treasures. Because of the type of work I do and my own aesthetic preferences, I’d not desire to buy them (I purchased most of mine years ago when I didn’t even know the brand, “Matsuno”, and was too naive to understand the limitations of the bead shape through the vial; also too young to know my own preferences). If you aren’t doing work which requires smooth corner-to-corner transitions, however, they might work.

In any case, Czech beads are not necessarily consistently sized, when you see them next to each other. It doesn’t really help that all beads on hanks may not be made by the same company; so far as I know, Preciosa is a group of makers. Beyond that, there have been many beads I purchased from bead stores which were on hanks and unbranded. At this point, I can’t know who made them (especially as the places I bought them from, are no longer in business).

Within each hank, the beads tend to be pretty well matched to each other (at least if you found a quality producer). The monetary value of the beads go up, depending on how evenly the beads are made. They’re strung so that you can see their degree of uniformity. For size 8/0 beads, just to give you an idea: these things can range from between ~$4.25 for six strands, to ~$20.00 for six strands, and up (I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy half-hanks for over $17; nor have I broken open that $17 half-hank, yet).

I should note that a full hank is usually 12 strands; however, for some beads like Three-Cuts, they can be 10 strands.

After you’ve obtained a certain number of hanks, however, you start to have to work to see what sizes will play nice with each other, given color, finish, and size (depending on the project), similar to having to swatch a new ball of yarn for gauge. It doesn’t help, in my case, that I threw out the bags many of these beads were sold in, years ago: so I honestly do not know the intended sizes of many of my hanks. To make things more complex, Czech seed beads (to the best of my knowledge) come in far more size grades than Japanese seed beads (this is, generally speaking, probably a benefit). For that matter, all seed beads effectively are produced in size ranges or tolerances…the rocailles (round seed beads) I use are not exactly the same stringing length from bead to bead.

I’ve attempted measurement with digital calipers, and so far as I can tell, I’ll need to do statistics to figure this out. I’m still on the lookout to find a chart which will tell me what the standard size (or tolerance range) of each aught actually is; but until that happens, I’ve just got to work with things organically via swatching. It’s just easier than taking a sample and range and arithmetic mean, and then trying to find some standard with which to compare it.

Look at it this way: it’s like buying pearls (or stones, for that matter). You can look at each strand of a certain type of potato pearls at a bead shop. They will be matched to each other within each strand as regards color, luster, size, and shape; but not every strand will match every other strand. There is a strand of oval pearls and a strand of pearls shaped like teardrops, from the same producer, same batch, same oysters, same tint, same price, same code.

Maybe you want the teardrop pearls, over the oval pearls: so far as the bead shop is concerned, they’re essentially the same thing. So far as reality is concerned, they aren’t. There is natural variation, and the grader decided to place all the beautiful teardrop pearls into one strand and all the oval pearls into another. Because the grader knows they aren’t the same thing, even if the computer doesn’t; and we aren’t about to throw out a bunch of perfectly good pearls just because they aren’t like all the rest. High standardization is…in my case, it’s not necessarily what I’m after.

What I’m trying to say is that Czech beads seem more or less unique from batch to batch, and they need to be looked at as unique, like stones or like pearls. From what I can tell, they’re sorted through screens before stringing — which means that they will be organized within their hanks, but not necessarily between makers (so far as I know, seed bead production in Czechia is at this point a cottage industry…and no, I’m not sure what Preciosa’s role in it is), between hanks, or over large spans of time.

I also have never attempted a low-tolerance stitch like Flat Peyote or Brick with a Czech bead mix, so I am not sure how this impacts them. (A high-tolerance stitch — I think I’ve just invented a term — is one where increasing random variation in the seed bead length is not going to matter so much, for example due to strung sequences; such as in Spiral Rope or Dutch Spiral. A low-tolerance stitch is one in which increasing random variation in the seed bead length will produce higher distortion in the finished work, as in Flat Peyote, Flat Brick, or Square Stitch.)

One final note: occasionally, I have run across strung rocailles which are consistently narrow in their length, with thicker walls than usual (which matters when bezeling stones), as though they were squashed. I don’t know what these are, though I suspect that they do not have the same origin as the rest of my beads. I haven’t found a good use for them yet, except stringing. If you have, please tell me about it!