Form and Structure

Granted, the understandings I’m about to put forth in this page in regard to the similarity or differences between the terms, “form,” and, “structure,” are — so far as I know — idiosyncratic to me.

Form might be considered similar to volume, or the total shape a piece of beadwork takes up in space. Structure, on the other hand, for me connotes the way a piece is connected together out of the various pieces that make it up. Form would be the outside of a body, what one can see; structure would be the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fat, without which the form can’t exist. Form’s importance is essentially artistic. It is what the painter or sculptor falls in love with. Structure’s importance is essentially anatomical or constructive: the thing that realizes form.

The presence of structure requires a physical join. We have not yet reached the point of being able to create Lego jewelry (so far as I know?) — so the physical join requires an added outside element. In this case, we are largely talking about thread, cord, wire, or glue. There are many different forms of each of these, each suited to a different particular application and to different sensibilities.

If I have time and motivation, I may go over some of the different options on the market at this moment; however, I find it likely that the specific threads, cords, wires, and adhesives used in beadwork, will not remain static. This is the major reason I have also not produced a book with this information (and bead samples) in it: it will become outdated likely before it is published. Beads produced in the mid-1990s are not necessarily the same in character (or relevant dimensions) as those produced in the early 2020’s. This issue is likely magnified if you’re older than I am. If I look back a few years before my time, we get into “vintage” beads — these are beads that are 25 years old, or more.

Some things carry over…many do not. Trends change. New colors are made, old ones are retired; new bead shapes themselves may become accessible, or old ones may gradually drop out of availability. One of the things I’ve noticed recently is the plethora of opaque and matte colors available (for example with Toho 1.5mm cube beads), while jewel-tones and highly sparkly beads are not necessarily the easiest things to find at the moment (even though they may provide a needed pop of pure color).

As much as I regret that fashion appears to be a revolving door where it comes to what is in production at any one time, I also recognize that the bead companies also likely need to inject some novelty into their offerings in order to stay competitive.

Basic construction considerations

One of the things to remember when attempting a new design, is the fact that the finished object doesn’t necessarily have to be completed on the first pass through with needle and thread — if you’re using needle and thread (as versus cord and a self-needle, or a wider material, of which there are many to choose from). There are three major routes to completion I can conceptualize, at least within beadweaving, which I have seen:

  1. All-in-One-Pass (AIOP)
  2. Embellished/Layered
  3. Modular: Beaded Beads, Components

(Note: some approaches can be hybridized in your own creations. In this, I’m particularly thinking of micro-macramé, beadweaving, and tatting. Essentially, wherever you have a bead with room available in its piercing, you have a potential anchor.)

All-in-One-Pass is pretty self-explanatory: the beadwork is completed from start to finish, using one thread or thread path. Many traditional beadweaving stitches are designed this way. Embellished/Layered indicates that more work is laid on top of a formerly established groundwork. (Crossweave technique, for example, is a relatively well-known version of embellishing Right-Angle Weave.) Modular indicates that individual self-standing units are created and then sewn or otherwise connected together (e.g. through jump rings).

I would expect more ways to create pieces than this, but I find thinking this way to start with, helps contextualize my perception of what I am doing in the moment, and what I can do with a piece. I’m fairly certain that if I followed more patterns by different artists, I’d see more approaches than the ones I’ve already internalized.

What works?

When you’re experimenting with different sizes and shapes of bead, when the bead snaps into place as though it’s meant to be there, you know you’re onto something.

Learning through trial and error

In playing around with beads, thread, wire, and cord, I’ve found that at the beginning (at least), the reason why a beading maneuver works at some times and doesn’t work at others, may be difficult to determine. In this case, I would encourage you to keep at it, and examine what you did that did work — and try to replicate and understand why and how a success was successful.

If using micro-macramé, trace your cords and knots to figure out why something works (in some instances) or doesn’t (in others): micro-macramé is rather forgiving, in this regard. After you figure out why, you may want to take notes: and/or, keep the sample you have worked, so that you can refer back to it, later. If keeping the sample is not an option (say, you really need one bead which is locked up in a sample), photos may be.

Being able to recognize when and where a mistake was made is a learned skill. It comes with familiarity. Once you’re able to predict what a piece should feel like, and how it should behave, it becomes easier to diagnose and treat problems in construction, before they become major headaches.

Also remember: when designing on your own, failure is inevitable. Failure, however, also gives you plenty of chances to learn. I would say one learns more from repeated error — and from giving oneself the chance to make an error — than from success. A chance to make an error is a chance at future refinement. Give yourself plenty of time to fail. You may (more likely: will) gain something (or many things) unique out of it.

This is not Jurassic Park

Yes, I do still remember reading — and then seeing — Jurassic Park, as a youth. One of the lessons embedded in that movie is that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. However…I doubt that the stakes for experimenting with seed beads are that incredibly high. I have at times kicked myself for moving on to a final version of a piece, without first having explored all the possibilities I had.

That is, I do a lot of work in trials. This may not be great for me where it comes to spending my time maximizing profit, but it does help to find my next version, out of everything I could do with the same materials. Making samples helps me figure out if a piece is going to be attractive, before I begin to create it. If I’m going to sink hours into working on a project, it helps to be very certain that this is the way I want to do that project. This time.

It also helps to know that there is not necessarily one best version of a piece. Thinking that there is, may carry the danger of paralyzing and dead-ending your creative process — I’ve been there. Each piece does take up a certain amount of beads, which may not be replaceable — but, none of the project of making handmade jewelry guarantees the ability to create identical copies. One of the strengths of handmade is the ability to try many different possibilities, some of which (maybe many of which) you may find even more attractive and more daring than your initial attempts.

Working with materials with individual variation mean that not everything will work out as one would expect it to. In particular, not every bead is identical even in size and dimension to every other bead within its class. By, “class,” I loosely mean to refer to each (supposed) size of bead, such as 8/0 or 11/0. (This is just what I’m calling it; it is not an industry term.)

I get into this further in other parts of this site, but even seed beads which are supposed to be the same size, are not necessarily the same size. They may be within the same set of size tolerances, or between the same maximum and minimum size, but that doesn’t mean that every bead in a hank of Czech 8/0s will be the same actual size as every bead in every other hank of Czech 8/0s, or that every Japanese 11/0 will be the same size as every other Japanese 11/0 (even within brands — and sometimes, even within vials).

Consequently…even seed beads need to be handled as one would handle cut stones or natural materials. They are not all the same, and sometimes one will need to use considerations other than color and finish (such as size, dimension and shape) in order to find a bead which will work for a certain purpose.

When one is following a pattern, there are a lot of side alleys one bypasses in order to reach the final end product. However…it’s fairly obvious when one is designing on one’s own: reaching one specific form at the end of the process requires a lot of foregone possibilities. Most of those possibilities (say, randomly stringing and weaving through beads) will not yield anything workable (unless you have another unifying element: I am reminded of Beverly Ash Gilbert’s approach in Beaded Colorways [2009], which utilizes color over form as an organizational design element — this is a valid approach, just not my own). A smaller number of options will work as regards form, but might not be desirable. Smallest is the number of possibilities which work and are desirable.

One of the nicer things about working with beads is that if you don’t like what you made, you can cut it apart and use the same components for a different project! It’s totally fine to do this. In this case, what you lose is some time, some organization, and some thread. That’s it. What you gain is knowledge and experience.

If you can do it differently, if you want to do it differently; try it. This will drive you forward in exploring the possibilities this medium can offer.

Keep your eyes open for trends and innovation

Tomorrow’s innovation may not be found within present popular trends. Some of the most innovative jewelry I’ve found has come from street vendors, vendors working at fairs, vendors at conventions, and other small producers who supply galleries and independent boutiques. These finds have ranged from enamel butterflies to silver filigree to bamboo cascading necklaces, to the use of head pins as rivets. I’m not sure if it is just my aesthetic, but I find these items to be much more interesting than the gold, silver, and calibrated flawless gems I would expect find in a mainstream department store.

You never have to follow patterns

Alongside this, keep in mind that patterns are good to learn from, and they’re great when you don’t want to have to do the work of physically figuring out how to combine a bunch of components. If you’re looking at just wanting to make something beautiful, or if you’re looking at this from a straight craft angle, or if you’re looking to pick up different techniques and find new methods of approach to the medium, patterns are very useful. However, pre-made patterns (and existing techniques) do not delimit everything one can do with beads.

By breaking away from instructions, every success or failure is yours. Failures only teach us where we can improve; and with tenacity, help to drive forward our creative process (along the way, keeping us engaged with problems to work on). Successes just make it all worth it. It is very satisfying to create something gorgeous that has never been made before, and which would not have been made without you. Once this happens, you may want to log your process before you forget it. Even if you don’t want to log it, think of yourself in the future: would you be okay with totally forgetting how you made the thing you’re so proud of?

I have found that it is much easier to draw out my process (with steps and notes), than it is to even think of attempting to record these things in words. It doesn’t have to be an artistic rendition. Charts, with symbols you understand (and maybe a legend to help you recall what you meant), are fine. Be sure to note thread path, needle direction, and the current movement in each step. Color-coding is your friend, here.

Another very important thing to remember is that every pattern — I assume — took more than one try; more than one iteration, to create. Do not feel discouraged if your first several attempts don’t work, or if your own patterns don’t turn out like the professionally-designed patterns you’ve found online or in books. Professionals had to start somewhere. If you keep at your work and keep making small improvements, over time this leads to large, collective improvements.

Keep paper and a drawing instrument bedside

This last tip is something I’ve learned from having a very active imagination during the time I’m supposed to be falling asleep. Keeping something to write and draw with, within easy access to where you sleep, is useful when a solution to a creative problem pops into your mind at 11:45 at night. Trust me: you do not want to lose these insights! Often, all it takes is a quick sketch or several keywords to be able to help remember your specific insight, the next day.

Although it could be seen to interrupt sleep, I find (for myself) that recording important thoughts actually allows me to let go of them sooner, so I can fall asleep with some level of peace. Otherwise, I tend to have anxiety over whether I’ll remember the insight tomorrow, a repeating sequence of that thought in my head as I try to grind in the memory, and generally a worse time of trying to sleep, than if I had just written it down or drawn it out. Often, the next day, I can’t even remember the subject of what I wanted to recall. If you sleep in the same room as someone else, this may be an exception; but I try to keep a soft light and paper and pen within reach.