Kate McKinnon Shares How to Make Jewelry Last a Lifetime

Jean Campbell is the senior editor of Beadwork and a
contributing editor to Beading Daily


There are some people you meet and become inspired by. But there are other people you meet who not only inspire you, they change the way you do things. Kate McKinnon is one of those people. First off, she's a talented designer. Her work is beautiful and wearable, but she also sneaks in this edgy, surreal quality that raises the jewelry-making bar way up. It seems like that aesthetic part comes so naturally to her, but when speaking with Kate you might get the sense that she's more interested in how jewelry works. How pieces fit together and collaborate to make not only pleasing design, but good, solid construction. She often calls herself a "maker of small parts"–components that she simply pieces together to concoct her gorgeous pieces. 

I was lucky enough to work closely with Kate on her latest mixed-media book, The Jewelry Architect. As editor, I got to pull up my sleeves and really see, in depth, how Kate thinks. I've always known Kate as a metal clay artist, but that preconception was blown to bits as I got to handle her beautiful seed-bead, felt, and strung pieces. For Kate, jewelry design is obviously not about the medium but the message: Make gorgeous work that will last a lifetime.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Kate and chat a bit about her newest release. Here are a few of the questions I asked that produced some pretty beefy answers:

Q: Kate, I know you as a prolific metal clay artist, and I don't think I'm alone in that. In The Jewelry Architect, you change hats a bit–it includes all sorts of techniques. What inspired you to explore these other methods of design?

A: Beadwork was always my first love! I learned stringing after I learned beadweaving, and I took up metal clay and metalsmithing because I wanted to make my own clasps and findings for my work. I wanted clasps meant for slipping into beadwork neatly, without having to deal with soldered-on bails or holes, and I didn’t see anything that reflected my ideas about longevity or being able to avoid sewing my beadwork to the clasps. I’m happy to say that I was able to innovate several completely original designs that solved those problems–the Ram’s Horn, the Ball End, and the neat bar-backed toggle. All of these can be seen in The Jewelry Architect.

Q: You use the words "architecture" and "engineering" to describe your design process, but those aren't terms we seen thrown around in the jewelry world everyday. What's up?

A: I think like an engineer when I design connections, always making sure they are jointed and freely moving, and I think like an architect when I build boxes and tiny buildings; tie walls, good imbeds. Good design depends on good structure for wearability. When things break, they have usually been pulled too tight, or the materials haven’t been properly protected.

Q: Okay, so that definitely ties into all those great tips on construction you give in the book. What are a few of your favorite structural tips?

A: When I use beading wire, I make sure that the crimps are never next to the clasp, but instead, properly folded and put behind a soft-edged bead. I cover the loops of my wire with tiny charlotte seed beads, so that it doesn’t abrade at the clasp. I don’t use one piece of wire from crimp to crimp; I tend to build in sections, with the connection to the clasp done in sturdy wire.

When I use beading thread, I make sure that the thread is the right weight for the piece, and that if there is any exposed thread at the edges, it is neatly bound. I keep my tension smooth and make my beadwork supple, like a fabric. I don’t sew my beadwork to a clasp, any more than I would sew a handmade quilt to a hanging bar. Quilts that are hung on the wall have a sleeve attached to the top edge; my Ram’s Horn and Ball End clasp work much the same way.

Q: What about for those of us working with metal? Got any suggestions there?

A: When I work in metal, I make sure that my connections are well made, and that the wire gauge is thick enough to support the total weight of the piece. If a piece of work feels flimsy, or if parts that should move freely are tight, odds are good that it will break before its time.

Thanks, Kate, for sharing your wonderful work with us!

I'd highly recommend The Jewelry Architect to add to any beader's reading list–it has a DVD included, too, so you can see Kate in action as she shares many of her favorite techniques . . . in living color!

Happy beading-

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