Quick-Start Guide to Seed Beads & Seed Beading
New to seed beading and not sure where to start? Pick out some beads and get your creative juices flowing! We asked Tammy Honaman, web producer for the Interweave Bead and Jewelry groups, founding editor of Step-by-Step Beads, and bead artist extraordinaire, to introduce us to the basics. If you’re a seasoned pro, consider this a refresher or share it with a friend!
Seed beads have been around for ages, originally used as a commodity in trading for other goods and services. These tiny pieces of glass are available in colors beyond the spectrum, thanks to finishes and layering techniques, and in sizes and shapes unheard of until recently, thanks to manufacturers pushing boundaries and developing new beadmaking techniques.
Seed beads used in beadweaving and jewelry making are manufactured primarily in glass factories in the Czech Republic and Japan. Each bead has its own unique properties, and each manufacturer has a niche. Beads are sold in tubes and containers, as hanks, and in bags.
Differences Among Manufacturers
Czech seed beads are typically donut-shaped and more irregular than Japanese seed beads. This difference, an attribute we use to our advantage, makes Czech seed beads perfect for use in freeform work, stringing projects, and anywhere a more organic feel will work. Czech beads are sold by the hank.
Czech Charlotte beads are also donut-shaped with a facet cut onto the surface of the bead (just one facet), offering a little sparkle as the facet catches the light.
Japanese seed beads are generally more uniform in shape, the “donut” being larger, more square, and taller than in Czech seed beads. These beads are cut to be precise, but from time to time you do need to cull misshapen beads.
Japanese seed beads can also be found in a cylindrical shape called cylinder beads. These beads look almost square from the side, they have a larger hole end to end, and their precise cut means you will rarely have to cull misshapen beads.
Cylinder beads are beautiful in woven designs, creating a smooth finish (almost fabric-like), as well as yielding a lighter-weight piece because the walls of these beads are much thinner than in traditionally shaped seed beads.
Seed Bead Sizing
Seed beads are sold by size; the larger the bead, the lower the number. Each manufacturer and each type of bead uses a different metric for measuring, so this area can be a bit tricky. For example, a size 11° Delica does not equal a size 11° seed bead. And a Czech size 11° is not necessarily the same size as a Japanese size 11°. They are close, but if you are looking to create a pattern using a specific size and manufacturer, and want the design to be exactly the same, be sure to buy beads in the specified size and by the same company whenever possible.
Shaped Seed Beads
It’s fun to work other shaped beads into a design, and it’s fun to see how exchanging a seed bead for a triangle or a hex bead completely changes the look of a finished design. (Triangle and hex beads are sized the same as seed beads, so this is an easy swap and a good example of a simple substitution.)
Here’s an overview of a few of the other shapes available to us today.
CUBES—these look like mosaic tiles when worked into a woven design; commonly available in 1.5mm, 3mm, and 4mm sizes.
BUGLES—long tubes of glass available in a variety of lengths; these work well in beaded strands, as fringe, and stitched to fabric or leather. Bugles typically have sharp edges, so either string a round seed bead on either end of a bugle bead to protect the thread or use a stronger stringing material, such as FireLine or WildFire thread.
FRINGE OR DROP—teardrops or raindrop-shaped beads with a lateral hole at the top; when strung, the larger “drop” portion of the beads hang below the thread.
TWO-HOLE “SEED” BEADS—the latest include BiBo, SuperDuo, MiniDuo, Twins, and Rullas. These beads, Tic-Tac–like in shape, have unique holes, one on each end drilled front to back, not lengthwise from end to end. These beads can be woven into place like regular seed beads yet create an entirely different look.
TWO-HOLE TILE-SHAPED—called CzechMates Tile or Tila depending on manufacturer, with slight differences between the two and with the two holes running parallel to each other, top to bottom.
TWO-HOLE HALF TILE—called CzechMates Brick or half-Tila depending on manufacturer. Essentially half of a Tile or Tila.
DROPS—new and updated versions of the drop and fringe beads. Names include magatama, long magatama, rizo, mini dagger, and thorns. Varied in size but each has one hole at the top running across the smaller end, not through the length of the bead. Note: For an in-depth guide on more shaped beads, see the “Expanded Guide to Shaped Beads” in Quick + Easy Beadwork 2016.
Seed beads are available in every color imaginable. Finishes added to these colors create an even greater color palette. Here’s the rundown of words used to describe seed bead colors and their finishes.
OPAQUE—bold solid color.
TRANSPARENT—see-through colors of glass; offering a more subtle approach to color but hardly boring!
SILVER-LINED—a flashy silver lining to a transparent color bead.
COLOR-LINED—a colored lining to a transparent color bead. Talk about combinations that turn your palette on end!
METALLIC—an opaque bead with a reflective surface, often in metal colors such as gold, silver, bronze, etc. This finish is added differently by each manufacturer, and in some cases, the “effect” wears with use.
METAL—seed beads made from metal. More expensive and a heavier finished weight when used in a design, but what a great feeling to wear a peyote-woven cuff made from metal seed beads.
MATTE FINISH—soft, etched look, nonreflective; a finish applied to an opaque or transparent color.
IRIS AND AURORA BOREALIS (AB)—a finish added to the beads creating an oil slick–like appearance.
STRIPES—made using a caning process in which different colors are stacked together before pulling and cutting the tubes into beads. Striped beads look like Old World–trading beads.
No matter our craft, we must have our tools! The essentials include:
NEEDLES—beading needles are unlike any other needle, sewing or otherwise. The needle, aside from the point, is the same width the entire length, even at the eye. This makes it possible to thread the needle with your stringing material and still be able to pass the needle through the bead. Brilliant!
There are several sizes available, as well as different lengths and quality. The lower the number, the thicker the needle. I tend to use size 10 needles for general beading of size 11° and 8° beads and size 12 needles when working with size 15° seed beads. If your pattern has you weaving several passes of thread through a seed bead, changing to a thinner needle will help you to be able to keep stitching.
THREAD—most patterns will offer you the best suggestion on which thread to use for the beads in the design. This advice is usually offered based on trial and error.
Common thread suggestions include:
- Nylon—a very strong, durable thread, great for most beading projects. Each brand of nylon thread uses letters to indicate size, i.e., Nymo size D (the thickest) or Nymo OO (the finest). Regardless of brand, this type of thread is available in a wide array of colors.
- Braided beading thread—originally used for fishing, these threads are great for designs requiring stronger thread. These threads are strong yet supple and don’t change the drape of your design by much.
- Polyethylene—a very strong cord yet also fine and very suitable for weaving seed beads; especially good when weaving beads with sharp edges such as crystals and bugle beads. Use wire cutters, a thread burner, or Fiskars children’s scissors to cut this cording.
- Elastic—a fun alternative stringing material that can be finished with a knot for a quick and easy stretchy bracelet.
GOOD SHARP SCISSORS—having a good pair of scissors on hand for cutting nylon or silk thread is a must. Good scissors have a fine point needed for cutting the thread close to your beadwork as well as for cutting the end of thread without fraying, so you can thread on a needle and have a clean finished design. Keep cutters or a thread burner on hand, too, so when working with FireLine or other heavier beading material you can cut the material cleanly as well as save the blades of your good scissors.
BEADING MAT—many materials can serve you well when it comes to keeping your beads in place on your work surface. You can simply use a hand towel, a piece of Velux blanket, or a beading mat found at your local bead store. The needle will not “stick” into the fabric, as it’s dense and foam-like, and the beads will sit high on the surface rather than sink down as they would on softer material.
Waxes and Conditioners
Like our hair, some threads just behave better when waxed or conditioned. Traditionally, beeswax is used to coat the threads, making them less susceptible to fraying, tangling, and knotting. Microcrystalline wax, a synthetic beeswax, is what I prefer over beeswax, because it’s not as sticky and doesn’t require softening as beeswax sometimes needs. Thread Heaven, a silicone-based conditioner, works the opposite of both waxes. It causes the thread to repel, nearly eliminating tangles; it also creates a nice gliding effect.
With the beads, tools, and supplies covered, let’s get to some basic stitches so you can get to weaving!
BRICK STITCH creates a staggered bead pattern, such as in traditional brick laying.
FRINGE is a great way to add flair to the edge of beadwork, clothing, and even home décor and accessories. Use a drop bead as the last bead in each row for even greater impact!
HERRINGBONE STITCH creates a beautiful weave in which the beads lie in a slight V-shaped pattern.
LADDER STITCH is a good foundation row for many stitches.
NETTING is often worked off the edge of a beaded trim or other foundation or can be used to quickly cover objects.
PEYOTE STITCH creates a similar pattern to brick stitch but begins, and is stitched, differently.
RIGHT-ANGLE WEAVE, also known as RAW, results in an almost fabric-like piece of beadwork and can be woven with either one needle or two.
SQUARE STITCH is a simple stitch that’s wonderful for adding embellishments to formed metal shapes and for edging other beadwork.
For some great beginner beading projects & techniques, check out these resources: