Beading, Making

Beadiful constraints

Once a year I host a UX All Hands meeting, where we bring the global team together for learning, knowledge exchange, planning, and team building. Because the team is growing so fast, we do need to spend some time getting to know each another. One of our favorite ways to do that is short presentations in which we share new ideas. A few years ago, we had all the non-managers teach us about a new industry trend that would shape the future of UX. We learned about virtual reality, Apple Watch design considerations, and more. It ended up being everyone’s favorite part of the meetings.

Last year we decided to have everyone present about design in their everyday lives. Where do we see or think about design in a way that might not be visible to others? The framework was intentionally pretty loose, and again, we heard some extraordinary talks. One team member taught us about symbolism in classical Indian dance, another shared learnings from art therapy training, and someone in our team is working with a small community to build an sustainable, eco-friendly farming village. We had a researcher speak about his dissertation research, and we heard from a designer who collects video clips of interfaces from sci-fi movies. We had another team member who is using Design Thinking to change the course of politics in the state where she lives. It was unquestionably an amazing day of learning and mutual appreciation!

And it was certainly humbling for me to be surrounded by so many talented people with diverse perspectives and new ideas to share. My presentation, in contrast, was less aspirational. I wanted to impart my joy of beadwork and jewelry-making, and in particular the pleasure I get from working within various constraints such as the materials, available time, and other practical project limitations like ease of transport. Beyond my About page, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about my beading on this blog, so here we go!


In the 1970s, I enjoyed the YMCA Indian Princesses program with my father. There were five or six girls who lived nearby, and many of us did Brownies, Girl Scouts, and 4H together. What was neat about this program was that we participated with our dads. We went hiking, apple picking, camping, and I’m sure there were many other wonderful adventures that I don’t remember now. But the one I remember the most in retrospect was sitting at a rickety old card table in someone’s basement, and seeing seed beads for the first time. I don’t even recall what I made, but I do remember spending hours and hours with them afterwards, sorting them into piles, imagining and constructing new patterns. I had been bitten by the beadie bug!


There are many different kinds of beads. The ones I started with were called seed beads, which are tiny beads that were used by Native Americans to adorn their ceremonial garb. Seed beads are still my favorite, and they come in many shapes and sizes.

In the picture above, at the far left in the middle you can see Czech beads in graduated sizes (photo from Fire Mountain Gems). They come in a wide range of sizes; the smaller ones enable more intricate patterns, but they are hard to work with. Just to the right, there is a photo of three Japanese seed beads. They are perfectly symmetrical, with very narrow walls and big holes. The Japanese beads don’t feel quite as organic as the Czechs, but they are a pleasure to work work due to their uniformity and beautiful colors. In more recent years there have been exciting new shapes (such as two-holed beads) from around the world.

On the right side of this slide, you see an old printer’s tray, which I use to store a variety of focal and accent beads. Being able to see and touch them inspires me.


On the far left side of this slide, you see pattern paper for a loomwork design. I often use this type of paper to think through my designs and color choices before I begin. Although loomwork was my first love, it does have limitations, because the nature of weaving is all right angles. So, it’s wonderful for geometric patterns, but not so good for other things.

After learning the basics of stringing beads on a single strand, the first complex bracelet I ever made is pictured at left. I used two different bead sizes to make a textured wave, and it is sewn on to a deerskin backing. In the middle you see a larger geometric piece, which took me about 22 hours to complete. Finally, what I call the Earth Egg necklace. I made it once based on a drawing on square graph paper, and due to the shape of the beads, the earth turned out egg-shaped. I hated it, so I cut it apart, re-graphed it, and wove the whole thing again. Although the proportions are right now, it will forever remain the Earth Egg in my mind.


It’s pretty humbling to see what masters do with the same materials! Here is Takako Sako, who used Japanese seed beads to make a kimono entirely out of beads. She is a celebrity in the Japanese beading community; you can read more about her work online.


Curiosity – and the limitations of loomwork – led me to explore peyote stitch. It can be woven flat or in a tube, and there are some lovely variations like two-drop, where you treat a pair of beads together in a single stitch. Because each bead is stitched individually, it’s possible to plan a design or to work spontaneously. In the case above, I had a pattern I liked, but I reproduced it on the fly. Not having to transport a loom meant I always had a project with me. I made a number of ‘amulet bags’ like this one, but I also beaded around lighters, small jars, and more.


All these pieces are pinned on my Pinterest board. From left to right you can find the pink circular medallion, the grey and gold cuff, the blue necklace, and the Sixty Flippin’ Triangles project.


When my paternal grandmother passed away, my mother inherited some of her jewelry. One of the pieces was a beautiful, supple beaded rope made entirely out of tiny white beads. My grandmother had two of them, and they were each about four feet long. For many years I could not figure out how the necklace was constructed. And then came the resurgence of bead crochet, and it became apparent that her necklace had been crocheted. I wish I could ask her where she got it, and what she knew about how it was made. I had the opportunity to attend Bead & Button class not long after that, and learned how to do it myself.

It does take some time to string the beads, especially if you want a pattern. Some people are comfortable joining smaller sections of crochet together. However, I find that the rope gets a little lumpy and stiff when I do that, so I prefer to string the whole project and avoid having to create joins.  For a necklace like my grandmothers, that might require string six or more feet of beads in a pattern before starting work.  One of thing things that I like about crochet is that once the beads are strung, the project is very portable. A little pouch and a crochet needle is all you need. And because everything is already strung, there is little to no risk of spilling beads in transit.


From the masters you can see the potential with this stitch. Counter-clockwise from top to bottom are photographs are from Beads Magic and Dorothy Siemens.  From my favorite book Bead Crochet Ropes at right you can see some of the patterns that are possible with different combinations of colors, sizes, and shapes.


Netting was the first technique I learned after loomwork. I was working at my college gym, signing people in at the entrance, and a woman told me about creating Mandala earrings. The next time she came to the gym, she brought a set of copies with her which taught the basics of netting. This was before the internet was widely accessible, remember, so we mostly learned by finding other beaders. The beads are stitched in a series of little triangles, which gives it an airy feeling. Like peyote, it can be stitched flat, around an object, or in a circular pattern. It can also be fun because you can combine multiple bead sizes, which is difficult in other stitches like loomwork and peyote. I think netting it is beautiful to look at, but I found it a little frustrating. Part of what I love about beading is the symmetry, and it’s hard to achieve that with netting – so I don’t use this stitch much at all.


However, there are some artists doing extraordinary work using this technique. Carol Perronoud takes her inspiration from natural objects. And Carol Wilcox Wells uses her training as a graphic design to inform her work.


After my Ph.D. but before having kids, I splurged on a trip to the Bead & Button show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I took a whole bunch of classes, met some of the artists whose work inspired me the most, and spent time with wonderful crafty ladies who I am still friends with today.

On a whim I took a glass bead making class, and I was completely smitten – maybe even worse than I was with seed beads all those years ago! There is something mesmerizing about working molten glass in a flame. I love the amazing colors, and learning about the different properties of the glass. For example, some colors melt faster than others, and some colors in combination result in chemical combinations and new artifacts in the bead.


It goes without saying that artists who spend many hours at the torch produce extraordinary results. I am lucky that I’ve been able to buy the work of some of my favorite artists; the photos above are pieces that I wear regularly.


I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about my passion for beads, and the nuances of designing for different materials, stitches, and travel schedules.

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