Before 1939 Europe was home to a thriving bead industry, particularly in what is now Czechoslovakia. Italy and France were also renowned for their glass beads, and later their steel cut beads. Unfortunately during World War II most of the factories were destroyed, and along came the Cold War. Finally, after the end of the Cold War in 1991, thousands of old seed beads were found. Today the best quality seed beads come out of Japan and the Czech Republic, and a few vintage looking styles from France as well. China and Taiwan produce seed beads, but they are not as high quality as those from Japan or Europe.
Just like world class chefs guard their signature recipes, bead manufacturers guard their color formulas as well. Each company wants to have a particular color that everyone wants, that’s how you sell beads. On a historical note, there is no true black glass bead. The recipe for black glass appropriate for beading was lost during World War II and no one has been able to recreate it. Any so-called ‘black glass’ bead looks purple when held up to a light. Although, there certainly are authentic antique black glass beads floating around that appear to have survived history.
Bead size can seem quite confusing if one is not familiar with the three units of measurement. Some manufacturers measure beads in aughts, which refers to the number of beads able to fit into a standard unit. Others use millimeters and still other bead manufacturers use a beads per inch measurement. The most common size of seed bead is 11/0 or eleven-aught. In millimeters that is 1.8, and 20 beads per inch. In bulk form, seed beads are sold either by ‘hanks’ or by grams. A hank is a bundle or 12 strands of 20 inches of strung beads. Japanese beads in particular are sold in grams.
Seed beads are very often used for bead weaving, either on or off a loom. The process works the same way as regular weaving, only with beads incorporated into the weft threads. Although beadweaving on a loom was quite popular at the beginning of the 20th century, it tapered off after World War II. Now off-loom beadweaving has become the most widespread method, with bead shops offering classes in techniques from beginner to advanced.
There are several stitches commonly used to create various textures and patterns. The peyote stitch is one of the most ancient, and is sometimes called the gourd stitch. Peyote stitch is achieved by using uniform shaped and sized beads threaded together side by side in either odd or even numbered rows. Each bead is held together by the thread and surrounding beads. Another common beadweaving stitch is the brick stitch. It can also be known as the Cheyenne or Comanche stitch, as it was perfected by Native Americans. It can look a lot like the peyote stitch, but done properly the brick stitch looks as if the beads are stacked like bricks.
The nice thing about beading is the versatility. Beaders can express their own personal style through color, pattern, size of bead and even the size of the piece. The available materials for beads have grown so much since the 1930’s. Now Swarovski crystal beads are available, as well as cubic zirconia, gold filled beads, Murano glass, gemstones, jade, various metals and so on. Creative beaders can make simple little pieces or fantastic three dimensional sculptures. It is all in the imagination! If you are a beginner, start with a newbie beading class and a kit. The classes are usually fairly inexpensive, and sometime the kit is included. As you learn new patterns and methods, your confidence will increase. Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and weddings will become exciting events as you watch your loved ones marvel at their handmade beaded gift from you!