I like to create just about anything if it involves a needle and thread. For me, bead embroidery is about painting, but I use beads as my palette. Mostly, I make pieces to wear – brooches and necklaces that encourage me to play with design, color and texture. While the pieces take time (I have to pick up one bead at a time), they are small and allow me to take risks that I might hesitate to take with larger pieces, such as quilts or garments.
I have little project boxes and bags everywhere, often wanting to try ideas that don’t go together. So I gather what I will need to start the next piece and set it aside until I’m ready for it.
With little baggies of beads leftover from beadweaving projects, I can put together the beads I want to use without occupying a lot of space or pulling full bead tubes from my stash. It’s fun to sort through my “leftovers” to find beads that are just the right size and color for my design.
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The Technique: How to Embroider with Beads
Bead embroidery is like painting with beads. And for those of us who do not feel comfortable randomly wielding a paintbrush (except for the occasional wall), it’s a somewhat planned way to execute a design.
Bead embroidery is stitched on a foundation. You can purchase foundations made expressly for bead embroidery. Peltex is similar and available by the yard. It’s sturdy, doesn’t fray and is easy to needle. Some beaders stitch on felt. Anything that supports the work (beads can get heavy) and is easy to needle can work.
I can draw my design directly onto the Peltex or wing it freeform. But I often design on the computer and want to print my design. I print onto Transfer-Eze and can print in color if I like. It’s a stabilizer that I can run through my inkjet printer. It has a sticky side that I apply directly to the Peltex, then stitch over the printed design. Transfer-Eze is water soluble, so it just washes away when I have finished stitching.
Design Play with Bead Embroidery
There are lots of books and patterns available to get beginners started with bead embroidery, and there are endless possibilities using just a beaded backstitch. You can also bezel cabochons, stack beads or introduce creative edge stitches to finish the piece. I like to draft an original line drawing or adapt a motif from textiles or architecture.
It’s fun to play with beads of varying sizes and shapes as well as planning a pleasing color scheme. I don’t have to mix paint colors, but I do have to buy a lot of beads, even though small amounts of each color go into each design! Fortunately, I haven’t had to reinforce my floor – yet! The quilter in me likes to back the piece with a small piece of cotton batting and hand dyed fabric.
Ultrasuede is a popular backing material for many bead embroiderers. I like to juxtapose different textures such as the frayed recycled sari silk ribbon, the smooth glass beads and a bit of metal – like a sterling silver clasp – into my pieces.
A custom bead mix left over from a previous project provided the background for Pink Petals Beaded Necklace. Then a small semiprecious gemstone anchors the center of the flower. I don’t wear a lot of pink, but that color seemed right with these petals.
Playing the “what if” game keeps design ideas lively. After ten years of living in New Orleans, the fleur de lys motif just feels like a good friend. To make it my own (and to tone down the “Hey y’all” vibe), I altered the classic motif a bit. I also played with the traditional New Orleans colors of purple, green and gold, but took them in a non-traditional direction, too. So, you could wear this to a Mardi Gras ball, but you can wear it other places, too. The Fleur de Bead Necklace makes a personal statement through wearable art.
Botanical themes calm the spirit, and a beaded vine that pushes its frame has just the right amount of playful unruliness – like a real vine; like real life. If you push against your boundaries, perhaps you will grow beyond them. This is the feeling I wanted to evoke in A Fine Vine Beaded Necklace. Flowing curves juxtaposed against a geometric rectangle keep the eye moving about the piece and keep you wondering where the vine might break through.
While not necessarily a grape vine, the colors in the Art Nouveau motif evoke a lush vineyard, ready for harvest. Beaded picot edging adds a nice finish to the focal piece.
This flower brooch used small amounts of leftover beads – the beads I had that were too few to do a project on their own but were too many to throw away. It’s a fun challenge to play with the little packets of orphan beads and find combinations that sing.
This little flower seemed to want a “frame”, so I used the same beads that formed the center of the flower to pull the piece together. That decision unifies the piece in a way that a contrasting frame would not. The flower petals are light springy colors, so they needed a dark background to set them off. So, I think the blue pulls a bit from the lavender and aqua-green undertones of the flower petals. This provides another unifying element for Bead Embroidered Flower Brooch.
The motif in this bead embroidery design reminds me of a flickering candle flame, resulting in Bead Embroidered Brooch: Candlelight. One of the freeing joys of bead embroidery is the lack of restrictions on the final shape of the piece.
In this piece, the perimeter hugs the central flickering flame with backstitched seed beads. I printed the rough design on a Peltex foundation to serve as a guide for bead placement. Then, starting with the central candle flame motif, I filled each area with color.
I auditioned colors by laying out beads that I thought might work well together. The cool blue and green are a nice counterpoint to the warm gold of the candle flame. The white background provides enough contrast to give clear definition to each of the color elements. Trimming away the excess beading foundation was tricky – I had to trim closely enough that the foundation did not show on the front of the piece, but not so closely that I snipped threads and have Bead Embroidered Brooch: Candlelight unravel in my hands.
I love the cheerful, wavy rays of the sun that say, “Here I am!” in Bead Embroidered Brooch: Here Comes the Sun. The scalloped upper edge echoes the golden rays of the sun. They are framed, but do not feel contained as they would be if placed in a straight rectangle.
With bead embroidery, how do you decide where to start stitching? I wanted a strong center for the sun, so I started with that, building a smooth curve to support the rest of the design. The rays came next because I wanted to be sure to capture their waviness and sharp points. Then I filled in the background, stitching around the rays to give them further emphasis.
The My Beading Heart Pendant started with a freehand drawing – rare for me. But this simple and whimsical shape allowed even my basic drawing skills to succeed. I drew some internal swirls in the lop-sided heart to start and used those lines as a guide to fill in the beaded outline. Organza ribbon made a simple bail to go over kumihimo or a silk cord.
Check out all of our beading projects on Create Whimsy!