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Beads are among the simplest objects man ever created. Though they may not seem terribly useful, these small shapes with a single hole in their middle have played an important role in cultures around the world for several thousand years.

More people than ever are taking up beading and discovering the fun of using beads to craft unique items. All that's needed are some beads, a needle and thread, and a little patience. A great bead creation can be just stitches away.

What we think of today as beadwork -- using small seed beads to create items or adorn something -- is a very old practice. Beads were braided into horsetails in India in the ninth century BC.

Ancient beads were made by hand from shell, ivory, iron, wood and other natural items. Over the centuries, people have become more and more creative in forming beads. Today, we can find beads in almost any shape or size made from a wide variety of materials.

While modern people usually consider beads to be simply craft items, in ancient times they had much greater value. Before gold and paper money were developed as forms of currency, many cultures considered beads to be rare and precious enough to exchange for food and other items.

Early cultures also found beads useful for communication and as religious and social symbols. Many Indians in the northeastern part of North America used wampum, or strands or woven belts of clamshell beads, to record and send messages.

Because beads were so widely recognized as powerful symbols, they were also useful to show people's accomplishments and social status. Kings, queens and other leaders throughout history have worn beaded clothing and accessories to demonstrate their power and heritage.

In Native American cultures, beads were used to show family and tribal relationships, and one's status within the tribe. In some other cultures, beads on clothing or in the hair might be used to show marital status, family wealth or allegiance to a particular ruler.

Today, bead lovers practice their craft primarily for fun and creative enjoyment. While there are many kinds of beads available, the most common are seed beads, or small glass beads. A variety of seed beads are delicas, which are exceptionally uniform in shape and are manufactured in Japan.

Other types include bugle beads (tube-shaped glass beads), pony beads (large beads of plastic or glass), and lampwork beads, which are made by hand using glass rods headed over a lamp or burner. A good bead store will have an amazing variety of bead colors, styles and shapes to choose from.

There are two primary types of beading: wire work and loom beading. Wire work refers to hand-held, woven beading that is similar to braiding. It is typically used to make rings and other jewelry items. Loom beading uses a purchased or home-made loom, a pattern, beads and thin thread to create a woven bead design.

Getting Started

The best place to start a bead project is at a bead or craft store. There are any number of books, magazines and kits available to help beginning through advanced beaders create beautiful projects. The equipment you will need depends on the type of project you are doing.

Jewelry making usually requires beads, wire or thread, needles and pliers. Making belts, bags, and other woven items requires a loom. Looms are inexpensive, but it's also possible to make one using instructions that are available in books or on beading Web sites.

Any cross-stitch or knitting pattern can be used for beadwork. If you can't find a pattern you like, you can also create your own using graph paper, with one square representing one bead. Some advanced beaders also use design software for their beadwork.

Follow the directions in your loom kit to assemble and load your loom with thread. When you are ready to begin beading, be sure you have selected beads that are uniform in size. For bead-weaving, use either seed beads or delicas.

Most of these beads are imported from either the Czech Republic or Japan. They come in many sizes, ranging from 22/0 to 1/0. The most commonly used size is 11/0 (pronounced "11 ought"). The number refers to how many beads are in one inch when laid flat.

Beginners might want to start with a slightly larger size, 10/0, because the holes are bigger and it is easier to pass the needle through the beads.

Most beginners use a bead kit or book to start a project. These will detail how to attach the thread to the loom and thread beads to conform to your pattern. As you follow the directions and work one row at a time, your chosen pattern will soon emerge.

Finished bead-weaving can be made into purses, belts, necklaces, cell phone holders, or anything your imagination can dream up.

"The best way for a new beader to start is to learn all you can from anyone you can," says Texas bead enthusiast Debra Pyeatt. "Don't be afraid to try something new and different, and don't be afraid to make up your own design. It also helps to read all the books you can, take classes, and push yourself to do new things."

While not all bead projects are complex, patience, good fine motor skills and sharp eyesight are needed to work with beads. It isn't always a good craft for those who don't enjoy detailed work or have trouble doing delicate work with their hands.

"All a beginning beader needs is a determination and love for beads," says Pyeatt. "You also need to be able to use your imagination. Other than that, all that's required is a desire to keep creating."

Those who get hooked on beading, however, may find that they want to turn the craft into a career. As with any form of art, it isn't easy to make a living from beading, but it is possible. Many bead enthusiasts open bead shops, teach classes, and sell their own crafts to earn money.

"My avenue to earning money in beads involved developing my craft, getting my book about beading published and developing and teaching workshops," says master beader Donald Pierce, who practices loom work in Coos Bay, Oregon.


Beading on a Loom,
by  Don Pierce
Art of Seed Beading,
by  Elizabeth Gourley
Beading: From Necklaces to Napkin Rings,
by  Paige Gilchrist Blomgren


Loomwork Lesson
The basics of bead-weaving

Debra's Beadwork
Examples of Debra Pyeatt's work

Native American Beadwork
Information on the history of beads in native culture

The Bead Site
Lots of links

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.