January 5, 2011

How (and Why) I Add Beadwork to Fiber Art

I'm in the midst of adding beadwork to "Squirrel and Locust" right now, and I wanted to share a bit about the process and the motivation for it.  I start with an assortment of seed beads, teardrops, cubes, and bugle beads and so on, and spread a small amount out on a piece of vellux.  Remember vellux?  A foam core with brushed nylon on each side, once popular for inexpensive, lightweight blankets?  I never cared for the blankets, but a square of vellux works great to keep beads from rolling away.  Here I have the vellux in an embroidery hoop to keep it flat and stable.  Below is the extreme closeup, showing how I'm using the tip of the needle to pick up a few beads--2, 3, or 4 usually, depending on their size.  And yes, I always wear a thimble on my middle finger of my dominant hand (the right) when doing hand sewing. 
The beads are then slid down the thread--more on that later--and laid in place on the fabric.  The fabric in this instance is the three or more layers, already stitched and quilted, of "Squirrel and Locust". The fingers of my left hand are underneath the fabric, supporting it, and my left thumb is on top, ready to grasp the thread and hold it in place for the next step.
With my right hand, I insert the tip of the needle at the edge of the last bead, and push it through; that hand then goes underneath, grasps the needle, and pulls the thread taut.
The needle is then pushed back up in the middle of that run of beads, in this case, behind the last two.
The needle is then reinserted through those last two beads and pulled through, and then it's time to pick up more beads.  This constitutes the "beaded backstitch".  It's a bit quicker that stitching each bead individually, but still ensures that the beads are very firmly anchored.  After a bit of practice, I can get a rhythm going, and while it is slow, methodical work, it's also meditative and soothing, just the thing to keep the hands busy while the mind wanders where it will. 
Here's part of my bead stash.  I like to keep them in tubes--the ones meant for coin collectors work well--and sorted by color in fishing tackle boxes. I'm particular about the beads I use, and very leery of the kinds often found in craft stores.  They need to be strong and smooth, relatively uniform, and colorfast, so I buy them from specialty vendors.  I have a nice but modest collection, and I always lust after more.....
I also use semi-precious stones and larger glass beads in my work.  I keep them sorted in the types of boxes  meant to hold cards of embroidery threads.
After much experimentation, I settled on Silamide bead thread as my favorite.  It's nylon, very sturdy, and doesn't kink or shred.  I use it doubled, and bury my knots on the backside of the work, but don't bother to try to hide the stitching.  I don't need a lot of colors, as I am mostly trying to match the value of the background fabric.  I generally use English #10 applique needles, they are sturdy enough to go through the layers of cloth and batting without bending, but still slender enough to fit through the beads.  The scissors are Prisms from Dr. Slick, made for fly tying, but great for sewing as they are very sharp and have fine tips, for those occasions when I need to un-sew something. Plus they are beautiful and make me happy. I forget which fishing supply site I bought these from, but there's a good picture and description of them here.
 That covers the basic "how" of adding beadwork, but to me the more important and interesting part, as with the employment of any technique, is the "why".  I use beads to add another layer of texture and interest to a piece, as I did here in "Sycamore", where I was referencing the texture of the tree's bark:
I am also interested in the lines where two images or fabrics meet.  I like using beadwork along intersections; it simultaneously blurs and emphasizes a straight line, and can provide a loci for curved lines, as it does here in "Tulip Poplar".
I also like adding beads at botanical intersections, as I did here in "Wood Poppy":
I don't always think that a piece needs or would benefit from beadwork, but once I commit to it, I always feel that the hours and hours of hand work are worthwhile.  The beads don't overwhelm the other design elements, but they add a subtle and enticing twinkle when a piece is viewed from a distance, and a lot of satisfying detail when viewed up close.


Sherry Boram said...

Fun to read and I enjoyed the photos, Sue. Yes, I love to bead as well, and it's been a while, so now I'll dream about it tonight!! Silamide is my favorite too, and black, beige, gray and white are the 4 colors I find that go well with everything. Your work is beautiful!

Diane D. said...

Thank you for sharing this, Sue. What a thoughtful analysis of this part of your process!