Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


april 21, 2001 - Issue 34



Beading Series-Part 4


 by Lynne Sageflower Pennington



This installment is not going to be about a beading technique. I was so excited about doing this series that I forgot to do the article on the foundations of American Indian beadwork and talk about the beading terms, tools of the trade and other information. So the next two installment will be dedicated to these issues and other information.

Short History and Timeline on Beads for the Native Americans.
Beads of various types have been used by man since the beginning of time.
Before the Europeans came to Turtle Island Native American Indians and those from other places used various thing from Mother Earth to decorate their clothing.

  • From the land: Dried berries, seeds, nuts, wood and stone
  • From the animals and birds: Claws, teeth, bones and the quills from porcupines, and feather quills
  • From the sea: shells in many forms

  • When the Europeans came to Turtle Island in 1675, they brought with them glass beads. French fur traders would barter with the Natives for food, furs, land and even woman. To the Natives beads held more value then gold.
  • The First beads that were traded were what we call pony beads. Today you can find them in craft stores known as E beads.
  • From prosperity soon fur traders started trading expeditions into the woodlands and plains countries.
  • In 1760, a six foot strings of beads could be with a single beaver pelt. Fifty years later the Natives would find that the same pelt purchased two pounds of beads.
  • Blackrobes and other missionaries used the popular beads to help in their religious conversion of the Natives and to reward the native children for memorizing religious lessons.
  • In 1775, Eastern tribes obtained a tiny cut bead at British trading posts.
  • In 1800, a smaller size bead, seed bead, appeared. These beads were imported from several European countries and later from Japan.
  • Prior to this time the high cost and large size of the beads limited their artistic expression. Once the Natives obtained the larger quantities of the smaller beads, beadwork done on their clothing and possessions increased. These beads were easier to use, more colorful and provided more opportunity to express their artistry.

From The Hudson Bay Company Collection

Many tribes became recognizable by their beading designs.

  • The Lakes Natives-Floral and geometrical
  • The Sioux and Plains Natives- geometrical designs
  • The Blackfoot and Northern Plain Natives- more massive geometrical designs
  • The Woodland Natives- floral, geometrical and double curve designs.

Over the year this would change. Native Americans were great traders so it was not uncommon to see the beadwork of one tribe thousands of miles away worn by another tribe. Marriages between tribes also brought the beading of one tribe into another tribe. Over the years new ways of making beads have been introduced. From beads made from pottery to plastic and so on.

Beading Terms
Question: What is Beadwork?
Answer: Beadwork. A form of art in which seed beads are used to aide in the ecumenical form and design of the inclusive piece of clothing, jewelry or accessory. Since the beads are usually supported on a filament, such as thread or wire, beadwork can be considered as a form of fiber art.
Question: What does Aught mean?
Answer: Aught. This term is used to define bead sizes. The symbol for aught is the backwards slash - / . It is always proceeded by a number. Example 11/0. This means the project calls for size 11 beads, or if you are purchasing beads from a supplier this is the size you want. Remember the bigger the number the smaller the bead will be.
Before you can do any beadwork you need supplies. Some instructions ask for specific supplies. I will try to explain what they mean. I also advise that when a needle gets blunt replace it. Not only are they harder to use when blunt they also separate you beading thread faster.

Needles & Thread

  • Between Needles: These are short stiff needles about 1" and are good for when sewing directly onto leather. Great for Lazy stitch and appliqué work. They come in size 10, 11 and 12.
  • Beading Needles: Long thin needles especially made for beading on a loom. The eye of the needle is determined by the size of the needle and it is best to use beeswax to help put the beading thread thru the eye of the needle. They come in variety of sizes- 10, 12,13. For size 12 beads use size 12 needles. Be sure to have plenty around because they tend to break off at the eye.
  • Big Eye Needle: These needles have a larger eye which is about 3 ½" inches long, regular beading needles have a short length eye and are no bigger then the shaft of the needle itself. Threading this type of needle is a lot easier. These needles are highly recommended for stringing neck straps with out any seed beads but are not used for bead weaving.
  • Glovers Needles: Special needles for sewing through leather. They have a sharp triangular point which makes it easy to pierce leather. The smallest size is 10/0 therefore they wouldn't be useful with most seed beads.
  • Sharp Needles: Long, slender needles usually 2 to 2 ½" in length. These needles are used for most beadwork.
  • Twisted Wire Needle: Thin, flexible wire, with a split in the middle used as the eye of the needle. This will mesh flat when you are beading. They come in two sizes and are used for bead stringing but, can be used with seed beads
  • Curved Needle: This is a needle that has a slight curve to it. I use this needle when I am putting two sides of my beadwork together or sewing something onto a project like a abalone disk. The only size beads that I have found I can use this needle with is size 10 where the hole in the center of the bead is large enough


  • There are three types of thread that can be used for beading. Nylon ( Nymo), cotton and mercerized cotton.
  • All cut thread lengths should be run thru beeswax before using. It also keep the thread from snarling and tangling.
  • The thicker the thread the better it will hold up if using for regalia. It resists becoming rotten with age and with perspiration.
  • It is prone to stretch so it is not to good to use as the warp thread on loom work. It also tends give the look of a wrinkled effect when taken off the loom, which you do not want.
  • Nymo: Nylon thread comes in two colors-White and Black. It is available in bobbins, spools, cones and 4 thickness A, B, D and F. It is very strong. Due to its stretching it is not good to use for the warp threads on loom work but is great for the weft. However, if this is the only thread you have and you want to use this thread for the warp, it should be pre-stretched before use. To do this I put all my warp threads on my loom and then pull the moving end of my loom as far as I can. I then leave it for a couple days before I start my project.
Size A-use with size 13/0 and 14/0 beads
Size B-use with size 12/0 and 11/0 beads
Size D- use with size 11/0 and 10/0 ( I use this size for all my beading)
Size F- use with size 5/0 and 8/0 pony beads but is good to use as a draft thread.
  • Mercerized Cotton: High quality mercerized thread can also be used as the warp for the loom and also for beadwork.
  • You can use Quilting thread for size 12/0 and smaller beads or Button and Carper tread for size 10/0 and 11/0 beads.
  • All in All make sure you have a good strong thread when beading.

Bead Purchasing

  • Small package: It will not be stated how many beads are in the package. But a safe bet would be about 300 seed beads
  • Hank: A hank is several strands of beads looped and tied together in a bunch. A hank is determined by weight, with the number and length of strands depending on the size and type of bead. Below you will see a chart to determine how many beads are on a hank, but this can also change depending on the suppler.
  • ½ Kilo: Usually contains 10 to 24 hanks depending on bead size.
  • Kilo: Usually contains 20 to 48 hanks depending on size of beads.

When I purchase beads I determine what I will need. If I need a kilo I purchase them at one time since color die lots can vary. You do not want to start a project, end up short of beads and then when you order more have them be a different shade.

Calculating the amount of beads or hanks you will need for your beadwork
Single Beads
1. Measure the length and width of the area you are going to bead.
2.Then multiply the two figures together to get the square inches of the area of the beadwork.
Here is a chart to help you determine the number of beads per square inch:

Size 10 beads=130 beads per square inch
Size 11 beads= 187 beads per square inch
Size 12 beads= 228 beads per square inch
Size 13 beads= 273 beads per square inch

3. Multiply this number times the square inch area of the beadwork and you will get the total number of beads you will need.
Here is an example:
There area I want to bead is 6 inches by 10 inches and I am going to use size 11 beads.
6 x 10 = 60
187 x 60 = 11,220 beads

Many catalog books for example Crazy Crow have a chart in them to tell you how many of their beads are on a hank.
Here is the estimated number of beads on a hank by size.
Size 10- 3,100 beads per hank
Size 11- 4,000 beads per hank
Size 12- 4,500 beads per hank
Size 13- 5,000 beads per hank
Ok now if you divide the number of beads in the size bead hank you are using into the total amount of beads you need for the beadwork, you will get the number of hanks you need.
Example using the amount of beads I got for when was purchasing singe beads:
11,220 / by 4000= 0.002805 = 3 but I would get 4 to be safe. Also it is best to round off the number to an even number.

Tools of the trade
Needle Nose pliers
One thing you might come across when you are beading is oops there is an extra bead, What do I do? To have to remove all the beads is a pain. This is where a good pair of Needle nose pliers come in. There is also a way to break off the bead the correct way.
Never break a bead from top to bottom. If you need to break a bead off , grab it from the side (make sure you do not catch the thread).
Have a small sharp pointed pair of scissors. I have a pair that I use only for my beading and after a few times of use I sharpen them.
I also have a pair of Embroidery scissors which I find useful.
There are many looms on the market. They are made from metals to wood. Their prices range from hundreds of dollars (for metal ones) to less then $10.00 dollars.
My best advise in not to use the small metal ones from craft stores. Not only will you find that they tend to loosen but the rollers often do not fit right in some cases.
A trick: If you drop beads on the rug or floor. Put a nylon over the hose of your vacuum, hold the nylon so it will no get sucked up into the vacuum.
Another note:
Put any beading work you do up high away from animals. Cats love to chew on the threads and dogs love to chew on wood.
There are several type of seed beads on the market. The kind you use depends on how you want you project to look.
Beads come in many forms and sizes, Here are a few of them.

  • Seed beads: Small glass beads which look like little seeds. They are sized according to number, the higher the number, and are available in a variety of finishes and a number of shapes.
  • Delicas: are cylindrical, close to square in shape and about the same size as a size 12 seed bead.
  • Ceylon bead: An opaque glass with a permanent penalized finish.
  • Cut or Charlotte bead: A glass seed bead that is hand cut or molded with a facets finish. On two cut beads the sides are faceted. On three-cut the sides and ends are faceted
  • Fire Polished bead: A glass bead that when it is reheated just enough has a smooth, shiny finish.
  • Gemstone bead: A bead made from any semi-precious stone or minerals.
  • Greasy glass: A semi-nebulous glass bead with a soft, oily brilliance.
  • Hex Bead: These beads get their name from their shape.
  • Iris Bead: A 3-cut bead that when the light hits it shines in different colors.
  • Lined bead: A translucent bead whose appearance has been altered by lining gold, silver or color to its hole.
  • Luster bead: A semi-translucent glass bead with a coating that has a high glossy, whitish appearance.
  • Matte bead: A dull, low luster surface glass bead.
  • Old-Time Beads: Beads that are the same colors that were used my the ancestors.
  • White Heart or Hudson beads: A bead that has its center lined with white only. They only come in two colors , Red and Yellow.

In the next installment I will be talking about the different Beading Techniques




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