Bead embroidery has been around for centuries. It can be used for all manner of things, from decorating clothing, to creating elaborate costumes for the stage, handbags and accessories for occasion-wear and, more recently stunning beaded jewellery. If you already have some experience of beading, in any form, then you may well be asking where bead embroidery fits into the world of beading? Well, I will start by giving you my take on that question, then move on to show you lots of basic bead embroidery techniques, before leaving you with some links to project tutorials that you might like to try.
What is Bead Embroidery?
Very simply, bead embroidery involves stitching beads onto fabric. They can be arranged to cover large portions of fabric, or just used as small decorative elements. Traditionally seed beads or rocailles, bugle beads, pearls, crystals and sequins were all common materials to use. I also think bead embroidery could be classified both as beadwork and as sewing. So, you may find dress-making or couture courses that cover elements of bead embroidery. There is huge overlap in the techniques, so many of the traditional techniques that you see beaders use, will have been used by dress-makers and fashion designers for centuries. However, as the beading world has evolved, so too has bead embroidery.
For starters, it is common for bead embroidery projects to also incorporate elements that are made with traditional bead-weaving techniques, for example cabochons. You may see elaborate bead embroidered jewellery designs where sections are created using bead embroidery and these are linked with traditional bead-weaving sections.
Then came the advent of the new shaped and multi-holed seed beads. These are just as successful in bead embroidery as in traditional bead-weaving projects, but they may require you to innovate as you work out how to attach them. Having said that, any innovation you need to make is going to be based upon traditional techniques, so you will want to start by learning the basics.
It took me a long time to start trying bead embroidery. In some ways I think the techniques are easier than a lot of bead-weaving. You do not need to worry about complex thread paths linking beads: everything is built on the premise of finding a way to attach the beads directly to a material backing whilst keeping your thread as unobtrusive as possible. There is considerable skill in aligning the beads neatly so that you end up with clear and even patterns, but this is something that you can develop easily with practise.
For me, I see a distinction between bead embroidery and bead-weaving. I think of bead embroidery as like painting with beads. I think of bead-weaving as like engineering. Both styles require you to understand how to use colour, texture and create a pleasing design. I see bead embroidery as focusing more on pattern and texture, bead-weaving as focusing more on structure. If you want to try and look at it in terms of art, then think of bead-weaving as sculpture and bead embroidery as painting. Seen in this light, that may explain why I came relatively late to bead embroidery: my school art teachers would, I think, be surprised to learn that I have ended up working in any artistic industry – I was far from a model art student! However, one teacher made clear to me that I had no talent whatsoever as a painter, and I think this childhood lesson has stuck with me. So finding the courage to try ‘painting’ with beads took me a while. Now I’ve done it, there is no turning back! I am fascinated with the process of learning how to arrange beads, experimenting with ways of creating pattern, texture and generally pleasing designs. I also find the process of embroidering very soothing, but perhaps that is less surprising as I learned to sew long before I learned to bead. So, if you would like to give bead embroidery a try, I’m going to take you through the basic techniques.
Bead Embroidery Materials
So, what do you need for bead embroidery? Well, any beads you like, thread – I suggest that KO, S-lon, possibly Nymo, or any of the other nylon-based threads, will be best. Some people like to use Fireline for bead embroidery, but I don’t feel it brings the same benefits as it does to bead-weaving (just my personal opinion!).
Then, you will need some material onto which to stitch. If you are making jewellery, then I suggest using Lacy’s Stiff Stuff or Nicole’s bead backing. These are basically stiffened material that is easy to stitch through and doesn’t fray. You can also draw on them to mark out your pattern guide. Some come in a range of colours and it is a great idea to try and match or tone with your beads. You may be aiming to cover the fabric entirely with beads, but inevitably tiny chinks of backing may show through. If they are a similar colour to the beads, then these ‘chinks’ will not be visible. If you are desperate to get started and have no means of getting these materials, I have used a normal sewing fabric and stiffened it with iron-on interfacing, but be warned – the two fabrics may start to come apart as you work, so I would recommend the ‘proper’ materials if possible…unless you are planning to add some freeform embroidery to brighten up a patterned material, but more on that below…
You may choose to use a ‘blank’ for a necklace or bracelet. This is basically a piece of metal that has been shaped to fit like a cuff or necklet and which you can cover with the bead backing and the last essential piece…Ultrasuede. This is what will provide the ‘back’ to your jewellery, so it is the part that sits against the skin. It is more decorative than the Stiff Stuff/backing, but still has the same properties of not fraying and being durable and easy to sew. Some people also choose to use lightweight leather. In general, I prefer to sew my backing to the bead embroidery (skip down to ‘finishing off’ if you want more information on that), but it is perfectly possible to just glue on a backing. If you have chosen a stiff material, you may find it difficult to sew through.
Finally, gather together your beading needle, scissors, some clear glue, a pencil or pen and ruler or tape measure, and you are ready to start.
Creating a Pattern Template
There is nothing to stop you from taking a piece of material, adding beads as you wish, then cutting around it and finishing the piece. However, unless you are a really big fan of freeform beading (few people are!), this is just making life unnecessarily difficult. You are best off starting with a pattern guide to help structure your work. If you are planning to cover a metal form with embroidery, or wanting to make a bracelet or necklace to a particular size, then you will certainly need the pattern to guide you.
You can draw the pattern onto your backing using a pen. If you are concerned about it showing through the beads at the end, then feel free to use a ‘magic marker’ fabric pen that can be washed off. However, your beads should be added densely enough that the markings are covered, so I prefer to use a normal biro or ballpoint pen as I find the fabric markers can actually rub off while I am working, which is not helpful!
Creating a Pattern from Scratch
If you are very creative and want to really ‘draw’ with your beads, then start by creating your pattern from scratch. Begin by marking out the area that needs to be covered, then draw on key points. This could be something like lines to divide the area into smaller sections, circles to indicate the placement of a large bead. It does not have to be complicated, but you should think about design principles – how to guide the eye around the piece by giving it a sense of movement, colouring and texture.
Transferring a Pattern
If you are starting out, it can be easier to transfer a pattern. There are a couple of ways of doing this. I have found that I have been able to create a pattern on my computer, print it out (make sure the lines are in black) and then trace through the Stiff Stuff to transfer it on.
If you are making a piece of embroidery to fit a cuff or necklet, then you will need to create a template that is exactly the right size. For a cuff, this is simple. You can just measure the length and height of the cuff and draw a rectangle to that size. If the cuff blank has shaped corners, then make sure you transfer that shaping onto the Stiff stuff.
If you are working with a necklet, then you will find that this has been shaped into a curve, so it is not so simple to just draw out. I found the best technique was to start by blu-tacking a piece of paper onto the necklet. Then, carefully draw around the outside edge of the necklet. Remove the paper and you carefully cut out the paper pattern. Check that it really does fit your frame well and when you are happy, you can just draw around this template onto the Stiff Stuff.
Once you have created your basic outline, you can add details, as I suggested before. Draw lines to mark out areas. If you are adding in a Cabochon or large bead, then place that in position on the pattern piece and draw around it so you get it in just the right place. It may be tempting to ‘eyeball’ your placement, but you will quickly find that if you get things out of alignment or just slightly off centre, the mistake will be magnified when you come to stitch all the beads in place. This is where your tape measure comes in handy. You are going to see this message throughout this technique guide: accuracy is key. It makes the difference between a professional and an amateur-looking piece. It takes more time, but is worth the effort in the long run.
Most important: once the pattern is drawn on the backing material, DO NOT cut it out. You are going to add the beads before you trim. If your pattern is a lot smaller than the backing, then feel free to trim the backing slightly to make it more manageable, but do not attempt to cut around the pattern line – unless you have been told to do so.
Starting and Finishing Thread
There are different ways of doing this. I always work with a double thread, so I cut an arm-span, thread the needle and slide it to the centre of the thread, then fold the thread in half so my two ends are meeting. I then tie a double knot in the two ends. I usually find this is sufficient to hold the thread secure at the beginning. Decide where you are going to start and pass up through the backing (from wrong side to right side), so the knot will anchor the thread on the wrong side and you are ready to start adding beads.
The problem with a double thread is that it can tangle. Also, if you decide you want to remove some beads, you can’t unthread the needle and unpick as I would recommend (although you should be able to carefully ease the needle back, ‘wrong’ end first, through the hole you made in the backing, if you need to). The advantage of a double thread is that it creates a secure fixing with just one pass through the bead.
If you choose to use a single thread, then start by simply over-sewing on the wrong side of the backing. Do this in an area that is going to be covered by beads, so it shouldn’t show. You should also be able to pass through just part of the backing, so the over-sewn bit is not visible on the right side. In the photo you can see the knot that started my thread (right) and the over-sewn section hidden under the bead on the wrong side (centre).
Finishing the thread is the same for both single and double. When your thread is starting to feel too short to use comfortably, pass it through to the wrong side and over-sew 3-4 times in the same spot to secure the thread (if you are used to sewing, this will seem familiar to you). Again, try and make sure you pick a spot that is covered by beads so the stitches do not show on the right side. Trim the thread close to the backing and that’s it.
When you are edging your design, you can use the same methods to start and finish, but as you start, take your needle through the edge of the backing, so that is sits between the backing and the ultrasuede (this will make more sense when you have read the notes on finishing projects below). That way, the knot will sit between the two fabrics, out of sight. When you finish, you should be able to carefully over-sew between beads in a densely beaded area on the design, so the stitches will not show. Remember that your Ultrasuede is still a part of the finish, so do not treat it like the ‘wrong side’ of the fabric – it is going to be visible on the finished piece, even if that is not while the piece is being worn.
Bead Embroidery Techniques
Bead embroidery techniques exist to help you create different textures and ‘paint’ different scenes with your beads. I find bead embroidery a lot more free than bead-weaving, in the sense that you can choose exactly what kind of technique(s) you want to use. There are no right and wrong choices, but there are choices that will make life easier or allow you to achieve your goal with more success. So, before I talk about the techniques, I want to offer you a helpful framework for deciding which to use.
The first question to answer is, what are you trying to do? If you want to draw a line, then this gives you a choice of two main techniques: backstitch and couching. If you want to ‘colour in’ an area, then you have different choices to make. Backstitch and couching are still options, but you can also think about using Stack stitch, loops, Stab stitch or just adding single beads. These are the two main things you will need to do with bead embroidery. You may decide to add a larger focal bead (or several), in which case, you might be able to just stich these on, or, if this larger bead has no hole, you will want to use Stack stitch to secure it. The main message here is that you can make an awful lot of bead embroidery with just a very few techniques, so there is nothing to stop you from jumping in straight away and learning more as you go along.
If you have marked lines on your pattern template, then you may want to bead over them, as if you were outlining an area. For straight lines, or for short curves, couching is a good option. Simply pass your needle up through the backing at one end of the line, thread on enough beads to reach to the other end, slide them into place and then pass down through the backing at the point marking the other end of the line.
One word of caution: if you are working with a very curved line, try to cover it in stages, with just a few beads – it is difficult to see how the beads will sit accurately and the couching that you are about to do may cause them to move. As you have defined the beginning and end of the line, you may find you have too many or too few beads to space accurately along the curved line once you begin anchoring them. Hold that thought….
If you have done as I said, then your needle will be on the back of the fabric and your beads will be floating on the top, anchored at either end of the line marked on your pattern. You now need to bring your needle back up through the fabric, at a point on the marked line, but between two beads, say 3-4 beads from the end. The photo above shows the work to this point.
Now take your needle and thread over the top of the line of beads and pass back down through the backing, as close as possible to where you came up. Your thread should pull down over the top of the thread, between the beads, as you pull the needle through. Make sure the thread is pulled through fully and this will keep your beads anchored in place. See the photo to the right.
Once again, pass up through the fabric, on the marked line, but a few beads back towards the beginning, pass the needle and thread over the top of your line of beads and take them back through the fabric to anchor the next part in place. Keep repeating this all the way along the line until you are a few beads from the start. If you are working along a curved line, then by using the marked line as a guide, you will pull your beads into the curved shape that you want. If you are working on a straight line, then keep your beads as straight as possible.
Remember I said that couching may not be the best option for a long curved line? Well, if you do have to use it, just make sure you take the line in small stages, but my personal preference would be to work in Backstitch instead as you have more control over drawing as you go.
Backstitch can be used to mark curved lines or straight lines and to fill in whole areas. It looks good circling around a cabochon or large bead as well.
Pass your needle up through the backing at a point on the line you will be beading (start at the beginning if the line has a clear beginning and end). *Pick up 2-4 beads (if you are using big beads, then pick up 2, if you are using small seed beads, then pick up 4). Slide the beads into place on the backing, then pass back down through the backing, at the point where the last bead is sitting. Make sure you pass down through on the line you have marked.
Now pass back up through the backing, making sure you come through on the marked line, but come through at the point in the middle of this group of beads. So, if you added 2 beads, you come back up through between these two beads. If you added 4 beads, you will come back up through between beads 2 and 3.
From here, pass on through the last bead (or two beads) so you are exiting from the final bead in your string. Now repeat from * to add your next little group of beads. Keep to the same number in the group each time and just keep repeating this process until you reach the other end of your line.
When you are nearing the end, or if you are stitching a circle, when you come to add your last group of beads, you may need to adjust the number you pick up, so that they fit the remaining space on your line. When you have completed the line, pass your thread back through all the beads and this should pull them into place. The photo series below shows seed beads being added in this technique. Note, how I am adding 4 beads at a time and passing up between beads 2 and 3.
The techniques you choose for filling spaces will depend on the kind of texture you want to create. You can fill a space using back stitch. Take a close look at the two photos above – I am actually using backstitch to add a row of beads immediately to the side of the backstitch row I created with pearls. So, you can keep adding rows next to one another, either in exactly the same beads, or create variation by using different colours, or different sizes. I am going to show you a few other techniques for filling spaces.
Adding Single Beads
This technique is a personal favourite. If you mix up different shades of the same colour, or create a wilder colour mix, you can create mosaic effects. If you use all the same beads, you still get a lovely random textured effect.
The technique is simple: pass up through from the back to the front, pick up 1 bead, slide it down into place, then pass back down through the material just on the other side of the bead. Pass back up through to the side of the bead and repeat the process. Keep repeating this until you have covered the area with single beads.
This is a lovely way to use bead mixes and you can use a combination of different sizes as well as different colours. The point to remember is to use accurate spacing. If you leave too much space between the beads, your backing material will be very visible. If you try and add the beads too close together, then they will start to jostle for position and will knock one another out of alignment. You will notice that the beads can move once they have been added. Try to keep the material flat as you are working and this will help with the spacing. If you let it take its own shape and you are squeezing in too many beads, you will end up with the material curving and this may mean it doesn’t fit any cuff or necklet blank that you are planning to use. As with all new things, this comes with experience, so just take a piece of scrap material and try a section to get a feel for how the beads sit.
If you want to give your embroidery a more textured feel, you can cover a space with loops of beads. The technique is exactly the same as for adding single beads, but instead of picking up 1 bead, pick up an odd number. The more beads you add, the higher the loop will be. You can also alter the height of the loops according to where you re-enter the fabric. If you enter as close as possible to the point where you originally came through, then the loop will sit very upright. If you go back through at a point further away from where you came up, your loop will sit more across the material. Take care if you are spreading your loops, as you may end up with backing material visible. If you mix in different bead colours, you can increase the textured effect. This is something to play around with to see what effects you can create.
Adding Bigger Beads and Textures
An easy way to create points of interest is to add larger focal beads into the work. This could be a single cabochon or rivoli in the centre, or it could be a selection of gemstones arranged around the piece. You might want to use some of the larger shaped seed beads for this. If your large bead has a hole through it, then you can just stitch it straight onto the backing. Use the same technique as you would for adding a single bead: pass up through the backing (from back to front), pick up your focal bead, slide it into place, then pass back down through the backing at the point where the bead is sitting. If the bead is very large or heavy, then you might want to repeat that thread path to secure it again.
If your bead has no hole, then you can secure it using a technique called ‘Stack Stitch’.
Start by placing your bead on the backing fabric, in position. Carefully draw around the outside of the bead. This line is going to form your guideline as you start the stack stitch, so you need to make sure it is accurate.
Take the bead away and begin adding your stack stitch. You will need to use seed beads. Some people use a mixture of different sizes (larger at the bottom, getting smaller at the top) to ‘grade’ the stack. This is a good idea if you are trying to attach a dome shaped bead, but if your bead is more of a flat disc, then use all the same size seed beads. Pass up through the backing on your guideline. Pick up enough beads so that they sit just slightly higher than your main bead. Skip the final bead and pass back down through the other beads in your stack. Pass back down through the backing material as close as possible to where you came up, making sure you pass through on the guideline marked. Pull your stack into place.
Pass back up through on the guideline, about a bead’s width away from your first stack, then used the same technique to add a second stack. Keep adding stacks all around the guideline. As you reach the end of your circle, you may have to adjust your spacing slightly – you do not want to end up with a big gap between stacks. When you have completed the circle, pass back up through the beads in your first stack, so you end up exiting from the top bead. Place your main bead in the centre – if you have been accurate, this should fit perfectly. If you want to, you can add a drop of glue to the back of the main bead, but this should not be necessary. You are now going to pass through the top bead in each stack, pulling them in tight, and the beads should pull over the top of the edge of your focal bead, holding it in place. Reinforce the thread path through this circle of top beads, then finish by passing back down through the nearest stack and into the wrong side of the backing.
If you wish, you can also use Stack Stitch to add texture to a piece of embroidery. Just stitch the stacks along a line and do not join their top beads. For even more interest, you can grade the stacks so your first might have 3 beads, your second 4 beads, your third 5 beads, your fourth 4 beads and your fifth 3 beads – you have created a little mound. Play with different arrangements of stacks to add depth and movement to an embroidery design.
Stab Stitch is a very traditional bead embroidery technique. It is often used to dot sequins on a piece of clothing. Now, with the new shaped seed beads, you can replace the sequin with a bead – O beads and Wheel beads work very well.
The technique involves coming up through the backing, picking up your flat (or larger) bead, then picking up a small seed bead. Slide the beads down onto the backing material so they are sitting in position, then pass back down through the flat bead and on through the backing material. The little seed bead will hold your larger bead in place. You can add these little arrangements of beads so they are scattered singly on a piece of material, or group them, or even add them in lines. They give a different texture and some interest to a piece.
Once you have added all your beads, the process of finishing is the same for every piece of bead embroidery:
- Trim the backing to within 2mm of the edge of the beads
- Draw around this backing piece on your Ultrasuede and cut the Ultrasuede out on the line you have just marked
- Glue the Ultrasuede onto the back of the beadwork (NB, if you are working with a metal blank, then see below before you do this step)
- Edge the finished piece with your chosen technique (some options are described below)
If you are working with a cuff or necklet blank, you still need to trim your work and cut out the Ultrasuede, but before you have cut anything too drastically, make sure it is still the right size for your metal blank. If it is too large and cannot be trimmed, that’s going to be fine. If it is now smaller than the blank, you will need to add some extra beads to the edges before you trim everything. Cut the Ultrasuede to fit your embroidered piece once you are happy that this will fit the blank. Then, glue the embroidered piece onto the front of the blank and glue the Ultrasuede onto the back of the blank. Allow the glue to dry before you finish the edges.
You may notice from the photo that the edges of my cuff are unfinished. They will not fray and you may not find this unattractive, but it is traditional to add some sort of beaded edge to finish off. I am going to talk about a couple of common techniques for doing this.
If you are new to bead embroidery, then over-stitch is a simple way to edge a piece of work. I used it for the edging on the cuff you see above.
Refer back to the notes on starting and finishing thread. You need to begin a new piece of thread so you are exiting from the right side of your backing, just above the bead line. The knot or stitching holding your thread in place to start should be on the wrong side of the backing, so it is between the backing and Ultrasuede.
For over-stitch, pick up 4-5 size 11 seed beads (you can alter the number if you are using a different sized bead, or if you feel a different number will work better for you). Take your needle and thread over the edge of the piece and pass through the Ultrasuede and the backing material, so the beads loop over the edge. You should pass through the fabrics just above the existing bead line, so your new loop of beads will butt right up to the existing work and you have a neat finish. Keep repeating this loop technique. Space the loops carefully so they are butted right up to one another, but do not overlap.
This is a very common technique for edging. It works well with seed beads and, if you are already a bead-weaver, you will be familiar with the technique. If this is the case, then the only difference is that, instead of hooking under the thread from the previous row, you are going to pass through the edge of your Ultrasuede and backing material. If you need a brick stitch technique guide, you can find a free tutorial here. I am just going to take you quickly through the principle for edging bead embroidery.
Begin a new thread as you would for the over-stitch (see above). On the first stitch, you will pick up 2 beads, slide them up to the edge of the work, then pass through the backing and Ultrasuede immediately above your line of embroidered beads, but at a point that is under the second of your two new beads. Then pass back up through the second of the 2 beads you just added. Now pick up 1 bead, pass through the backing and ultrasuede just below the point where you want that bead to sit, and pass back up through the bead. Keep repeating this, adding one bead at a time.
The key to getting a neat edge is firstly to make sure you trimmed as close as possible on your bead embroidery, so you have absolutely no more than 2mm of fabric between the edge and the point where the beads end. Your Ultrasuede should be trimmed to a perfect fit with the backing. This will ensure that you can pull in your brick stitch beads nice and close to the existing beadwork.
Secondly, take care when you pass through the two layers of fabric – you want to make sure you give each bead enough space to sit. If you pass through too close to the previous bead, then the new bead will end up trying to sit partly on top and your final edge will be ruffled. If you pass through too far away, then your beads will have gaps between them and look untidy. Again, practise is the only way to get this right.
Recommended Bead Embroidery Patterns
There is nothing to stop you from gathering together the materials and starting to practise different techniques right away. However, it can be more inspiring to work to a pattern that someone else has designed, so you have set rules to follow. This link will take you to a selection of bead embroidery patterns and tutorials. They are ranged to different levels of ability and use a wide range of the techniques described here, so you can pick and choose something that suits your experience and will help you practise the techniques you most want to learn. This set of patterns is continually being updated, so make sure you check back regularly to get the newest designs.
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