Beading patterns can be a little confusing if you are a complete novice: like any other craft, beading has its own language and terminology that might seem strange when you start out. Here I’ve attempted to explain some of the most common beading terms that will crop up over and over again. If there is some terminology that I haven’t covered here, then please leave a comment in the comments box and I will add it to the post.
If you are a beading tutor and you find this information helpful, please feel free to share it with your students.
Wingspan or Arm-span
A lot of beading patterns start by telling you how much thread to work with. This may be labelled in traditional feet, inches, metres or centimetres, but it can often be stated as a ‘wingspan’ or ‘arm-span’, or some multiple of this measurement. This basically means the length from hand to hand if you stand with your arms out-stretched.
So, take your reel of thread in one hand, take the end of the thread in the other hand and move your hands apart until your length of thread stretches from one hand to the other, then cut the thread from the reel at this point.
This is commonly regarded as an optimum length of thread with which to work as, once you have threaded the needle and pulled the thread through into place, you should find that on every stitch, you are able to stretch out your working arm (the hand holding the needle) and this will pull your thread all the way through your work. This length is long enough to be able to complete a lot of rows, or in some cases an entire project, without needing to join a new thread, so this is also a huge bonus.
If a pattern does not specify how much thread to use, or if it talks about a ‘comfortable length of thread’, then your wingspan of thread is probably the best length to use.
This is a very common beading term. It refers to the short length of thread that is left at the end of your work. Whenever you start a piece of beadwork, you will not be able to thread the beads to the very end of your thread, so the little length that is left is called the tail thread. It may be shown in a diagram, as is the case in the netting diagram to the left. The tail thread is that narrow line protruding from the very left-hand side of the beads. When diagrams do show it, this can be a handy guide to allow you to check that you are adding beads in the right direction: see if the diagram is moving towards or away from the tail thread and then check that you are doing the same. It can also be used as a reference, for example: ‘at the end of the row, you should be exiting from the same bead as your tail thread.’
In some patterns, you will be told how long your tail thread should be, but this is not always the case. So, if your beading pattern doesn’t mention your tail thread, what should you do? Well, the optimum length for a tail thread is about 6″ (15cm). This is long enough for you to hold as you work and also long enough to stitch in at the end of your project (see the blog on how to start and finish beading threads). For some stitches, like the first rows of a strip of Peyote stitch, you will need to pull on the tail thread to get your beads to sit in place correctly, so if your thread is too short, you won’t have anything to pull on. Conversely, if your thread is too long, you will find it just gets tangled up in your beads as you work.
In some beading patterns, you will need a longer tail thread as you will use this to complete a later step. For example, you may use the tail thread to attach a clasp to a piece of jewellery. So make sure you note if a pattern mentions a specific length for a tail thread and follow the instructions carefully.
Tail threads can become very annoying once they have served their useful purpose. They can get caught in your beadwork as you go, so if your tail thread is not going to be used later in the pattern, I advise you to stitch it in once you have about six rows of beadwork completed. I keep a spare needle on my beading mat so that I can just use this to thread onto the tail thread and finish it off without having to unthread the needle from my working thread and then re-thread it.
You may have gathered by now, the working thread is the end of thread to which your needle is attached. It may simply be referred to as ‘thread’, but in some patterns the designer will make the distinction between the working thread and the tail thread.
This must be one of the most confusing beading terms. It does not apply to all beading stitches, but you will find it commonly used in Peyote stitch, netting and Herringbone. In most cases, it applies to the circular and tubular versions of these techniques. It is basically a term to define the action you will take when you finish one row, to get yourself into the correct position to start the next row. If you think of it as being like the join between two beading rows, it will really help when you are working. You will finish one row of beading, then ‘step up’ to manoeuvre into position ready to begin the next row. The step up does not involve picking up new beads, so you must complete it before you add any more beads. Once you become skilled in the techniques, you will be able to do this without thinking.
The step up gets its name from the fact that you are mostly passing in a slightly upwards direction through one or more beads. Take a look at the photo: this is a Peyote stitch tube and the final row that has been stitched is the row adding the blue beads. In each stitch in this row, the beader will have picked up a blue bead and passed through the next green bead. The photo shows the final bead in the row being added, so the last blue bead is on the needle and the needle is passing through the green bead. This action completes the row. The beader in this photo is also making the step up at the same time, so by passing on through the next blue bead, the beader is getting into position to start a new row. In the next row, the beader will be picking up a new bead and passing through the next blue bead.
The step up will look a little different in each technique, but the principle is always the same: to pass through some existing part of the beadwork in order to get into position to start adding new beads.
If you are already familiar with other needle crafts, like knitting, crochet or sewing, you will probably recognise the term ‘tension’. This basically refers to the amount of force applied as a new stitch is created. If you apply a lot of force, the new stitch will sit tightly against previous stitches. If you apply a small amount of force, the new stitch will be looser. The principle is exactly the same in beading. When you add a new bead, you will apply a certain amount of force to your needle and thread to pull the bead into place. If you pull very hard on the thread, your bead will snuggle in firmly against its fellows. If you do this consistently, then your beads will weave together in a clear pattern, whichever stitch you are using. If you do not take care to pull the bead tightly into place, then it can be hard to make out the pattern you are creating and mistakes are more easily made.
To some extent, beading tension is natural to an individual: some people have naturally tight tension and others have naturally loose tension. If your natural tension is neither particularly tight, nor particularly loose, then you will be fine, but an excess either way can cause problems. Those beaders who have naturally loose tension will find that their beads do not always sit exactly in place, so it can be hard to see where they should be stitching. Those beaders with very tight tension may have problems with thread. If the thread is pulled too tightly through the beads, it may snap. Firstly, it is being rubbed a little more on the edges of the beads when the beadwork is worn, so that can cause pressure over time. Secondly, although a lot of beading threads have some natural stretch to them, this is finite, so if you stretch them too hard as you work, repeatedly, they will eventually snap. The bad news is, it can be hard to correct poor tension. If you suffer from loose tension, there are some stitches in which you can pass through the beads in a stitch twice, instead of just once: this will help to improve the tension. Right Angle Weave is a particularly good stitch for this. Mostly, though, you just need to practise awareness and think about how hard you are pulling on your thread as you go: I have seen a lot of beginners improve naturally over time as they become more confident in working with beads, so do not despair!
Armed with these handy tips, you are now ready to try out your own beading projects and you can find plenty here to get you started.