Embody the image: Beadweaving

loom woven beads

Beadweaving requires a set of warp threads side-by-side, across and between which the beads are held in place by weft threads. Thus this process differs from other techniques, such as brick, peyote, or square stitch, which use one thread throughout to secure the beads.

brick stitch peyote stitch square stitch



In these beaded nightscapes, color is important, but the contrast of light and dark is my main concern. I keep my beads arranged by value, from white, #1, to black, #424+ -- the size of my palette is always changing. All the different colors are ranked between these extremes. I keep a record of all the different kinds of beads, with notes on their finishes, dates of acquisition, and sources. This latter is especially important when I run out of one color in the middle of a piece.

The beads are stored in film containers, every one marked with a color number. For each color I make a swatch of 16 beads by 12 rows, theoretically a square inch. I use a modified square stitch, which approximates the arrangement of the beads when woven. This technique is faster than loom-weaving the squares and tying off all those ends. The swatches enable me to understand the color and texture of each kind of bead, and to check each for variations from the size of the average bead. Very narrow or very wide beads will require special handling in the weaving. Each swatch is attached to a card on which is written the color number and a brief descriptive name. Thus when I choose colors for a piece, I have a reference to help me.




my loom

My loom is based on an object found in a second-hand store. When it came to me, it had a base made of 1 X 4's and 2 X 4's with casters, and a frame on top with brass window adjusters to change the frame's angle relative to the ground. I added 1 X 6 boards at each end of the frame to elevate the warps. This leaves room for me to work on the back of the bead fabric. The warps are evenly spaced by threaded metal rods (16 threads per inch) mounted along the top edge of each board. Screws driven at regular intervals into the outside of the 1 X 6's anchor the warp thread as it is wrapped onto the loom, for which I use heavy-gauge black nylon upholstery thread.

threading detail


From my store of bead containers, I pull the colors of beads I've chosen for each piece -- thirty to fifty colors -- and keep them on a tray on my work table to refill the dishes from which I pick up the beads and to estimate which beads I'll run out of. I keep the beads I'm working with in four shallow porcelain dishes, eight to ten colors in each one, each one different enough from the others for me to pick up the right bead, a faster way of working than moving my hand from place to place among thirty or more separate tiny containers. The bead map I've prepared is mounted with magnets on a piece of metal about 8 X 10 and I use a smaller magnet to keep my place on the chart as I pick up one bead for each square.

I use Nymo brand black number 6 nylon thread for the weft. The thread has to be thin enough to go through each bead twice, but thick enough to support the weight of the beads.


I string all the beads in one row of the bead map and then mount them on the warp in two steps. First the thread strung with the beads is placed beneath the warp threads, each bead between a pair of warp threads. Then I finish the row by passing the warp thread back through the row of beads, this time with the weft thread on top of the warps, locking the beads in place. I repeat the process until the piece is finished -- two to four weeks for a piece 13" X 16". Books on tape are essential for this part of the process to maintain the necessary relaxed but alert state of mind for such a long time. Thank you, Seattle Public Library.


When I've finished weaving the piece, I cut the warp threads at each end of the loom and transfer it to the top of my worktable, where I tie off the warp ends, four at a time, using square knots. A drop of glue on each knot prevents it from untying. When all the warps are tied off, I measure the piece for its mounting board.

I use 1/8" particle board for mounting my work because it's the right thickness to support the weight of the bead fabric. First I cover the board with several coats of painter's gesso, front and edges, sanding between coats. This gives a brilliant white background to show the beads to advantage, and protects them in case of any adverse reactions to the adhesives used in manufacturing the board.

When the gesso has dried, I paint a 1/4" black border around the board and its edges. This prevents the white gesso from showing at the edge of the piece when it's mounted in a black frame. Next I glue a piece of black acrylic felt larger than the mounting board to its back. I use acrylic felt because moths won't attack it as they do wool felt. I let the board dry overnight or longer under weights to keep it from warping. When it's completely dry, I trim the felt to within 3/16" or 1/4" bigger all around than the board. This leaves enough felt to wrap around the edges of the board when I stitch into it to attach the beaded fabric. I use thick nylon thread and a simple overcast stitch to connect the beads to the felt with the gessoed board between them. Strips of Velcro brand hook-and-loop fastener hold the mounted piece to the back board of whatever frame I've chosen.

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Laura Willits
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All images and text are Copyright © 2003 Laura Willits. All rights reserved.
Last modified on: Sunday, May 04, 2003.