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History and Techniques
by Wendy Ellsworth

The Art of Weaving
Glass Beads
Spring, 2008
Exhibit's Main Page

Beads are found in most cultures around the world and have been used in multiple ways as forms of body adornment, talismans, and sacred objects. They also were also used to convey important information such as a person’s social rank, marital status, age and group origin. Each culture has contributed unique examples of beadwork that utilize a variety of beading techniques of unknown origins. Most experts agree that beadwork is primarily a textile art involving needle and thread, though there are several other ways of uniting beads that do not involve thread at all.

Great centers of glass seed bead manufacturing grew up in Europe, China, and India. The Venetians began making glass beads around 1200, and by the eighteenth century had a near-monopoly on the glass bead market. However, additional centers of bead manufacturing developed in other parts of Europe, including Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic), France, Germany and Holland. These beads became prime trade items and were distributed throughout the established seafaring trade routes. Thus, glass beads were introduced to Africa, Asia, the Pacific and North and South America, and Native peoples in these continents absorbed and welcomed these new trade items into their cultural traditions.

Glass seed beads are traditionally manufactured using two primary methods.
The first is known as drawn glass, a method that involves forming a hollow gather of molten glass that is then stretched or drawn out into a long, thin tube.  Over the centuries this method evolved from a manual process of two glass workers pulling a glass tube progressively thinner by walking away from each other to a continuously running process capable of producing hundreds of these long tubes per hour. This long tube is later cut into smaller tubes whose rough edges are softened or rounded by tumbling or reheating, thus producing what is now called a “seed” bead. 

The second method dates from antiquity and involves winding molten glass multiple times around a coated mandrel of metal. Some seed beads from India and China are still being produced using this method.  Contemporary lamp-worked beads could be considered as large scale examples of this method.

In the 1980’s computer control of seed bead manufacturing came into play, both in the Czech Republic and in Japan.
In the Czech Republic Ornela, the largest seed bead manufacturer placed their existing production facilities under computer control.  Although tube production increased, the diameters and hole sizes did not change that much and the
 beads still had to be sieved into their various sizes.

The Japanese, having the luxury of starting from scratch, were able to design a computer controlled extruding process capable of continuously producing very accurate diameters and hole sizes. These beads are being made in a variety of shapes, the most popular being cylindrical, and have large holes that make beading with them a delight.
The beads are remarkably uniform in size as well, and many bead artists prefer using them instead of the more rounded, irregular shaped seed beads made in the Czech Republic. Their beads have started to dominate the contemporary market.

Bead weaving techniques fall into two basic categories.
The first involves any type of bead loom that has multiple warping threads through which beads are
woven as the weft, like in traditional textile weaving.
The second is commonly referred to as off-loom bead weaving. In this category we find the many techniques developed in cultures around the world with names such as peyote, herringbone, right angle weave, ladder, brick and netting stitches.
Each of these techniques involves working with a needle and thread and specific ways of adding beads,
often only one per stitch, so that rows of beads, connected to one another, eventually create a textile-like fabric.
 As the textile is formed, increasing and decreasing the number of beads in any given row will give the piece its shape and form.

Bead artists are often self-taught in these techniques and then go on to develop their own variations or combinations thereof.
beading is a term that originated with the work of African-American artist Joyce Scott in the late twentieth century.
She single-handedly elevated the craft of beadwork into a contemporary art form through her
three-dimensional figurative beadwork. Working in peyote stitch, she explored how to make multi-dimensional figures
 that often became statements on social, political and personal issues.

In The Art of Weaving Glass Beads exhibit, we find examples of both categories of bead weaving as well as bead crochet.

Alexandra Zonis uses a bead loom to create her “woven glass” tapestries in two-dimensional, flat-weave peyote stitch. Monumental in design and content, each tapestry can contain as many as 221,000 beads and takes many months to complete. She only works with Delica beads made by a particular Japanese company.

Most of the other bead artists in this exhibit use off-loom bead weaving.
I myself, Wendy Ellsworth,  use multiple techniques such as free-form, three-dimensional peyote, herringbone, brick, ladder and netting stitches to create multi-dimensional sculptural Reef Forms.
I use both Japanese and Czech seed beads in multiple sizes, shapes and textures in order to simulate the natural sea forms.
 Some of the sculptures are placed on specifically designed glass bases, hand blown and etched under my supervision.

Madelyn Ricks works exclusively in peyote stitch using Japanese Delica seed beads for her very popular Kimono series, her whimsical sculptures, and her Jewelry. For the kimonos, she first graphs her designs by hand, gluing multiple sheets together, then beads it in separate strips which are stitched together.

Sharmini Wirasekara creates Robes and Wall hanging Objects predominantly inspired by Mexican Art.  For the Robes, she works in peyote stitch, using Japanese Delica seed beads. Some of her Wall Objects are Neckpieces.
For those, in addition to Peyote, she uses a single-needle right angle weave, and prefers the
Czech seed beads because their roundness gives the pieces a different look and shape.

Mary Darwall creates sculptural jewelry inspired by sea life and other natural forms. She combines several techniques in her jewelry that include free-form three-dimensional peyote stitch, branch fringing and appliqué.
She uses both Japanese and Czech glass beads for her signature undulating forms.

Hildegund Ilkerl and Gabriele Malek are Austrian art teachers, friends and business partners. They create their neckpieces, ranging from the whimsical to the very elegant, using the old bead crochet technique which had been revived in recent years. Czech seed beads and Delica beads are used by both artists.
Gundi is also a silversmith who makes the clasps for her neckpieces.
Gabi makes lampworked beads that she incorporates in her creations. 

All the bead artists in this exhibit are drawn to working with beads because of shared passion for these little tiny bits of colored glass that come in such an enormous variety of colors, shapes, textures and surface finishes. We work with a color palette that is almost infinite in its potential. Each of us appreciates the meditative process weaving for hours and hours our creations to completion, using needle and thread and many thousands of small glass beads. The labor involved is almost incalculable, and when each piece is completed, it has truly become a labor of love, passion and delight.

Wendy Ellsworth
March, 2008