Learning to bead from the masters

I love to try new projects, and instead of collecting salt shakers or Elvis memorabalia or hiking gear (*cough cough*, ahem, Joshua), I collect hobbies themselves. These include gardening, travel, home remodeling, paper crafts, cooking, writing, fitness, chicken-rearing, knittingsoda-making, fermentation, sewing, …. I could go on. Really. There are a lot more. I excel at mediocrity in my crafts, because I haven’t the patience to master any one of them.

Mom’s beaded necklace

This necklace was my foray into beading, a birthday/Mother’s Day gift for my mom, made mostly of jasper and agate. No complicated techniques here, but I found that my existing beading tool–a needle nose pliers from the garage–wasn’t up to the task. I mean, it could have gotten the job done, maybe…but instead of crimping crimp beads, it smashed them, and when I curled wire around the nose, one side was always flattened. Not to mention the bits of glue and epoxy and wood shavings from the pliers ended up stuck in the beads…

In short, in addition to the spendy stone beads, I bought a bunch of beading tools, including a crimper (amazing) and six different things that look like pliers but have slightly different functions. Not my fault, they came in a set. The beading wire itself is an engineering marvel, with nylon-coated braided stainless steel fibers that could be used to suspend a piano, I’m pretty sure. So now I’ve got all this stuff, just in case I ever get another beading itch.

I lived in Kenya a decade ago, where the Maasai and Turkana tribes have a reputation for being incredible bead crafters. They put my little strands to shame.


Though I lived and worked among a more modern tribe in western Kenya, I had the privilege to spend a few afternoons with some Maasai ladies while they beaded in the shade of an acacia tree, just as they had for centuries, and I got to see their artistry up close. The elaborate collars are often stitched on top of a piece of goat-skin leather with thin wire. Though the women spend hard cash on the beads themselves, everything else is made from found materials.

The wrist cuffs, which are often 4-6 in. wide, are strung together between strips of hard plastic, cut from used up jerry cans. These strips stabilize the rows of beads. The holes are punched through the plastic with whatever sharp thing is on hand–a bit of bone, a sharp thorn, a broken needle. And the spacing is exact, each row mathematically precise in relationship to the other rows.

One woman handed me the tough strip of plastic and the broken needle and let me try drilling one of the holes. I eyeballed where the next hole should be and started twisting, using the needle like a drill to bore into the plastic. The dull end poked through my fingertip a half dozen times, and between the blood and sweat, I had a hard time gripping the needle tightly enough to put any real pressure on it. After ten minutes of this, I successfully wiggled that needle through the plastic. (There are 306 needle-drilled holes in the bracelet below). I handed the needle and plastic back to the woman who examined it closely and winced a little. My hole was a fraction of a millimeter off, and not perfectly straight. She would have to toss the piece and start over.

Beaded cuff

Beaded cuff

They didn’t have engineered beading wire, and they certainly didn’t have six different fancy pliers for yanking and twisting wire, but the craftsmanship of their beadwork rivals anything I’ve seen stateside at craft festivals. These women are self-taught artists, with skills built on centuries of collective knowledge. Compared to them, I’m a pretender. But that’s Ok, I’m happy just to pretend, and leave the masterpieces to the masters.

Linked up at: http://salttree.net/ Making Skip To My Lou  The Chicken Chick


11 thoughts on “Learning to bead from the masters

  1. I love the necklace you made, I might have to make one in that style. I like to collect hobbies, too! I love that you also took us to Kenya and showed their beadwork! Stopping by from IGottaCreate!

  2. As always I’m proud of your ‘can do’ attitude. It also seems that in many of yours hobbies your mediocrity well exceeds much of what we might consider mediocrity. Your sewing in particular excells.

  3. Pretty necklace. I think of myself as a “dabbler” in many crafts and I know I do not have the patience to do the bead weaving. Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  4. You amaze me with all your crafty talents!!!! I’m sure Deb was thrilled to receive the necklace.
    Should I save my old jewelry beads for you? I know they aren’t the kind you use here but you might be able to do something with them. “Hi” to Joshua too!

  5. The jasper and agate necklace you gave me is one I’ll always treasure. It’s simply beautiful, and quite stunning. I too am a dabbler, and truly admire those who are “dedicated” to their craft. As always, I’m so proud of your many talents, and delighted that I got to share in this one!

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