Embellishments (Beads)

Embellishment: the act of adding something in the hopes of making something prettier. Throughout history, men and women have added embellishments to their clothing and household items to give them a personal touch. It appears from archeological finds that every society had the ability to make some type of adornment. It may have been as basic as plant seeds or as complex as faceted gemstones. The location of the culture played a large part in the type of ornamentation they were able to produce. Also, beadmaking was not a necessity, so if a culture had time to make beads rather than tools it gives us an idea of how prosperous or established a culture was.

A bead is defined as "a small, often round piece of material, such as glass, plastic, or wood, which is pierced for stringing or threading." (reference link)

Italy has long been known for its glass bead making industry. Beginning clear back in the Roman era, the island of Murano was the leading center for the production of beads. This was a highly specialized trade and even today, the area is well known for the production of "lamp-worked" fancy beads. (Lamp-work beads are like the Easter bonnets of beads). If you are ever in Rapid City, South Dakota, stop by the Sioux Trading Post. They purchased the majority of the remaining stock from the Societa Veneziana Conterie, which was a bead making company in Murano dating back to 1889. This group of 16 families closed its doors in 1992. The selection on display in the Sioux Trading Post is extremely interesting and includes beads developed throughout the company’s history, including beads used in trade with the Native American peoples.

Another well respected area known for its glass bead production is Czechoslovakia (Bohemia). The craftsmen began producing glass tube beads for the Italians when they couldn’t keep up with the demand due to international trade. The Bohemians had the natural resources available to produce the beads so they sent artisans to Murano to learn the trade. By the mid-1800’s, Bohemia was out-producing Murano factories. Japan also makes wonderful beads. Because they are machine made they are very uniform. It is important to know where your beads come from, because the sizing may be just a little different among countries.

Glass beads played a large part in the successful interaction between explorers and First Nations peoples in North America. Fur traders were able to trade cloth and glass beads for quality furs. These beads were greatly prized by Native women and beads quickly replaced the more tedious method of quillwork. The manifests of the Lewis and Clark Expedition indicate that they took thirty-three pounds of small seed beads with them on their journey across America. Native American women are credited for inventing two methods of using the seed bead: loom weaving and peyote beading. Many of us have seen examples of the loom-beading method where the beads are placed a row at a time between long threads, like the warp of a loom. Bracelets and belts are often done on a loom. The other type is an appliqué style often called peyote beading. These are techniques not previously found in the European cultures prior to the Native American artisans.

Glass beads come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The one most of us use are called seed beads. These beads are round in shape. The size of the hole and actual shape of the bead will vary among manufacturers. It is important to purchase more beads than you will need, because the colors can vary between manufacturing runs and some of the beads in each package may not have a large enough hole to slide on your beading needle.

Glass beads are sized in millimeters (mm) and sold by weight (grams). You’ll also hear the beads referred to by aught. This is another measurement that tells you approximately how many beads you can get in a standard length. Using this measurement for a size 8 seed bead, you could see it shown as #8, 8/0 or 8°. The important thing to remember is that the higher the number size, the smaller the bead. Snazzy Cat has a very handy chart showing some standard bead sizes. You can print out their chart at: http://www.snazzycat.com/bead_metric_chart.pdf

There are several other sizes of beads available. Magnifica (sometimes known as Delica) beads are actually cylindrical is shape with larger holes but thin sides. These beads are very uniform and are great for bead weaving where you want the beads to lay flat and even. Petite seed beads are smaller than a regular seed bead, almost round in shape and 2mm in size. Bugle beads are long rather than round. The hole is approximately the same size as an 11/0 seed bead. They come in several lengths. These beads can have sharp edges where they cut the glass cane, so you want to be sure to secure them with several lengths of thread, or place a seed bead on each end so that the thread doesn’t rub against the cut edges. It’s also important to sort through your bugle beads and discard those that aren’t the correct length for your project. Because of the manufacturing process you will get a few that are shorter than the rest. Pebble beads are larger than seed beads, almost round in shape. Pony beads are the larger of the beads and they are usually used to embellish crocheting or used in jewelry such as Native American chokers.

We carry Mill Hill beads. Here are their sizes:

Petite seed beads 15 (degree)
Magnifica beads 12 (degree)
Seed beads 11 (degree)
Larger glass beads 6 (degree) and (8 degree)
Pebble beads 3 (degree)
Small bugle 6 mm
Medium bugle 9 mm
Large bugle 14 mm


It is also important to understand the types of bead finishes. Here are some of the most common:

  • Aurora Borealis (AB) are also known as iris or rainbow beads. These beads have a finish with several highlights. They may be in the same color family or they may include gold, silver, and other colors.
  • Color Lined beads have a color added inside the bead hole after it is made. It will depend on whether the bead is solid or transparent on how much of the color lining you will see. Some beads are metal lined and you will see a silver or gold shimmer to the bead.
  • Frosted beads are shiny, color-lined beads with a matte finish.
  • Matte beads have gone through a process to remove part of their top layer leaving the bead smooth with a non-shiny, non-reflective surface.
  • Opaque means you cannot see through these beads. There is very little shine, but they are great to put with other beads to provide contrasts and shadows.
  • Opal finishes are semi-transparent and have a milky appearance.
  • Plated beads have actually been covered in gold, silver, or other metals.
  • Satin has an appearance similar to satin fabric and the color may seem to change as you move the bead.
  • Transparent or translucent means you can see through these beads.


Beads can come in a variety of shapes also. The most common is a round bead, where the sides are smooth. If the bead is not smooth, but has facets, the bead is considered to be faceted. Everyone is familiar with a diamond which has facets cut into the side of the stone to create a specific pattern. Beads are shaped the same way using machines. They also come in a variety of shapes and patterns. Some of the most popular include:

  • Baroque beads are shaped like small nuggets. They are round, but uneven. "Nugget" beads are actually wider than they are long.
  • Bicone beads are like two pyramids stuck together at the base.
  • Cathedral beads have facets around the middle of the bead. Often these beads have gold or silver at the top and bottom of the bead.
  • Cylindrical beads are longer than they are wide and are sometimes called tube beads, If they have 5 sides, they are called "atlas" beads and if they have 4 sides, they are called "stick" beads. They can be cut into shapes such as cube, square, or diamond.
  • Rondel or rondelle beads are wider than they are long. Many times these beads are disk shaped. They can be smooth or faceted.

Pure Beads has an excellent on-line resource showing many examples of these finishes and shapes. To learn more go to: http://www.purebeads.com/Other/bead-types.htm

Work Basket

Working with beads and embellishments takes a few new gadgets and tools. Because the beads are usually tiny, you will need to get several sizes of beading needles. The needles are thin and the eye is usually the same width as the needle shaft. They come in a variety of sizes and lengths. Here is a general rule of thumb on the size of needle to use:

Bead size Needle size
10 or larger Size 10
11 and 12 Size 12
13 and 14 Size 13
15 and smaller Size 15

One of the hard things about beads is keeping them under control! Rather than lick your finger and stick it into the bead pile, try the Bead Nabber. This thimble-like device fits over your finger and will easily pick up beads and hold them for easy threading. Another great invention is Tacky BOB, the bead holder. You can pour a small amount of beads onto the tacky surface and pick them up with your needle.

If you are doing a lot of bead work such as peyote surfacing, you will want to use a special thread called Nymo. This nylon thread is really strong since it was originally created for the shoe industry. The sizing is confusing on this thread as the thinnest threads are called “OO” and “O” and then they go up in size from “A” to “F” which is the thickest. Mill Hill has a convenient bobbin of Nymo in white. To help keep your thread smooth, try Thread Heaven.

A couple of tools you may want to add to your workbasket include a good pair of tweezers and mini pliers.

Stitching with Beads

More designers are adding beads to their designs. The techniques include Hardanger embroidery, Canvaswork, Blackwork, and cross stitch. It is easier than you might think!

If you are using a pattern where the designer has included beads, please follow the printed instructions. Many of the designs are using beads as embellishments and they may be stitched last. Sometimes the beads are actually part of the design process and are stitched as in order as you work across the project.

Most of the time, you will probably be adding beads to a project stitched on an even-weave canvas. You can use a simple cross stitch to attach the bead. There are two schools of thought. Some people only use a half cross stitch to attach the bead, while others do a complete cross stitch because it is more secure. The important thing is to make sure your beads all face the same direction especially if you are using a half cross stitch. If you are adding beads to clothing or a free form of embroidery, then you will want to attach the bead with a single stitch, going in the direction you want the bead to lay. Unless the thread is part of the design element, you will want to make your stitches only as long as your bead. But if you want the thread to be a part of the design, say an extra large "X" with the bead in the center, then you will want a longer stitch, perhaps even in a different color than the bead.

There are so many ways to use beads to enhance your stitching. There just isn’t any way to cover it all. Cross Stitch & Beading magazine is an excellent resource for tips, tricks, tools, and ideas! Here are some wonderful resources to help you with your beading projects:


For you Crazy Quilters, a must have reference book is Bead Creative Like Crazy. It’s filled with pages of tips, motifs, and projects to take your crazy quilting to the next level.

Are you ready to try some beading?

Mill Hill has many excellent kits for everything from pins, Christmas ornaments, pictures, magnets, and more.

Click here to see all the Mill Hill bead kits.

Nora Corbett is one of the designer who has a wonderful way of designing her patterns so that beads and treasures make them dazzle.

Click here to see all her designs.

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

For those interested in using this article or others published by Nordic Needle, Inc., please use this copy when referencing the information:

“The following article was published by Nordic Needle in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com.”

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