Stringing Beads for Fun and Profit

The author enriched his quality of life, attracted flocks of beautiful people to his door, and earned a tidy sum after he took up stringing beads as a craft and hobby.
By Joe Segan
March/April 1972
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A selection of beading equipment and supplies.
KIM ZARNEY
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Last year while on a Baha'i pilgrimage in Haifa, Israel,  I discovered the art of stringing beads. I have since used my spare time and nimble fingers to turn a profit approaching $500. I'd now like to pass on what I've learned about this skill because I know that beading is inexpensive, enjoyable, and profitable (if you have the spare time, you can turn an investment of $25 into $1000 in less than six months). And besides, if I can turn others on to stringing beads, maybe I won't look like such a weirdo.

By the way, beading offers more than full or spare-time cash. It adds a personal touch to gifts, and the work leaves your mind free for meditation. In some cases, of course, the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages: the craft gives some folks backaches and eyestrain. In any case, just because I bead and make it pay doesn't necessarily mean that you can too. To be successful with this craft you must be very patient, possess some degree of manual dexterity, not suffer from an acute case of arthritis, or have vision that's too poor for prolonged close work. With that somber note out of the way, let's begin.

Beading Supplies

(A) NEEDLES. Your needles must have large enough eyes if you hope to work efficiently. I use size 16 beading needles (14's are smaller, I believe, and 18's larger) which I buy from Tandy Leather Company. I don't work for Tandy's but I find that they have most of the supplies a bead stringer needs. Their needles range in price from 6 for 13¢ to 4 for 29¢, depending on size. 

(B) THREAD. The thinnest beading thread is No. 60, the thickest around 30. I prefer the No. 30 because the higher numbers unravel too quickly and I don't believe in selling shoddy merchandise. Tandy handles C-30 mercerized thread in 500-yard spools for about $1.25.

(C) BEADS. Beads can cost from 40¢ for one-half ounce in the 5 & 10 stores to $2.00-$2.50 a pound at Tandy's. Tandy offers ten assorted colors and, if you buy 10 pounds at once, the company discounts the beads even further. With ten pounds, you can bead for the next year and never worry about supplies. I suggest buying some of the more expensive and prettier beads (including the striped and speckled ones) to mix tastefully with the less expensive and plainer beads. What I mean is, don't use too many of the gaudy ones or your finished product will look like dimestore junk. On the other hand, don't concentrate — for economy's sake — on nothing but plain beads for that also detracts from the beauty of your handiwork. And don't ever buy a bag of mixed beads. Such "bargains" never are. If you're clever, though, you can use just about anything for beading. More on that later.

(D) BEESWAX. It's not absolutely necessary that you wax the thread you use, but if you do, you'll find that it won't tangle or unravel and your final product will be much stronger. This wax is available at hardware stores, Tandy's, or from the local beekeeper. One or two ounces will last a long, long time.

(E) BOTTLES. (To hold the beads, of course!) Clear glass jars work fine and are available everywhere. It might be campy to use Coke or Pepsi bottles.

(F) LIDS. Your beading will be much more efficient if you pour some of each color and design you're using at any one time into a separate flat lid 2-3 inches wide and no more than 1/2-inch high. These mini-trays are available from your nearest trashcan or, like the bottles above, from your mother's jar collection.

(G) FUNNEL. Another indispensable tool for efficient beading. Once you've finished stringing a color combination, you have to put all those little devils back into their bottles. If you've picked up as many spilled beads as I have, you'll know what a godsend a funnel is. Get one which tapers down to a small opening of a bit less than half an inch in diameter. It'll cost you 15¢ to 25¢ in the five and ten.

(H) HOOK AND EYE CLASPS. The ones about 1/4-inch wide at the attaching point come 15-30 in a pack costing approximately 30¢ at most notions counters. They can be used for hanging your finished masterpieces from the wearer's wrist, neck, or nose.

(I) LOOM. This is an inefficient tool, wastes time and—no matter what I try when I use one—produces a product that stares at me, pleading for a "made in Taiwan" label. Nevertheless, you may have better luck with one so I'll include a discussion of the loom and its use.

(J) WIRE. Although not a necessity, wire can be used to make beaded flowers and rings. Sizes 18 to 30 (large to small) are best. Bead shops tend to overprice this ingredient so pick yours up at a radio store.

(K) TELEPHONE WIRE. When Bell Tell reroutes service it sometimes throws away lengths of grey conductor about one inch in diameter. Inside this lead are 100 paired and very colorful wires. (Guess what, Martha? You can get 'em for free!) At one time I made necklaces from these throwaways. More about that later.

(L) LIGHTING. The importance of proper artificial lighting cannot be stressed enough. Incandescent bulbs are best for beading. I prefer two lamps — one 100-150 watt bulb six to eight feet away on my right or left, and a 60-75 watter one to three feet away on the opposite side — so that I'm never working with harsh shadows. The lamps should be shaded, preferably with light-colored shades. Fluorescent, colored, or high-intensity bulbs are bummers. If you work in sunlight, position yourself so that El Sol is on your left or right; you get shadows when he's back of you and glare if he's in front. If your eyes go bad, hurt, or suffer from other assorted nasties when you bead, check your lighting against my recommendations.

(M) PROPER WORKING DISTANCE AND SURFACE. A good working area is just as important as the aforementioned lighting. Try my method (I haven't patented it, yet) for figuring out the ideal height of your working surface: If you can place your elbow on the workbench and the tips of your outstretched fingers are even with the top of your head (sit up straight in a hard-backed chair that provides firm support), your working distance is good. If the beads bounce all over the place, put a large blotter or sheet of cardboard under your tools.

Beading Technique

Ah, yes. The actual beading. First, grab a spool in one hand, the end of the thread in the other and pull off a double armslength of the filament. Cut the strand, thread the needle and double or triple-knot the loose ends of the cord together. Starting at the knotted end, pull the doubled thread through the wax a few times but don't wax the needle. It'll get tacky or bend or both.

Now consult my comprehensive set of beading pattern diagrams. Some of what I'll cover include daisy chains, rings, braided belts, medallions, and wire rings and flowers.

I'll also cover unusual materials and the use of looms. Even though, as I've said, I don't like looms.

Marketing Your Work

The first rule — of course — is to never, never, never try to sell stuff that looks shoddy. "Shoddy" includes work with too many or too few beads in certain spots, mismatched beads (because you ran out of the original color), or super-loose or fraying finished products. Shopkeepers can't sell such garbage and they'll lose respect for you if you attempt to pawn it off on them. Be honest, as they say in the Gentle Revolution, and pay your dues.

Make three or four trial pieces of every item before trying a sales piece. Analyze your mistakes—looseness or incorrect stringing—and give the shakedown work to your friends or scavenge the pieces for beads.

The second rule you should memorize is, "Don't sell to friends." Unless, that is, you enjoy awkward tension over money and your sales prices (which will be only half what shops charge for the same work). After many moons of showing my labors of love to people I know, I gave up. Now less than a dozen friends know about my freaky habit. It's OK to give someone you like an occasional freebie, but save your hard bargaining for the businessmen.

It's best, when selling to shops, to have single samples of your wares out and a dozen of each item tucked away in a briefcase, paper sack, or satchel. Dozens and half dozens are the most popular quantities and you should have stock ready for a quick sale.

Don't anticipate doing business in poster, candle, or record shops. You're probably better off staying completely away from them, in fact. Such outlets usually do not carry handwork, and if you get too many rejections from too many people you may be tempted to lower your prices to the "giveaway" level. Don't do it. Never allow defeatism to force your prices down. What seems high to some people will be regarded as a bargain by those who recognize what your work is worth.

Low class clothes shops about the size of your rich girlfriend's living room, dark as a mole hole, lit by several campy lights and smelling of naugahyde (the typical teenybopper hangout) will take your stuff but are usually set up for quick, impersonal sales. The odds are good that your work won't even sell in such places because the patronage is looking for dirt-cheap, hip items — the kind that comes from machines and Hong Kong. The best items for these accounts are rings, daisy chokers, and telephone wire beads at wholesale prices ranging from 25¢ to 75¢ per item.

Shops that handle high quality clothes are an entirely different matter. Such stores are vitally interested in enhancing their customers' wardrobes and often carry distinctive and one-of-a-kind jewelry — a best bet for your more expensive items.

Straight gift shops (where the normal looking people go) and hip head shops that feature handcrafted merchandise are also naturals for your work as long as you stick with the privately-owned places (it'd be foolish to try to sell Sears or Macy's a dozen of your prizes).

When you approach the straight stores, be neat and polite. You probably won't notice a generation gap or any other kind of gap at all. Don't hit the head shops on weekends and weeknights when they're the busiest. The best times are Monday through Friday, 12 noon to 4 or 5 in the evening.

Check out each shop by mentally marking down its main items and noting if it carries a line of hand-done work. If the place does feature handicraft at prices which—minus the usual markup—will pay you for your time, you may have a sale.

Speaking of markup, most outlets double the price of the handwork they carry. This means that the labor of love you wholesale to the outlet for $2.50 will carry a retail tag of $5.00 and there's nothing unfair about the practice. Shops have to make up for the unsold stuff that hangs around for ages, utilities, repair bills and all the other hassles that we work-a-day laborers don't have to worry about. If you want the big price for what you produce, you can always open your own place of business.

I indicated the general wholesale price I get for each item I've told you how to make. Remember, though, that some accounts expect a quantity price reduction when buying by the dozen. When that's the case, multiply the individual price of the item in question by 12 and subtract 5% to 10% from the total.

You should also be a little flexible when you set your prices. Keep in mind where you live and where you're selling. If a shop's patronage is made up of millionaires, help them share the wealth, but never overprice your wares in the poorer sections of town. It'll all average out. Beading won't allow you to get rich but it should enable you to live somewhat akin to a well-off bum.

By the way, I prefer to deal cash on the barrelhead: I get my money when I deliver the goods. Consignment, that supposedly "get rich" plan, is a dirty word to me. True, when it works, you'll come out with more money than you'd normally get just selling wholesale, but some shops have a habit of keeping both the merchandise and the money. If you ever do leave your hand-dones in a store on assignment, get a signed statement of ownership and value. If the shopkeeper won't give you such a receipt, take your wares with you and walk on out the door.

It may seem strange to you that I mention ESP during a discussion of marketing, but I will. It doesn't take a mystic to feel the atmosphere of a place and bad vibrations will not loosen the tongue or make sales. If you still feel tense after a few minutes of talking to a shopkeeper, it's probably best that you move on.

When the vibes are good, lines like, "Hello. I string beads and things and wondered if you'd like to look at my stuff," are usually OK for openers. Your first few words are very important to the eventual sale. Speak loudly enough so you don't have to repeat yourself and quietly enough to keep your conversation as private as possible. Use any variation of the aforementioned line that suits your situation and feels comfortable.

If the person in charge wants to see your work, show him or her everything you have. Last summer, while in L.A., I talked to a shopkeeper who wasn't interested in the telephone wire necklaces I had but—as I was leaving—I asked if he wanted to see some strung beads. He did ... and ordered $115 worth.

If the individual looking at your wares tells you something like, "I'd like to buy but we're moving soon," or "the buyer isn't here," or "come back in three days," believe him and make it a point to return, time permitting. If he says no, ask if he wants to see cheaper items that are adjustable.

When the place has class, work from the most expensive to the least. If the shop has little going for it, bring out your bargain basement items first and then work up.

The final NO may spell rejection at that one location but can still lead to other places that want beads. Ask for suggestions and pay close attention when the shopkeeper or sales personnel gives you a tip or lead that might pay off. Generally, even when they can't use or don't want your product, the people at a store will think of you as a fellow businessman and will try to be helpful. The occasional sorehead who tells you to "lower prices," "wear nicer clothes," or "cut your hair" should just be ignored.

These ideas for marketing your beadwork should work just as well on the road as in your own backyard — which opens up the interesting possibility of using beads to finance your travels if you're inclined to ramble. Yes, it can be done. Just work an area until you have orders for $50 or more of your products, hole up long enough to produce the merchandise, collect your money and move on down the road.

One last tip: before embarking on a sales expedition, try praying to your favorite deity (God, Krishna,or whatever you sincerely believe in). I do it; it bolsters my confidence, and I don't feel as bad when I lose a sale.


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