DIY

Stringing Beads for Fun and Profit

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ILLUSTRATION: KIM ZARNEY
Stringing beads into beautiful objects is a matter of knowing the right beading patterns.

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.