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All About Beads For Handcrafted Jewelry

Updated on March 20, 2011

Beads Beads And More Beads

The extensive array of beads available for jewelry making is mind boggling. There are so many different kinds of beads made in all sizes, shapes, colors and materials. The variety seems to be infinite. The astonishing industry of beads is so huge that beads in jewelry making, can become quite confusing, when the time comes to make a bead purchase for a project. To expand your knowledge of beads available for your designs, let's take an up close look and learn all about beads in handcrafted jewelry.

Cylindrical beads. The red and yellow ones, bottom right and bottom left, are pentagonal. The beads were found in Saxon graves at Cliffs End.
Cylindrical beads. The red and yellow ones, bottom right and bottom left, are pentagonal. The beads were found in Saxon graves at Cliffs End.

A Brief History Of Beads

I have discovered that bead making may very well be the first form of artwork known to man. This art form goes way back, as far as 100,000 years, it is believed. It seems we have been captivated by these tiny forms of art in every culture. The tiny decorative objects have had a staying power unmatched by any other form of art throughout history.

What is a bead anyway?

I think most people know the answer to this question but, just in case. A bead is a small decorative object that is pierced so that it can be strung on a thread for display. That is how Wikipedia defines it. The word origin for bead comes from the Anglo Saxon word, bidden, meaning to pray. Beads have been equated to tools for prayer in religion and spirituality in most cultures.

Early on beads were made of bone, shell, seeds and stones as well as claws, clay, wood and teeth. The earliest crafts people naturally used the items at hand to make beads.These same items are used today and the only difference in then and now is our ability to access materials with ease from across the globe. What once was utilized by local cultures can now be purchased with little effort because of our elaborate trade system.

Bead Studies In Archaeology

Beads found when archaeologists discovered them, help to determine much about the sociological aspects of the civilization in question. One of many, this organization, Wessex Archaeology, has a program that explores such findings and shares their discoveries to further enhance the interest of their work to the general population. If you are interested in more photos of beads and other items found by this organization by all means see their website. It is quite involved and tremendously educational.

How Beads Are Sized For Purchase

Obviously the sizing of beads was probably not something to consider by the first bead artists. If they were using natural materials they just utilized what was available. Smaller beads were made of items like small seeds, reeds and tiny bones while larger beads might have come from larger bones, small shells and so on. As technology progressed and beads continued to be popular around the world the fabrication of beads became more industrialized.This and an expanding trade system, growing because of human civilizations ability to journey farther from their native lands, created a need to label beads. There came a need to put sizes on beads to help describe them and help denote their value. So, beads were being sold by the strand.


A hank of beads is 12 strands. The standard strand is 16" long. This means that a hank of beads is equal to a length of 182" strand. Now it depends on the size of the bead to determine how many beads there would be in a hank. The larger the beads the lesser the number of beads per hank. When purchasing beads in the store you would most likely buy the beads by weight or strand. The beads are usually bought from the manufacturer and then divided into smaller quantities for resale.

mm = Millimeters

The USA English Standard measure is counted in feet and inches but the majority of the rest of the world uses the metric system. The bead industry uses the metric system to describe beads by size in millimeters or mm. What this means is the individual bead is so many mm or millimeters in length. Larger beads are also measured by the width in millimeters (mm) as well as length. An example would be a very large bead that might be used as a pendant, 13mm by 26mm. This bead would actually be rectangular, about 1/2 inch by 1 inch in size. An mm equals 1/1000 of a meter.

Seed Beads

Seed beads are the very small beads seen in use with Native American crafts such as weaving. These beads are sized by number and the larger the number the smaller the bead. This is how wire and metal is gauged also. The smaller numbers are the largest of the seed beads, the heaviest wires and the thickest metals. This is a good thing to remember because there is a reason to match the right wires, cord and threads to the size of bead you are using in your jewelry projects.

Matching Bead Sizes And Threading Materials

The proper size threading material to string your beads will allow the beads to last longer. The wearing of jewelry creates movement which will create abrasion to the stringing material. It is important to match the right size of bead to the right size of threading material so you get the least amount of abrasion or wear. You should always use the largest size of wire you can.The wire should pass through the bead with comfort. If you can pass the wire through the bead twice you need larger wire.

You should always use sturdy wire for heavier beads so that the wire can support the weight of the beads. Select a grade of wire that is suitable for your jewelry design. The more strands you are using the more flexibility you want. The greater the flexibility the greater the number if wire. That means that a number 12 wire has more flexibility than a number 4 wire.

You should always allow enough space for the beads to move a little on the wire. Do not try to tie them real tight. The movement will allow for wear and the beads will be less abrasive against each other. This will help insure a more durable design.

You should always use a bead reamer when stringing your beads and be sure to ream both sides of the hole. Remove rough edges and burs. The bead should actually move with a gliding smooth motion on the wire.

Micrometers And Dial Calipers

To get the most accurate measurement for a bead the tools to use are either micrometers or calipers. The bead is measured across the widest point to the outside edges.

strands of beads for sale at gem show
strands of beads for sale at gem show
detail of colorful beaded bracelet and sterling silver design by C.S. Alexis
detail of colorful beaded bracelet and sterling silver design by C.S. Alexis

Variety Is The Spice Of ...Beads In Handcrafted Jewelry

Now that you know a little more about how beads are sold and sized it would be just great if I could cover all the different kinds of beads available. Thing is, there are just too many! They are made from almost every kind of material imaginable and the colors are as varied. I would love to go there but half the fun in purchasing the beads is exploring the market. I feel that if a crafts person understands the basics of sizing and how beads are marketed, when it comes time to make the final purchase they will be better prepared to make the wisest choice.

This industry is large and confusing. If you know your beading needs, you will be happy with the money you spend on materials for your handcrafted jewelry projects. You will be better equipped to purchase findings and other elements needed to complete your projects and you will turn out better work. Happy crafting.


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    • mayhmong profile image


      9 years ago from North Carolina

      I've been doing a little bit of beading myself. I never knew that it was used for praying?! Making bead jewerly is very addicting and costly!

    • C.S.Alexis profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from NW Indiana

      Hey SweetiePie,

      Thanks for dropping in. I know it can get very costly pretty fast. I too have to control my spending.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      9 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I love the old fashion type of beads, such as shells and glass beads. One day I hope to start making my own, but right now I cannot afford to buy the supplies to do that.


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