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Two top tips for better bead embroidery

A guide to the most critical stitches for costume embellishments, statement jewelry pieces, and more

Recently, I was asked to talk about bead embroidery at my daughter's high school. She is cast in the school play of Pippin with a Romani theme, which beckons costumes with beads and sparkles. This isn't some cut-rate troupe!

When they performed Tarzan, they brought in a primatologist to teach students the anatomically-correct way that gorillas move. For this play, Pippin, the students spent their summer in circus camp, learning physical feats most astounding. So when I was asked to help embellish the costumes, I knew this would be taken seriously.

These are my two top basic bead embroidery tips:

My old friend, Debbie Nishihara, drew her pattern directly onto Lacy’s Stiff Stuff when she created “The Frog Prince."

Before any beading begins, you need to create a pattern, dream up the composition, and then get your foundation in order. A pattern cut out of paper allows you to view your ideas and consider factors such as gravity. Think through your bead placement before you ever start stitching, keeping in mind that good compositions consider balance, proportion, and movement.

After the pattern and composition are established, trace the pattern onto the backing. Your surface needs to be clean and smooth (ironed, if possible).
When it comes to bead embroidery, few people even approach the expertise of Sherry Serafini. Shown here, and above in detail, is her “Nicole Lyn” embroidered neckpiece, which is framed by netted fringe.


Now comes the fun part: picking up the beads! Starting out in embroidery, you might be tempted to use glue to place and adhere your beads quickly. But remember: glue is temporary, and stitching is lasting. Strong glue, such as E6000, is great for setting cabochons, but cabs should be held additionally with a peyote bezel or other securing stitches. 


The abundance of embroidery stitches can be overwhelming. My advice is to learn a handful of basic embroidery stitches. Perfect these stitches so your beads lie cleanly and uncrowded. 

Here are a few of my go-to stitches: 

BEADED BACKSTITCH -- the most common stitch in bead embroidery     

    Where and how to use: Stitch en masse for backgrounds, or use for small detailed work, bordering cabs, and outlining areas.

    Variations/other names: Depending on the number of beads initially picked up, this can be called: Backstitch2, Backstitch 3 … Backstitch 8.

    Effects: Create curves or straight lines, and can cover a lot of area.



    Where and how to use: Place a key bead on the top surface of embroidery.

    Variations/other names:  Single stitch

    Effects: Use for punctuating bead placement, and to add variation in pattered areas.

    Instructional link: BEAD EMBROIDERY: SEED STITCH


    Where and how to use: Secure large beads or focal pieces with crevasses or drilled holes on a design. Also excellent for making short fringe, which adds interesting texture.

    Variations/other names: Anchoring or tacking

    Effects: Adds height and interest while securing large beads.

    Instructional link: BEAD EMBROIDERY: STOP STITCH 


    Where and how to use: Cover large area when stitched flat, or climb small beads up the sides of focal beads.

    Variations/other names: Lace stitch, and snake stitch, which adds more beads for a scaly appearance.

    Effects: Adds a delicate, lacy look when tacked down, or draws attention to focal bead when used as siding.


    Where and how to use: Use along the edges.

    Variations/other names: Many variation exist, including circle edge, clean edge, fringe edge, slanted edge, rope edge, pointed edge, and wave edge.

    Effects: Adds a finished look to the work.

    Instructional link: LEARN TO MAKE BEADED EDGING

After the beading is done, stand back and take it all in!

Since my embroidery, this time, is for a theater production, it is important to make sure the composition and sparkle can be appreciated from afar. These tips all work for jewelry construction as well as costume application. Prep, plan, play, perfect, and then admire!