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I don't know about you, but I was a happy and contented knitter before I knew about beads. Many times I could be found following patterns word for word, knitting late into the night without hardly a thought of tweaking or fiddling with the thing. All that changed when I started to design my own knitting. Shortly after, beads came into my life, two events which I can never regard as coincidental.

Now I can't even think about knitting anything without wondering where I can manage to throw in some beads. I have been throroughly seduced by beads. I hope that by the end of this article, you will be hot and bothered too. Before long, bead stores will become potential treasure troves that call you in seductively and put all kinds of ideas into your head. Yes, beads are another addiction, but so what? Bead stashes don't take anything near the room that yarn stashes do!

Many knitters are intimidated by beads, thinking that they need to be expert knitters to even try, or that beads are super fiddly to use with yarn. This may be because they have seen those tiny, elaborately beaded vintage purses and other items that are indeed marvels of knitting expertise and probably intense eyestrain. But you don't need fine yarn and tiny beads to have sparkles in your knitting. You can put beads into anything you knit, once you find the right size bead to fit on your yarn.

Beads 101 - What every knitter needs to know about beads

Knitters who walk into bead stores for the first time may be awed by the plethora of bead types, colors and sizes. Here is a quick guide for the non-initiated.

Beads come in different sizes that will fit on different weight yarns. Seed beads, which are the most commonly used beads for knitting, are measured in numbers like 3, 6, 8, or 10. Size 6 (indicated like this: 6/0) will fit easily on fingering or sportweight yarn. The higher the number, the smaller the bead. The number relates to how many beads fit into a certain measured length.

Beads are also classified by millimeter size. 6/0 seed beads are about the same diameter as 4 millimeter (mm) beads. But there is one main difference -- the size of the hole. Seed beads have a much bigger hole, which makes them better for knitting. 4 mm beads, which may be made of glass, ceramic, semi-precious stone or even plastic, will generally have a smaller hole. So get your beads wherever you can -- I love scrounging for them in odd places! But before you plan on using them for a knitting project, string a few onto your yarn to make sure the hole is the right size. It can be a real bummer to get your beads home and find that they won't go onto your yarn without a struggle.

When you go into a bead store, you will find that beads come in all types and sizes of containers, which will vary from store to store. Some stores sell beads in sealed packets or bags, some in vials that look like pill bottles, and some threaded on string and hung together in hanks.

To give you an idea of how many beads you are buying by weight, there are about 13,440 6/0 seed beads per kilogram (2.2 pounds for you non-metric folks), or 270 per 20 grams. Beads on hanks are usually sold by count, i.e. 50, 100, or 1,000 beads. So, if you are making a beaded shawl that calls for 1,500 6/0 beads, for example, you would need to buy about 120 grams of beads, or about 4-1/3 ounces.

I am giving you very rough estimates here, which brings me to an important point. Always buy more beads than you think you will need. Seed beads, at least the commonly found ones from Czechoslovakia, contain some irregularities and you can expect a few duds in every package. If you can find seed beads from Japan, they will be near perfect, but usually more expensive as well. beads as in most other things, you get what you pay for.

How do you get the beads knitted into the yarn?

This is where the fun starts. There are two main methods, with lots of variations for each one. Basically, beads are either strung onto your yarn before you start knitting or hooked onto stitches with a crochet hook as you go. There are lots of variations for either method, and knitters can be opinionated about which is the "right" way. My feeling is that any way you can imagine beads going in, around, or onto yarn is a good way to try. Let's face it guys, we are still in the experimental stage of learning what is possible to do with beads and yarn. Knitting with beads is still very much in its infancy, and it is entirely possible to imagine ways to knit with beads that no one has ever thought of before!

That said, here are some basic techniques that have worked well for myself and many other knitters.

Slipping pre-strung beads into place as you knit

The most common way to knit beads into fabric is to start by stringing them onto your yarn and slipping them into place as you knit.

I like to use dental floss threaders for stringing because they are cheap and easy to find in drug stores. Dental floss threaders are what people use to thread floss around their braces and bridges. It is semi-rigid plastic and is made up of an open loop and a "joined" part, and it acts as a big-eyed needle.

To use it for threading beads onto yarn, pass the knitting yarn through the loop of the threader and pick up beads with the working end of the "needle". Then slide the beads over the loop and onto the yarn.

Here's one easy way to knit with pre-strung beads:

1) On the right side of the work, knit to the stitch where you are going to place the bead.
2) Bring your yarn to the front and slip the next stitch purlwise.
3) Slip a bead as close as possible to the right hand needle.
4) Bring your yarn to the back and continue knitting, leaving the bead in front of the slipped stitch.

This results in beads that float in front of slipped stitches on the right side of the knitted fabric.

My example uses knit stitches, but you could just as easily be purling, or for that matter, slipping the beads into place from the wrong side of your work. Slipped beads can lie in front (or in back) of a slipped stitch, sit between stitches, or be knitted into the legs of the stitches themselves. Your imagination is the only limit with this technique.

Hooking beads as you go

Hooking beads onto individual stitches "as you go" is an outstanding method for those who hate to take the time and trouble to string loads of beads onto yarn before starting to knit. It is also great for spontaneous or accent beading, and also for yarns that are too delicate for the punishing strain that results from carrying a heavy length of pre-strung beads on the yarn. Beads are hooked on with a crochet hook small enough to fit through the hole of your beads. I have written many of my beaded knitting patterns using this technique and it remains my personal favorite.

Hooking beads onto stitches with a small crochet hook does not require juggling skills, although it may seem that way the first few times you try it. Since this method is so easy to learn from watching a demonstration, and so difficult to learn from words, here is a blow-by-blow description of my hooking method as it has evolved through hooking thousands of beads:

1) Impale the bead onto a crochet hook small enough to fit through the hole of your bead.
2) Insert the hook into the stitch loop where the bead will sit, making sure that the hook is facing you.
3) Pull the loop through the bead.
4) Replace the stitch loop onto the left needle if necessary.

People are usually a bit afraid that they will drop the stitch when they try this technique. Be aware that the stitch loop does not need to come off the needle at all for the bead to go on. Even if it does come off the needle, as long as the loop has the crochet hook in proximity, you should be safe from it slipping into oblivion. And once the bead is seated securely on the loop, it isn't going anywhere. Once you feel secure about the process, you will no doubt be taking all sorts of liberties (like I do).

Everyone goes through a period of discomfort when learning a new skill. If you try the hooking technique, please don't get discouraged if you can't seem to get it the first time. Just persist and and you will be a hooker in no time.

Use your imagination

Don't stop with the above two techniques. Here are a few more, just to spark your imagination.

1. String beads on and slide one between every two or three cast on stitches. I used this one in my design Variations on a Frill to add weight to the edges of this very open, lacy stole. You can try this with bind offs too, but it may look a little different. I am sure you can come up with many variations of this one if you play around with the possibilities.

2. Leave increasing (or decreasing) numbers of beads between select stitches across the row, creating swags of beads that can hang very attractively off the bottom edge of a piece. Many knitted beaded purses have been made with this technique, and I used it on my Beaded Drawstring Purse pattern.

3. Hook beads onto picot edges for a really easy and attention-getting finish for scarves and shawls. This is especially nice on the edges of Moebius scarves as it highlights the crossing point.

Jazz it up without knitting a stitch

You can also add beads to your knitting without knitting a stitch. A couple of possibilities are sewing beads onto your finished knitted items and attaching beaded fringe or tassels. This is great for beads that are too big or heavy to be knitted in, or beads that are too small for your yarn. Beads are wonderful embellishments in any form. Every item you make will be totally unique with the added magic of beads.

More sources of inspiration

There are quite a few designers (myself among them) who are designing with beads. Look for patterns in your local yarn store or on the internet.

One online store, earthfaire, specializes in beads, yarn, patterns, and kits for beaded knitting. Ellen Sandin, owner, is constantly adding new items to her repertoire. A great place to start with beads, especially if you don't have a bead store in your vicinity. Earthfaire carries the finest Miyuki beads from Japan.

Look in beading magazines for ideas and new techniques to steal over to the knitting camp. All's fair in art and craft!



Sivia Harding is batty for beads! She lives in Vancouver with her husband and Mooshie the famous cover cat.