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Glass Seed Beads

By Sandra Paluzzi,
The Bead Peddle
r

The term seed bead is confusing as it is actually used to refer to two different types of beads:  beads made of nature's seeds and beads produced in a factory.  This article focuses on those seed beads produced in a factory.

Since most seed beads are made of glass,  that is the focus of this article.  However, other materials have been used.  For example, seed beads were made of metal in France at the turn of the 19th century.  Many of those metal beads were facetted.

Seed beads are made of drawn glass.  A hollow mass of glass is literally drawn or pulled into a long tube.  This pulling can be done by one person alone or by two people.  The process looks like a taffy pull.  The drawn glass tube is cut into small pieces to produce seed beads. 

Some claim that the production of drawn beads in the early 18th century was the most important development in the history of beads.  It was the first time that beads did not have to be individually hand made.  Instead, beads could simply be cut en masse from tubes of drawn glass.  Mass production had arrived in bead making.  In the 1860s several new processes and machines were developed which enabled bead makers to achieve uniformity of colors and sizes in seed beads.  But perhaps the biggest boon to seed beads came in the early 20th century when a machine was made to automatically draw glass tubes. 

The original seed beads were made in Italy from round tubes producing round seed beads.  For years the Italians held the monopoly on the process.  The Czech entered the marketplace in the late 18th century.  

Today, several different shapes of tubes are used to make seed beads, giving us different shapes of these tiniest of beads.  The market is now dominated by the Czech and the Japanese.  The most uniform, highest quality seed beads are the Japanese Delicas.  However, many people prefer the look achieved by the Czech claiming they give a more 'craftsy, homemade' look to the beads.  The Czech seed beads are also less expensive than the Delicas.  Still cheaper and less uniform than the Czech are the low end Japanese, Indian and Chinese seed beads.  These can be seen in bundles at discount stores like Walmart and are a great introduction to beadworking for older children.   Of course, seed beads are a choking hazard and adult supervision is suggested for all children's bead working.

Seed beads were immediately popular.  They were used as decoration on clothes and other items.  In many cases, the seed beads allowed people to enhance their outfits much more elaborately than had previously been possible.  For example, North American Indians used the seed beads to embellish their clothing.  Until this time,  these tribes had mainly used shells and quail quills for adornment.  Due to their intense popularity, seed beads were used extensively as trade beads.  They bought palm oil from Africa and land from the USA.  Of course, people began to attach meanings to articles made of seed beads.  They were used as a communication device.  Perhaps my favorite use of seed beads is one Peter Francis Jr. points out in his book, Beads of the World.  The Zulus attached meanings to the colors and patterns of beadwork.  Girls "weave small rectangles of beads on a necklace.  The colors and patterns signify everything from gossip to romance, and even a couple breaking up.  These love letters are given to the boys who never part with them, but keep them as a record of their affairs (they can even be introduced as evidence in court under certain circumstances".

Seed beads are strung on strands to produce jewelry and lampshades , woven on looms to produce articles of clothing and other household items.  They are also placed on thread and sewn into elaborate patterns.  They are sewn together so frequently that a whole subcategory of beading, beadworking, has grown up.  Several sites, including http://beadwork.about.com/ have forums dedicated to beadworking.  Free patterns abound on the internet and again, the above website offers some.  Lately, seed bead beads have become popular.  Here, seed beads cover an entire round bead.

Seed beads are available in one color or two.  They can be transparent, opaque, metal finished, color lined, metal lined,  frosted or AB finished.  They can be round, square  or hex-cut (facetted).  They come in an almost overwhelming variety of colors and sizes.  It can be difficult to make sense of the sizes, as they are listed in xx/o sizes, from  6/o down to 22/o.  The larger the number, the smaller the size. Still, even the largest seed beads is tiny at 3.3mm. The smallest seed bead is less than 1mm long (.9mm).  You'd need better eyes than I have to work with size 6/o seed beads!

Resources

Baubles, Buttons and Beads, Sibylle Jargstorf

Bead Of The World, Peter Francis Jr.

This History of Beads From 30,000 BC to the Preset, Lois Sherr Dubin

 

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