Knitting with Beads

Every once in a while I stumble across a technique that makes knitting fun again. This time it came from adding bright, beautiful beads to my knitting.

Whether as eyes for animal motifs, glitter for evening attire, or just a little something extra on a simple scarf, beads can provide an elegant punctuation to your stitchwork. Smaller ones evoke images of dew on a spider's web, while bigger beads can make flat and simple stitchwork look deceptively complicated.

Beads are particularly beautiful in knitted lacework. You can see many examples of beaded-lace scarves at Heartstrings Fiber Arts, which also carries some ingenious beaded-sock patterns. Several designers -- including Rowan -- also add beaded detail to sweater patterns.
Kidsilk Haze and seed beads



Additional Articles
arrow Knit Your Own Jewelry
arrow Review of Nancie Wiseman's book Knitting with Wire

Beading Information
arrow Beadwork Magazine
arrow About.com Beadwork

Bead Stores
arrow Fire Mountain Gems
arrow Shipwreck Beads

Beaded-Knitting Kits and Patterns
arrow Free bead knitting patterns from About.com Knitting
arrow BagLady Press beaded bag kits
arrow Beadcats Bead-Knitting Video and Kits
arrow The Bead Merchant (beaded knit amulet purse patterns and supplies)
arrow Deanna's Vintage Styles
arrow Heartstrings Fiber Arts


Getting Started: Stringing Your Beads

Before you can knit with beads, you need to get the beads onto your yarn. There are two basic ways to do this. The most common method is simply to pre-string the beads onto your yarn.

beading needleIf you're using a fine yarn or small beads, you'll need to use a beading needle to string the beads onto your yarn. Beading needles are inexpensive and easily available in most craft stores.

If you have access to thin wire, you can also create one yourself. To do so, you'll need approximately six inches of very thin wire.

Bend the wire in half, then twist the two single ends together until you reach the loop end of the wire. Keep the loop wide enough to accommodate your yarn. Voilą, instant needle!


How Much to String?

To keep from causing too much wear on your yarn, you should only strand four or five inches of beads at a time. If you're using a particularly delicate yarn -- such as a silk/wool blend -- you may want to string even fewer beads at a time.

When you near the end of your pre-strung beads, you can simply cut your yarn and string on another batch. You'll have a few more ends to weave in when you're done, but it's worth the extra effort.

Ready to Knit

Now that you've pre-strung a good length of beads, you're ready to start knitting. There are two ways you can go about this: the chaotic way, and the orderly way.

For both techniques, the underlying movements are the same:
  • Knit (or purl) one stitch, then slide a bead over to your right needle immediately after your last worked stitch.
  • Then knit (or purl) your next stitch, making sure that your bead doesn't creep its way over into that stitch. Your bead will now be secured between those two stitches.
Random Effects

If you're going for a slightly chaotic effect, follow the above steps but don't worry about knit rows versus purl rows. Neither should you worry about whether or not the bead stays in place after you knit it. Just relax and let the beads fall where they may.

This effect works well when you're using larger beads and want an obvious, textured look.

Keeping Tidy

It takes just a little more concentration to make sure all the beads face the same side of your work. Here's the basic rule: The bead will face the same direction as your working needle when you secure the bead in place.

This means that if the bead is placed between two purl stitches, the bead will show on the front side of your work. If it's between two knit stitches, it will show on the back side.

Let me give an example. Say I want a bead to appear on the front (i.e. smooth) face of a stockinette scarf. If I add the bead during a knitted row, I'll need to purl the stitches before and after I insert the bead. If I want to add the bead on a purl row, I'll knit the stitches before and after the bead.

If you don't want to mar a smooth stockinette surface with those reverse stitches, there's one more option.
  • Knit up to the place where you'd like to add the bead.
  • Bring the yarn between your needles to the front of your work, and slide the next stitch purl-wise onto your right needle.
  • Then slide the bead over, letting it occupy the slight void left by the slipped stitch.
  • Lift your yarn back between your needles and to the rear of your work, and knit the next stitch. The bead should be secured tightly.

Other Techniques: String-as-You-Go

If spending 30 minutes stringing tiny beads onto yarn doesn't excite you, fear not. There is another technique that allows you to add the beads as you go.

You'll need an extremely fine crochet hook -- one so fine that the tip will fit through the hole in your bead. Knit until you reach the stitch where you'd like to add the bead.

Pick up the crochet hook, slide one bead onto it, and use it to snag the stitch in question off your left knitting needle.

Slide the bead down from the crochet hook deep onto the yarn loop, then place the loop back on your knitting needle.

The bead is now in place and you can continue knitting.

The major benefit of this technique is that your bead is held very securely. The drawback is that your bead will be positioned vertically in your work, rather than horizontally.

Depending on the kind of bead you're using and the overall effect you're trying to achieve, this may not make much of a difference.

Materials Checklist

Here's what you'll need to begin your knitting-with-beads experiments:

Thread:  You can add beads to pretty much any type of fiber. The general rule is that the greater the anticipated wear on your garment, the stronger the fiber you'll need (i.e. acrylic instead of silk). This is because the presence of beads immediately doubles the amount of friction your yarn must endure.

For items like bracelets and necklaces, you'll want to use an even stronger, reinforced metallic thread, colored wire (24 gauge or higher), or even gold-plated wire.

Beads:  Here's where you can really have fun. The overall effect you're trying to achieve will impact the size and shape bead you choose.

If you're going for a subtle but consistent, dewdrop-like effect, stick with smaller "seed" beads in a corresponding but slightly lighter color than your background yarn. If you want to accentuate a yarn and add depth, choose a darker shade.

You can also play with your colors, starting with lighter shades and gradually working to darker ones to achieve a waterfall-type effect.


Stringing Needle:  As mentioned above, unless you're using remarkably chunky beads and thin yarn, you'll need a beading needle to string the beads onto your yarn. You can make one yourself if you have ready access to thin wire, or you can easily find them at mainstream craft stores.

Knitting Needles:  O.K., this last item may seem a bit obvious. But if you plan on knitting a very fine item -- such as a beaded amulet bag -- you'll need lace needles.

These are the steel, superfine lance-like ones that do deserve to be banned on airplanes. Lace needles allow you to achieve such a fine gauge that the knitted stitches can almost disappear behind the beads.

They're a bit tricky to find, however. Inox makes double-pointed lace needles in sizes from 0 to 00000000, which you can find at Needles! under the category of "Very Fine Knitting Needles."

If you're looking for something a little more unusual, check out Heartstrings' Diadem Knitting Pins. There are four colorways to choose from, and each set of US 0000 lace needles is capped with semi-precious gemstones or fancy glass finials.

A note about using wooden needles with yarn and beads: If you're using tubular glass beads, the bead ends are capable of digging into and destroying the tips of non-metal needles. If you're using rounded seed beads, you can use any type of needle at larger gauges without worrying.

Also keep in mind that some colored beading wires may transfer their color onto your needles.