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Seed Beads: A Guide for Buyers and Sellers

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This guide focuses on searching out and purchasing seed beads on eBay. I hope it will also help sellers who aren't sure how to describe their beads. While there are lots of other beads and styles available, some from the same manufacturers mentioned below, I'll leave descriptions of them for a different guide.

About Seed Beads

"Seed" beads are not actually seeds, but rather tiny glass beads ranging in size from about 6° (about 3/16") to the nearly microscopic vintage 22° (The higher the number, the smaller the bead). Historically, sizes 5° - also known as E beads - and 6° have been referred to as pony beads, and crow beads are even larger than that. Nowadays, perhaps because the Japanese tend to manufacture coordinated colors in sizes all the way up to 2°, many sellers just refer to them all as seed beads.


Assorted seed beads

Seed beads have been and continue to be manufactured in many countries, but in the U.S. today we import our best quality seeds from Japan and the Czech Republic. For now, I'll limit my discussion to these two countries.

Seed beads are used in bead embroidery, loomwork, stringing, and a wide range of beadwork stitches, including crochet and macrame, as well as crazy quilts, fiber arts, jewelry and other artful craft applications.

The smaller the bead, the smaller the needle needs to be, and therefore, the smaller the eye in that pesky little needle, and the more challenging the beads are to work with! Size 11°s are the most common size for beadwork projects, followed by Delicas, which are preferred for closely woven stitches.

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AUGHT, YOU SAY?
In this guide, the degree symbol (°) stands for "aught," a term of dubious and debatable origins in beadland. The "aught" means "zero" and it refers to how many of the little buggers will fit into a "standard unit of measure." In other words, if 11 of them will fit, we call the beads size 11°  (eleven aught).
     Some people say the standard unit of measure is an inch, but I doubt it, for two obvious reasons: 1) you can fit more than 11 size 11°s in an inch, and 2) they don't use inches in Europe, where the term first came into usage. D'oh!
     Ah well, whatever the standard unit of measure is (the Czech beadmaker's pinky finger?), understanding the term in general does help to explain why smaller beads get a higher number.
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Buying Your First Seed Beads

When choosing seed beads, a good rule of thumb is to stick with a single size for each stitch the project calls for. For example, in a netted necklace with fringe, you could use one size for the whole project, or you could use, say, 11°s for the netting, 8°s for the fringe, and 6°s for the strap. (In stringing and bead embroidery, however, mix together any old sizes.)

Color names vary from seller to seller, but their numbers (for Japanese beads only) are designated by the manufacturer, so if color matching is critical, ask the seller what the number is.

Seed bead quality also varies. Poor quality seed beads are uneven and misshapen. Quality beads may cost a few pennies more, but you'll save money in the long run by not having to toss out the bad ones! Stick with Japanese and Czech, unless you're on the hunt for antique beads, in which case you can expand to other European countries.


Starter palette of size 15° bead colors

Starting your collection and don't know what colors to buy? That's easy! First, pick the size you want to work with. I recommend Japanese 11°s for starters because they're so commonly available. Buy your two favorite colors. Then add a rainbow palette of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Now, pick your favorite metallic (silver, gold, or bronze). Finally, get some black and white. That's 11 colors. When you add to that basic palette, choose tints and shades of those 11 hues to create blends and contrast. Don't forget neutrals, such as creams, grays, and browns -- they help your favorite colors stand out more. Then, add more metallics. If you decide to stick with beadwork for awhile, expand your palette by purchasing the complements (opposites) of all your favorite colors.

You can generally save money on shipping by purchasing several items from a single seller, then shipping them all together. Beads are heavy -- they're made of glass, after all, so don't be surprised when the shipping adds up. Look for a seller who offers a shipping discount on multiple items.

Seed Bead Characteristics

CZECH vs. JAPANESE

While some perfectionists pooh-pooh the Czech beads as inconsistent, it really depends on the artist's hand as well as the stitch/application which beads are best for you. I use both in my work.  I appreciate the larger holes in Japanese beads when I'm using a stitch that requires multiple thread passes, but I also appreciate the ability to embroider smoothly curving lines with Czech beads that don't require extra reinforcement along the way. I adore the hunt for subtle shades of Czech seeds, but also appreciate the reliability and availability of the Japanese.


Tube of Japanese 11°s, hank of Czechs

Due to differences in manufacturing technology, Czech and Japanese beads are easy to distinguish from each other:

  • Shape: CZECH beads are more donut shaped than Japanese, with smaller holes.
    JAPANESE seed beads are more cylindrical, with straighter outside walls and larger holes than Czech beads. Japanese cylinder beads are like tiny tubes with thin walls and large holes.
  • Packaging: CZECH beads often come strung on hanks (bunches of strands tied together).
    JAPANESE seed beads are generally packaged in tubes or other plastic containers.
  • Color Availability: CZECH beads come in a limited range of colors compared to Japanese.
    JAPANESE seed beads are available in hundreds of different colors.
  • Color Consistency: CZECH bead colors often vary from one lot to the next.
    JAPANESE bead colors tend to be more consistent over time.
  • Other Notes:
    -
    For repairing or duplicating antique beadwork, use CZECH vintage beads.
    -Be cautious when buying "vintage" beads on hanks, because many Czech colors have been continuously manufactured for many years. Why pay high prices when the same color is available for $2.50 per new hank?
    -To match embroidery floss, use JAPANESE seed beads. Color conversion charts are available on the Web.
    -Avoid mixing CZECH and JAPANESE beads in closely woven stitches where subtle size differences matter.

JAPANESE Seed Beads

Perhaps the best known manufacturer is Miyuki-Shoji, which produces Delicas and seed beads, along with other styles. Another company, Toho, provides a full line of beads for Mill Hill and other vendors.

Different brands of Japanese seed beads can be mixed in most projects, except in a few closely woven stitches, where minute size differences become irritatingly apparent to the beadworker. ;-)

--> Pre-WWII Japanese: e.g., sizes 8, 12°, 13°
Buy vintage Japanese seed beads only from knowlegeable vendors. I've seen these mislabelled in more than a few auctions.

--> Searching for Japanese Seed Beads: Size 15° | Size 11° | Size 8° | Size 6°

JAPANESE SEEDS vs. CYLINDERS

While Japanese seed beads are more cylindrical than their donut-ish Czech cousins, "cylinder" beads are distinctly like tiny tubes, with thin walls and large holes. They work up a bit smaller than 11°s and yet are often easier to work with when stitches require multiple thread passed through the beads.Cylinder beads are perfect for peyote, brick and other close stitches and patterns because they fit together nicely.


Beaded cuff bracelets made with Delicas,
in peyote stitch (left) and loomwork (right)

Miyuki cylinders are called "Delicas," and Toho originally called theirs "Antiques." This term was a confusing translation from the Japanese name which more accurately meant "Treasures," the current name under which Toho cylinders are now marketed. Aiko is a new brand of cylinder beads, also manufactured by Toho.

--> Search for Cylinder Beads: Miyuki Delicas | Toho Treasures

CZECH Seed Beads

Czech seed beads have been manufactured in that country since a couple of governments ago ;-) in factories and, to some extent, as a cottage industry. Generally available on hanks (tied bunches of beads), you may also find them loose.

I've just learned that Size 12° seed beads are being manufactured again. However, the Czech micro sizes (smaller than size 15°) are basically out of production. Virtually all the beads you'll find in those sizes are vintage. Additionally, some colors in size 13° may appear bigger or smaller (something about heat and glass colorants), and may be difficult to size correctly.

--> Search for Czech Seed Beads: Size 6° | Size 8° | Size 10° | Size 11° | Micros

CHARLOTTES & TRUE CUTS

These yummy Czech beads have a single facet for just a hint of sparkle. Officially, only the size 13° is called "charlotte" and the other sizes are referred to as "true cuts." Charlottes often come in short hanks; I've seen true cuts in short, medium, and long (12") strands. A full hank usually contains 12 strands.

 
"Before the Millennium, USA"
Belt buckle detail, bead
embroidery
with charlottes

--> Search for Charlottes & True Cuts: Size 11 True Cuts | Size 13 Charlottes | Size 15 True Cuts

A FEW OTHER CZECH BEADS

--> White Hearts - Semi transparent or nearly opaque seed beads with a white core. Delicious old-time colors! Antiques are not unheard of, vintage is common, but newer white hearts are also floating around.


White hearts in various sizes and colors

--> Two-cuts (sometimes tri-cuts). Tricky to search for and sometimes mislabelled by sellers, these beads are still being manufactured so be careful when buying vintage. Faceted on 2 or 3 sides (um, is the third cut an accident?), resulting in a somewhat inconcistent, tubular shape. Sizes range from 9/10° to 12°.


Necklace detail, size 12 tricuts in
tubular peyote & right angle weave

Glossary of Bead Finishes

Some sellers prefer to use their own creative nomenclature, and that's fine - unless you're searching for specific finishes. Below you'll find some commonly used terms that describe what happens to the glass after it becomes a bead:

  • AB (aurora borealis) - rainbow coating, usually on one side of the seed bead. See also "iris".
  • CEYLON - pearlescent coating, usually over a pastel or white bead. Look for a darker residue of the color inside the hole
  • DYED- impermanent coloring technique that fades over time, especially in pinks, purples and extremely vivid colors.
  • GALVANIZED - metal coating over glass, not terribly permanent.
  • GHOST - matte iridescent.
  • GREASY - semi-transparent "old time" colors, such as maize yellow, some greens, etc.
  • IRIS - rainbow or iridescent coating, See AB
  • LINED - transparent glass with a colored or metallic coating in the hole. Coating may not be  permanent.
         SILVER LINED (see also "rocaille") - transparent seed bead lined with a silver coating
         GILT LINED (or "opal, semi-matte") - transparent seed bead lined inside the hole with a gold coating, often with a matte surface
  • LUSTRE or GOLD LUSTRE - fumed or coated with a lustrous, goldtoned finish
  • MATTE - etched surface that diminishes reflectivity
  • METALLIC - glass bead covered with metal, refers to the surface finish, not the lining. Some finishes more permanent than others.
  • OPAQUE - solid color, opposite of transparent
  • ROCAILLE - A silver-lined bead with a square hole, usually transparent. Originally, a French word for seed bead, sometimes still used to describe seed beads in general.
  • SATIN - vintage European or contemporary Delica beads with an inner chatoyance or reflectivity in vertical stripes (from hole to hole)
  • STRIPED - generally a Czech bead made with striped cane
  • TRANSPARENT - a see-through bead, not opaque

The above treatments are often combined during manufacture; e.g., matte iris, transparent matte AB, etc.


"Teleolithic Art," (detail) bead embroidery
with transparent and opaque Japanese 11
° beads

Short List of Bead Facts

Feel free to use the information below to help you make your purchases.

  • DELICAS | approx. 200 beads per gram | approx. 20 beads per inch (strung)
  • SIZE 11° | approx. 120 beads per gram | approx. 19 beads per inch | approx. 3,500 per 6" x 9/16" tube
  • SIZE 15° | approx. 250 beads per gram | approx. 25 beads per inch | approx. 7,000 per 6" x 9/16" tube
  • Approx. 28-30 grams of 11° & 15° seed beads fit into a 6" tube
  • OUNCE = 28.35 grams | 1/2 KILO = 500 grams = 1.1 lbs | kilo = 1,000 grams = 2.2 lbs
  • SIZE 11° | 1 HANK = approx. 4,000 beads = 12 strands (12 hanks = 1/2 kilo)
  • SIZE 13° (e.g., charlottes) | 1 hank = approx. 4,960 (18 hanks = 1/2 kilo)

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Thanks for reading my Guide to Seed Beads!
If you found it useful, please rate my review below. You can visit my other Guides, too, for ideas on how to make stuff with your eBay finds. When you're done, check out my unusual, vintage and handcrafted items for the discerning craft FANATIC. I'm seriousbeader on eBay, and here's my About Me page. Happy Bidding!

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©2006 Mary J. Tafoya

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