Knitting with Beads – a tutorial
For all of you lace knitters out there, there may come a day when the addition of beads is desirable, if not absolutely necessary to make you happy, to fulfill your sparkly knitting dreams. And once you start looking, you’ll see that you have a number of options out there on how to achieve this effect.
1) the Pre-Strung approach
One option is to start off by threading all of your beads onto your yarn before you start a project, and when you approach the stitch to knit, you slide a bead up between the needles and onto the piece of working yarn you’ll use to work the stitch.
Advantages: In double-sided lace patterns (that is, where you’re making YOs on both sides of the work, instead of purling straight across the back), this will allow the beads to float on a single strand of yarn, for a very delicate, beautiful effect. Some patterns really need this to shine. Also, your beads are all strung, so you don’t have to worry about loading them in as you go, spilling them all over the place when you’re trying to knit distractedly (I’m sure that every beader has their own story of a spilled-bead catastrophe). Also, unlike the following techniques, if you have to rip any of your knitting back, your beads stay put instead of cascading around the room. A distinct advantage.
Disadvantages: First, you need to take the time to thread all the beads on. Realistically, this could be upwards of 1000 beads, depending on your project. For reference, the Aeolian Shawl uses 850 beads for the small version and 2250 for the larger, and it doesn’t use beads particularly densely. Then, you need to keep these beads orderly on the yarn. For more reference, size 6 seed beads (largish, best for sock-weight knitting) string about 8 beads to an inch. You do the math – that’s 3 yards of beads for something like the small Aeolian, and almost 8 yards of beads for the larger. (note, the Aeolian does not use this technique for incorporating beads – the numbers presented here are for perspective alone) Not only do you need to keep these strung beads orderly, but you need to be able to pull the working yarn through them. That means that every inch of yarn you knit could be traveling through 8 yards (24 feet! 288 inches!) of beads, which, as they’re made of glass, might snag, shred, or otherwise sully your yarn. I’m presenting the worst-case scenario, but it’s not an unrealistic one.
A neutral point on pre-strung beads: you’ll find that this technique makes the bead sit on half of the knitted stitch, on a diagonal, and with a tendency to fall either to the front of the work or the back. As previously mentioned in the Advantages, this can be a desired effect, leading to ethereally floating beads, but in other patterns can be undesirable, particularly if you’d prefer your beads to sit solidly on both legs of a stitch and stay evenly-placed between the front and back of the work.
So, after considering this option, you may be interested in a different method of beading.
2) the “hook and scoop” approach (aka the Crochet method)
So let’s say you want that bead to sit squarely in the middle of a stitch, and you don’t fancy pre-stringing the beads. How the heck do you get the bead onto the stitch if it’s not on the yarn? Answer #1 – tiny crochet hook.
Method: Knit up to the stitch you’d like to place a bead onto. Using a small steel crochet hook, scoop up one bead, then hook that stitch with your small crochet hook and slip it off the left needle, slip the bead over the yarn loop so it sits snugly at the base of the stitch, and return the stitch to the left needle to be worked as normal. (Note: You can insert the crochet hook into the stitch knit-wise or purl-wise without any difference, just don’t twist the stitch; when you return the stitch to the left needle, insert the left needle into the front of the stitch, i.e. in front of the left leg, behind the right leg.)
Photos, followed by a YouTube video of the process in action:
And in live action:
Nota bene: If your pattern calls for you to place a bead on a decrease stitch, you may have to place the bead on an unworked stitch that’s one or two stitches away from the gap in the needles (if you want the bead to show on top, it needs to sit on whatever stitch of the decrease ends up on top). For example, to work a k3tog, you’ll want the bead on the third stitch in, so slip two stitches, place the bead on the third stitch, slip the two slipped stitches back, then work your k3tog. For a s2kp, the middle stitch (second one in) ends up on top, so slip one, place the bead, slip back.
Reference Frame: Where do I place my bead for this decrease?
(note, these are all on the knit side, without their purly counterparts, for good reason. Beads will naturally fall to the knit side of a decrease stitch)
place bead on 1st stitch: ssk; skp (a.k.a. sl1, k1, psso) , sk2p (a.k.a. sl1 k2tog psso); k2tog tbl
(essentially, those decreases where you slip the first stitch, which eventually gets passed over the others, or where you are are working multiple stitches through the back loop)
place bead on 2nd stitch: k2tog; s2kp (centered double decrease)
place bead on 3rd stitch: k3tog
So you’ve figured out where to place the bead, and knowing is half the battle. But sometimes we run into problems. For example, when I say tiny crochet hook, I mean teeny tiny. Size 10 is the absolute largest I’d go, and it works ok for size 6 seed beads, but is too big for my 8s or 10s. Size 14 is better in terms of the beads, and should be grand if you’re using a tightly-spun laceweight or cobweb yarn, but might cause problems grabbing hold of the whole strand if you’re using something thicker or fuzzier. One suggestion I have is, particularly if you’re using larger beads, to try a Knit Picker. It’s a teeny-tiny latchhook, and after you put the yarn into the hook you flip the little gate, so your yarn gets locked in place while pulling the bead over. My Knit Picker is too large to fit in size 6 beads, but if you’re using fat yarn and pony beads, you may have luck.
an assortment of tools (including an improvised teeny crochet hook for size 8 beads)
notice that for real seed beads, you’re going to have a hard time using a hook.
Another problem you may encounter is that although it may be easy enough to get your hook into the bead, getting the hook and the doubled-over yarn through the bead’s orifice might just not be happening. You might try a smaller crochet hook, or using a length of dental floss or tigertail (coated metal thread used for beading). These last two techniques are in essence the same as the Flosser technique, so I’ll hold off on explaining them here, as I touch on them a bit later.
Other problems to this method are that it’s laborious and potentially messy, as you’ve got an open container of beads that you’re regularly fishing one out of with a tiny hook. It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this can both be exhausting (you mean I need to be able to SEE where the hole in the bead is?) and a recipe for disaster, especially in a house with cats, small children, or strong breezes.
So this is where I suggest solution 3. I dare say it’s brilliant, and I wish I could take credit for it myself, but someone out there certainly came up with this first. I can only hope to spread the knowledge around.
3) the Flosser method
Method: Go to your local health and beauty aisle, and find a package of 3-in-1 flossers. Oral B calls it Super Floss; it’s got a long, slightly stiff flossy part, a spongy, thick part in the middle, and a shorter, stiffer threader. $3.50 got me a 50-pack of generic flossers (in mint flavor – yum!) from CVS. Thread one bead onto the floss, slip it all the way to the end of the long flossy part, and tie it on securely (to prevent other beads from slipping off this end). Thread more beads on from the stiff end, as many as you like, so long as they all fit on the long flossy bit and the spongy bit. The spongy part will compress where the beads are, but expand where they aren’t, keeping them safely in place and not all around the kitchen table.all set up and ready to go
Then, when you need to place a bead, thread the stiff end through your stitch. Slide a bead up off of the sponge toward the tip, and when it’s about an inch away from your stitch, thread the stiff part through the bead, headed toward the spongy part. Slip the stitch off the left needle, pull the bead down over the stitch, replace the stitch, and remove the floss.
Again, photos, with video following:
And, in living color:
A similar effect can be reached using plain (unwaxed!) dental floss or beading wire/tigertail, without the distinct advantage of being able to fearlessly store many beads at the ready. Personally, I find regular dental floss to be a bit too limp, and tigertail too thick with its plastic coating, whereas the stiffness of the flossers is just right for my liking. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
Give it a try and let me know what you think!