The Making of a Glass Seed Bead

Early history

There is evidence that early Egyptians created beads by bending a sheet of molten glass around a wire to form a tube, then cut the tube crosswise into tiny beads. These beads were then reheated to smooth the sharp edges.

India

Prior to the invention of the blowpipe in the first century BC, glassworkers in India made tiny beads in the same manner as they do today. A huge ball (about 100 pounds) of molten glass is 'collected' on the end of a long metal tube. The glass is then rolled along a wall until it is cone-shaped. A rod is forced through the tube and the glass and when the rod is removed air flows through the tube into the glass keeping the hole open. The tube and the glass are then reheated with the tube extending beyond the rear door of the furnace, this keeps the air flowing through the glass cone. The glass is then drawn and pulled from the top of the cone with a metal hook until a nice tube forms. This is then pulled out continuously into a very thin tube until all of the glass has been drawn. When the tubes are cooled they are sliced vertically, then packed into ash and stirred over low heat to smooth the edges. After the bead and ashes have cooled, the ash is separated from the glass, and the beads are strung in hanks.

Europe

The drawn glass process of creating beads in Europe began with 'gathering' a pear-shape mass of glass on the end of a blowpipe. A puff of air blown through the pipe would create a bubble in the middle of the glass, the bubble would be stretched into a tube shape by swinging it back and forth like a pendulum. The cylinder would then be reheated in a furnace to soften it again, then drawn out by letting the bottom end fall to the floor the pulling away from it to make a long, thin tube. When two artisans work together the second person attaches the end of the bubble to a metal rod and pulls/draws it out until the tube is long and slender. This method results in varying thickness of the walls of the glass tube, which gives beads of different sizes. The tube is then broken into 1 yard lengths, bundled, then each bundle is sliced into bead-sized pieces by machines. The beads are then tumbled in hot sand to smooth the edges, as it cools the beads are 'annealed' which keeps them from shattering. The beads are then run through several screen to sort them according to size. Finally, they are strung into hanks. This is achieved by workers holding a 'fan' of several threaded 7 inch needles which are scooped into a shallow bowl of beads. Once the threads are filled, the lengths are equaled out and tied into hanks.

Native American

Native American beadwork is probably the most popularized form of 'seed' bead work. However, Native Americans did not originally do their decorative work with glass beads at all. Their designs were made up of porcupine quills, wood, bone, and dyed seeds. Glass beads came to America from Europeand the beads were used as trade goods for all manner of things such as furs and even land.

Japan

In the past 40 years, Japan has used technology in the making of seed beads. The glass tubes are extruded (pushed through a mold, much like many plastic products are formed) from computerized furnaces. This gives a greater consistency to the size and shaping of beads. Japanese Delica beads are extremely popular today due to their uniform sizing and color. This is quite a time-saver when designing and creating a piece since you do not have to sort through your beads to find uniform sizes. The holes in these beads also tend to be much larger, allowing the use of heavier thread or bringing the thread through each bead several times without breaking the bead.