It’s just bead embroidery. Backing, needles, thread, beads. Nothing to it. But before I leave to teach my first class for the Centre for Craft & Design, I have a packed a large flight back to the top.
Working in my studio with everything close at hand, I hadn’t realized how many more tools and materials I use. Paper to scribble design ideas on, marking pens to color the bead backing, scissors, rulers, pencils, glue, double-sided tape, measuring tape, white cotton cloth to spread the beads on and masking tape to keep the cloth from slipping, a measuring tape to take wrist measurements.
The day before the class, I oil every pair of scissors I own and cut tinfoil with them to sharpen the edges. I notice that my measuring tape, plastic and old enough to be almost vintage, is filthy. I wash it down with pine cleaner. These are the necessary items.
I manage to read the sign, and reduce speed slightly. I ask everyone’s names and experience level. “If you can sew on a button, you can do this,” I tell them. One of the younger women grins shakily, “I could if my life depended on it, I think.” One student makes jewelry, another is an experienced quilter, and my fourth works in the craft world and is a curator, so I assume a relevant background.
The thing is, I think of bead embroidery as “easy.” I am reminded, during the class, that when you’ve done a thing for hundreds of hours, embroidered tens of thousands of beads, it’s bound to feel as natural as breathing. But when you are new to it, you don’t know certain things: That you put the needle point on the side of a bead and tip it onto the needle, rather than picking the bead up with your fingers.
One student is pressing newly threaded beads down with her fingers, vanquishing them, apparently, as they struggle to rest anywhere but where she wants them. Her shoulders are tensed and I’d bet she’s holding her breath as she leans in close. The beads are buckling and spacing.
Teaching teaches you. I tell her to pull the thread in the direction she wants the beads to go and use the needle tip to push them into place, then to push the needle down into the backing, right where they stop. Up until that moment, I wasn’t even aware that I do that when I work. The “obvious,” I realize, is not obvious the first time you do a thing. If you feel a knot, don’t pull. If you make a mistake, unthread the needle and pick it out, if your shape narrows or widens, think first about what stitch direction will fill it because your beads will not narrow or widen. A too-short length of thread pulls out of the needle and when you’re working with long thread, hold the work upside down so that it doesn’t catch on the backing as you pull the stitch through.
At two hours, it’s break time. At two hours and fifteen minutes, they are working like a group of nuns doing penance. I insist on break because their eyes and hands need a little rest. I suggest we go to the nearby brewery and have a beer break so everyone can relax and remember that it isn’t a life or death struggle we’re engaged in and that draws a little laughter.
At the end of class, they ask anxiously about homework. Exactly how much do I expect them to have done by next week? “About a third of the surface.” If they panic, they don’t let it show.
Next time, I’ll be slower too. And I’ll remember what it’s like to try something for the very first time. And that even though it eats an entire day of my time and makes me terminally nervous, it’s a genuine thrill to share what you love with people who are just starting to learn.