Just a Little History! – Plus Materials and Techniques for Bead Knitting

Napier-Hemy beaded bag - circa late 18oo's - personal collection Lynette Meek.

Beads are older than knitting, beads and adornment are universal – this has been well documented by historians.

In History beads have been used as legal tender, in many Countries.

The transfer of Manhattan Island from the native Americans to the Dutch Settlers is one of the most famous examples.  (This story has been recently discredited by various historians).  Though Governor’s Island, close to Manhattan Island has been documented as being bought with a string of glass beads.  We know that history is often written and then rewritten by the most vocal group.

A beaded Collar from Greenland (reminds me of Icelandic Yoked Sweaters). This Collar is now part of the Kalaallisuut, the Sunday Suit. Which today constitutes the National Women's Costume of GreenLand - Volkenkunde. Internet Sourced.

Beads were also a form of hard currency in Greenland for over 200 years.  Strands of white or blue beads were traded for seal skins, blubber and whale oil. Beads have been sewn on to clothing and worked into clothing in many ways over the millennium.

Knitting, which is worked only with yarn, and often with yarn fine enough to string beads onto could not have been overlooked as a medium to work with beads.

Bead Sizes:

Bead Sizes

The smaller the number of the bead the larger the bead. A 6/0 bead will slide onto DK weight yarn. An 8/0 bead will fit finer yarn. Size 10-11 beads were most commonly used for bead knitting (using the finest needles and thread) as well as sewn bead work.  Though I have seen samples of purses knit with 8/0’s.  The Blue Sampler Bag (Plaited Bead Kniting) was knit with 8/0 seed beads.

There are two styles of Knitting with Beads.  The first one discussed will be “Beaded Knitting“.  These techniques differ from “Bead Knitting” in that the beads are applied onto, above or beside your knit stitches.  With “Bead Knitting“, each bead is knit into a stitch, sitting on an arm of your knit stitch.

Beaded Knitting:

The concept of embellishing your knits with beads, sometimes requiring that you pre-string your beads and sometimes not.  These two methods do not require the pre-stringing of beads;

1). Method:  By sewing beads where you want them, using a fine beading needle and beading thread.

2). Method:  By using the “add as you go” method, this involves a small crochet hook and places the bead onto both arms of the stitch chosen.  This is very popular with lace knitters as the beads can be seen on both sides of the knitting.  Method:  Using a crochet hook, a 0.6mm works for most 10/0 or 8/0 beads, pick-up the bead with the crochet hook and then slip the next stitch on your left hand needle off with the crochet hook, holding the stitch with the hook and slide the bead down the hook and on your stitch.  Place the stitch back onto your left-hand needle and then knit as the pattern dictates.  This is a very modern method of bead placement.  Mary Thomas does not describe this method in her book.  I first saw it described in Montse Stanleys The Knitters Bible. https://letissierdesigns.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/got-beads-got-dental-floss-threaders-you-can-add-beads-to-your-knitting/

Beads strung in pattern for the loopy edge.

All other methods of beaded knitting require that the beads be pre-strung onto the yarns before you begin knitting.

Notes on Pre-stringing beads:

All of these techniques require that the beads be strung onto your yarn before you start knitting.  The first time that you try knitting with beads I recommend that you work the pattern with only one colour of bead.  That way as long as you have enough beads there won’t be any problem with beads not being strung in the right order.  This is the simplest way of learning the methods.  After the first time you will be able to decide if you want to knit in a coloured pattern.

Beads Strung in pattern for the Fretwork Beaded Mittens.

When working a coloured pattern the beads must be strung in the correct order.  In order to do this you string the beads in the reverse order that they are being knit.  The first bead knit is the last bead strung.  If you are working from a chart, flip your chart upside down and use the reverse chart for the bead stringing order.

Managing your Beads:

Once your beads are strung they will need to be managed and controlled.  Your yarn and beads could be kept in a zip-lock bag, glass bowl, or anything to contain the yarn and beads.  Many knitters prefer to wrap their beads around cardboard rolls and will move beads down their yarn as necessary, some will lay the yarn and beads out in long lines over their floors, no pets allowed.  As the knitter you will have to explore and create the option that works for you and your style of knitting.

Beads Cast-on with the long-tail method.

1)  Cast on with beads – A beaded edge is easily worked with two strand (long tail) cast on. Place beads on the yarn that is wrapped around the thumb and slide a bead up as each stitch (or every other stitch) is created. For the ‘knitted on’ or cable cast on slide a bead between the stitches as they are cast on. For the latter, the wrong side looks better than the usual right side. https://letissierdesigns.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/ready-set-go/

2)      Beads between purl stitches– This is the easiest of the pre-strung beading techniques.  The beads are pulled up and placed between your stitches, usually purl stitches for the best effect.  The stitches hold them in place.  This technique does not work as well between knit stitches as they will fall to the purl side.  The bead sits horizontally on the bar between the stitches.  Method:  Purl your stitch, pull up the bead and purl the next stitch.  This method is often used for beaded purses.  The fabric of the bag is garter stitch and the beads are strung between the purl stitches.  These strands of beads will often start at 7 or more beads per section and slowly decrease down to 1 or 2 beads.  See the Beaded Knit Bag sample.

Beaded Loops! A fabulous Start!

3)      Beaded loops – Technique is the same as the beads between purl stitches.  The differences are that loops are best placed between knit stitches and you will be pulling up multiples of beads.  For best effect the multiple should be an odd number of beads.  Method:  Knit your stitch, move yarn forward between the needles and then pull beads up to rest tight to the stitch, move yarn to the back and knit your next stitch, keeping your tension firm.  If knitting more than one row of loops the second row of loops needs to be 1 stitch offset from the first row or the section with the loops will open up.

4)      Beads over slipped stitches – This technique works well on a stockinet surface.  The bead will sit horizontally on the yarn in front of the stitch.  Do not stack too many beads on one line of stitches with this technique as it can cause the fabric to gather vertically on the one line.  Method:  Knit to 1 stitch before the stitch you wish to place a bead on, purl the first stitch, yarn is forward, slip the next stitch purlwise, pull up the bead, resting it on top of the slipped stitch and close to the purl stitch, purl the next stitch, yarn to the back and resume knitting.  The purl stitches hold the bead in place.  The technique will work with knit stitches on either side of the slipped stitch but the bead will find it easier to migrate.

5)       Finishing with beads – Cast-off with your pre-strung beads by pulling each bead up onto either the front or back arm of your stitch and then pull the preceding stitch over the stitch just knit.  The beads can be on every stitch or on a set stitch sequence.  Ie., every second stitch or every third stitch.  More information and pictures can be found here –


Bead Knit Bag! - Collection Royal British Columbia Museum

Sample of a Beaded Knit Bag.  Bag is from the Royal British Columbia Museum and is dated 1871.  Bag is knit in garter stitch with loops of beads between purl stitches.  The top has a wide beaded slots for the beaded cording and the bag bottom is finished with a beaded loop fringe.

Bead Knitting

The method here is the most traditional method used and is sometimes called purse knitting.

A bead knit bag handle.

Bead Knitting used to embellish fingerless mittens.This method of beading places a bead on one arm of the stitch. Note that the bead sits on the diagonal unlike the previous methods where the bead sits horizontally.  If you are knitting something flat avoid placing beads on end stitches. Bead knitting in the flat offers some challenges, predominantly purling through the back of the loop and pulling the bead through, not for the faint of heart!  Bead knitting is best worked in the round, but does have a tendency to bias, severe blocking is sometimes necessary.  Beaded bags often make this tendency work with the pattern.  Also with this method of bead work the bead has a tendency to travel to the wrong side of the work. To avoid this work the stitch on the following row through the back of the stitch.

Knit into the back of the Stitch.

1) When knitting in your bead you will always knit into the back of the stitch on which you wish to place your bead. The twisting of the stitch by knitting through the back of the loop insures that the bead will be locked into place.

Bead sits on the front arm of the stitch.

2) When the needle is in place in the back of the stitch, pull up the bead up to approx ¼ of an inch away from your knitting.  As you knit the stitch, pull the bead through to rest on the front arm of your stitch.

3) The bead will be furthered anchored when the stitch on top of it is also knitted through the back of the loop.

Bead has been pulled through and it is on the front arm of the stitch.

This is done when knitting the next row of beads in place.  If beading the next row you will automatically twist the stitch with your current bead.  If no bead is being knit into place simply knit into the back of the stitch above the bead to finish the anchoring process.

An Absolutely Gorgeous Bag! Collection Royal British Columbia Museum

An exquisite sample of a bead knit bag.  From the Royal British Columbia Museum dated 1925.  5 inches wide and 8.5inches long, the bag has a crocheted top and each side of the bag is different.  The beads on the underside have lightened over time perhaps or completely different colours of beads could have been used.  A beaded ball is all that remains of the original tassel.  (My supposition, based on other observed bags, not known fact.)

I was given a gorgeous antique beaded bag last year – that bag is also knit with a similar style of beading and patterning.  See here for more on the Napier-Hemy Bag.

Plaited Bead Knitting” –

Plait knit Bag! Collection Royal British Columbia Museum

There is a method of bead knitting that combines the traditional method of knitting through the back of the loop on one round and then knitting through the front of the stitch.  At this point the method of wrapping the stitch changes, instead of wrapping as normal the yarn is wrapped in the Eastern style, clockwise, over the top of the needle.

Detail of "Plait Knitting".

This causes the bead on the next round to lay in the opposite direction of the first round alternating these rounds like this creates a “plaited” appearance to the beads.  This method was not as common as the traditional bead knitting.  Mary Thomas does make mention of the this type of bead knitting in passing in her chapter on bead and beaded knitting.

The Plait Knit Bag:  This bag was originally knit in the 1860’s as a sampler.  It was remade in its’ current form in the 1930’s.  Both sides are the same and parts of the bag have been knit with bead knitting and parts with “plaited bead knitting”.  It is finished with a silk velvet top – you can still see the sheen.  The ribbon is satin.  The shading within the greys is incredible.  The bead section of the bag is 9.5inches long and 6.75in wide.  Check out the careful detail of the box created especially to protect the bag from harm.  Every piece in the collection is protected in these specially created boxes.

Bead Patterns Sources for Bead Knitters:

Berliner Styles Charts - these samples are from the 1960's, from my Mothers' collection of needlepoint charts.

Most of the bead knit bag patterns from the 18th and 19thCenturies were originally “borrowed” from the Berlin wool patterns that were coming to the drawing rooms of the fine ladies of Europe.  These were the forerunners of the needlepoint and petit point charts of today.  You can very clearly see their influences in the two bags shown above.  At this time these charted needlepoint pictures were very popular activities for the ladies to pass away time in the drawing-room. It was only natural that these charts would cross over and become guidelines for the bead bag knitting.

My version of a bead knitting chart - made for teaching purposes - Each sttich is twisted and the colours of the squares represent the bead colours!

The stitches in needlepoint all lean-to the right, just like the beads in the bead knit bags – the look of both is very similar.  It is very easy to substitute a bead of the same colour instead of a stitch.

The American Bag:

The "American Bag". Collection Royal British Columbia Museum

This is my name for the bag.  The pattern clearly shows the influence of American Sampler Patterns in the bottom section of the bag.  The colours are more simplistic and representative as opposed to the very detailed and realistic pictures of the European Berlin influenced bags.  The patterning on this bag is very unique in my experience of researching and admiring the bead work of the past.  Dated from the 1840’s – 1860’s, both sides of the bag are the same and the bag has been knit with a very fine thread and the smallest beads of the 4 samples.  The finishing at the top of the bag is very fine work, with grosgrain edging on the silk and tiny stitches.  The inside of the bag is lined with silk and time and wear have taken their toll.  Because of this wear we get the opportunity to see the detail of the fineness of the knitting thread and the evenness of the stitching.

Detail of the Inside of the American bag.

Detail of the inside of the “American Bag”.  The stitching is very even and the thread is very fine.  You can see the structure of each stitch and the bead behind.


Size 6/0 beads, placed with crochet hook, in worsted weight yarn.

Unless you are working on a project that calls for very large quantities of beads that all need to be pre-strung and moved down your yarn almost any yarn with a firmly strung core will work.  Lace weight mohairs are gorgeous when beaded as is your basic yarn.  A finer yarn would require a finer bead and the heavier yarns like worsted would work best with a size 6 or even a pony bead (size 4).  If you are embellishing a garment with beads the strength of the yarn is not important – there will not be enough beads to stress the yarn unduly.

Victorian Styled Beaded Mesh Bag - 5000+ beads - Camelspin by Handmaiden, 70% silk - strong and smooth for working with the beads.

If you are choosing the yarn for a bead knit project you will want to choose a tightly spun, smooth yarn.  It is usually advisable to check your yarn for knots as well before you start stringing your beads.  Good quality crochet cotton, lace weight silk and rayon are all good choices for bead knit projects in particular.   If you are knitting a small bag with thousands of beads you will want a very strong yarn.


  1. Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book by Mary Thomas
  2. Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns by Mary Thomas
  3. Poetry in Stitches by Solveig Hisdal
  4. Nordic Knitting by Susanne Pagoldh
  5. A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt
  6. The Knitters Bible by Montse Stanley
  7. Threads Magazine, Aug/Sept 1989 #34, article Bead Knitting Madness by Alice Korach

Internet Sources

  1. Victoria and Albert on-line Knitting Collection
  2. Bead Knitting and Beaded Knitting – Pros and Cons by BagLady.Inc
  3. History of Knitting by Knitty.com

2 Responses to Just a Little History! – Plus Materials and Techniques for Bead Knitting

  1. Pingback: Beads, Beads, Beads – the Magical Embellishment! | Le Tissier Designs

  2. Crissi says:

    Fantastic – wonderful!!

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