Believe it or not, a needle is not just a needle! For starters, if you are planning to start bead-weaving, you will need to use a beading needle. These needles differ from ordinary sewing needles in that they are very fine and have a very small eye. If you are already familiar with the different beads on the market, then you will know that the small seed beads, like size 15, are so tiny that they require a very fine piece of metal to fit through the hole without breaking the bead.
You can buy beading needles from specialist bead shops or some craft shops. However, if you have ever searched amongst the beading needles on offer, you will know that there is a choice. Firstly, you have a choice of length, just referred to as ‘long’ or ‘short’ (see examples of each in the photo below). There are pros and cons to each. The long beading needles will allow you to thread large numbers of beads in one go. You also have a little more to hold as you work, but you may find that you prefer a shorter needle if you are trying to stitch through beads at an angle. I certainly find that a shorter beading needle can help me to weave through a piece of peyote stitch more easily. Personally, I like to work with a long needle wherever I can as I find that the ‘wrong’ end of a shorter needle digs into my finger as I work – this is obviously a reflection of the position in which I hold my beading needle, but after a couple of hours of beading I find I am left with torn skin which can be rather painful. However, I like to keep a short needle handy and I will switch to this if I am trying to weave through a tight spot or trying to finish off a very short piece of thread.
Secondly, beading needles come in a choice of sizes. These are given as a number. The most common sizes are 10 and 13. The larger the number, the thinner the needle, so you can see in the photo, the bottom needle is thinner than the other two – this is the difference between the size 13 (bottom) and size 10 (others). You may also notice from the photo that my size 13 needle is severely mis-shapen! This is a hazard of serious beading – the combination of the warmth from your hands and constant attempts to ease the beading needle at a slight angle through the beads, results in bent needles. This can happen to any needle, but it is easier to bend a thinner needle. As with any metal, once you bend it, you also weaken it, so bent needles can quickly become broken needles. For this reason I prefer to use a size 10 as much as possible so I have fewer broken needles, but when I’m working with size 15 beads, I will usually resort to a size 13.
Thirdly, there are different styles of beading needle. Those shown in the photo are typical needles such as you will recognise if you do any sewing. Beading needles are also available as ‘big eye’ needles. If you have ever done any sewing, you will know that the biggest challenge can be threading a needle. This is made even harder when the eye through which you are threading is as small as it must be for a beading needle. You may already be familiar with a ‘needle threader’ – another small piece of metal that is designed to help pull thread through the eye of a needle. Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but this little gadget almost certainly won’t work with a beading needle as the eye is just too small. So, someone decided to try and overcome this problem with the ‘big eye’ needle. This is made of very flexible metal and the eye is in the centre of the needle rather than at one end. The eye has been elongated so that you can prise it open and this should make it easier to thread. Most people do find that this helps with difficulties in threading, but these needles also tend to be very flexible. Personally, I find this very off-putting: if the needle bends as soon as it comes anywhere near my beadwork, I feel I have lost control of my weaving and find it takes me longer to work. However, I do know plenty of people who swear by these beading needles and would never work with any other!
Finally, there are different brands on the market. I want to talk briefly about the Tulip brand: this emerged in answer to the problem of broken needles. Tulip needles are made from a different metal which is much more resilient. It allows for a little bit of bending, but will re-shape. I personally find it very difficult to bend a Tulip needle and even harder to break it, so this has become my brand of choice. As you might expect, the brand is significantly more expensive than brands like John James or Sharps, but I feel it’s worth the extra expense to avoid the frustration of constantly breaking and bending needles. I haven’t actually done the calculation, but I suspect that I probably save money in the long run because the Tulip needles last so much longer for me!
As with every other point I’ve made, I could find a lot of beaders to dispute my views, so I would say, try different needles and see what feels most comfortable for you. Really the only things that matter are that you feel happy working and that the needle enables you to stitch beads in the technique that you want, without breaking too many beads (or beading needles) in the process!