Sunday, May 10, 2009

Making French Bead Flowers Vibrant and Lifelike

One issue that is not often addressed is how French bead flowers can be made to look as lifelike as possible. Even with the finest construction techniques, the straightest basic rows and the most invisible lacing, bead flowers can look stiff and artificial and not like the exquisite natural objects they are imitating.

Here are a few ideas that will help your flowers to be their loveliest and most natural-looking. You can use these tips even if you are making a "fantasy" flower. A flower is a flower, after all, and even if the one you have created doesn't yet grow in nature, odds are that someday some botanist will develop it.

When making the petals and leaves, reduce the bottom basic wires to two instead of three. It may seem insignificant, but this one improvement will make a big difference in each flower. The flower stems should be as narrow as possible, so reducing these wires is important.

Tape the stemwires of each petal, sepal, leaf and center before constructing the finished flower. Tape tightly and use as little tape as possible. This will reduce "wobble" in your finished flower. Living flowers' parts don't move and neither should the parts of bead flowers. Be sure you have used enough wire for the stems of petals and leaves; leaving these wires too short can cause the flower to fall apart.

During construction, wrap the construction wire and tape as tightly as possible. If you are adding many layers of petals, stop after each layer and cover the construction wire wraps with green tape. I have found that, on large flowers that require many rows of flowers, construction wires for early rows tend to show through later rows. If green tape is all that is visible, the eye will ignore it; messy wire will pull the eye and ruin the flower's beauty. Push sepals right up under the base of the flower. Think of sepals as being a warm muffler in the winter: you plump that up right under your chin. A sepal that seems to spring right from the base of the flower will make the flower look rich and luxurious.

Now that you have the flower built, allow yourself to use some imagination. Take a look at living flowers. Compare several roses to each other, or several daisies. You will see variations among the individual blooms. Examine the way the stems may bend. Do the flower heads tip forward? Do some petals curve or curl more than others? Does a leaf twist rather than unfurl straight?

To copy nature's variations, you have a few tools at your disposal. The common pencil can help you make your roses breathtaking. Push the tip of your thumb into the bottom third of your rose petal, then curl the top backwards around a pencil. This will give the petal the shape that many varieties of rose possess. To make a twisted leaf, use two pliers (one at the top and one at the bottom) and twist in opposite directions. This effect can also be achieved by holding the leaf in a hemostat and using one plier to make the twist. For more shape, curl the top of the leaf backward a bit. For a different shape, "crease" the petal or leaf inward along its basic row and then roll the outer rows back to a more curved shape. You can combine these techniques to make infinite variations in the look of your flowers.

When the flowers are arranged in sprays, be sure to bend the tallest stem once to the left and once to the right. The top of the tallest stem should usually take another small bend so that it points straight up. Secondary stems can have one bend in them. This will give the spray motion and flow. Use one or two pliers to get this effect.

Most importantly, relax and enjoy the process. As you work with the flowers more and more, you will develop a "feel" for how they should look. With patience and practice, your flower-arranging skills will improve and give you great satisfaction with your arrangements.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Caring For French Bead Flowers

It's my belief that it's better not to manufacture unnecessary work for others. This is true for the ones I know and love, and is true even for others I have never met and will never meet.

So, I will not be dunking my precious bead flowers in water to clean them. Doing this seems like a good solution at the time - but, even with coated wires, total immersion of metal into water will eventually cause rust. And rust and pretty flowers just don't go together.

So - how do you safely clean your bead flowers? There are two ways that I use. First, you can give them a good dusting with a regular feather duster. Second, if the dirt problem is more persistent, you can take a plain baby wipe in your hand. Roll the rows of beaded wire in your fingers. You get all the benefits of a wet washing, but the moisture does not get inside the beads, and your risk of damage is minimal. Be careful of the silk-wrapped stems, though - they can fray in the presence of any moisture at all.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Damaged Bead Flowers - Not a Lost Cause

For some amazing before-and-after photos in video form, please go here!

I have just finished renovating, restoring, and resurrecting four dilapidated vintage bead flower arrangements. As with many other things we encounter in life, what looked like a fairly simple fix expanded into a very large project.

The flowers had many problems. They had been made around the 1960's, so were made with all-steel wires. This in itself might not have been a disadvantage, except that unfortunately the arrangements had been immersed in water for cleaning several times over the years. As a result, all the wires had rusted and many had turned black. The rusty water had flowed down over the stems and had badly stained the silk floss wrapping. Finally, the arrangements had been left or stored somewhere that was terribly dusty, so the thick, clumpy dust on them was really more like crust. Also they had become badly crushed.

What made the whole thing so disappointing is that at least two of these poor arrangements had come from Bonwit Teller. This high-end department store in New York City had had a gift shop for a number of years, and the bead flowers from this shop were of the finest quality and were very highly regarded. One of the "founding mothers" of French bead flower making in America, Virginia Nathanson, had taught herself the craft by buying an arrangement from this shop, taking it home and completely taking it apart in order to learn the techniques.

I felt I really had to restore these four pieces to their original state, as best I could. Here's a thumbnail of my fixes:

Dismantle all the arrangments; uncouple sprays of flowers. In some cases, remove leaves from their flowers and unstem the flowers.
Clean with plain baby wipes, rolling the rows between my fingers.
Remove all thick, rusted lacing wires.
Re-lace with new colormatched 32-gauge wires. In this process I invented a new lacing method so as to hide the lacing on flowers whose inner and outer surfaces would be equally visible.
Cover rusted top basic wires with whitish nail polish.
Where necessary, reattach petals to flowers and flower heads to stems.
Where necessary, add new leaves where old ones were unsalvageable.
Re-wrap stems with floss.
Reassemble sprays.
Clean containers.
Replace styrofoam or old clay with new clay and fresh moss.
Re-pot, rearrange and photograph refreshed arrangements.

If you have or if you come across old and sad-looking bead flower arrangements, don't write it off right away. It may be salvageable!

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Virginia Nathanson – A Lady who Knew what she Wanted

How is a French bead flower made?

One of the "founding mothers" of French bead flowers in America, Virginia Nathanson, wondered the same thing when she saw some potted arrangements in the gift shop of Bonwit Teller in Manhattan several decades ago.

She used a rather drastic forensic method to get her answer.

She bought one of the large, lovely arrangements and took it home. Unlike other customers of that gift shop, she did not put the arrangement on a coffee table to admire it. She didn’t want visitors to gasp in delight, exclaim over the workmanship and ask where she had found such a treasure.

Instead, Virginia took it apart. Completely dismantled it. She disassembled the sprays and unwrapped all the silk stem wrapping and floral tape. She separated each leaf and sepal from its stem. She broke up each flower, unwound each petal's wires, counting and measuring lengths and quantities of beads that had been used. She examined what materials were used for stemming, supporting and potting the flowers.

By this straightforward method, Ms. Nathanson discovered the French bead flower construction techniques and learned them well. She taught them for many years and wrote several exhaustive books on the subject. These books comprised one of the first series of French bead flower pattern books to be published in the U.S.

The destruction of that arrangement from Bonwit was the beginning of the development of many, many new bead flower artists. From the information Virginia Nathanson provided came hundreds of bouquets, arrangements, headbands, corsages and countless other items. Artists in America, and now the world over, have been inspired to learn this art, to teach it to others, and to make lovely creations with improved and refined materials. In the last few years, many excellent new pattern books and other instructional materials have been produced by artists who learned the art from Ms. Nathanson's books.

New bead flower artists from around the world worked together to make a wreath for each crash site from the 9/11/01 disaster. One of these wreaths now hangs in the Pentagon, one is on permanent display in the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the third will be a part of the future permanent memorial at Ground Zero.

Ms. Nathanson passed away in the Spring of 2008. Thank you, Ms. Nathanson, for dismantling that Bonwit arrangement. You've been an inspiration, and you were one great lady.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wire Gauge FAQ

The type of wire you use for your bead flowers depends in part on what style of flower beader you are.

If you do primarily Victorian flower beading, you will most likely use 26 gauge wire. This is especially true if you tend to use Czech beads and not Japanese. Japanese beads have a larger hole in the middle, so the wire can pass through more times; the Czech beads, having a smaller hole, will allow no more than two passes of wire to go through.

If you are a French flower beader, the gauge of wire you use can also depend on the size of flower you are making. If you are making miniatures, 26 gauge wire will serve you well. This gauge of wire will also usually be fine for flowers that are not miniatures but are not very large or heavy.

However, once you start getting into the larger lilies, heavy roses, peonies, or other very complicated flowers, probably a 24 gauge wire will be best. This gauge is thicker and stiffer, and will give your flowers and leaves plenty of body to hold up their own mass. Remember that the beads are made of glass, and a mass of them together can be surprisingly heavy.

I use 24 gauge green paddle wire for almost all my leaves, sepals, and other green flower parts. This wire is available at craft stores such as Michael’s, and is inexpensive. You will need to straighten it out from being wrapped on the paddle, but this is a testament to its firmness. The last thing you want is floppy leaves; leaves are the visual backbone of your arrangement and they should frame the flowers pertly.

Stemwire is also available at craft stores. I suggest 16- or 18-gauge wire, which will come in precut lengths. For quite large or heavy flowers, you will want to combine several lengths in one stem for extra support.

If you are making very long leaves for your French bead flowers, it is a good idea to use a stem-stiffening method. One of these involves stemwires. The stemwire is built right into the construction of the leaf itself, and it’s quite effective. You would use regular 16-or 18-gauge stemwire for this process. Here is how it’s done: As you begin to make the leaf, hold a length of taped stemwire together with the basic loop. As you wrap the spool wire to build the leaf, incorporate the stemwire into the wrapping so it is actually part of the leaf. The top of the stemwire can reach almost to the top rows of the leaf, or it can end at the bottom of the basic row, depending on how large the leaf is.

You will want to lace pieces that are 13 rows or larger for stability and neatness. For the lacing process I use 32-gauge wire that matches the color of the beads. I have found that it is easiest to thread this wire onto an ordinary sewing needle for this process; wrap the lacing wire around the basic row, and work outwards on either side of the piece to do the lacing. Of course, you do this on the back side of the piece! Lacing may seem optional, but believe me, if you have any question about it, do the lacing. It will make your flowers look that much better for years and years to come!

I buy most of my wire from Paramount Wire, or Parawire, in New Jersey. They have a great selection of colored flower beading wires. Click here for their website.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

French Bead Flower Making – Rule # 1 Is Like Ballet

What could French bead flower making have in common with ballet?

If you wanted to be a jazz dancer, tap dancer, modern-dance dancer, gymnast, or even an Irish step dancer – you must first learn excellent technique. For all these forms of dance, the best place to develop good technique is in ballet class. There, you will learn to point your toes, stretch your spine, how to carry your head and how to make your arms move like the fronds of a weeping willow. After you have mastered the techniques, you will be able to take a classic arabesque and change it into a wild jazz leap - because you know how to control it.

For making French bead flowers, you also must learn excellent technique. And, in my opinion, what is the one most important technique in this art?

Rule # 1 - Keep your basic wire straight.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Of course you will keep your basic wire straight, you say. Easiest thing in the world, isn’t it? You might be surprised. For someone new to the art, this can be a challenge.

How do you prevent a crooked basic wire? Here are a few hints. 1 – Have a tack or nail fastened into your working surface, and wrap the top of a very long basic wire around that. Keep tension on the piece as you begin to wrap the spool wire. 2 – As you are fitting the rows of beads into place, give the top basic wire a tug. Wrap the spool wire, and give the top basic wire another tug. Flip the piece over and check if the wire is straying off-course. 3 – Learn to “finesse” the beads. If you can’t fit another bead in the row, the top wire can reach over ever so slightly on that row, as long as you compensate for it the next time you come up to the top basic wire, and if the overall impression of the piece is straight.

Once you have made several rows on your piece, turn the piece over and see if the wire really is straight. If it isn’t, the answer is to take it out and try it again. Practice. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; that’s the best way to teach yourself. It’s only beads and wire – they are gentle teachers and won’t lose patience with you. This is a new endeavor for your mind, your heart and your hands. Each of those departments has its own hurdle to overcome with a new undertaking.

After you have mastered the basics, if you want to make a flower that has petals that "grow" in an unusual curve - you will be able to completely control it, and get exactly the effect you want.

Happy beading!

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