Virginia Nathanson, one of the “founding mothers” of French bead flowers in America, asked the same thing when she first saw some breathtaking arrangements of these flowers in Bonwit Teller’s gift shop in New York City a few decades ago. Ms. Nathanson used a remarkable method to find her answer: She purchased one of the larger arrangements, took it back home, and took all the flowers apart. She broke apart the sprays, unwound all the wires and examined all the materials used. By this drastic forensic method, Ms. Nathanson learned all the techniques. She would go on to teach the making of French bead flowers for decades. Wanting the knowledge she had gained to reach a wider base, she wrote one of the first series of pattern books to be published in the U.S.
You don’t have to deconstruct existing flowers to learn the methods, however. I can give you the basics right here. There are many different techniques; what I will describe for you for the flower petals and leaf is the “basic” technique, because the center of each petal or leaf is made on what is called a “basic row.” What you’ll actually be doing is making a basic row, then making circles around it with more beaded wire. The flower’s center will be made with what is called the “continuous loop” technique.
You need seed beads, 10 or 11 gauge. I use them from “hanks,” which are comprised of 20 strands of 12 inches of beads, tied together at the tops or ends. You’ll need some in your flower color and about half as much as that in green. You also need wire. Wire that is matched to your flower color is best, but if you can’t find wire the same color as your beads, use gold or silver colored wire. You will also some green wire for the leaves. This wire should be 24 or 26 gauge. You will also need a roll of green floral tape. You can get these materials in local craft stores. If beads strung on hanks are not available, buy a large bagful; a vial will be too few.
Begin the project with your flower color, in both beads and wire. Move the beads from the hank or bag onto the wire. You can just pinch them off the string and transfer them onto the wire if that works. Curl or “crimp” the end of the wire so the beads don’t fall off.
Move an inch or so of beads to within three inches of the end of the wire on the spool. Make a loop of the wire under these beads, and twist the top of the loop a few times. Make the basic loop quite long – make it six inches at first. You will use the loop wires for your flower stem when you’re done.
Now comes the interesting part. Feed in enough beads from the spool until they are touching the “basic” row beads above the loop. Fit the new beads upwards along the first set of beads so the new beads fit very snugly. Leaving no room for the “basic row” beads to move at all, wrap the spool wire straight across and around the wire just above the “basic row”. Now invert the whole piece. Repeat this process of feeding beads, tightly fitting in and wrapping until you have seven rows (counting from side to side across the front of the piece). Be sure you finish the last row at the bottom of the piece, where the loop is. Wrap two or three times to finish the final row.
Wrap some empty spool wire diagonally down the wires of the loop. Cut the bottom of the loop open and cut off the spool wire at the bottom. Cut off all but a little “nib” at the top of the piece, where that extra wire is. Bend the “nib” over onto the back of the piece, where you wrapped the spool wire. There! You’ve made your first petal!
Repeating the process exactly, make four more petals just like this one.
To make a leaf, repeat the process with the green wire and beads. Feel free to make more than one leaf if you like.
Make the center of the flower with some green beads on green wire. Move twenty to twenty-five beads to within two inches of the crimp on the end of the wire. Make a very tight self-loop with these beads. Pinch the loop quite tight so it stands up straight. Leaving just a little wire free, move along the wire and make an identical loop. On the same length of wire, make approximately ten to twelve of these self-loops. When they are done, cut the wire off the spool. Bunch these loops together and twist the wires together.
Wrap the stems of each piece. This adds stability and “tooth” in the finished flower. Here’s how: Stretch a length of tape until it turns a lighter green than unstretched tape. Securely wrap the end around the top of the collected stemwires. Turn the tape diagonally down the stem and turn the piece so that the wires are covered completely with tape all the way down. Be careful of overlapping the tape too much; you don’t want a thick stem. Keep stretching the tape as you work; stretching is what activates the wax in the tape and makes it stick. Tear the tape off at the bottom of the wires.
When all the pieces are taped, you can assemble them. Take the flower center and start the tape wrapping straight around the stem just under the beading. Complete 1 1/2 wraps. Then add a petal with the right side, which is the front, facing the center. Make another 1 1/2 wraps. Add the second petal in the same fashion. Repeat this until all the petals have been joined. Just as you did before, turn the tape about 45 degrees down the stems. Wrap for about an inch. Now add in the leaf or leaves. Continue wrapping all the way down to the bottom of the wires, and tear the tape off. Shape all the parts like a real flower.
You’ve just finished your first French bead flower! Good work!