Thursday, June 9, 2011


I got into a discussion online tonight with a beader friend about how to hand-knot pearls.  She was just learning how and I was offering some tips.  I decided to share them here.

As far as I'm concerned, the pearl-stringer's bible is Pearl and Bead Stringing with Henrietta, by Henrietta Virchick.  It's a small paperback book with most everything you need to know if you want to string pearls like a professional.  I Googled the book and found that it's available for $10.95 on several sites.  I do NOT have any connection to either Henrietta Virchick or her publisher.

This is my well-worn copy of Henrietta Virchick's book. 
I've seen other books as well as online tutorials for stringing pearls.  In my opinion, none of them will give you the same professional results as Henrietta's instructions will give you.  Henrietta says silk thread is best and that French wire should always be used to protect the thread next to the clasps.  I do as she says!

You can see the French wire attaching the pearl to the clasp.  This French wire is enveloping and protecting the silk thread from wear and tear.  By the way, filligree clasps are traditional on pearl necklaces.

Some of you may wonder why we use silk thread when stringing pearls and why we knot that thread.

First, let's talk about pearl basics, starting with the nacre.  The nacre is what gives a pearl it's sheen and color.  It is the material that the mollusk, usually an oyster, uses to cover an irritant that has gotten into it's shell.  Over time the irritant is covered with many layers of nacre.  Basically, there are natural and cultured pearls.  They are both REAL pearls and it is often difficult, even for an expert, to tell them apart without an X-ray.

A natural pearl is begun when an irritant invades the mollusk's shell naturallywithout human intervention.  It is likely that the pearl is almost entirely made up of nacre, meaning that the nacre will be very thick.  Natural pearls are rare and getting enough round pearls of the same size is extremely rare, which makes it prohibitively expensive for most of us to own a natural pearl necklace. 

A cultured pearl begins when some sort of a sphere-shaped bead is deliberately inserted into the mollusk's shell by a human.  After that, the process is the same as for a natural pearl.  Ideally, the nacre will be thick around the bead, but sometimes cultured pearls are started with large beads and are harvested when only a thin layer of nacre has been formed.

This website has information about cultured and natural pearls:

Wire or threads that are more abrasive than silk can damage the nacre of the pearls, especially at the drilled openings.  Pearls with a thinner nacre are especially susceptible.  Silk thread is very strong and has a beautiful "drape."  There are two reasons for knotting the silk thread between the pearls.  First, the knots keep the pearls from rubbing together, which would be damaging to the nacre.  Second, if you break your strand of knotted pearls, only one pearl gets loose from the strand, so you only risk losing that one pearl.  On the other hand, if you have a strand of unknotted pearls, a broken strand means pearls are rolling all over the floor.

This Swarovski Crystal Pearl necklace has nice, tight knots, which are up close to the pearls.  However, I just noticed that the necklace needs to be restrung because some of the knots have been discolored by makeup.
It's very important to pre-stretch the silk thread or it will stretch as you wear the necklace, which will cause it to grow gaps between the knots and the pearls. Also, never hang your pearl necklace when you're not wearing it or the silk will stretch some, even if you already pre-stretched it.  Always lay your necklace flat when it's not being worn.

This silk thread here is so badly stretched that the knots actually became elongated and some of them slid into the holes of the pearls!  When I made this necklace I didn't know enough to stretch the silk.  To make matters worse, I didn't make the knots close enough to the pearls and then I hung the necklace for several weeks on the hanger of the dress that I planned to wear it with.    
Never store pearls in plastic bags or containers. Pearls need to breathe; they will dry out in plastic. I've heard of people who store their pearls in fabric bags in the bathroom so that the pearls get moisture from the steam of the shower. NEVER wear your pearls in the shower or when swimming. If you should accidentally get the thread wet, let the necklace dry completely on a flat surface. Avoid handling it while it dries. . .and while we're in the bathroom, be sure to apply your makeup, perfume, and hairspray BEFORE you put on your pearls.  As you can see in the second photo above, if you have makeup or sunless tanner on your neck, it's going to discolor your silk thread and could damage your pearls.

Stretching the silk is the one thing that is not addressed in Henrietta's book. I don't know why. I learned all about knotting pearls from that book, so I had no idea that silk needed to be stretched—until my necklaces started getting gaps between the pearls and the knots after I wore them a couple of times.

I restrung the necklaces and it happened again, so I went online to see if I could figure out what the problem was.  I was quickly able to learn that I needed to stretch the thread, but after hours of research I couldn't find any good instructions on how to do that.  I found that some people stretch their silk thread by hand, sort of yanking on one small section at a time until the entire length is stretched.  I was not pleased with my results when I tried this.  I think it's hard to get consistent results throughout the entire length of thread.  I just don't think you can be sure that the thread is fully stretched using this method.

After a lot of thinking I decided to try hanging the thread from a plant hook in the ceiling, with a weight attached to the thread at the bottom, and leave it overnight.  This allows for knotting the thread with the two-strand methodthis is actually a single strand that is doubled.  This works great and it's how I stretch all my silk thread now:
  1. Measure and cut the silk thread.
  2. Run the silk thread through Thread Heaven.
  3. Thread the silk onto a beading needle made for pearls.  It will have a collapsible eye.
    I cut a very short strand of silk for demo purposes and ran it through the Thread Heaven.  You can see that Thread Heaven is a silicone substance that comes in a little, square container.  Then I added a collapsible eye needle and tied the ends with an overhand knot.
  5. Tie off the ends of both threads with a single overhand knot.
  6. Separate the doubled thread with your hands so that it is sort of a circle and hang the thread from the top of the circle, with the knot near the hanger.  Don't pierce the knot.    
    Here I've looped the thread on a nail to hang it.  At the bottom I hung the pearls that I'll be restringing onto the thread and let it hang overnight to stretch the thread.  Notice that the thread has started to twist.
  8. Now drape the pearls you'll be stringing later—don't remove them from their original strand yet—over the bottom of the oval and let them hang on the silk thread.
  9. Leave the thread to stretch overnight.
By the way, if you're stretching a single strand of thread, or you're using silk cord on a card, which comes with a needle embedded into it, see Part 2 and Part 3.
If I'm in a hurry and don't want to wait until the next day to start work on the necklace, I add another strand or two of pearls if I have them, or even a finished necklace or bracelet to make more weight on the thread.  Then I let it stretch for a couple of hours.  The extra weight should make up for the shorter time.
No matter how you do it, the silk will start to twist while it's hanging, so be careful not to get the "weight" tangled up in the twisted thread.  When you're removing the "weights," carefully untwist the lower part of the thread first. 

Because it makes a static charge that causes the threads to repel each other, the Thread Heaven should help to keep out tangles and unwanted knots.

I don't use beeswax because I think that it stiffens the silk and makes it bulkierthat's strictly my opinion.  I believe that can be a problem for use with pearls because they have very small holes.  Anyway, I think it ruins the sheen and the feel of the silk.  Others may disagree with me, believing that the wax keeps the silk thread from getting dirty and that a buildup of wax outside the hole of the pearl can protect it.
When the stretching is finished and you've removed the "weight," gently untwist the rest of the thread.  Rearrange the thread so that the needle is on one end and the knot is on the opposite end and run the thread through Thread Heaven again before you start adding pearls.  You may occasionally need to untwist the thread as you work.  Use the Thread Heaven whenever then thread becomes difficult to manage.
I'm not going to get into the steps for actually knotting the silk or adding the clasps in this post.  Henrietta's book has all that information with very nice graphics to show you exactly how to make the knots.  Part 3 has some good tips on the actual knotting process.

When knotting with a single strand of silk thread I prefer to use a knotting tool rather than tweezers.  Even with the knotting tool, it can be very tricky to get those knots close enough to the pearls—and if the knot tightens up before you get it in place, you have two choices:  try to undo the knot (frequently impossible) or cut off the pearls and start over again with new thread.  
I find it faster and easier to use two strands of silk thread. When knotting with two strands of silk, make an overhand knot in the same direction every time, as close to the pearl as possible.  I like to use a needle tool (like an awl) to pull the loose knots close to the pearl.  Then I gently tug the two strands away from each other, with one strand in each hand, to tighten the knot and pull it up tight to the pearl.

Because silk thread will still stretch a bit even if you pre-stretch it, I like to tie my knots up snugly next to the pearls. It may look a little too tight at first, but it will quickly loosen just enough.  If the necklace doesn't hang smoothly at first, just give it a gentle tug or two. That should make it drape nicely.  If it's still too tight, just wear the necklace around for a couple of hours and it should relax enough.
I should mention that these tips will work if you knot silk thread with many other beads, not just pearls.  However, as a general rule, silk thread should not be used use with crystals or other beads with sharp edges that could cut the thread.  
These are fossil beads which have been dyed to look like turquoise.  The holes were very large, so I had to use thicker silk thread.  You can see how large the knots are.    
I'm going to mention one more thing.  If you knot a pearl bracelet with silk thread, be very careful to make it exactly the right length for your wrist.  If the bracelet is large enough to slide down around the lower part of your hand, the silk thread is probably going to stretch out quickly due to the motion of your hand.  Another problem is washing your hands while wearing the bracelet.  If you get the silk wet, you must remove it immediately and lay it flat to dry.  Otherwise, it will stretch and the thread will attract dirt.  If you take the bracelet off to wash your hands, DON'T put it on the side of the sink.  It will get wet there as well.  If you take off the bracelet you also run the risk of forgetting to put it back on and losing it, so put it in your pocket, purse, or other safe place.  You may forget to put it back on right away, but you won't lose it.    
For almost everything you ever wanted to know about pearls, as well as a forum of really knowledgeable and helpful people, check out this website and join their forum:
"Tips on Hand-Knotted Pearl Necklaces, Part 2:"  Part 2 addresses silk thread in detail, including how it is sold, and choosing sizes. 
"Tips on Hand-Knotted Pearl Necklaces, Part 3:"  In Part 3 I show you how to make knots with both single and double strands of thread, along with tools that are used for knotting. 
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