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. 
© Copyright 2011 Linda's Art Barn. All rights reserved.


  1. What are you doing up at midnight? These instructions are great. I never thought about stretching silk cord. I've only done one necklace with the knotting tool just to teach myself how to use it. It's really fun. Too bad we can't find pre-stretched silk cord.
    Would like to see some pictures of your stuff. Get them on Etsy too. Wish we lived closer to help each other. LOL

  2. I'm such a night owl! I came home from the Cape and had 120 email messages to read. I think I've signed up for too many painting and beading newsletters, LOL.

    I'd like to say I do my best writing at night, but I always have to go back and make fixes the next day. I guess I just get inspired to write late at night.

    Yes, I will post some photos soon.

    It sure would be fun to get together and share. I have an aunt who lives in Mesa, but I haven't been out to see her in several years.

    I hope you're not going to have any problems from the fire. I've been seeing on the news that it's headed toward the power lines. God bless those poor people who had to evacuate.

  3. I've done some pearl knotting and a couple of pieces were good but I did have a problem on two necklaces, they stretched. I've taken them apart and want to do them again. I did try stretching the thread but it really gets quite twisted up. How did you drape the pearls for weight? Did you just drape them or twist them around the end?

  4. Hi Cherie, I'm finally able to make comments on my own blog!

    I already responded privately to Cherie, but I want to share that response with anyone else who is interested. Here it is:

    "I put the thread on a needle, pull the needle to the center of the thread, and knot the ends together with an overhand knot. I pull the needle to the opposite end from the knot and I have a doubled thread--just like when I'm doing hand sewing.

    Now if I pull the two sides of thread away from each other, I could make an oval out of the thread. If I imagine that I have an oval when I hang the thread, then the hook that holds the thread goes through the top end of the oval. I can put the strands of pearls for weights through the bottom end of the oval and let them hang. The weight of strands will pull the thread evenly.

    The thread will twist as it hangs. To remove the weights, carefully turn the thread to untwist it a bit first. Do that before you take the thread off the hook."

    Cherie read the above response and mentioned that she has read that some people actually string the beads that they're using for weights onto the silk thread before they stretch it. She thought that would be difficult because of the length of the silk thread. This is my response:

    "I don't like to string all the pearls in advance for the exact reason you mention. When I'm working on the necklace I string 1 pearl, make the knot, then string the next pearl, make the knot, etc."

    This is not to say that it's wrong to pre-string your pearls--either before or after stretching the silk. It's just my preference to string and knot them one at a time.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. do we double thread when we rethread the pearl

  7. Hi JJ, Thanks for reading my blog. I'm not quite sure what you are asking--can you please be more specific with your question?

  8. Hi Linda K. I am Henrietta's son, and I live and teach English in Morocco. I was just telling one of my students about my mother--she passed away in 2001--and came across your page. Thanks for saying such nice things about her book.

  9. Hi Mitchell. I am so honored that you took the time to make a comment here. Your mother and her wonderful book are the reasons that I have loved stringing pearls for so many years. I am saddened to learn of her death. I only wish that I could have met her to tell her what an impact she made on me.

  10. Hi Linda,

    I read your part one and part two posts about pearls. They were excellent and I plan to read your third post on the subject. After much research online, your posts contained the most information on the subject. I consider them condensed encyclopedias. Curious, which bead knotting tool do you use? Forgive me if I missed your answer to this question from a previous poster.

    Thank you for such in-depth posts.

  11. Hi Kim,

    Thank you so much for your kind comments. Learning all the ins and outs of pearl knotting took me many years--I'm actually still learning--and I wanted to make it easier for others.

    My first choice for knotting pearls is a doubled strand of silk thread, a collapsible beading needle, and an awl (also known as a needle tool). This allows even a beginner to get nice, snug knots.


  12. Hi Ms.Linda,

    I found your blog to be the best on knotting pearls and also because you take the time to reply.

    I am a beginner and I have never done knotting before. But I would like to make my first pearl necklace for my mother. She like small cultured rice pearls(2.5-3mm) and I got them.

    Now I am confused. Do I use stretched (never knew I have to stretch it) silk cord for this or any other wire like sterling silver etc? If I use silk cord, do I make knots between them? I am making 2 strands of the seed pearls in 24 and 22 inch length. I know it sounds too much. But I want to make the best for her. And would it be fine if I use filigree clasp and clamshell bead tip. Would you please help me with your answer? Thank you very much.

  13. Hi SJK,

    Wow, this is a big order for a beginner! First, let me recommend that you read the other two Parts that I wrote about pearl knotting, Parts 2 and 3:

    Here are two variations for completing your necklace, but no matter which one you decide upon, you WILL need to stretch your silk thread or cord.

    It is not possible to use sterling silver wire for a pearl necklace because it is "bending wire" and does not drape. Flexible beading wire could be used, but you'd need to learn a totally different method of attaching your clasp with "crimps." You can't knot flexible beading wire.

    These are the two variations that I would suggest:

    A. Use silk thread and knot between each pearl, as I've described in my three blog posts. The upside is that this is the "correct" way to string pearls. It will prevent the pearls from scattering if the strand of pearls should break. Also, the knots keep the pearls from rubbing together and becoming damaged.

    The downside is that, based on the size of your pearls, this will be a whole lot of knots and this is a lot of work for a beginner. If you're using silk thread from a spool, you'll need 24 inches X 4 + 15 inches, which is a total of 111 inches for each strand. You'll also need to be sure that your doubled silk can pass twice through the last three pearls on each end of each strand (that's four strands), where you'll connect the pearls to the clasp with French wire.

    If you use silk cord on a card, don't cut the cord, just use what's on there. That cord will need to pass twice through those six pearls.

    By the way, no matter which variation you choose, you'll need to attach a "jump ring" to each of the clasp pieces so that there will be room for the two strands of pearls to be connected. Two loops of French wire will be too thick to fit into the clasp pieces.

    B. Use silk thread and don't make knots, except for the last three pearls on each end, where you'll attach the pearls to the clasp with French wire. This would be a good way for a beginner to learn. The downside is that if the strand should break, most of the pearls will scatter. In addition, the un-knotted pearls will rub together and could become damaged at the holes.

    My recommendation for a beginner would be variation B. When the necklace for your mother is completed, keep practicing. After you feel comfortable with the pearl-knotting technique, re-string your mother's beads, this time knotting between all the pearls.

    I hope this is helpful.


  14. SJK, I almost forgot--I do not recommend that a beginner use silk cord on a card. It's much easier to form the knots and place them next to the pearls when you use the silk thread from a spool.

  15. This is really wonderful and I would love to know what you would recommend for the size of the thread and brand. I would love to know the brand that you use. I am concerned that I will mess up the necklace. But I am going to practice and practice on glass pearls before making the ones for my daughter and niece for graduation. Thanks for the help! Oh and can I get the thread thru JoAnn's?

  16. Thank you, Wendy. My recommendation is to buy silk THREAD (not cord) so you can use the double-thread method, which is the easiest. You'll need to also get a collapsible-eye needle. Since Gudebrod no longer makes silk thread on a spool, your choices for silk thread are limited. I just did a search and could only find one source: Fire Mountain Gems. You may find others if you spend some time searching.

    You can get spools of silk thread at They also have silk thread on cards there, which might be a good choice if you're not sure what size thread to buy and don't want to invest in a whole spool. Make sure you buy the "Purely Silk" brand, which is sized with letters (A, B, C, etc) just like the thread on spools. Be very careful NOT to buy the twisted silk CORD on a card with the needle already embedded. Twisted cord requires the single-strand technique, which I think is very hard for a beginner.

    I've used silk thread purchased from FMG and was happy with it. By the way they have a very good chart at FMG for choosing sizes of thread:

    Unfortunately, I can't tell you what size to use on real pearls because it depends on how the holes are drilled on your pearls. You'd have to test out different sizes to see what works best. That's why I recommend the Purely Silk cards. Please read Part 2 and 3 of my blog series on Pearl Knotting. I describe how to test the thread to see if it is the right size.