The addition of beads to lacework and fabrics has enjoyed a long tradition. The expensive materials used to make the beads and the use of them in lace was a statement of a person's importance and stature within society. As lace has evolved over time from a wealthy patron's commission to an ordinary person's expression of creativity, the choice of beads has broadened. Not all possibilities are suitable for tatted lace, however.
Traditionally, the beads were made of steel (hematite), jet (high grade, hard, black mineral in the nature of coal), precious stones, glass, pearl, garnet, amber or crystal. Many of these were expensive not simply because of the materials used but because of the difficulty in making the beads of a uniform size. Glass beads suffered this fate. Once glass making was perfected, beads were readily made of it. But, imperfections in the glass and the inconsistent production of the beads made them unsuitable for certain types of lacework. So even though glass beads were less expensive, one still needed to pay more than usual for those that were able to be incorporated into valuable lace.
These past difficulties are not as evident today. Beads come in hundreds of varieties and colors. Virtually limitless types and sizes of beads are available from varied sources. Craft and needlework stores, mail-order companies, jewelry stores, and gem and rock shops. Many artists even relish making their own beads out of various materials: clay, modeling compound, leather, glass, plastics, shells and paper. Many, but not all, are particularly suited for traditional tatting.
That addition of the word "traditional" is intentional and important. As with any art, there are numerous ways to push toward new and experimental techniques. Tatting, however, has a particularly characteristic appearance. For that purpose a traditional approach to the use of beads with this type of lacework is, for many, more desirable for preserving this look. Traditional tatting incorporates the use of other techniques to enhance the main lace without overwhelming. This particular philosophy dictates how beads are chosen and where they are placed.