Glass beads a work of art for local resident

PLYMOUTH — It’s baffling to recognize that the same pesky granules of sand — the ones that somehow inevitably find their way into every unwelcome place imaginable while you’re visiting the beach — can be transformed into such a worthwhile material as glass. It’s common to think of all the everyday practical uses we have for glass, from eye glasses and insulation to fiber optics, but there is great beauty to be extracted and wrought from glass as well. A perfect example of this is the glass bead.
Kari Chittenden, of Plymouth, has recently been recognized for her beadmaking abilities by the International Society of Glass Beadmakers and the 2011 Bead & Button Show. Chittenden submitted a unique, handmade bead to a competition that was open to glass beadmakers from around the world. Her entry was one of only 50 beads selected to take part in the exhibit titled SURFACE in the 2011 Bead & Button Show, opening in Milwaukee this June 4-12.
The theme of the SURFACE bead competition was to answer one of two questions: 1) What lies beneath? or, 2) When is it actually what is on the outside that counts? Chittenden’s design idea formed almost instantly in her mind’s-eye and she believes actually covers both questions. Her winning bead consists of a tiny glass bird that hangs stationary inside, seemingly attached to the intricate flowering vine that delicately weaves around the outside surface of a hollow, clear glass bead, sipping of its nectar. It is truly an object of wonderment and beauty.
Chittenden used every free moment of her weekends and practiced perfecting her design idea with bead after bead for months, leading up to the final bead that was submitted in the competition.
“Every time I made one, I learned something new,” she said. “The progression was interesting. I am very lucky to have made it; to be chosen to be displayed among world-class beadmakers. I have no words for how thrilled I am.”
Looking for a hobby to interest and share with her young daughter, about 11 years ago, Chittenden began her beadmaking career with a class she took in Bloomington.
“I took that first three day class, read a gazillion books, took another class, then another and practiced in most of my free time,” she said. “I was hooked immediately!”
The technique that Chittenden uses in her beadwork is called Lampworking. It is a labor-intensive style of glass beadmaking that gets its name from the ancient art of working glass over a (then) oil lamp. Lampworking is believed to date back as early as 2450 B.C. Modern-day craftsmen work with a specially designed and typically mounted gas torch. Chittenden prefers to use a single-fuel torch mostly, burning at about 3,620 degrees F, for the control the cooler torch allows, but says, “Most beadmakers use a two-fuel system that mixes propane and oxygen, and burns around 5,110 degrees F.”
Different types of glass can be used with the lampworking style of beadmaking, but most common is clear or colored soda-lime glass. There is an advantage to using this “soft glass” due to the lower temperature necessary to make it pliable for shaping. The drawback of using soda glass is that it is much more sensitive to temperature change than a harder glass such as borosilicate glass, which has traditionally been used for neon signs.
Didymium-lensed safety glasses are worn, during the heating process, as a protective measure against the ultraviolet light emitted while firing the glass. The Didymium also filters the yellowish light that is produced through heating the sodium in the glass when propane is used to forge.
The glass rods are slowly waved over the torch’s intense flame to ease them into the extreme temperatures. It’s necessary to gradually warm the glass canes in order to prevent thermal shock and avoid cracking or shattering. As the glass becomes one with the flame it loosens up and can easily be manipulated, pulled, carved, flattened and formed into whatever the imagination can dream up.
Favored color combinations of the glass rods can be twisted together, wrapped around one another or dotted and lined for an original glass cane to initiate a bead design. Chittenden, who designs beads for the Stax collection available at King’s Jewelry in Plymouth, often uses this glass-twisting style when creating her original pieces.
Once the color scheme and design has been decided, a wire thin, stainless steel rod about the length of a pencil, known as a mandrel, is used to shape the glass around. The steel rod is dipped into a graphite-clay liquid substance, commonly referred to as “bead release,” before the process begins. When the glass rods are heated to a molten state, at around 1,020 degrees F, the fun begins. The process of wrapping, shaping, pulling and blowing the glass into the desired form is one dependent on developed skills. The hand movements made with the fluid glass and with the tools used to manipulate it are learned over time and through much practice. When forming a bead, it is necessary that all components of the piece be kept heated at the same temperature under the torch’s flame. Once any part of the glass begins to cool the texture can fluctuate and cracking can occur. The beadmaker must manufacture the design literally held to the flame. Each bead is a unique design, as it is certain to be problematic and challenging when attempting to produce identical glass beads with the lampworking wrap technique.
Chittenden says beadmaking, “takes a lot of patience!”
After the bead is completely shaped, it is placed into a kiln for the final process of annealing. This slow cooling process is used to ensure the bead does not crack due to internal stresses. The kiln is heated to a stress-relief point. Temperatures vary depending on the type of glass and its thickness. The kiln must be hot enough to relax any potential pressure within the glass, but not so hot that the bead will melt and become deformed.
Once the piece is removed from the kiln, a narrow, diamond-tipped bead reamer is used to clean any remaining debris left behind from the mandrel.
The lampworking process is a captivating experience to witness as the solid rods of glass turn to lava-like liquid before your eyes.
Chittenden will delight viewers with her dexterity and craftsmanship as she demonstrates the basics of this fascinating craft, though not revealing her personalized styling secrets, at the Plymouth Farmers' Market every Saturday from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. once it opens downtown in mid-May. Her bead creations range from a colorful variety of treasures to fit bracelets and rings to intricately-fashioned animal designs. Her honey dipper and plant poker designs can be found at Earthwork’s and orders for Chittenden’s creations can be placed through
“I am anxiously awaiting the new Farmers’ Market season and looking forward to seeing everyone again,” says Chittenden.