an open source architectural beadwork project from Kate McKinnon and a worldwide team of innovators

A Deeper Understanding

I’ve mentioned before that if I had known what I was getting into when I first picked up beads and thread, I would have put them back down on the table.

As if that was ever an option.

. . .

This is a letter to friends, just written as a part of the record. If you are seeking a schedule update for books, exhibits, or anything else we are working on, please refer to this previous post as it remains current.

Eggbox, by Karen Beningfield

. . .

Anyway. Beads.

To understand what captured me I have to go back 23 years. It happened in a roundabout way. It was October of 1999, and I was unexpectedly underwater as a human being. I had two babies in a row and my life had become complex and exhausting. My personal space had shrunk to the size of a dinner plate, my partner was not much help and my mind and self were in disarray. I was ripe for the kind of disruption that could forge a new path.

When it happened I was in Venice, Italy (an ancient stronghold of glasswork) tagging along to a planetary science meeting. At the moment of impact I was just leaning on a bridge with my friend, Jesse. Jess is brilliant, beautiful. Her long curls were everywhere sparkling in the sun and she was saying something fascinating. On her wrist was a soft, woven band, a bracelet made of square-stitched 4mm glass beads. It was a simple piece, but I was consumed by it, asked her to take it off. When I held it, it felt as if it was from another realm.

In that moment my vision changed, I felt a euphoria, and something sharp and clean made its way deep inside me (instantly) like a diver from a high rock knifing into a pool.

I asked Jesse if I could come out to where she lived in Marin, and if she could teach me how to put the needle, beads and thread together to make the magic. She agreed, and while I was there I learned square stitch, how to make a simple, perfect wire loop and coil with round- and flat-nosed pliers, and how to make crimps on beading wire to string beads.

I was lucky that it was Jess who taught me, as her hands were so good and the small practices she showed me were so clean that I got a perfect start. She stood cheerfully between me and any complexity and so my experience was gentle, more like a child discovering ice cream than a grizzled old warrior receiving a difficult assignment. I will always be grateful for this.

It exhausts me just to think of all of the things I learned, the pots I stirred, the trouble I caused, as I dove into beads, glass, metal, wire. So many words could flow in this direction, but honestly the failings of any field are usually the same, and they will usually be about favoring result over process.

In 2015 and 2016, we made major discoveries in the beadwork and huge changes arrived in my life. My 25 year marriage ended in disappointment, and at the same time, my questions were rewarded with a level of information that was beyond my ability to make sense of it. I had discovered Marty and Erik Demaine at MIT (the warped square is a hyperbolic paraboloid!) Jack Wisdom helped point me to math theory and topology, Susannah Thomson showed up with a beaded Kaleidocycle out of geometric triangles (hello linkages, machines and cycles) and I met Charles Chase and began to learn about the nature of energy (the hyperbolic paraboloid is a battery!).

I was elated, and I was sunk. Or more accurately, I suddenly perceived that I was standing at the bottom of a series of tall mountains, and I roped up and began to climb them.

As a person discovering beading, I went through a series of phases over these years. First, beadwork was a personal quest, then it was something I sold, taught and wrote about, then it was a collaborative push to understand more, and then it was falling into geometric beadwork and building a true open-source global coalition to see what was possible. Then we became a research team, and around that time I began to study the scope of different people’s attachments to their forms of working. I delved into the strong feelings held toward beads by glassmakers, Canadian Indigenous beaders, Native American beaders, African wire beaders, hand-sewing beaders like ourselves, embroiderers and others.

Each time I thought I had an understanding sufficient to proceed, it turned out instead to be a pass that revealed the next peaks. I lost collaborators over this time, as some could not see why I needed to keep going, others were suspicious of the wisdom of publishing our hard work open-source. We have had a lot of opportunities to monetize, publish or copyright our work (and we embraced at least the first part with our first two books) yet I didn’t personally feel that I could do that again until I felt sure that we had put in the work, and gone the distance. This is why I have never (yet) published a single Kaleidocycle pattern. I gave away the one that Dustin and Kim worked out, and I encouraged everyone else in the world to share their methods, but I didn’t feel it was right for me or our team to sell a pattern until we had properly understood what we had been given. I still stand by this, as mysterious as it is to others. Finally, now, I’m ready to talk about it. And so much more.

In the past year, I have become filled with a certainty that it is the beads themselves that are powerful, even more so than the cultural traditions and works of art built with and upon them, and what was previously an intellectual journey turned swiftly inward again. I have learned more about the physics of anything with a hole in it than I ever expected to know and everything I learned confirmed what a special circumstance it is indeed to have a space at your center.

Do you know how certain plants hold certain wisdom? For example, when different people consume the same plant drug, they often see the same visions. Plants can be sorted by colour for the work that they do; different plants store different histories of information. Different kinds of beads have similar differences in information, and I cannot claim to understand how, but for those who have ears to hear, information flows, and can change us. The precision and origin of the Delica beads spoke a new language, one I have been striving and creating silence to hear.

This is all just to say hello, I have fulfilled my promise of going deep, as deep as I can go, and I can see that the beads themselves are so important that I myself am small beside them. The books that are coming out of the end of this time of work are very different than I ever dreamed they would be.

I have ceased questioning the assignment, and am only grateful for what it has brought me. I doubt that my personal involvement will continue to be public, once our series is finished, but you never know. At this point, what I want most of all is to take a bit of time and reflect on what I’ve learned, and seen, and get back into the garden, the sky, the streets as a way of life.

As I mentioned, everything is happening at once now, and soon we will bead together again and we can savor together the simplicity that broke me down regarding surfaces, linkages, flat things and architectural things, the past, present and future, and what beads have to tell us.

Our first in a series of museum exhibits has gone out, and will be part of a show opening July 29 at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts & Fiber Arts, N50 W5050 Portland Rd., Cedarburg, WI 53012.

We sent our own tiny quilt to them, an Eggbox created by Karen Beningfield, and it is a piece that is part of the magnificent assembly of squares of squares by Karen and the Beading Belles in Cape Town, South Africa. Our first Eggbox on team was put together by Ingrid Wangsvik, and since then, we have learned more about what an integral part of the fabric of space and time this structure actually is. Everybody knows the Eggbox, they just know it in different ways.

Now that we have learned more about it, it is no mystery at all why it chose to reveal itself to Ingrid.

Magic knows magic.

My best to you, and I hope to be back with you soon.


About katemckinnon

Kate McKinnon has devoted herself to the study of how things are done, and how they could be done better.

29 comments on “A Deeper Understanding

  1. Jennifer Owen
    November 19, 2022

    I have dabbled in various crafts as hobbies – quilting, beadwork, and lately learning bobbin lace making and stained glass techniques. My education and career background is in biochemistry and then optometry. I’m fascinated by the overlap between art and math/science and spirituality. You are one of the names I have stumbled upon as inspiration as I fall into this rabbit hole of finding others inspired by similar concepts. I feel excited and overwhelmed by the possibilities, being a novice in both the technique and the meaning of many patterns in the natural world. Just saying hi, thank you for your work, and I hope to follow you in the future. Hope you are well. 🙂

  2. bevmire
    November 13, 2022

    Hello Kate McKinnon, I have just gone over some of your past tutorials. I know this is a shot in the dark, but it’s my wish that *all* your tutorials included simpler step-by-step instructions, i.e. for a triangle: Row 1, AAA; Row 2, A (2), A (2), A (2) *step up as you do with the red flower face pattern. I realize it’s harder on you, but many of us aren’t professionals, aren’t academics, and need things clearly described. Your work, and that of your colleagues, is wonderful, beautiful, but unaccessible to people like me. Thanks for considering …

    • katemckinnon
      November 15, 2022

      That is exactly what we are striving for with our new set of books, and we have done a lot of experimenting to arrive at a suite of methods to offer a really good path to learning for people of all brain types and experience. I will look forward to your review of our work, the first digital release will be out soon!

  3. Judi B
    July 28, 2022

    Kate, I have followed this project for as long as you have been talking about it, and I am still amazed as to how far you have brought us along on your journey! You have always been such an inspiration through this journey, and I know that you will continue to explore and share, and I will read and absorb!

    • katemckinnon
      July 28, 2022

      Judi, kind comments like these feed my soul and keep me moving forward. I just can’t wait to put this all in your hands and ride the wave as we all leap forward together. HUGS

  4. byn61
    July 26, 2022

    Kate, Could you please point me in the direction of the pattern for the flowers shown in the brilliant posy color way bead set? I bought the set a while back and now can’t find the pattern (I am not sure I had it to begin with.). Thank you so much! I really enjoy your posts!

  5. Peggy Kemp
    July 23, 2022

    Kate, my heart lifts when I see an email from you. I miss your blog so much, your deep dives into areas that stretched my mind and heart. I can’t even remember how I started do bead weaving now, after a long history of embroidery and doll-making and embellishing them with beads, but I got a total re-start when the first CGB volume came out. It was so much fun to improvise and see what architecture resulted. I’m sitting next to the poster and seeing those first inspirations is still exciting. Thank you very much for your presence in the world, your writing, and the many inspirations you’ve shared with us.

  6. Dorine Garibay
    July 22, 2022

    Your words are hitting me at deep level. I love how you articulate, what your eyes, hands and mind have experienced. It feels like truth to this seventy year old brain and heart!

  7. Kathy C
    July 22, 2022

    This is beautiful to the point of tears and shivers. With each tiny bead I add to a project, I think of the final product of my hours of work and the recipient if I know who is getting it. Each bead is a mantra/thought/prayer of goodwill and hope for myself and the recipient. Who knew something as smaller than a millimeter could hold so much?

    • katemckinnon
      July 22, 2022

      Agreed. Another really beautiful idea is that each bead remembers, in its way, those who have handled it before it came to us. It was raw materials (sand and such from somewhere) and then it was melted, and manufactured, and annealed, and bagged, and sold, and maybe sold more times. Antique beads may have had whole other lives as dresses, lamps, or really anything.

  8. facs50
    July 22, 2022

    “I really believe that we all have the ability to come out of our story. But you have to tell your story first in order to come out of it.” — Mariel Hemingway
    What wonderful gifts you have given us… beading information and telling your story! Thank you.

  9. Paula J Clouse
    July 22, 2022

    Your initial experience with beadwork is very much like mine was. I was at a local craft show when I stopped at this booth where this wonderful lady had some beautiful beadwork. I started talking with her and now 15 years later she and I are great friends. I have learned to make the most beautiful things because of her and eventually because of you.

  10. Ulla Edenmark
    July 22, 2022

    I remember the euphoria the day i found your kaleidocycle instructions on Youtube, the feeling of leveling up and finding new meaning with my beading…thank you!

  11. Ruth Tulloch
    July 21, 2022

    That was interesting Kate as always. I enjoy your emails and have followed this journey since buying your first 2 books. I have always looked at beading in a mathematical sort of way that suits my brain more so than a lot of other crafts/arts. I especially love the way you have explored this so deeply and intricately. I look forward to seeing the new books and maybe delving into a few more ideas. 🙂

  12. Patty Knapp
    July 21, 2022

    I too believe there is magic when working with beads. It is a way to connect with history and to appreciate the many cultures of this world as beadwork is universal. There is always something to learn. I truly am thankful for the open source work from CGB as the magic has become even more pronounced as I am truly inspired by the immense creativity of others.

    July 21, 2022

    So nice to have contact.
    Here in Nova Scotia I make time for sunsets but my energy is focused on launching Triangle Love, the 3rd global, and getting space ready for workshops next summer. Want to come? Hugs.

  14. Martee
    July 21, 2022

    Thank you for filling my beading void. I’m grateful to be one of the beads on this enormous, welcoming, never ending thread of beaders. From my first experience with Delicas they spoken to me in so many languages. Thank you for sharing.

  15. lentower
    July 21, 2022

    Thanks for sharing some of this great journey!

  16. leayntab
    July 21, 2022

    I never, ever tire of reading your correspondence when it appears in my inbox. You have inspired me in so many ways over the years, Kate. I’m sure I’m just a drop in the bucket of people that can say the same.

    I love your brain and your curiosity and understand your need to create just for the sake of knowing.

    Be well.

    • katemckinnon
      July 21, 2022

      Leayn, knowing that there are kindred spirits out there has been my guiding light, I have appreciated your presence over these years so much. Hugs, Kate

  17. Lisa
    July 21, 2022

    A beautiful story. Thank you. Maybe we ought to collect them all! I began 10 years ago sitting in a hospital daily while my sister was treated for her unsurvivable lung cancer. Knitting was too bulky to carry, and I started bead crochet with no loose parts. Ten years on, my sis is healthy and I am an avid beader, still quilter (triangles define us!) and violinist. Where I teach, we say, “Be a maker,” and we are.

  18. Kim
    July 21, 2022

    Your journey is amazing. I look forward to more in the future.

    • katemckinnon
      July 21, 2022

      Thank you, Kim, I am so happy to have you by my side.

  19. Lori S.
    July 21, 2022

    Hi Kate, I’ve been following you for about 2 years now, and I always appreciate the many levels on which share your thoughts, ideas, and work — thank you. Given your areas of interest and passion, are there places you’d recommend to a traveler visiting Savannah from DC to enjoy beads, art, craft, color, shape, design, flora, and so on? With appreciation, Lori

    • katemckinnon
      July 21, 2022

      Lori, I haven’t explored Savannah as I should/could have, because we have only known it during the pandemic and we have tried to be really responsible about staying out of the common space. I loved the old cemetery on the river (kind of famous but STILL) and the old downtown is gorgeous. My favorite spots have mostly been on the outer islands, and if I was a fan of gated communities we surely would have lived at The Landings, just for the birds.

      • Lori S.
        July 21, 2022

        Right — tough timing. (This will be my first time flying since Feb 2020.) Thanks for your thoughts. Happy to lend a hand when you’re back in DC if there’s ever anything I can do to help.

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July 2022
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