Victoria Johnson-Parratt

Victoria Johnson-Parratt

Fire Mountain Gems and Beads 2009 Beading Contest


Meet the Designer-Artist

I became a bead weaver because I've always been easily distracted by small shiny objects. Fell completely in love with the look and feel of peyote beaded cloth, and I am comfortable with my more anal retentive qualities, and had the proper amount of change in my pocket when it became necessary. It was as if the universe wanted me to be a bead weaver. My intention at the time was to become a textile weaver. Early in the new century, when I was a very new member of the Cuyahoga Weavers Guild, they offered a single day workshop for $15. I didn't care what the subject was. Life was lean and it was the first workshop I could afford.

The program offered was Peyote Stitch Bead Weaving. I liked beads. I had beads. I figured I could get by without the trouble and expense of finding the store that offered the recommended brand. A lovely young lady named Jennifer Whitten was infinitely patient with my lacking both the required materials and the ability to thread the needle. The 10 row pattern provided for three colors in a "tumbling Blocks" motif. The seed beads I had brought made an ugly cousin to the fabric produced by the Delicas around me. I spent most of the day begging for re-thread, didn't get close to finishing, and was truly the most pitiful participant of the day. At the end of the class, a few of my friends were well on their way to accomplishing bracelets. I left already starting to feel the itch of addiction.

I went home and practiced the technique with what I had, but I yearned for the perfect little Delicas I had seen. Six months later word came around of a bead store in a quaintly expensive little community called Chagrin Falls that was closing, and everything was half price. I assumed it my best opportunity to acquire a simple palate of colors to play with, so on the last day, two hours before it ceased to exist, I decided to pinch off a bit of the grocery budget and make the scenic drive.

The proprietress was closing to open up a full-fledged art gallery. Before she started outing the lights and sweeping the floors, she cut me a very special deal for the small handful of packeted beads I had collected. I handed over everything I had; including the loose change at the bottom of my purse. She took my name and promised to invite me to her opening. None of this impressed my family at dinner time.

I felt worse about it all when I realized that Delicas came in different types and finishes, and the ones I had picked didn't particularly match up or work well in the pattern I knew. I started matching up the beads I'd bought into pleasing combinations of twos and threes. I took a graph my husband had created for my crocheted blankets, shrank it into a workable bead size, and made hundreds of copies. From there I played "connect the dots" in simple geometric patterns I thought would work well with the matches I had made. I played with pencils and crayons; eventually settling on highlight markers (they don't bleed through and cover well with white-out) as my favorite design medium.

Owing to some personal mental glitch, for the first year and a half, I couldn't work more than 10rows. I would carefully cut my graph paper into 10-row strips and would not consider any design I couldn't work into that space. I had only been taught ten rows and that was all I could do. The bright side of that deficiency was the depth and breadth of my 10-row design study. I focused on my favorite patterns and moved into color combinations. I had created almost 100 bracelet and choker prototypes before I made the breakthrough to 12 rows and beyond (but that's a later story.)

I had worked up a few bracelets when the invitation came for the gallery opening. I had managed to work out decreasing down to a finished end, but I had no clue about findings, so I decided to attend hoping to ask advice from the former bead store owner. She directed me to the only bead store left in the area, and asked me to bring back what I had when they were finished; as she would like to sell them in her new place. Months later, I brought back a velvet pouch filled with my little prototypes and poured them out on a beautiful Persian Rug we used for our meeting. She grabbed a carved wooden bowl and carefully filled it with the ones she wanted to carry. She ordered 30 pieces, and sold more than a dozen before the fall of the Twin Towers brought the country to a standstill, and her business to its knees.

About the time her doors were closing, my weaver's guild had scheduled an exhibit in an art gallery in Willoughby. The ladies assured me that my work could be included, as it was technically weaving. After our month on display, the owners asked if I would leave my part with them. Sales were pretty dismal, but I had no other plans for them, and was happy to be able to direct folks to "the gallery that carried my work."

Being in a gallery gave me every excuse to continue, but I eventually realized I was working for less than minimum wage. There was also the frustration of a bracelet someone loved that just didn't fit them. Selling directly allowed me to wrap a ribbon around their wrist and have a true measure of the size the bracelet needed to be. I enjoy knowing who will wear my work while I'm making it, and knowing it will fit them when I'm done.

I started with trips to the bead store to find purple for my sister-in-law and school colors for the kids. My husband took me there for my birthday. There was a wall of clear little Delica drawers that could not be touched without getting severely scolded. They were scooped out for sale in 3 gram portions. There was no discount until I bought a kilo. I soon realized I was in the grips of addiction, and Delicas were my drug of choice.

I put together a travel studio with a buckskin covered butter dish nestled within a make-up bag and compulsively worked through any available break. I had enough supplies and working projects on hand to remain occupied and distracted through any week-long natural disaster. I could start up or close down in less than a minute. I beaded in the park, on the bus, before the house lights went down, and while numbing up for dental work. People would see me stitching, and quietly creep closer to watch. Some would insist I make one for them. I once left a dental check-up with no cavities and a prepaid order for 6 bracelets. I used the money I made to support my habit.

Then I saw a Fire Mountain Gems ad on the back of a bead magazine, and everything changed. The catalog arrived and the prices were a tenth of what I'd been paying! All the guilt faded away as I steadily gathered every available size 11 Delica into what I like to call "the world's greatest box of crayons;" a series of 2 plastic under bed boxes with homemade wooden inner frames that support the dowels, and allow entire families of finishes to be filed together in their original tubes and easily pulled when needed. A third box holds larger bead quantities, extra Nymo, and the assorted fun stuff one gathers along the way. Once I had all the Delicas in the size I used and some of the 15's, I bought a beautiful floor loom I had been yearning for, and once cheerfully traded a bracelet for a fabulous art marble that filled my palm.

While all this was happening I became the weaver's guild librarian; an unpaid but highly enriching position. I felt it important to know what I was responsible for, and poured through books and papers packed with patterns and the directions to produce them with thread. I recognized some of the designs I'd recently made were being produced thousands of years ago. While reading about fabric that had been found in a pre-Inca Peruvian graveyard, and reproduced 50 years ago by one of the country's best weavers, my eyes locked on a pattern and my mouth said "ooohh." It's a primitive, involuntary sound that my husband knows translates literally into: "Honey, find me my graph paper and my highlighters and be quiet for a little while so I can work this out." (His chuckle as he automatically hands me everything I'm wanting and pats me on the head is the only thing that he says more with less.)

I was drawn to the dimensionality of the pattern. 2500 years ago the weaver had the advantage of thread to make the design dance up and down. I had to widen the design and add color to create the same effect. I always thought it looked like a dance of two lightning bolts, and naturally called it "Lightning Dance." I knew immediately it needed to be done with gold and silver and black, but I started with the more affordable red, white, and blue. I discovered that if I sewed a simple snap onto the bracelet I could carry the pattern completely unbroken around the wrist, or neck or ankle; and when all three were snapped together would produce a lovely belt. I sold a few patriotic bracelets and had enough to get the 50 gram big bags of gold and silver beads I needed to really start playing. I was working on a removable set of straps for a slinky black dress, the length allowing for the repeated wrapping around my hand. The realization of how cool it all looked widened out, hit about the same time as the thought that a dress that special would need a purse. Part of me said "it would make a great purse strap." The rest of me knew it would make an amazing purse. I made that "ooohhh" sound again, and when I next looked up, my original 24 pattern had grown to 116 rows. It took a few tries to get it all started, but slowly it became a cloth that draped over my hand. I originally thought I would just keep going and wrap it around into a purse, but I decided a straight edged ending would be too disturbing and abrupt. The pattern had a natural edge that was easy to see, graph out and create early in the process. I kept my progress in protective bubble-wrap in the bottom of my little travel studio and worked on it when I didn't have orders or other smaller designs I wanted to see first. I called it my bead burrito, and my fall-back project. It took years to fully form. When I had enough to actually start overlapping, I realized the edge and impact would be lost unless I took out the gleaming gold and shiny silver and replaced them in the pattern with matte black on the front under the flap. I continued the black on black around the bottom as protection against scuffs and scratches. The width of the bag was determined by how the original 24 row pattern in the long strap would match up the pattern on both sides. A matching handwoven lining proved too insanely complicated, so I settled on a simple black silk bolstered with a thin wooden dowel to help support the shape and allow it to stand unassisted. When it had reached the point where I believed it was the correct size to assemble, we did the math and realized it contained over 53,000 beads. There were 17,500 in the strap alone. We didn't bother working it out to the bead, as the uneven front edge promised more work in thought than the answer seemed worth. It was enough to know that if I wanted to make another just like it, I would only need to dedicate all my time for the next 3 months. I can actually imagine using the purse before a major reunion or meeting with some head of state, and realizing that I didn't know anyone I liked enough that was rich enough to pay my price and be worth that much of my life. I found peace knowing it was complete, and probably destined to be the only one of its kind.

I did consider joining a bead guild, but the commute was long, and there was talk of bad blood and bead drama that made my closest option less than appealing. My weaving guild family not only opened this door for me, they've given unending support and total encouragement along the way. I bore down and worked to finish my Lightning Dance bag because our home study subject was bags. I did weave two fun bags on my loom (woven with grocery bags) to show I could, but my little shiny purse was the most highly anticipated part of the presentation. They had watched its growth and were the proudest Aunties that ever attended a coming out party. Betty has claimed it "her bag," and thinks she has me convinced to leave it to her in my will (I've told her I'd consider it when she turns 100; she's almost 90.) She also announced it "good enough for the cover of that bead catalog you like so much," and told me to make sure I told somebody about it so I did, and now here we are.

I'd rather be designing new than repeating myself, but I'm happy to spend my time recreating something if I like the person who's asking. I've been shown brick stitch and have bead looms, but I continue to work exclusively with my one little vision. I have what could arguably be the largest personal peyote stitch jewelry collection in the world, and I'm just not done studying the subject. I made a breakthrough into odd count; exponentially expanding my options and offering years to come of pondering and playing with simple flat graph peyote.

Well, you asked so I told you what I'm sure is almost the whole entire story. Thanks for asking and inviting me to play. Have fun with the editing.