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When Cynthia Rutledge was bitten by the bead bug

One of today’s most sought-after beading teachers found a home in the nascent bead scene of the 1980s
Cynthia Rutledge
Money chains
Known for her intricate designs, Rutledge often looks to history for inspiration. This bracelet was inspired by money chains discovered on the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha Spanish galleon.

Imagine the beading world of the late 1980s, with very limited bead shapes and sizes, no magazines, no international consumer bead shows of classes and vendors, no internet with downloadable patterns — just a couple of books. How would a creative person find beading?

In southern California, Cynthia Rutledge had been sewing and doing cross-stitch and needlepoint since junior high. In her twenties, she had evolved to designing art-to-wear coats for fiber shows. “These were reversible coats that were dyed and over-quilted with candlewicking thread. I started weaving and adding woven components to the coats. Then one day I went into a local bead store to look for beads just to put on the back of a coat.

“I saw some people sitting there beading in the bead store,” Rutledge says, “and I thought: ‘isn’t this cute’!”

She kept returning to the bead store, and the owner talked her into taking a multi-strand necklace class. “There were no written instructions. People were using whatever they could find — sewing threads and stuff found at flea markets,” Rutledge says.

The Key to My Heart
“The Key to My Heart,” a locket-style necklace Rutledge designed several years ago, shows Cynthia and husband, Mark, wearing 1757 costumes they were for living history reenactment events.

Around then, the first group of cylinder-style beads, then called “Antiques” (similar to today’s Delicas), started being imported into the United States from Japan. Rutledge recalls that “they took the beading world by storm. I was in the bead store one day, and I could hear someone teaching a class to just three people. I overheard: ‘Just string on some, put a bead on the needle, skip one, and sew through the one after that.’ She was teaching freeform peyote stitch. I went back to my studio, sat down, put a bead on the needle, strung some on, skipped one, and so on. And I thought, okay, I can do this. I didn’t really want to make jewelry so much as I wanted to learn the technique. I seriously then had the beading bug.”

In 1992, two significant things happened to further strengthen Rutledge’s interest in beading. Kathlyn Moss and Alice Scherer published the book The New Beadwork, gathering together the work of a group of artisans. “I read that book and went, oh my God, somebody can make sushi out of beads. They can build vessels and structures. Oh, that’s a flower. I had never seen anything like it, ever. And I said, that’s what I want to do.” 

Then Rutledge took a two-day workshop from esteemed beadwork artist Joyce Scott that changed everything.

Fire and Ice
Rutledge’s beading projects in Bead&Button magazine are always popular. Shown here is “Fire & Ice” from the December 2013 issue and is featured on Facet as a FREE PROJECT.

Learning technique

“Her workshop was all about technique. It was all mixed-stitch progressions from one stitch to another. And angles. It was a very hard class for me. I couldn’t keep up,” Rutledge says. “Everybody else was building a beaded vessel. They wanted to make something to take home. I didn’t want to make anything. My whole reason for taking her workshop was to learn how to move the stitches into three-dimensional shapes. I told myself, one of these days I want to work with her. I thought I would have reached the height of the art if I did. And eventually I did.”

The fiber world’s loss ended up being the bead world’s gain when Rutledge decided to sell the contents of her weaving and sewing studio. She sold floor looms and spinning wheels and fibers to one person who took it all away in four truckloads. 

Her husband, Mark, said: “What are you going to do with this space?” Cynthia told him:  “I think I’ll fill it up with beads.”

As Rutledge played around with beads in her beading studio, she also met regularly with a group of creative people in the San Diego area. “We had no rules, no laws. We just beaded. There wasn’t a lot of information out there, but we all shared what we knew. Everyone was very gracious, very sharing. I’ve always been a Curious George. I would take a stitch and figure out how to make it move, fold over, stand up, go left, go right.”

Bellas pearls
“Bella’s pearls” was featured in Bead&Button magazine's June 2012 issue and is featured on Facet as a FREE PROJECT.

Beads and beadwork certainly have been central to many cultures on many continents since early times. But what Rutledge felt she was witnessing in the three-dimensional beadwork of Scott, David Chatt, and Linda Fifield was an emergence of a new art form for a new era. Other early artists were Virginia Blakelock, Diane Fitzgerald, Carol Wilcox-Wells, and Nancy Meinhardt.

“These bead artists were the movers and shakers,” Rutledge says. “They took what basic beading was at that time and drop-kicked it over the goal post. They took beading from making daisy chains as a little girl, to making it very, very cool. Everything was new and fresh. Everybody was so excited. People would stand outside the doors of the businesses that did classes so they could be the first to sign up.”

Although Rutledge had started building her own large beaded vessels on commission for private individuals, she found that she needed more than just sitting in her studio beading to be satisfied. She loved being around people who had the same passion. So she taught her first beading class at a local bead store, launched into designing with the muse of history, and started building her own name in the ever-expanding beading industry.

Bead&Button begins

In 1993, Alice Korach, who had been an editor of Threads magazine, arrived in California to meet the burgeoning group of talented beaders there. “Alice and her husband, Lane DeCamp, went from north to south on the west coast, meeting with us beaders. They said that they had two goals: building content to create a magazine, and they knew they wanted a show,” Rutledge says.

Korach and DeCamp launched the first consumer bead show in Houston, Texas in 1994. It was called “Embellishment” and was the precursor to today’s Bead&Button Show. A necklace designed by Rutledge was photographed and used as the logo for the Embellishment Show publicity, and she taught two classes for Show students. (Bead&Button magazine was also launched in 1994, with Korach as its founding editor.)

“There were very few teachers at that first show,” Rutledge recalls. “The vending area was very small. Most people to that point had just been mail ordering their beads and supplies by catalog. To walk in and see beads everywhere was crazy! You could just feel the energy level. I knew that I wanted to be a part of all of this.”

Honeycomb bangle
“Honeycomb bangle” was featured in the magazine's April 2011 issue.

Full-time beading

Until that point in time, Rutledge had been making a living by selling fiber clothing and beaded vessels, doing catering, and working part time in a bead store. All of her artistic skill had come from being self-taught. But the beading bug had now sunk in its teeth. On January 1, 1996, Rutledge became self-employed as an artist and teacher. 

Rutledge has been a teacher at all of the Bead&Button Shows since that inaugural Embellishment Show. Last year, she was awarded the 2016 Excellence in Jewelry Artistry Award which has been given out once a year since 2004. She has taught in Australia, England, Ireland, Italy, Turkey, Peru, Canada, and the United States. “When I travel with students to other countries for special beading events, I try to bring that country’s history to light with the design which I create for the event,” Rutledge says. (For Rutledge’s teaching and workshop schedule, see cynthiarutledge.net.)

Two critical members of the Cynthia Rutledge business team are Nichole Docherman who knows how to “suck all the life out of the beads” as she tests instructions and completes samples, according to Rutledge. And her husband, Mark, has been the full-time operations manager since 2002. He manages inventory, packages all of the meticulously-accurate kits for classes and online orders, and often travels with Rutledge to bead shows and events. 

“He has no desire to bead,” Rutledge says, “but he loves women, and women love him. In a bead show booth, he’s in his element.” 

And even though Rutledge has lots of demands on her time to teach globally, she has never lost her loyalty to the local, independent bead store. This was her 15th year of teaching at Funky Hannah’s in Racine, Wisconsin. 

“She’s a rock star in the bead world,” says Amanda Cosgrove Paffrath, owner of Funky Hannah’s. “She’s such a draw for beaders. She’s such a great teacher, and so fun to be with in class and outside of class. You know it’s going to be an amazing weekend when Cynthia Rutledge is in the house!”

FIND MORE: peyote , necklaces , bracelets

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