How Savage Mill's Bead Soup formed a community around a niche art

A dozen women have assembled in a high-ceilinged corner room with exposed brick in Savage Mill’s New Weave Building. It’s midday on a Wednesday, when enthusiasts come to Bead Soup’s weekly Beading in Circles session.

They sit at long tables strewn with instruction books, ribbon, projects in various states of completion and plastic bins filled with hundreds of thousands of glass beads. The women run threaded needles through the beads, some of them so small you wouldn’t even notice if one were to get into your shoe.
It’s all relative, though. Columbia resident Lisa Symeson points to the little groupings of colored spheres on the table before her that are about as big around as the head of a pin.
Lisa Robbins of Elkridge poses for a photo wearing a necklace she made using a kit by jewelry designer Liisa Turunen at Bead Soup.
Lisa Robbins of Elkridge poses for a photo wearing a necklace she made using a kit by jewelry designer Liisa Turunen at Bead Soup. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)
“These are like boulders to me,” says Symeson, who, in addition to doing beadwork and other crafts, constructs one-inch-to-one-foot miniatures.
The beaders weave and stitch the tiny bits of color into intricate patterns, manipulating them as easily as an angler baits a hook.
“A lot of it is muscle memory,” says Deb McDowell of Gambrills. With a little practice, beading becomes second nature. And relaxing, her fellow beaders agree.
“Meditative,” offers Diana Keating of Essex.
That doesn’t mean silent, though. The participants exchange ideas, compare notes and show each other interesting new creations pictured in the pattern books in the store. They talk about how they apply techniques such as soutache braid and peyote stitch.
Having any number of experienced beaders to consult while at work on a project comes in handy.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge in here,” Symeson says.
“We feed off of each other,” adds Lee Willits. And this loose aggregation of people from different parts of the Baltimore-Washington region has fostered some friendships.
“The social aspect is important,” Willits says.
Presiding over this beading beehive is Bead Soup’s owner and sole proprietor, Kathy Fritz. The one-time draftswoman opened the store in 2008 after the Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore chose her from about 1,100 applicants for a start-up grant.
Just beyond a sharp bend in the steep and narrow road known as Mulligan's Hill, a set of steps that lead nowhere bisects a low wall of mossy, granite blocks.
First, though, she had to convince her benefactors that a brick-and-mortar shop would work. “They wanted me to just teach, do birthday parties and such.” She still does the occasional class at the Columbia Art Center, but it’s Bead Soup that draws enthusiasts from all over the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.
Bead Soup periodically hosts luminaries of the beading world — designers who have made names for themselves with their books of patterns for beaded jewelry, containers and sculptures. When one of these “rock stars,” as Fritz calls them, comes to town to give a class and sell kits used to recreate their designs, hobbyists will hop a plane to get here for the weekend.
One such artist is Laura McCabe, whose arresting sculptures include pieces with faux eyeballs. She’ll be at Bead Soup in mid-August. Fritz filled the available seats in two days.
“When I booked her, I knew I’d made it,” Fritz recalls with a grin.
Another is Sherry Serafini, whose jewelry creations can be seen on actual rock stars, such as Steven Tyler and Melissa Etheridge. Serafini will be at Bead Soup in early November.
But Fritz also prides herself on bringing to her store lesser-known but innovative designers. Upon discovering one of these in Julia Pretl of Baltimore, Fritz campaigned to get her to Savage, even though Pretl doesn’t do as much teaching as other designers.
Living back in his childhood home, Mark Praetorius of Ellicott City found himself in an ¿archaeological dig¿ through his basement.
“We went back and forth for about a year,” recalls Pretl, whose beaded vessel designs include a turtle with a removable shell for a lid.
Fritz and Pretl observe that beaders interested in creating jewelry generally are much less interested in sculpture pieces, and vice versa.
“You see a whole different crowd,” Pretl says.
The special guest instructors supplement a regular calendar of beading opportunities at the shop. Recurring events include Freebie Fridays and Beading Blitz, a Saturday marathon of back-to-back instructional sessions.
Enthusiasts also come to Bead Soup to restock their supplies, which many in the Beading in Circles crowd freely admit take up entire rooms in their homes.
Bead stores generally have been disappearing in recent years as fashions change and the economy fluctuates, but Fritz hangs tough by changing with times and tastes.
“You constantly have to be re-inventing yourself,” she says.
With Internet shopping becoming the go-to option for more people every day, Bead Soup is the only place nearby where crafters like Columbia’s Monica Braxton can go to find what they need.
“I like to touch my beads and match colors. You can’t do that on the Internet,” Braxton says.
The only other physical spaces within a reasonable drive are “big box” craft supply stores. But Braxton and the others in the Wednesday circle agree that’s not a real option, as the bead inventory in such places is often of inferior quality, lacking symmetry and consistency.
Another point the Wednesday circle agrees on: beading is highly addictive. And all seem quite eager to get others into the habit.
“It’s a cult,” Fritz says, only half-joking.
But it’s one that engages the mind and the hands, and as Christine Arancio of Silver Spring observed. “You’re creating something,” she says.