Everybody Needs a Hobby

by Vonda N. McIntyre

Hyperbolic creature with tentacles

I always have to have a fiddly hobby. Needlepoint, crocheting, web page design (than which there is nothing more fiddly).

Some years back I noticed beads. “Shiny!” as the kids in my neighborhood and the characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer say.

So I bought some beads and some long skinny bead needles and discovered the wonder that is Shipwreck Beads and started playing around.

I probably made some necklaces — doesn’t everyone? — but since I don’t wear much jewelry that didn’t hold my interest for too long. I’m sure I made some flat things, though I don’t recall what they were because it didn’t take me long to get bored with flat things.

Iridescent blue pouchGoing 3-D, I made some little bead pouches, because, again, doesn’t everybody make little bead pouches? But there’s a limit to how many friends you can inflict a little bead pouch on. After a while they get wise to you even if you sneak up on them. (The same thing happened with needlepoint. You can only give away a certain number of needlepoint pillows before people flee at your approach.)

The Clarion West Writers Workshop scholarship auction solved the oversupply problem. I handed the pouches over at a board meeting, and they sat in a pile on the table. Inevitably people started to play with them. Marci Malinowicz swooped one through the air and compared it to a fish.

Beaded sea creatures were born.

Primitive SquidIt amused me to make things that had no practical value whatever. I made a squid, and while figuring out how to make tentacles, realized that if I kept doing what I was doing over and over again, I would end up with an interesting shape. (I had recently read Chaos, by James Glieck, and was — and am — entranced by fractals.)

Nudibranch in the wildThe creatures evolved. If you make a bead creature on a circular base, you end up with something that looks like a sea anemone. If you make a bead creature whose base is a line, you create a nudibranch or a marine flatworm. And despite being made of glass beads, they have an organic feel to them.

Blue anemone in the wild -- Photo by Carolyn McIntyreThis isn’t to everybody’s taste. Once — once was enough – I entered one of the creatures in a bead show. It didn’t even make the first cut; they couldn’t give it back to me fast enough. I had the impression that the judges’ reaction was “Ew! It’s not flat!

Topologically speaking, they are flat. They’re concentric rings of beads; in the most basic form, each successive ring of beads is twice as long as the previous ring. This creates a shape whose dimension is greater than two but less than three, and which cannot lie flat. (Topology doesn’t care if it will lie flat; it’s still a circle.) You can spread out one section of a bead creature to lie flat, but that just makes the rest of it frill up all the more. They are circles from geometries in which circles have more than 360°.

Most people like them and find them intriguing. Oftentimes someone will pick one up and play with it for a while – sometimes quite a while – and then say, “What’s it for?” That’s what it’s for: to play with. Bead creatures like to be petted. They and their crocheted relatives are stress-relieving toys.

One day I was reading an article on hyperbolic geometry by Ivars Peterson in Science News, one of my favorite magazines and one of my favorite science writers. I realized that he was describing geometry that I could adapt to bead creatures, so I made one. I wrote him a note and asked if I could send it to him; not only did he accept it, he wrote it up for Science News in ”Anatomy of a Bead Creature.”

Jellyfish in the wild -- Photo by Carolyn McIntyreOccasionally I go a bit over the top with creatures and end up with an octopus, a jellyfish, a bit of bleached coral. I was particularly pleased with myself when I figured out how to make glow-in-the-dark creatures without either using plastic beads or extremely expensive (if pretty) glow-in-the-dark beads. I might reveal my sneaky secret if anybody happens to ask.

Glow in the Dark Octopus -- photo by ladywillowBut one drawback to beading is that you can’t carry a project around to work on when you’re travelling the way you can knitting, crocheting, or needlepoint. I suppose you could, but you’d end up with beads all over the airport waiting room or rolling down the aisle of the bus. Crocheting is the perfect carry-around craft. Travelling is a lot easier for me if my hands are busy and I’m listening to an audiobook. (I don’t knit. Never could get the hang of it. Do they let you take knitting needles on the plane? They’ve never taken my crochet hook away. It would be silly to do so, as my crochet hook is considerably less pointy than the average ball-point pen.)

Then I realized that the technique of bead creatures could be adapted to crocheting.

Crocheted AnemoneYarn creatures are much more fun than granny squares (though in fact all they are is granny squares on steroids). It’s neat to be working on one downtown at the bus stop and have somebody sit beside me and ask what I’m making, and immediately start thinking of ways to use the technique. (Which, fortunately, is very easy to describe.) “I could make little tiny ones and put them on an afghan like a flower garden!”

It’s become a tradition for me to bring yarn creatures to the students of the Clarion West Writers Workshop every summer. Once I wandered into the Friday party with my bag o’ critters and encountered half a dozen of the students on the porch. I explained about the creatures, explained that they’re stress-relieving toys (for one thing, they’re easy to catch, and for another, if someone throws one at you and you miss, it’s like getting hit in the face with a sweater), and handed them out. The students, who were looking a mite pole-axed after the first intense week of the workshop, gazed at their critters for a few seconds, then, simultaneously, raised them high and shouted, “Brains!”

Turns out everybody had been writing zombie stories that week.

The intersection of people who are interested in math and science and people who are interested in handicrafts is larger than you might think, going from mathematician Hinke Osinga and the crocheted Lorenz Manifold to the fabric artists at the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Brain Art to The Institute for Figuring.

After I’d been doing bead creatures and yarn creatures for a number of years, I came across the Institute’s website, and their hyperbolic crochet coral reef. I was entranced. I wrote to the organizers, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, and sent them the URL of my bead creature web page.

Crocheted bleached coralI made some crocheted coral mounds for the reef, one of which ended up on the wall of the Chicago exhibit, another which appeared in a show window on Broadway in New York. TheIFF is planning an LA exhibit in early 2009. I hope it might come to Seattle.

And maybe someday my bead marine flatworm will turn up on Broadway.

Marine Flatworm -- Photo by Carolyn McIntyre

Vonda N. McIntyre

Vonda N. McIntyre is the author of the Nebula-winning novel The Moon and the Sun, which is being offered at Book View Café in electronic form for the first time. “The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea,” the faux-encyclopedia article that inspired the novel, written by Vonda N. McIntyre and illustrated by Ursula K. Le Guin, appears as a Book View Café Bonus story.

Other fiction by Vonda N. McIntyre, including cell-phone-friendly formats of The Moon and the Sun, can be found in the fiction section of her website, as can mint copies of her published books. To celebrate the debut of Book View Café, book prices are temporarily lowered.

Books make great gifts!



Everybody Needs a Hobby — 12 Comments

  1. How can I order one of the little bead pouches in black? I’m making it a point to go to the symphony this year and I need a little black pouch to go with my little black dress.

    Love the sea slug too.

  2. I knit. I have a fine pattern somewhere, for a knitted squid — quite anatomically correct, with the six tentacles and the two longer feeder paps.


  3. Hi Sue —

    I’ll ask the Clarion West folks if they have any left or are planning an auction soon. Remember they’re very small. (You could use one as a finger splint.)

    Hi Brenda —

    If you have a picture of the knitted squid anyplace on the web, I’ll link to it from Talking Squids In Outer Space. (Um… squids have eight arms and two tentacles…)



  4. These critters are awesome! I used to crochet a lot and got bored of making afghans. Now I’m going to have to pull out my yarn and hooks and get to work. Like you, I need a fiddly hobby and this looks like fun.

  5. Well, you know what I mean. I donated the squid to Balticon (I think), and Keith Lynch (I believe) won it and spent the rest of the con with it sitting on his shoulder.


  6. Lauren, great — the yarn creatures are fun. The trick is to put more stitches on each successive row than can lie flat. You can also just single crochet in a spiral and increase a stitch in every other stitch. (Or experiment with other increases for different shapes surfaces.)

    Brenda, the knitted squid sounds pretty amazing. Do you have a picture?

    I just redesigned my website and there are some more bead creature pictures in the Math Crafts section. I’m particularly pleased with the way the hyperbolic creature with tentacles turned out.

    Dave, I think I’d like your boss!



  7. Have loved your books for a long time (since Dreamsnake ~ still my favourite). I used to be a Lewiscraft store manager and have done all sorts of crafts all my life. I would LOVE to know the “Sekrit Trick”! Thanks for sharing, and more thanks for all the books. ~ Linda

  8. Hi Linda,

    Thanks for the kind words on my work. I hope to make Dreamsnake available at BVC in the not too distant future.

    The sekrit trick for making glow in the dark beadly things is very easy.

    First, you choose transparent or translucent beads. Opaque or silverlined won’t work.

    Then you get some glow in the dark embroidery thread. Glow Bug works, as does machine embroidery thread (found at JoAnne’s craft store). The former is pretty sturdy; the latter you have to be a little careful with.

    Depending on what you’re making, either use the glow in the dark thread all the way through, or make the project with ordinary thread and then use the glow in the dark thread through the outer row of the project to produce a glow in the dark edge.

    For example, the octopus above is all made with glow in the dark thread.

    I don’t have a picture of something with a glow in the dark edge (someone else took the octopus picture — my camera isn’t sensitive enough to get the glow), but if you can imagine the “featherless boa” (the third picture down) with a transparent edge instead of a gold one, and glow in the dark thread through the transparent beads, you’ll have the general idea.


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