Thursday, November 20, 2008

Of flexwire and time machines

string theory, part 5

As I discussed previously, "flexwire" or nylon-coated wire has become the most popular modern material for stringing rosaries, and it requires some new techniques.

Modern rosary makers, being used to a type of rosary where the beads don't slide, have had to figure out how to string a rosary on flexwire so that the beads maintain their spacing and don't move. The solution most of them use is to string one to several very small beads between each main bead of the rosary. This also nicely covers the wire, which many people don't find very attractive -- particularly the early versions of coated wire, which resembled stainless steel wire from the hardware store. Many people have become very creative with these "betweens" (in German these would be "zwischenperlen," which I think is a delightful word!). Rosary makers like Mary's Prayers Rosaries may use two or three different types of small beads between each large one, which can make quite an attractive contrast.

With the newer types of coated flexwire, which come in at least a dozen different colors, it would seem logical to me to experiment with making modern rosaries with beads that can slide as you count them. This would mean leaving some of the wire exposed, but if it's pretty, why not? So far I haven't seen anyone try this, but it would be interesting to see how well it works and what people think of it -- and how the flexwire stands up to abrasion when beads are sliding back and forth.

As we've seen, flexwire is pretty much immune to a lot of the problems of rosaries made with string: it's very resistant to tangling and kinking, to breaking by being pulled on and to metal fatigue. But it's not perfect. To the surprise of some rosary makers, rosaries strung on flexwire can stretch with use.

You'd expect this with fiber-based threads -- in fact I've had to re-string some of my paternosters where the silk thread has stretched. But it's rather a surprise to see the same thing happening to wire. Jennifer of Miracoli Rosaries reported that one of her customers' rosaries stretched nearly an inch after just three months of regular use. On checking her stock, she found that several rosaries made with stone beads that had been simply stored hanging up for a year had also stretched.

This caused a bit of consternation on the Rosary_makers mailing list. What could have caused it? The answer seems to be that the metal wire in flexwire is not a single strand, but several strands, braided. If it's subjected to a lot of tension, it turns out that this braided strand can stretch a certain amount, even though the individual wires in it don't. This is especially likely to happen if a light weight of flexwire is used to string heavy beads, so the advice is to use the heaviest weight that will go through the bead holes. (Most flexwire comes in at least two or three thicknesses.)

The other thing that can cause stretching is if the strand of flexwire is used right off the spool, and is then pulled very tight to fasten it off after stringing the beads. This can be prevented if you "relax" the wire before using, or stretch it a few times between your hands, and perhaps let it hang overnight with the beads on it before finishing off.

To sum up, flexwire has a lot of advantages, and has made it much easier for creative rosary makers to produce strong, durable rosaries very quickly. But I have to point out that there's one type of project for which it still doesn't work very well. That is for close replicas of historical types of prayer beads from before 1600. If you want to make your beads look like they just fell through a time machine from the 15th century into your living room, even the newer, more flexible varieties of coated wire still don't work quite like silk thread. Here's an example from Rosary Workshop:

A rosary strung on flexwire simply does not hang the same way as one strung on silk, and it doesn't look the same lying on a flat surface either. The flexwire resists bending, so the strand of beads tends to lie in a gentle, nearly straight curve, and the loops where the end of a strand of beads attaches to a pendant or medal, fall in wider and more gradual curves. There are quite a few historical paintings that show a rosary casually tossed on a side table or step and about to slide off the edge, and you can definitely see the difference in the way they hang.


(The above example is a detail from Antonello da Messina's St. Gregory Triptych, 1473.)

Fortunately, most people are not trying to pretend that their rosary dropped through a time machine from some other century, so the different drape doesn't matter in the least. I cheerfully admit to being a modern person myself, and I'm thankful for many things about modern civilization, including the Internet! Historical rosaries are not the only beads I string ;)

Posts in this series:

String or Nothing
The thread thread
String Theory
Threads of silk and gold
Of flexwire and time machines

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