Untangling the Mysteries of Thread

I was wondering if you could tell me about thread. I have searched around and not really found any information about the different types of thread available. For instance what is the main reason to choose one type of thread over another? Why get a polyester thread instead of a cotton one? who makes the best thread? etc..

You want to choose thread for specific effects. Obvious choices are a plain cotton-wrapped polyester for doing seams and a metallic for topstiching designs. Various manufacturers have threads that are similar in use (ie. metallics ) and your choice of them depends on personal preferences like price, color, availability, etc. You may like the way one brand sews in your machine, or dislike the way the stiches come out with another brand. (Some of that is affected by your needle choice, as well)

I don't know that any given brand is better than another, but they are different. Overall, you probably only want to avoid the 10-for-a-dollar types of cheap polyester because they are simply low quality and hard to sew with.

For general purpose use select a cotton, cotton covered polyester (the poly adds strength, the cotton makes it easier on the machine), or quality polyester thread. Some of the older machines do not sew well with synthetics. For example, I have a 1940's era machine that sews silk and cotton threads beautifully and jams with even the best of the imported synthetics. My new Elna constantly breaks 100% cottons, but loves the new synthetic threads. In general, match the thread to your fabric. Sew cotton with cotton, and synthetics with synthetics. This way the thread will get the same cleaning and wear as the fabric.

For decorative use there are smooth and textured metallics, and rayons in solid and variegated shades (good for machine embroidery). Lingerie threads have a bit of elastic in them, and there are threads which dissolve in water -- used for basting. A lot of the heavy-duty threads for sewing denim or upholstery may not fit into your machine without a special needle. There is also quilting thread, which is waxed and should not be used in a machine at all.

Serger threads are sold on large spools, and some folks like to buy them because they are cheaper by the yard than regular threads. Be aware that serger threads are designed to be used in multiples, and a single thickness may seem weak by itself. (ie you might have problems with it breaking). Wooly nylons are designed for sewing knits by serger.

You can also get a number of specialty threads, which are more like yarns, for embellishment. They are designed to be couched, not run through the machine (most times, anyway).

I can't stress enough that the finished look of your seam often depends on the needle you use. There are special needles for metallics, elastics, denim, etc. Not using the right needle can give you anything from sloppy stitches to a broken and jammed needle with a hole in your work. They're only a couple of dollars and so much cheaper than a weekend in the repair shop, and one of the most inexpensive things you can do to produce quality work.

What about nylon thread? Won't this stuff melt in the dryer if I wash my quilt? I've had factory made comforters that came apart and the thread was so stiff and nasty.

Select a good quality nylon thread. Get the thinnest, softest one you can find and avoid the fishing line types. The threads available to you in quiltshops are not the same as the ones cheap commercial manufacturers use. Look for thread labelled ".004 100% polyester monofilament."

I've heard polyester thread can cut through the seams of my quilt. I'm afraid to use anything synthetic. Isn't it bad for my quilt?

Many cheap polyester threads are spun poorly and can be difficult to sew with. If you run a length of thread between your finger and thumb you can feel the smoothness (or lack of) in the thread. A well-spun poly thread will be easier to sew with than a poor one, as it will thread easier and glide through the fabric instead of catching on it. And, yes, polyester thread can actually be abrasive on the cotton as it ages, because the tensile strength of polyester is greater than cotton. In other words, the cotton fiber will break before the poly if either one is stressed.

I was told to use a grey cotton thread on my seams, because the grey will blend with anything.

Good luck. In my experience grey thread is either too light for dark fabrics or too dark for light fabrics. Unless you are concerned about stitching that will show on the top of the quilt, get yourself a spool of black and a spool of white and trade off as you need it. Thread is cheap enough that you can probably afford to match other colors like red or purple as well.

Remember, too, that when you are sewing seams and you go to iron them, that you don't want to press the seam so far open that the threads show. If your tension is set right and you don't force the seam open, it won't matter what color you used (Unless it's black thread under thin white fabric, which will show through the fabric that's on top of it.)

I've tried metallic threads in my machine, but they keep breaking. Is this stuff just junk, or is there something I can do about it?

You can try a couple of things. The first is to get a different brand of metallic thread. Maybe your machine doesn't like the one you chose. It happens. You can also check to make sure you are using a needle designed for feeding metallic threads. Finally, there is a product called "Sewer's Aid" which lubricates the needle so the metallic thread feeds easier.

Any time you have problems with breaking thread check to be sure you are using a sharp needle of the appropriate type, that you have either the same kind of thread in the bobbin, or one that works with it (ie a lighter thread for embroidery and nylon threads) and that your tension is set properly in both the upper feed and in the bobbin.

Type of Thread

Creative Uses

Embroidery Floss Hand stitching such as embroidery, cross stitch, hardanger, smocking, and tapestry. Machine couching for decoration. Comes in silk, rayon, and cotton.
Button-hole twist Hand embroidery and embellishment where fine detail is desired. Also in the machine for decorative top-stiching.
Braid Flat or round. Can be used in needlepoint, cross stitch, knitting, and surface embellishment.
Beading thread A fine filament used to apply beadwork by hand.
Rayon Used for decorative serger edging, machine embroidery and monogramming or in the bobbin for fancy bobbin-stiching. Also popular for hand embroidery and cross-stich.
Cording Couching for topstiching or decorative edging. Also weaving, knitting and crochet.
Viscose Strong, silk-like luster makes it desirable as a couching thread, top-stiching thread, or serger edging.
Chenille Velvet-like strands good for couching or decorative edging. Available in cotton and rayon.
Boucle A textured yarn popular for knitting and couching. Available in cotton and rayon.
Metallics Sparkling colors for embroidery, applique, quilting, cross stitch, couching, and decorative serger work.
Cotton Long staple (Egyptian) cotton is both strong and smooth. For machine embroidery and quilting, lacemaking and heirloom sewing, as well as everyday seaming.
Polyester or Nylon Monofilament Fine pliable thread for invisible applique or quilting.
Bobbin thread A lightweight polyester designed for use with pre-programmed embroidery machines.
Polyester General purpose sewing and dressmaking.
Lingerie thread A supple braided thread designed to stretch when working with fine fabrics.


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