Friday, 25 November 2016

Thread Basics: a simple guide to choosing threads for quilting

Like any aspect of quilting, it seems that as soon as you talk about threads, everyone has an opinion on which ones to use. Then there’s weight, fibre composition, colour…. Before you know it, this simple little stitching essential is making your brain explode! Here at Make Modern, we like to keep things simple and practical. We know quilters have all sorts of budgets, particularly when starting out. Essentially, we abide by one rule when choosing thread – choose quality! There are many goodbrands available, some you may have heard of include Aurifil, Rasant, Metter, Gutermann, Superior, Signature and King Tut. These brands are widely available at general sewing stores, specialist quilt shops and online. We’re not going to debate which of these brands are the best.

We will, however, say that anything you can buy at the supermarket or in three packs for $3 should be avoided at all costs! There is such a thing as crap thread, and if you are paying prices that seem too good to be true, then these threads do not belong in your quilts. They are not pleasant to sew with (think breakages and snags) and they will not last as long. It is well worth investing in decent threads, given the amount of money spent on fabric and the hours of work that go into a quilt. Better quality threads are made using better quality cotton and longer cotton fibres, so look for phrases like ‘longer staple length’ when choosing your thread. The better quality the thread, the less lint it will produce. When comparing the cost of the different brands of threads, make sure you apply the old unit pricing rule and compare the actual amount of thread on each spool – you may be surprised.

Test Driving
It is worth trying different brands of thread to work out which ones you, and your sewing machine, like best – particularly before you invest in a lot of them. You may hear people say ‘my machine doesn’t like that thread’ – this is not necessarily an indicator of ‘bad’ thread, some machines are just quirky like that. I have had the experience where I could piece and straight line quilt with a particular brand of thread on my old machine with no dramas, but free motion quilting was too much pressure on the thread and I experienced a lot of breakages. Now I can free motion quilt with the same thread on my Juki machine and it works fine. Go figure.

It is often tricky to figure out what colour to piece a quilt in, especially when you use lots of different colour fabrics. Grey is a very good bet – choose a light grey for lighter tones, or a darker grey for more saturated colours. Grey has the ability to blend with almost any fabric beautifully and is a great neutral to have on hand at all times. Choosing a thread colour for the quilting component of the project is a different story – you need to choose a colour that complements your fabric choices, deciding whether or not you want the quilting to stand out or blend in. Some manufacturers, such as Aurifil, have teamed with fabric designers and companies to curate collections that work perfectly with particular fabric ranges – if you have a favourite designer who tends to use a constant colour palette, threads that match perfectly are a great investment. Colour cards are also useful – once you decide on a brand of thread you like, you might choose to invest in their colour card so you can match threads to projects. Colour cards are usually made from actual threads which makes them far more accurate than viewing colours on a computer screen or print out. If you don’t have a colour card, take your project with you to the store when choosing threads, it’s amazing how tricky it is to match threads by memory.

You can use a regular thread for handwork, many hand quilters prefer to use heavier threads, such as 40 weight or 28 weight for extra strength when hand quilting. Remember to use shorter lengths of thread when hand quilting, as longer lengths tangle and strip as you work, reducing their strength. Also, be sure to invest in quality hand sewing needles. You can purchase specific hand quilting threads that are wax coated for strength, or simply run your thread through beeswax to strengthen it. It’s important not to use these coated threads in your sewing machine as the coating can damage it. For example, Gutermann produces hand quilting threads in 50 shades. You can also hand quilt using thicker perle cottons or heavier weight threads like Aurifil’s Aurifloss.

Fibre Content
Many quilters swear by the ‘like with like’ rule, which means you use cotton thread to sew cotton fabric. While this is not set in stone, it is a good one to consider, particularly if your quilt is going to be washed a lot. It is said that the stronger fibres in polyester thread can cut through cotton fabrics over time, damaging your quilt. It is simpler to mend a hole produced by broken threads than a hole produced by damaged fabric fibres. Most thread manufacturers produce cotton threads in a wide range of colours. Core spun threads, such as Rasant and Signature’s Cotton Wrapped Polyester threads, are also an option – they have a very strong continuous filament polyester core covered in cotton fibres to provide the best of both worlds. Of course, if you are exploring art quilts or really want to stretch your creative muscle when quilting, fibre content rules go out the window as you enter the world of polyester machine embroidery threads, silks threads, metallic, clear monofilament threads and the like. Fibre is very much a personal experience, and it is worth investigating the wide
variety of quality threads available in fibres other than cotton.

Not all threads are created equal, and most thread manufacturers produce threads in a range of weights for various purposes. The higher the number on the thread, the finer it is. It would be simple if there was a universal system for calculating thread weight, but there’s not! The TEX system is the standard for industrial sewing thread, which incorporates the Cotton Count System (NEc) for sizing spun threads. Unfortunately there is no standard for home sewing thread, but if you want to read a bit more on the theory of thread, YLI have a very useful document here. Most simply, a fine thread is best for general piecing and applique because it sits in the seam well. Move to a slightly thicker thread for general machine sewing. Aurifil recommends their 50 weight for piecing, 40 weight for general sewing. Superior recommends their MasterPiece thread for piecing because it is high quality Egyptian cotton in a 50 weight with very low lint. When machine quilting, you can use a wide variety of thread weights for different effects. Wonderfil offers a range of threads from 100 weight to 12 weight (with 20, 30, 35, 40, 50 and 80 weights in between!) and recommends 100 weight if you just want to texture the background without seeing the colour from the thread, or 12 weight if you really want to make the thread a feature.

Remember that there are a few things you can do to make your threads work better. Using the right type of needle for the thread and fabric is critical, as is replacing needles regularly. You may need to adjust your machine tension to accommodate different types of threads. Clean out the bobbin casing of your machine regularly to get rid of the lint bunnies. Make sure you’ve got the thread loaded correctly – it should be released anti clockwise. Most thread spools have writing on one end, make sure this is to the top. For most purposes, match your top and bobbin threads (decorative quilting may be the exception). If you don’t want to match colours, use the same brand thread in the top and bobbin. For best results, investigate thread manufacturer’s websites to establish which of their threads they recommend for different types of sewing. Regardless of which brand you choose, you are always going to get better results if you choose the right thread for the job. While it seems tedious, taking the time to trial different threads and carefully considering your thread choice will yield better results and improve your sewing experience.

- JK


  1. Many sewists also do not understand the BIG change the right needle can make for thread handling. You should choose a needle not only based on the type of fabric and work you are doing, but also on the thread choice! All the thread companies have loads of information, including suggested needle size and type for their threads - for many different types of work and fabric! For example, Free motion quilting is often done at high speed, which can tax a soft cotton thread. Using a topstitch or embroidery needle - both have long eyes, giving the thread more room to move - can make a huge difference over using a simple "universal" style needle - which has a relatively small eye.

    1. That is so true Karen, we did a needle know-how feature in one of our back issues but it might be time to revisit the topic :)

  2. What a fantastic article, I know my machine is one of those picky ones and only likes certain threads.

    1. Thank you for popping over! Oh dear, I hope you've been able to find what keeps it happy! There's nothing worse than thread issues!

  3. Anti - clockwise? What if your thread is coming off a cone? If a stack wound thread and it sits vertical on the pin, then the thread will come off the back. Is that what you mean?

    1. I guess that's what Jane (our editor) means -- I've never actually taken notice which way my thread comes off the spool but just 'know' how my machine likes it :) Lara

  4. Great article. It's nice to reread about threads often!

  5. I came across your article as I was researching thread weight. Does that mean that Rasant 120 is a 24wt in Tex system - that seems like quite a heavy weight for everyday type sewing.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Rigidity: The elasticity of an embroidery thread can be tried by sawing a suspended strand with another strand forward and backward until the point when the main strand breaks. The quicker it breaks, the lower the quality and nature of that specific thread machine embroidery thread

  8. Embroidery in Centurion has never been easier. 24 HOUR Embroidery has its own industrial embroidery equipment, which enable us to deliver to the highest quality standards and ensure that you are completely satisfied with the end result.

    embroidery digitizing service

    embroidery digitizing company


Thank you so much for your comment! We love to hear from our readers.