Thread – and Why It Matters

Thread – and Why It Matters

The first thing most folks do when picking thread for a project is to pick color. Certainly, it’s important to find an appropriate color. But the first thing that a person should do is to ascertain the TYPE of thread. Picking color comes next.

When walking into a sewing machine retailer, it’s not unusual to find many types of thread available. All these different types of thread come in an amazing array of colors. But if you inadvertently pick up a topstitch thread for your machine embroidery project because it is the perfect shade of Robin’s Egg Blue, you’re setting yourself up for gobs of trouble.

Thread Type

Thread Type

Without getting too mired in the tangle of different threads, let’s break them into sewing camps: General Purpose, Machine Embroidery, Heavy Duty, Decorative, Overlock. (In this article, I won’t cover heavy duty sewing threads. Most domestic (home use) sewing machines are not calibrated to accommodate heavy duty sewing threads (69# and above), and home sewing machines can be damaged by trying to sew with a thread that the sewing machine is not built to accommodate.)

Instinct might tell us (or at least it told me) to use a thread that is comparable in weight and content to the fiber of our sewing projects. However, it is pretty unlikely to find a thread that has the same content and weight as our sewing projects, unless we’re sewing cotton or polyester. To that end, general purpose sewing threads are typically manufactured of polyester or cotton. Which one should we use?

There is much debate among avid sewists about the relationship between thread and projects. For my purposes, I use cotton for sewing projects where the seams are not going to be subjected to undue stress (piecing a quilt, sewing a suit). For projects where seam strength is needed and there is likely to be a lot of stress on the seams (a bag, swimwear), I use polyester. At the risk of being tarred and feathered, I’ll also tell you, I’ve been known to piece a quilt or sew a suit jacket with polyester thread. (At the end of the day, I’m the only one who knows…) And when I’m not hand sewing buttonholes, I prefer cotton for machined buttonholes. Polyester thread can look a little mechanical whereas cotton thread tends to fill in better.

When I teach, I tell students that if they are unsure whether or not they need strength, then polyester is the go-to choice. Polyester thread is typically stronger than the same weight of cotton thread. It also tends to have a little elasticity which is helpful, and helps seams stand up to more stress. (Too much elasticity in a poor quality polyester thread can lend to puckered stitches.)

For most sewing construction, use cotton or polyester. Click here to see Madeira’s cotton thread and here for polyester.

Thread Weight

Thread Weight

Now that the type of thread is identified, the appropriate weight of thread needs to be identified, too. I’m not going to dig too deeply into this, except to say that based on content and weight, threads are weighted differently. For instance, comparable weights of cotton thread from two different suppliers should have the same weight indicated on the spool. Sometimes, manufacturers will also display the number of plys that make up the thread. Monofilaments are single ply threads. Other construction and decorative threads will be either two-ply or three-ply. The more plys there are, the more strength there is. If looking at a two-ply or three-ply cotton thread, the three-ply should be stronger.

You will find the weight designation on the thread spool. For the domestic market, the weight of general purpose cotton sewing thread is typically 50 or 60-weight. You’ll often see this number followed by the number of plies. For instance, 60/2 means the thread has a weight of 60 and is comprised of 2 plies. For general purpose polyester sewing thread, the weight is typically 100 or 120. Seldom do you see polyester thread weights followed by number of plies. To make it more confusing, unlike sewing machine needles where a larger number indicates a larger size needle, as the weight of a thread increases the size gets smaller... Ouch! However, to make it a little more palatable, thousands of years ago (in sewing years that equals approximately the turn of the 20th century when the industrial revolution was revving things up) the “sewing powers that be” decided that a certain length of thread across all fiber contents would determine its weight. So, a 50-weight thread ostensibly is heavier than a 60-weight thread.

I’ve sewn for many years, and as I stated earlier, I rarely consulted with others “in the know”. Much like many of the customers I’ve met over the years, if there were two “all purpose” threads available to me at a store and one was less expensive than the other, guess which one I purchased? You got it! Why on earth would you spend more money on thread than you had to?

Even after I purchased a really good sewing machine I was aghast to find out that my 12-spools-for-a-dollar thread that seemed such a bargain was contributing to the problems I was having with my very expensive sewing machine and contributing to our landfill problem. Suffice it to say, I found quality followed price point in the world of sewing threads, too.

There are definitely good values to be had, but a poor-quality thread does not translate into good value. Poor quality threads tend to have more lint, less consistency in their thickness, slubbing, and too much elasticity – all which contribute to less successful sewing.

Getting Started

Getting Started

When starting out, it can be a little overwhelming to select sewing threads – particularly if you don’t have a specific project in mind. The best course of action is always to pick color based on the project at hand. (A quick tip: If you can’t find an identical color, choose a color that is slightly darker. The darker thread will recede into the background.)

A case can also be made for having an assortment of threads at your ready. For me, that assortment looks like this: Black; white and off-white; light, medium and dark brown; light, medium and dark grey; light, medium and dark blue.

Frankly, I could get away with a basic assortment of black, white, light grey, medium grey and dark grey thread. The color value of grey can’t be overstated: it takes on the character of whatever is next to it and recedes into the background. So, if I am working on a project and the dominant color is light green, if I pick a grey that has the same value (light, medium or dark) it will be camouflaged by the light green. Sewing magic!

If you’re just starting out in the world of machine embroidery, it can be challenging to figure out what thread colors to purchase. I mean, without purchasing all of them, there’s hundreds from which to choose! Of course, there are basics, but soon you begin to realize what your basics are don’t necessarily correspond to someone else’s basics. (For me, chartreuse is a basic!)

The easiest thing up front is to select an assortment that includes black and white. Add to black and white three shades (light, medium, dark) of each of the following: grey, beige, yellow, orange, green, blue, red and purple and brown. That’ll give you a really great start. Then, purchase based upon your upcoming projects.

Madeira has lots of colors to choose from in each category of thread. Click here to check them out.

I know… It’s a lot of information and a lot to digest! If you get in a jam (including a thread jam), make sure to reach out to your local Madeira retailer and ask for their best advice. The key points:

  1. Use the right needle for the right job.
  2. A sewing machine needle has a useful life of eight sewing hours or one sewing project, whichever comes first (change your needle, change your life!)
  3. As the needle size gets bigger, the needle size, weight of fabric and stitch length also increase. The thread size typically stays the same.
  4. Use polyester when you need strength, and cotton for everything else. If you’re not sure if you need strength, you need strength, so choose polyester.

Have a great day sewing!

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