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The Thread Essay

I am fussy about thread.

OK, I am VERY fussy about thread!

I may even be a little OCD about thread...  I like thread, but I also like it to behave as I need it to behave for the job I am doing.  When that involves work for customers, I need the thread to be predictable, consistent, and GOOD.

I start from the idea that I am doing a decent job for my customers.  I take time to make sure the pattern has the style and fit the customer expects and that the fabric does the job properly.  I don't compromise on time if I can avoid it, fit, attantion to detail historical accuracy, fabrics, whatever.  Why then would I compromise on thread?  And yet all to often I discover people using any old cheap thread and getting odd results.  When I suggest using decent quality thread of the correct type and composition for the job, I get told it's 'too expensive'.

What?  But if you have just bought fabric at £30 per metre, why would you use cheap thread on it?

So, this is what I do with thread:

I look carefully at the fabric and the methods of construction, and I test.  Wherever it is practicable, I match thread composition to fabric composition.  There are some differences, usually dictated by process...

For the standard sewing machine and woven fabrics without Lycra,  the following usually happens:

100% cotton and linen fabrics: 100% cotton thread, weight adjusted for weight of fabric and process.  Thus light to medium weight fabrics usually get sewn with YLI hundred weight, Aurifil 100 weight, or Coats Cotton thread.  Heavier 100% cottons get sewn with Empress Mills cotton thread, which is a bit heftier.  I have some Mettler cotton thread on order, and expect from reports that it will be very like the Coats Cotton in use.

100% wool fabrics: 100% cotton threads, as above.

100% polyester fabrics:  Good quality polyester threads.  I like Mettler and Coats Duet.  Empress Mills isn't bad either. 

100% Silk fabrics: 100% silk thread whenever possible.  YLI and Coats both have excellent silk threads.  They are expensive, but well worth it when you are using such lovely fabrics.  Gutterman silk thread is courser and not as smooth, but is fine for thicker silk fabrics such as matke and heavy satins and crepes, and brocades.  If I cannot get a good match in silk thread, I'd usually rather use one of the better cottons like YLI or Aurifil than polyester.  This is especially true on finer silk fabrics like chiffon, georgette, organza, and tulle.

Rayon/Viscose:  This is one of those 'it depends' fabrics...  It depends on the weight and the hand of the fabric.  Something suit weight and I'll go for either the Empress Mills cotton or polycore (cotton wrapped round a polyester core), Empress Mills cotton, or Coats Duet, or maybe Mettler if I can get it (not so common in the UK).  Lighter fabrics and I'll go with YLI or Coats Cotton.

Blends of fibres have their own characteristics, but generally I follow the rule of looking at the weight  and the exact composition.  Those with more poly than natural get the polyester (Duet usually) or the polycore (usually Empress Mills).  Those with more of the natural get the major fibre, so 65% wool will get polycore or cotton thread, poly/silk will get silk thread, poly/cotton will get cotton, polycore or polyester thread depending on the exact proportions of cotton to polyester.

Things like wool/silk and cotton/silk mixes tend to get silk thread, and a poly or viscose/silk mix will also get a silk thread.  The popular linen/cotton blends get cotton thread.

When we come to special processes, slightly different rules apply.

Hand finishing:  Silk thread if at all possible!  I use this for slip-stitching linings, hemming, hand worked buttonholes, and any other small had finished details.  I like the YLI and Coats Seta Reale 100 weight as it is smooth and fine.  I also like the YLI for the same reasons.  If I cannot get silk, and I need it for hems on fine polyesters or poly satin hems and the like, I'll use rayon machine embroidery thread.  Both are smooth and highly polished and very fine, so slide through the fabric very easily, without knots on the way.  They also come in such a variety of colours that a good match is usually possible.  If neither of these has a colour to do, then one of the fine long staple cottons is usually much easier for hand sewing than polyester thread, which tends to be more tightly spun and more prone to knotting as you sew.


1: hand worked: For thicker fabrics Seta Reale 50 weight is an excellent choice.  Otherwise I'll use one of the fine silk threads on finer fabrics, or one of the fine cottons already named.

2: machine worked: First choice is the finer silk threads.  After that, rayon machine embroidery threads give a lovely finish.  I will use a fine cotton only if I cannot get a good match in silk or rayon, and I avoid using polyester if at all possible.  I find the machines buttonholes are much better and less prone to puckering with other threads.

Eyelets:  Both hand and machine worked eyelets are better done with silk or rayon threads as these are smoother and less abraisive on the laces going through the holes.  They also withstand the wear better.

Knit and Lycra fabrics are a bit different.  Their nature usually demands more stretch than you get with silk and cotton threads, and unless I'm using a 100% cotton knit, I tend to prefer a good quality polyester thread like the Coats Duet.  On silk jersey I use silk thread.

After this, we get to the Serger/overlocker.  For most fabrics and processes, a good quality 120's polyester will be just dandy.  I like Empress Mills and Mettler.  But occasionally I do use other things...  Again, I tend to match fiber content of the fabric to the thread composition, so cotton and cotton blends may get cotton threads, or polycore.  I like YLI 100 weight cotton thread on fine cotton fabrics and 100% cotton knits that won't be under a lot of strain.  For things like silk, your best bet is either silk or 120's poly.  For rolled hems I use whatever gets the result I want, so it might be woolly nylon for a bulk look, 120's poly or silk for a very fine hem, floss if I want shiny, rayon embroidery thread for special effects and metallic hems, or whatever does the job!

Makes of thread.

Most of my favourites have been mentioned already, but just to be thorough...  And in no particular order!

I like Empress Mills for 120's plyester and polycore, and 75's polycore for heavy work in both sewing machine and serger.  Their cotton thread is also excellent, and works particularly well in some of my older hand crank machines that used to love the old Sylco from Coats.  I also like their bulk nylon (woolly nylon) and floss for serger use.  The bulk nylon is excellent for things that need lots of coverage (like tweed, which frays madly) or stretch (swim and dance wear).

Mettler do some very good threads.  I like their Metrosene polyester thread, and am looking forward to experimenting with their cotton.  Their serger threads are also good.  The rayon embroidery threads come in wonderful colours and are excellent for both buttonholes and hems!

Coates now do an excellent range of threads.  Their Duet is one of the best polyesters (incredible steps up from the evil that was Drima!), and I love the Coats Cotton.  Both come in several weights for construction and finishing.  The heavier ones are lovely for saddle stitching, top stitching, and other heavy thread uses.  Seta Reale is a splendid silk range in both a light thread for embroidery and construction, and in a heavier thread for finishing things like button holes and sewing buttons onto heavier fabrics.  Dual Duty is a cotton thread with a waxy coating that is supposed to be for hand quilting.  It is evil stuff and to be eschewed.  If you have some old Drima about, ditch it.  Almost any polyester thread is better these days.  If you have some Sylco cotton thread, use it.  It's good thread, but there are others as good or better, so just use it up and replace with the newer types when it runs out.  It's no longer made, and hasn't been for a couple of years. so anywhere still selling it has older stock.  It ought to be at a bargain price these days...

Guttermann used to be the benchmark, but sadly have fallen by the wayside.  Their cotton thread is very variable in quality of both fiber and dye.  I have had it stain my sewing machine.  Their all purpose polyester thread isn't a lot better, but their serger thread is lovely.  Sadly, that comes in a very limited range of colours on very small and expensive cones.  Worth looking for if you are doing a silk project in scarlet, black, white, navy, or fawn!  The bulk/wooly nylon is a little finer than most, but an excellent thread for rolled hems on fine fabrics.  Guttermann silk thread is still OK, though for most things I prefer Coates Seta Reale or the YIL thread.  I once used their hand quilting thread in the sewing machine by mistake.  It worked just fine, and was far better than their ordinary cotton thread!  Using hand quilting threads in the machine is not a good idea, usually, as they can be coated, and the coating gums up your tension disks.  Their embroidery threads are still fine, and I have quite a few of those for finishing.

Aurifil are deeply impressive.  I love their fine cotton for both construction and hand finishing, and for piecing quilt blocks.  Very fine and smooth.  It's a long staple cotton thread spun in Italy.  Sadly, here in the UK, it's usually more cost-effective to buy from the USA than anywhere in Europe!

YLI do a range of excellent threads.  I'm deeply in love with their stripy cotton quilting threads, and their finer cotton construction threads.  I dearly wish Hobbycraft still did them and Mettler rather than Gutterman!  YLI's silk thread is wonderful, and looks and feels like the old  Japanese Kinkame.  As it's made in Japan, I suspect it may just have been rebranded.

IKEA cotton thread seems to be very variable.  The stuff I bought in the UK was all EU spun, and is pretty decent stuff for the price, but, oddly, the stuff I bought in Germany LOOKS the same, but is made in China and is nothing like so good.  Read the labels and be aware...

Molnike: this used to be the best thread on the European market, for both polyester and cotton, but you rarely see it these days.

I'm really not a fan of things like Moon, and most the no-name polyester threads that abound at the cheaper end of the market.  Most of them are fuzzy, produce lint by the bushel, and give very indifferent results, especially in the standard sewing machine.  That said,  I have had some decent threads at real bargain prices from no-name threads, especially with serger cones.  Just look carefully, and run a bit through your fingers.  If it looks and feels smooth and has no visible fuzzies or slubs, it's probably OK.  And just once the no-name fuzzy stuff came into its own!  I was sewing panels for light diffusion for a photographer, and the best combination of thread, needle, and sewing machine for this horrid polyester voile was the Singer 221 featherweight, a size 70 SHARP needle, and the no-name fuzzy, stretchy, love-to-pucker cheap crap thread!  Ho hum...

Storing thread:

There are three rules:

1: dust free

2: away from light

3: the right thread for the job

My thread storage:




A combination od IKEA Antonius frame and plastic bins, with a white desktop, plastic boxes from Hobbycraft (they are for papers and card making/decoupage supply storage, but also work well for thread), and the curtain, which is a layer of curtain fabric backed with a blackout thermal curtain lining and helt to the frame with Velcro.  It keeps out 90% of the dust and light.


Nov. 3rd, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)
Fantastic post Kate. Having had your thread lecture in person, it is good to get this as an aide memoire.

But for me, what would help me avoid cheap thread in future is links to online sources of the good stuff as cheap stuff is literally all you can get down my way.

and then I will obediently only use good quality thread in my sewing machines which will thank you for ever!
Nov. 3rd, 2009 08:32 am (UTC)
Giggle... OK, I'll look them up and post a list. I need to do that anyway as a section for the web site, when we get round to updating that.