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Thread Basics

Thread is one of those things that seems so small but makes a huge difference in our work as quilters.  Whether it's to top quilting, or our piecing, we have considerations we know to make with our thread.  The Cotton Patch sells Gutermann, Aurifil, and Superior.  But sometimes, we need to change from our norms for different reasons - maybe to a different weight or fiber.  

Here's a quick run down of thread and things to think about when choosing a thread for your project

Thread Basics 101
Thread Weights
Yes, just like wire, thread comes in "gauges," referred to as the thread's weight. The higher the number, the finer the thread. A good middle weight thread, and most commonly available is 50wt. and it will get the job done with most moderate thickness fabrics, like flannel, cotton, batik. 60wt. is more intended for bobbin thread, or sewing with lightweight fabrics like chiffon. A 40wt. thread is best served for things like corduroy, canvas, and denim; its thickness will prevent it from breaking as it is pushed through the heavier fabrics. 

Cotton really is your go-to thread. It works well for most projects, is durable, and comes in every color under the sun at a reasonable price. Cotton thread is "Mercerized" meaning it has undergone a process to give it smoothness,  a bit of luster, and it accepts dye well. It's good for sewing cottons, rayons or linens. Cotton has very little give to it, so if you're sewing knits or anything in which you need to retain stretch in the seams, cotton is not the right thread for the job.

Polyester is widely available, and the subject of hot thread debate (yes - there's such a thing - check out the quilt groups on social media!). There are some who swear by polyester and who will use nothing but, and there are others who completely refuse to use the stuff. I suppose it comes down to personal preference, as with most things, but consider your purpose. Polyester doesn't shrink or fade because it is a synthetic fiber, and as such it is intended for use with other synthetic fibers. It works well with knits and polyester, but can also be used with cotton.

It is lustrous and a great thread for decorative stitching. It is a synthetic fiber with little give, so it's not suited to anything with stretch (unless in the capacity of embellishment, not seams). It does tend to slip out of machine needles and break, so it can be a little trying in the patience department, but the effect is worth it. It can be used in seams in a pinch, but it's not really the best choice for  piecing.

Nylon thread is meant for synthetics when used in a seam. It is mainly used for top quilting, as it is "invisible" and very forgiving as it embeds in the fabric well to hide stitching errors. While after completion it is very strong, it can snap when sewn too fast. Some nylons are iron safe, and some are not - it depends greatly on quality and whether they are coated with another heat-safe substance or not, so be attentive! Use a Metallics needle for best results in a sewing machine.

Silk is perfect for hand applique. It hides well in the fabric and glides through the pieces like a dream. It is on the spendy side, though. It is best suited for "luxury" fabrics because of its cost and its natural sheen. It is very strong, but the color array is more limited. It also works well for garments, because it can easily be hidden and it isn't bulky.

Wool thread is meant less for seams and more for embellishment and hand applique. The common wool traits are applicable here - it is thicker, coarser and more expensive than cotton or polyester. You can use them in a machine, but you will need a larger eye for your needle and they fuzz like crazy, so clean out your bobbin case regularly.

These are meant for embellishment and top quilting only. It snaps easily, making it challenging to work with. It is not suitable for piecing. These have a very striking effect on a quilt or garment, but can overpower quickly too. To cut down on snapping, use a Metallic needle in your machine for best results.


  • As with all choices in material you can make, consider your purpose. Choose a thread that is best suited to what you're doing and how your item will be treated. 
  • Be mindful of the type of fabric you're sewing and its strength versus the strength of the thread - if they are too different in durability, the thread can wear through the fabric over time and create holes, or the wear on the fabric will snap the thread. If you're uncertain, a good rule of thumb is to choose a thread of the same material as your fabric, and the same size as the weave of the fabric to ensure equality in strength; if this isn't possible, choose a thread weaker than the fabric (a broken thread is easier to repair than shredded fabric). 
  • Always test for colorfastness and be aware of how it will shrink in the wash versus your fabric. If it shrinks more, then it will create puckers which gives a quilt a more antique look. If it shrinks less, the puckers aren't created. 
  • Do you want your stitches to show or not? If you do, use a contrasting color or a thread with a different luster than your fabric; if not, choose the same color or luster as your fabric.
  • Remember, just like fabric, you get what you pay for. While Five for $1 thread is a bargain for your wallet, it may well be as cheap as it is inexpensive.  Unless it is a major brand on markdown, be skeptical of deals like that that sound too good to be true.
  • There are many high quality threads out there, and you have to try several to find what you like and what your machine likes best. You'll have to find your thread brand of choice for yourself and change up your fiber content for the project at hand.
What's your favorite brand of thread to use, and why?  Add your two cents in the comments below. 

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