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Thread Tips for Quilters

Which Threads Are Best for Quilting and Patchwork?


Walk into a quilt shop or explore quilting and sewing threads online and you'll find that the choices seem endless. Thousands of thread color choices are just the beginning, and possibly the easiest aspect of choosing thread. Beyond that, you'll find threads designed specifically for quilting, and discover that hand quilting threads have characteristics that are not a plus for machine quilting tasks. Some threads are designed to work nicely when sewing fabric into a quilt, and another large group of threads is used for embellishment.

Our thread tips for quilters will help you make thread choices for your next quilting project. Threads designed for machine embroidery and other decorative techniques are varied, and the threads that work best for sewing our patchwork are often not labeled for that purpose, making selection a bit difficult. I hope our quick thread guide will help you wade through the maze of threads that quilters use most often.

Cotton and Polyester Thread

Photo by Steve Allen / Getty Images

Cotton thread is created by spinning cotton fibers together, and then pulling and twisting a narrow strand of yarn away from the mass. Individual strands of the narrow yarn, each called a ply, can twisted together to create a stronger thread.

Polyester, a synthetic product, can be spun together in a similar way to create threads that look like cotton, but have more stretch. Polyester can also be drawn out into long, continuous-filament threads. Polyester thread may, over time, cut through cotton fabric, and create a need for quilt repair. It generally takes many years for the damage to occur, but we do see it in some quilts made during the 1970s and 1980s.

Another type of thread is made with a polyester core encased in cotton, resulting in a slightly stretchy thread, but with a traditional look and feel.

To improve longevity, most quilters who sew their quilts with cotton fabric prefer to use all-cotton threads for the majority of projects that will be used and laundered, two actions that create friction between the fabric and thread. Decorative threads are most popular for wallhangings and show quilts. Do remember, thread choice is up to each quilter choose a thread that provides the look you want to achieve.

Rayon, Nylon and Metallic Threads for Quilters

Photo by Steve Allen / Getty Images

Rayon is derived from cellulose, but is not classified as a natural fiber because the transformation requires quite a bit of manipulation. Colorful rayon threads are very popular with quilters, and are typically used for machine embroidery and other decorative work. Rayon thread is not used to sew patchwork.

Nylon is a synthetic product used to make transparent monofilament thread (one ply), which becomes fairly invisible when used for machine quilting. However, it can melt under an iron, it sometimes discolors, and often becomes brittle with age. A very fine transparent polyester thread is a more durable choice.

Metallic threads are typically made from a core of nylon or polyester that's covered with a decorative product. Quality metallic threads also have an outer coating to help protect the delicate metallic layer.

More Threads for Quilters

You'll encounter threads made from other natural materials, including wool and silk.

  • Wool threads are typically thicker than other threads, and sometimes used to embellish a Folk Art quilt or project with a homespun look.
  • Silk threads are sometimes used for applique -- they are fine and make stitches that seem to disappear. Silk threads are also a good choice when beads are added to fabric.

Water soluble threads dissolve when a project is washed. They are used for basting, or for any task where temporary stitches are needed.

Fusible threads are used to sew a typical seam, but when pressed they stick the sewn fabrics together. Binding and applique are two possible uses for fusible threads.

You'll find other specialty threads when you explore thread manufacturer web sites.

Facts About Thread Sizes

Unfortunately, there is no single system used to describe thread sizes.

One common size designation is depicted as a fraction, such as 50/3. The first number reveals the thread's weight and the second tells us the number of plies -- a 50/3 thread has a weight of 50 and is made with 3 plies of yarn. With this system, thread weight decreases as weight numbers increase. A 50/3 thread is commonly used for piecing, but other equivalent sizes work just as well.

Another sizing system indicates only thread weight.

Sizing systems are complex, and often inaccurate as threads that are imported and exported around the world are re-labeled for a new country. Choose threads based on recommendations from manufacturers, other quilters and your own experience.

Threads Used to Assemble a Quilt

All-cotton threads are readily available, and are the best choice for piecing our quilting cottons. You can help avoid future wear at the seams by choosing a thread that's no stronger than the fabric, so avoid polyester threads and overly strong cotton threads. A hefty thread can also affect seam allowances and accuracy, by taking up too much space in the seam and by causing excess bunching.

The threads below are all good choices for piecing, but so are many others. Use my list as a starting point, but be sure to ask staff at your local quilt shops for their recommendations.

Aurifil An almost lint-free 50 weight thread.

YLI Select A 40/2 thread made from Egyptian cotton.

Gutermann Cotton A 50 weight cotton thread.

Threads Used to Quilt a Quilt

Quilters use all sorts of threads for quilting, from cottons to decorative versions. But remember one thing -- threads developed specifically for hand quilting should not be used in your sewing machine, because they are coated with a glaze that is not machine-compatible. Beyond that, the sky's the limit.

Manufacturer Web sites are a good source of information for threads suitable for hand and machine quilting. Do keep in mind that you must often change your sewing machine's tension when you machine quilt, use a different thread in the bobbin, and choose hand and machine needles that will deliver the thread intact, without damage to its integrity.

More Thread Terminology

Shopping for thread may introduce you to new terms. A few words you might hear are:

Mercerized... Cotton thread is processed with chemicals that give it more luster, improve strength and help it retain dyes. The process also makes thread more fuzzy, which is reduced by putting it through a gassing or singing process.

Crocking occurs when dye on the surface of dry thread (or fabric) rubs off onto other materials.

Denier, a sizing method that's often used for continuous filament threads. The number indicates the weight in grams of 9,000 meters of the thread.

Decorative Threads for Quilters

Decorative threads (for hand and machine embroidery and for machine quilting) include the rayons and metallics mentioned above. One way to preview these threads is to browse manufacturer web sites. Take some time to explore the sites -- most have educational resources to help you choose threads, and they often suggest appropriate needles and other supplies that are required for specific jobs.

YLI Threads
Mettler Threads

Sulky Threads

Madeira Threads

Superior Threads

Valdani Threads

Bottom Line

I hope our thread tips article helps new quilters gain a better understanding of thread, but it's simply a basic overview. Entire books can be written about thread and its uses, and the selections are constantly expanding.

  • Ask questions about thread -- your local quilt guild and staff at quilt shops are excellent resources.

    Don't be afraid to experiment with threadl, because experimentation is one of the best ways to learn about any product.

Once you have sewn with several different threads, you'll have a much better feel for future selections.

Related Video
Quilting Thread 101
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