Cotton and Polyester Threads
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 yarn, each called a ply, can be 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 cotton through cotton fabric, and create a need for quilt repair.
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. Most quilters prefer all-cotton threads over the cotton/poly combo.
Rayon, Nylon and Metallic Threads
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. It is not used to sew patchwork.
Nylon is a synthetic product used to make transparent monofilament thread, which becomes fairly invisible when used for machine quilting. However, it can melt under an iron, sometimes discolors, and often becomes brittle as it ages. A very fine transparent polyester thread is a more durable choice if you use this type of thread.
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.
Additional 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 or homespun-look project.
- Silks are often used for applique -- they are fine and make stitches seem to disappear. Silk threads are also a good choice for beading on fabric.
Water soluble threads dissolve when a project is washed. They are used for basting, or for any task where temporary stitches are handy.
Fusible threads are used to sew a typical seam, but when pressed they fuse 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.
Understanding 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 and experienced quilt makers.
Threads for Sewing Patchwork
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 for Quilting
Quilters use all sorts of threads for quilting, from cottons to decoratives. 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 to 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 be more susceptible to dyes. The process also makes thread more fuzzy, which is reduced by either a gassing or singing process.
Crocking: Crocking occurs when dye on the surface of thread (or fabric) rubs off onto other materials.
Denier: Denier is 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.
Sewing with Decorative Threads
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.
Anita Grossman Solomon offers important thread tips in this video, recorded during a trip I made to New York City. A big thanks to Anita, and to The City Quilter, whose owners were super-nice to open their doors to us on a day the shop is normally closed.
Be sure to visit Anita's Web site for even more quilting tips and techniques.
I hope this article helps new quilters gain a better understanding of the threads quilters can use in their projects, but it's simply a basic overview. Entire books can be written about threads and their uses, and the selections are constantly expanding. Ask questions about threads -- your local quilt guild and quilt shops are excellent resources. Don't be afraid to experiment with threads, 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.