Choosing Sewing Thread – Basic Information

Shopping for thread can be easy or complicated, fun or incredibly tedious. It’s especially hard if you don’t have a clue what thread to use for your particular project. Here’s a brief summary of what’s available, with a few tips to help you choose correctly.

Before you start looking at thread it’s a good idea to ask yourself the following questions:
– What are you making – a quilt, curtains, pants, a gown, or something else?
– What fabrics will you be using for your project? What fiber are they made from (cotton, polyester, silk, etc.)? Are they stretchy? Are they fine and sheer or thick and stiff? What colors do they contain?
– How will you be sewing – by hand or machine? Will you be doing any machine embroidery?

Having the answers to these questions before you go shopping will make choosing thread that much easier. Why?
– You may want to match the fiber content of the thread to that of the fabric.
– You’ll probably want to match the color of the thread to that of the fabric.
– You should choose thread based also on the characteristics of the fabric you’ll be working with. For example, if you’re sewing a knit you’ll probably use a stretchy stitch. In that case you’ll need a thread with some elasticity. It doesn’t have to stretch noticeably, like elastic does. But if you try to use a thread whose fiber content has no elasticity – like cotton – your thread may not be able to stand the sewing process and may break.
– You may be able to use just about any thread if you’re sewing by hand, but that won’t be the case if you’re machine-sewing; some threads can’t be used on a machine.

Thread content
Thread can be made from a variety of materials, both natural and synthetic. Here’s a list of the most common:
– Cotton – a natural fiber, good for use with 100% cotton fabrics (like those used in quilts). However, it has no elasticity, so it isn’t suitable for stretchy fabrics like knits. Also, cotton fibers are short, and if the thread isn’t well made it could produce a lot of lint – which means if you’re using a sewing machine you’ll need to clean it more frequently. Mercerized cotton is smoother, shinier, and less prone to lint that non-mercerized.
– Polyester – a synthetic fiber that does have some elasticity, making it a good choice for stretchy fabrics and stitches.
– Rayon – made from processed wood pulp, which makes it (in my opinion) a combination of natural and synthetic. It’s shiny, and that shine makes its colors really sing. For this reason it’s a good choice for machine embroidery. However, it may not be colorfast, so be careful how you care for items containing rayon thread, and keep them out of strong light. Also, rayon fiber isn’t very strong. Don’t use it for regular sewing, either by hand or machine.
– Silk – a natural fiber, it has a luster – shine – that like rayon makes it very colorful. Unlike the other purely natural fiber in this group – cotton – silk does have some elasticity, so it can be used with a wider range of fabrics. However, it’s finer (thinner) and is better used with thin, delicate, or sheer fabrics. It may also be more expensive, mainly because of the way it’s produced.

Some threads are blends of more than one fiber, making them useful for more than one kind of sewing. The label on the spool should contain information about the fiber content and size (the higher the number the thinner the thread; 50 is about average). It may also have a name that’s the manufacturer’s suggested use for the thread – for example, “Hand Quilting” or “Topstitching.” I’ll cover those names in another article. In the meantime, keep in mind that the name is just a suggestion. As long as you keep your intended project in mind, you won’t have so much trouble picking out the right thread.

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