Ten Essential Tips for Choosing Quilting Thread
Today’s Topic: Ten Essential Tips for Choosing Quilting Thread
Welcome to Week Twelve of The Better Machine Quilt-a-long based on my book 25 Days to Better Machine Quilting.
Find all of the previous Lessons HERE.
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Good Morning, Quilters!
If you’ve been following the quilt-a-long for the past several weeks, I am certain your confidence is growing and your skill at creating beautiful motifs is fast improving. Once you begin to understand thread and how to choose the right quilting thread, you will notice a big jump in the overall look of your quilting–guaranteed!
Thread is to quilting as paint is to painting! Just like an artist wouldn’t use dime store watercolors or leftover house paint to create their masterpieces…Neither should YOU pick up any old thread to create YOUR quilts. It is worth your time to learn about thread and then invest (over time) in the best thread available.
Design Goal Determines Thread Choice
As we discussed earlier this week, your design goal determines thread choice. If you would like to create texture only–use thread that is lightweight and matches the color of your fabrics.
On the other hand, if you want the motif to be highlighted–a focal motif-use a heavy weight thread in a contrasting color. Many quilts use both to create interesting effects.
Texture Motifs-Choose a lightweight (fine) thread (50, 70, 80, 100wt) in a matching color.
Focal Motifs-Choose a heavy weight thread (50, 40, 30, 28 wt) in a contrasting color.
Needle Size/Thread Weight
For all sewing and quilting, the size of the needle is determined by the weight of the thread. The heavier the thread, the larger the eye of the needle needs to be. The smaller (finer, lighter) the thread, the smaller the eye-to prevent too much movement within the needle. Skipped stitches and broken thread are signs the needle is the wrong size.
(A similar chart can be found on page 63 of 25 Days to Better Machine Quilting)
For quilting, my favorite needle is the Topstitch needle. It has a large eye and a deep groove in the shaft to protect the thread. Other needles to try: Quilting, Denim, Universal, Metallic.
There are many excellent thread manufacturers and they all offer a variety of lines of thread. There is not a consistent standard for labeling threads, which adds to quilter’s confusion. In addition, there is not a standard way to weigh threads. For example, fixed weight (wt), fixed length (tex) and number English (ne) are three different ways manufacturers determine thread weight. (And why I recommend an inspection method for determining thread weight.)
Some manufacturers use color coded spools for thread weight, while other brands give threads a name unrelated to fiber or weight–and you must review the thread or go to their website to determine exactly what it is.
Tomorrow, I will share some of my favorite manufacturers and threads. The key is to know there is a wide, wide world of threads and if one doesn’t work for you, try another brand, weight, fiber….
Quilting Thread Fibers
Quilting threads are made of a variety of fibers and manufacturers sometimes combine fibers to take advantage of different fiber properties. Some of the most common fibers are:
Cotton-Cotton thread is made from short fibers that are twisted together. The longer the length of individual fibers the better. When you see Extra Long Staple (ELS) or Long Staple (LS) on the label, expect a smooth, lovely thread and a higher price point. If a thread is made with very short staples, it is often fuzzy and lower quality. This cotton is not desirable for quilting.
Polyester-Polyester thread is strong and durable and is an excellent choice for free motion quilting. It can be low to high sheen and a moderate price point.
Rayon-Rayon is a high-sheen thread made from cellulose. The tensile strength of Rayon is lower than polyester or cotton and therefore it is not a good thread for piecing or construction. However, tensile strength is less important for machine quilting and because of the range of colors, high sheen and moderate price point, it is one of my favorite fibers for free motion quilting.
Silk-Silk is a beautiful and strong fiber, perfect for machine quilting. It is unwound from the cocoon of a silkworm larvae in a long continuous fiber. Silk is available in a wide variety of colors and weights. The major disadvantage to silk is the price!
Wool-Wool thread is made from carded fibers from sheep. It is usually combined with acrylic to increase strength. It is always very fuzzy and used for special effects.
Nylon-Nylon is smooth and slightly elastic. It is often very fine weight and used to create texture effects.
Monofilament-Monofilament thread is a single strand of polyester fiber. It is similar to fine fishing line and is creates an almost invisible quilting texture.
While most sewing machine manufacturers recommend using the same thread in the top and the bobbin, that is not practical for machine quilting. For example, we would never want to use 12 wt thread in the bobbin. It is difficult for the machine and the bobbin would only accommodate a small number of yards.
I recommend using 50 wt cotton or polyester in the bobbin. 50 wt thread is easy for your machine–it’s the weight most machines are calibrated for, and it goes a long way. I also recommend using the same thread most of the time. In that way, if you have any problems, you will know your bobbin thread is reliable.
When choosing bobbin thread color, try to match the top thread. Slight tension issues are less obvious when the colors match.
Cross Wound or Straight Stacked Thread
Thread is either cross wound or straight stacked on the spool. Cross wound thread looks like angled lines across the spool, while straight stacked is smooth line.
Straight stacked thread should be placed on a vertical pin with the thread exiting from the back of the spool. It unwinds without twisting when correctly placed.
Cross wound thread should be positioned on a horizontal pin to prevent adding twist to thread.
If you don’t have the correct pin option, try a thread stand.
Thread stands are a great way to give the thread more time to relax before hitting the tension disks. This is especially important for specialty threads which often have a lot of memory.
Another option is to place the thread in a large mug off the sewing machine and tape a paper clip to the machine to redirect the thread toward the tensions disks.
Broken or frayed thread is usually the result of an old needle. Replace your needle regularly. Other causes include: incorrect needle size, a burr along the thread path, improperly threaded machine. Sometimes, old or damaged thread will break and fray.
Quilting Thread is NOT for Machine Quilting!
Thread labeled “quilting” is for hand quilting NOT machine quilting. “Quilting” thread is coated with wax or resin to improve strength and sheen. These coatings may build up in your machine and are not recommended!
One Final Thread Test
The ultimate test for quilting thread is whether or not YOUR machine likes it! No matter how lovely a thread may seem on the spool, if YOUR machine says “NO”–you may have to listen….
Find threads YOU like and YOUR machine LOVES! The key to happy quilting may be compromise….(Is there a life lesson here?)
Jack of All Trade?
Remember the expression, “jack of all trade is master of none” This certainly applies to quilting. There is no such thing as an “all-purpose” thread. It’s a wide, exciting world when it comes to thread!
Your Thread Nerd,
PS…All tutorials, images and information are the property of Lori Kennedy Quilts and are intended for personal use only. Feel free to re-blog, pin or share with attribution to LKQ. For all other purposes, please contact me at Lori@LoriKennedyQuilts.com. Thank you!
Visit my Etsy shop: LoriKennedyShop for all of my books! They are ALL bestsellers!
16 responses to “Ten Essential Tips for Choosing Quilting Thread”
Thank you Lori for all your helpful insight and advice both with the articles posted today and for many years of consistent helpful blogging! I have learnt most of my skills just by reading your notes. Your knowledge of all threads saves the rest of us from doing all the hard graft of finding out! Now we have an understanding to work from. Thanks again!
I’m so happy you find this helpful!
Hi Lori, I see in your message you recommend not using thread which quilting thread on the spool. Does that include the pink King Tut thread you’re showing us as an example for straight stacked thread. It says quilting thread at the label?
No! King Tut is wonderful machine quilting thread…I guess I need to revise my statement!!!
Thanks for pointing this out!
Extremely informative and helpful post today on thread. Great reference to hang on to. Thank you so much!
I’m so glad you’ve found this helpful! It includes a lot of information, but I thought it was better to have it all in one place!
So far I’m worked mostly with Aurifil 50 because that’s what my go-to quilt shop carries. I’m slowly collecting a small collection of threads to try out different weights and brands and tried out Glide recently. Talk about shiny! Wow!
You recommended using the same color for top and back. I t because it ensures that any tiny tension issues aren’t obvious but seems counterintuitive to me. I would gravitate towards a bobbin thread that matches the backing unless my goal is to make the quilting pop on the back.
I enjoyed your article on threads, I always stress over needles and thread choices, thank you for clearing up some of my questions. I do have your first book but think I should order your 2nd one. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
Love this installment! I have all sorts of miscellaneous thread laying about – some I bought years and years ago before I quilted, some was given to me by well-meaning folks, and some I think may have been left by aliens. Nowadays I always but Superior threads because they include the thread weight and recommended needle size on every spool. I love their selection of threads and colors. That being said – do you know of any other brands that put similar information on every spool? Does Sulky or Wonderfil do that?
More companies are adding that information. But you can always use the thread/needle chart here or in my books!
I love this segment too. It convinced me to buy the book for myself and for a friend, who is new to machine quilting. Well done Lori. Being in Australia, it will be a few months before I get them, but it will be worth the wait. A nice Christmas present to myself!
Woo hoo! Enjoy!
I’m confused, Lori! You stated that cross-wound thread should be on a horizontal pin, but in the photo with the thread stand, which has a vertical pin, there sits a cross-wound spool. Isn’t it rather the case that cross-wound thread should be on a vertical pin; and straight-stacked thread should be on whatever pin configuration allows the thread to be fed off the side, so that means either a vertical pin like on old-fashioned machines or else a horizontal pin that has a thread guide above it, pulling the thread off the side and up through the guide? … Also, how can a thread holder be helpful at all with straight-stacked thread, since it usually has a vertical pin and therefore should only be used with cross-wound spools?
Cross wound thread should be on a horizontal pin and straight stack thread on a vertical pin. Unless you are using a thread stand which gives the thread more space to uncoil before reaching the tension disks. Then any thread can be placed vertically. That being said— I see your point. In practice I always place my thread on a thread stand and never have problems. If a thread is giving you trouble like breaking and the needle is not the problem you could try putting a cross wound thread on a thread stand that accommodates a vertical position. Superior offers one like that. I have never found it necessary but in theory it should prevent twisting even more.
I will test this the next time I have a problem. Again thank you for the question and I promise to do a little more research on this.
Hah–thread nerd! I love it. You gave a great explanation of the difference between cross-wound and straight stacked. One other cause I’ve found of thread breaks is lint in the tension disks. I floss between them regularly with perl cotton with a few single knots tied an inch apart, which I learned from a sewing machine repair expert.
Perhaps a dumb ? but how high should a thread stand be for my 12″ tall machine?
Looking on-line there are a lot of different heights and I’m gathering from the comments
there that a really solid base is important. Thanks in advance, Kate