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Quasi-Tutorial: Understanding Thread (Weights & Uses)

Hi! Did you want to leave a link on Manic Monday Linky Party? It’s still open and there are some super fab links! Or perhaps you might like to join our Table Runner/Wall Hanging Swap?

Also, my friend and bee mate Melissa (formerly of  Love Affair With My Brother) has launched a new blog, Sew BitterSweet Designs and I think you might the work she’s got in hand for it.

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So I’d like to talk to you about thread today. Thread is small and fairly inconspicuous so it’s tempting to just buy whatever and not think too much about it.

© Copyright, J C Excell 2011

But thread can be your friend, and make both your piecing and quilting really shine. So it’s worth it to know a bit about it.

Thread comes in a variety of weights, and is usually made of cotton, polyester, or a combination of both. Paradoxically, the higher the number on the spool, the thinner the thread. For most quilting and sewing, there are 3 weights to choose from. I’ll discuss each weight in turn, and talk about bobbin threads last.

The first thing to note about thread is that, like yarn, it has a ply number. Generally, the higher the number, the stronger the thread. So when you look at thread in a shop to find the weight, it’s often expressed like this: 40/3 or 60/2. That means it’s a 40 weight thread comprised of 3 ply that’s been spun together for strength (or 60 weight w/ 2 ply). The absolute best, no matter what ply, is long-staple cotton. The long staple means it’s made up of very long bits of cotton, which makes the thread stronger and less likely to break when you’re quilting with it.

****Edited to add: I don’t actually own any 30 weight, but I have just come across a Gutermann variegated cotton quilting thread and Madeira variegated cotton thread which are both 30 weight and aren’t much (if any) bigger than a King Tut 40 or YLI machine quilting thread. The benefit of the Gutermann and Madeira is that they’re significantly cheaper than most other brands, but are very strong and attractive. So they might be worth trying. But I can’t actually vouch for them.***

40 weight is probably the thickest weight of thread you’ll come across in a shop. 40 weight thread varies in thickness between companies – for example, Mettler 40 weight and the YLI Machine Quilting is thicker than Superior King Tut 40 weight (IMHO).  Other brands include: Mettler Poly Sheen and Gutermann Sulky (polyester and rayon threads)***Wendy brings up a great point – you can use the poly and rayon for quilting if you really want to by going slow and steady, but cotton is much stronger and the man made threads are really best for applique and embroidery.***

40 weights are very strong threads that are a bit better at ‘showing off’ your quilting. I really like the King Tut 40/3 because it comes in beautiful colours, including variegated, and I can free motion with it really quickly and it doesn’t break. It’s subtle but still ‘there’, if you know what I mean. It works well for machine applique and embroidery for the same reasons.

© Copyright, J C Excell 2011

Polyester 50 Weight: You know those big thread display things you see in fabric shops? Most of them have polyester 50 weight on display in an amazing array of colours. Coats Duet is the most popular here in the UK. This type of thread is perfect for your everyday sewing: clothing, tote bags, handbags, pillow covers, cosmetic bags, aprons, sewing on buttons, etc. It’s very strong and very useful to have on hand. What it’s NOT great for is piecing your quilt blocks together.

This is 100% cotton 50 weight.  There are two brands pictured here – Coats Cotton and Mettler 50  weight Silk Finish. Superior Masterpiece, Aurifil Mako thread and Gutermann Cotton are also common. Many people use Coats Cotton for piecing quilts, and that’s ok. I find that it’s too thick and with only 1/4″ seam allowance, I need the thinnest thread possible to make pressing my seams open easier. The Silk Finish is one of my go-to threads when I want the quilting noticeable, but not in your face, and any of the other brands will have the same effect.  Most 50 wt threads can be used for piecing, embroidery and in the bobbin (with a thicker thread in the top). It’s a very useful weight to have around, and you can use it for hand quilting as well, or for assembling projects that get a lot of use, like a handbag or pillowcase.

© Copyright, J C Excell 2011- This mug rug is quilted with Mettler 50 Silk Finish Multi-Coloured thread - I've warmed up the colours so you can see it better, but it's actually a bit more subtle in real life.
© Copyright, J C Excell 2011

This is cotton 60 weight. Common brands are YLI Soft Touch, Mettler Soft Embroidery, Presencia Finca 60/3. I usually use YLI Soft Touch for piecing, but I also use the others as well, depending on what I’ve got in stock. The benefit of using them for piecing is that because they’re so thin, you ‘get your seam allowance back’ with them. But they’re still strong enough to keep everything together. Some people use them for quilting (as top thread) but I find that if I’m doing curves or FM, they break. Which is infuriating. Still, this stuff is very handy to have around, and if you want VERY subtle quilting, this is the best weight to use, although I recommend you use a 3 ply for less breakage.

It’s All A Load of Bobbins:  When you’re sewing, say, a skirt, or a pleated hostess apron 😉, you use the same thread in the bobbin as you do in the top. Oh, you might use a different color, but they’re usually the same weight & brand of thread. When you quilt, there’s a whole lot of room for wiggle. There’s no law against using different thread weights & brands in the bobbin, and indeed, I USUALLY use a different one. There are a few times when I don’t, like on the mug rug shown above.

Usually, I use a 40 or 50 weight ‘pretty’ thread (like my King Tut or Mettler Silk Finish variegated) in the top and a 60 weight thread on the bottom. I prefer the back to be VERY subtle, because it hides mistakes, and I think it makes my machine run more smoothly. Also, if I’m free motioning, the thinner thread in the bobbin makes it possible for me to go quickly.

Weight, strength, ply and thickness of thread matter. It’s worth it to get to grips with it, because once you understand how threads are made and sorted, you can start experimenting with what you like best. It seems such a tiny thing but you can use your knowledge to show off your piecing or design, or to be subtle when you want the fabrics to be the star. And playing with bobbin threads can make your life SO much easier, trust me!

One last word of warning: When you are buying thread, be VERY sure it’s not hand quilting thread. For example, in the Gutermann display cabinets, there’s usually a little box labeled ‘Quilting Threads’ that have a couple of different colours in there to choose from. Even the spool says ‘Quilting’ on it. But they’re not for your machine, they’re hand quilting ONLY. Hand quilting threads often have a wax coating on them to make sewing easier, and Good Lord you don’t want a bunch of that in your machine, trust me. (I would have thought that putting 4 extra letters on the spool H-A-N-D wouldn’t be too much trouble, but what do I know?) So pay attention.  And use a new needle!

If you’ve got any pointers, advice or tips, please share them!! The more information available, the better we all get!

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: copyright © J C Excell, 2011. Please, do NOT copy and paste my words/posts/pages ANYWHERE without my express permission. I use Copyscape, which means that if you do, I’ll find you, and I’ll get it pulled. I’m sorry to sound so intransigent, but it happens more and more often. Not cool.

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10 thoughts on “Quasi-Tutorial: Understanding Thread (Weights & Uses)

  1. Hi Jenna,
    Thanks for this post, it’s very detailed but I’m still a little confused. I bought some Gutterman Sulky and was told at my one and only sewing class that it’s for machine embroidery ONLY as it would snap very easily. You seem to have a different take on that. What could I use this thread for?

  2. Fab, thanks! I’ve just been using normal Gutterman (which is all I can get in Scotland near me, you obviously get the posh stuff down sotuh ;o) ) and I had got some Sulky for quilting, but had been a bit worried about trying it with free motion, now I know not to!

  3. Thanks for the shout out 🙂 This post is fabulously timely for me. I am just getting ready to FMQ on my new machine for the first time and this will be really helpful in getting it all right I hope 🙂 It is the one thing I have really wanted to try but been afraid to since I bought it.

  4. FANTASTIC review of the types of threads out there. I have been using thread from Connecting Threads on the advice of almost all the ladies in my guild. I like it for piecing but for machine quilting, it slays me. It knots up and breaks and generally makes me pull out all my hairs. I have switched to the Gutermann and have been loving it. But NOW, now I am ready to branch out and try the King Tut, YLI and Mettler. Who knew we had such choices!

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