Learning to Love Superior Threads


Machine Embroidered Tee Shits
Machine Embroidered Tee Shits. Debbie Colgrove, Licensed to About.com

Learning to Love Specialty Threads

Have you ever said,

"My machine won't do that."

"I could never do that!"

"That fancy thread never works."

"Specialty threads break, jam, and shred."

If you have experienced frustrations when working with specialty and decorative threads, this is for you. If you have wondered why a specific thread works wonderfully for a teacher or a friend but not for you, hopefully this guide will help you solve the problem.

Problems with specialty threads can usually be traced to five causes. Let's compare a top-of-the-line machine to a high performance automobile and work through the problems.

  1. Quality -Would you put low-grade gasoline in a Ferrari? If you are using a cheap, low quality thread, you cannot expect your expensive machine to compensate. That is not possible. It cannot make a poor quality thread better. Start with quality thread that is worthy of your machine. It does not make sense to spend $5,000 on a machine and then try to save $1.00 on a budget thread.Is There a Difference In Sewing Threads? You Be The Judge
  2. Needles -Using the wrong type of needle is like putting diesel fuel in your Ferrari. It won't work. The needle is the least expensive part of most projects. Select the right type and start with a new needle every time you start a new project.Everything You Need to Know About Sewing Machine Needles
  1. Tension - Running your machine at the wrong tension is like racing a sports car on tires that are half flat. An easy adjustment can make it run as it should. Even if your machine has an auto tensioner, learn how to override it. Most machines are factory set for a thin 40 or 50 wt. sewing thread. If you feed a heavier thread through the preset tension guides, the tight squeeze flattens out the thread which will then shred as it hits the eye of the needle.Tension Disks - Parts of a Sewing Machine | How to Adjust and Troubleshoot Sewing Machine Tension | Find Your Sewing Manual
  1. Delivery system - Some threads are meant to unwind over the top of the spool. These are usually cone-shaped spools with a cross-wind. If the spool or cone of thread is bell-shaped and has a large opening at the base which does not fit onto your machine's spool holder, use a thread stand. Thread stands are inexpensive ($5.00 for a lightweight plastic and $10.00 for metal). If the spool of thread is the traditional sewing spool type, with symmetrical flanges on each end, the thread has most likely been wound in a straight-wind pattern. This type of spool works best when positioned in a manner that allows the spool to rotate as the thread unwinds. This allows the thread to unwind without pulling over the end of the spool, and thereby avoid twisting. Most machines have a vertical spool pin adapter which accommodates this setup. Pulling the thread over one end of the spool is not the intended delivery system for this type of spool. Parts of a Sewing Machine - Spool Holders
  2. Condition of machine - Cars need frequent oil changes and tuneups. So does your machine. It is estimated that at any time, approximately 10% of machines are in need of adjustment or repair. A gradual decrease in performance is not readily noticed. Keep your machine clean and in good condition.  Basic Sewing Machine Maintenance - Advice

    Now that the top five causes of frustration have been identified, let's look more closely at each one.

    Thread -The higher the quality of the thread, the less special handling will be required. Poor quality thread breaks easily and can make any sewing project more labor than love. Look for a guarantee. If you are not satisfied with the thread, can you return it for a refund? The best brands are not afraid to guarantee their products. Look at more than one brand and try new threads. Make sure the thread you select is intended for your application. New threads are exciting and provide new capabilities. All projects are not the same. Ask some basic questions for each project. What fabric am I using? What stabilizer? What is the content and weight of the thread? What about needle type and size? Do I need to change the tension?

    What would be the best thread to use? When it all comes together, the result will be a completed project that is looked upon with pride.

    Each type of thread has specific characteristics and will behave differently on sewing machines. Threads are either made of a natural fiber (cotton, wool, silk, linen) or synthetic fibers (rayon, polyester, nylon).

    Thread construction methods

    • Spun thread Cotton or polyester staple fibers are spun into single yarns and then twisted together.
    • Core thread Spun cotton or polyester staple fibers wrapped around a continuous filament of polyester fibers.
    • Texturized thread Continuous filament polyester or nylon that has been mechanically texturized and heat set to make the thread fuzzy and stretchy.
    • Monofilament Single nylon or polyester filament.

    Next - Thread Types

    Thread types


    • Produced by pressing cellulose acetate through small holes and solidifying it in the form of filaments. The most common size is 120d x 2 (40 wt.).
    • Characteristics of rayon:
      • high sheen
      • soft, and works well in detail
      • relatively heat resistant
      • not colorfast
      • not as strong as polyester
      • less durable than polyester


    • Synthetically produced by pressing polymer resins through small holes and solidifying in the form of filaments.
    • Characteristics of polyester:
      • durable. designed for heavy duty use
      • stronger, more tensile strength than rayon
      • colorfast
      • retains shape
      • recovers stretch
      • spun poly is strong, with a matte appearance
      • trilobal poly has a sheen equal to rayon but is not as strong as spun poly


    • A synthetic thread most commonly in the form as a monofilament clear thread or as a texturized fuzzy thread.
    • Characteristics of nylon:
      • strong
      • low melting temperature. not heat resistant.
      • not colorfast. will yellow over time.
      • becomes brittle through laundering


    • The only 100% natural fiber thread made for high speed machines. Cotton has various finishes, each providing specific results.
    • Mercerized - The thread is treated is a solution, causing the fibers to swell. This allows the dye to better penetrate the fibers and increases the luster of the thread. It also increases the strength of the thread.
    • Gassed -  The thread is passed through a flame at high speed to reduce the fuzz.
    • Glazed - The thread is treated with wax or other chemicals, them polished to create a higher luster. Although the result is a glossy, hard finish which protects the thread, the glaze does rub off and can gum up the needle and machine.
    • Characteristics of cotton thread:
      • soft
      • strong and durable
      • easily adjusts to changes in the fabric (such as shrinkage) since it is a natural fiber
      • available in various thread weights
      • easy care


      • The quality of metallic thread ranges from very high to very low. A good metallic thread does not require a lubricant. (See diagram of how Metallic Thread is made here.)
      • Quality metallic thread has the following components:
        • Nylon core. A nylon core offers the most strength. Polyester and rayon cores are inferior.
        • Rice paper construction. This adds strength and cohesiveness and makes the thread more soft and supple, reducing the wiry feel. It also reduces tangling.
        • Outer coating. Lower end metallics have no outer coating. This means the metal foil rubs against the needle, creating friction, resulting in discoloring and shredding. A good metallic has an outer coating which reduces friction and acts as a protective layer.
      • Laminate or Flat thread. Produced by bonding layers of polyester together and slicing to a desired width. Usually available in either 2 ply or 5 ply.
        • colorfast
        • brilliant, reflective, colors
        • heat resistant. can be ironed
        • 5 ply does not require special handling for good results. 2 ply usually requires special handling for good results.
        • able to produce in a hologram effect

      Next - Thread Sizes

      Thread size measurement

      The weight or size of thread is an important consideration for any sewing or quilting project. A thinner thread will blend whereas a heavier thread will show. Three primary methods of thread measurement are weight, denier, and tex.

      • Weight This is the most commonly understood method and is accurate for natural fibers such as cotton and silk although synthetic fibers such as polyester and rayon have arbitrarily adopted this method. The weight of a thread is actually a length measurement. A thread is labeled 40 weight because 40 kilometers weighs 1 kilogram. If it takes only 30 kilometers of a heavier thread to weigh 1 kg., it would be a 30-weight thread. Smaller numbers indicate heavier threads.
      • Denier. This method is intended for synthetic fibers. Denier is the weight in grams of 9,000 meters of thread. If 9,000 meters weighs 120 grams, it is a 120-denier thread. Most embroidery threads are 120d/2, which means two strands of 120-denier thread twisted together making 240 denier total. Larger numbers indicate heavier thread.
      • Tex. Weight in grams of 1,000 meters of thread. If 1,000 meters weighs 25 grams, it is a Tex 25. Larger numbers indicate heavier thread.
      • Conversion chart 40 weight = 225 denier = tex 25

      Importance of understanding thread types and weight

      The type and weight of the thread relates to several aspects of your project, including needle type and size, tension settings, and final result. Quilters often ask the following questions:

      Q.Should I use a 30 wt. thread or a 40 wt. thread for quilting?
      A.It depends whether you want the thread to blend or stand out. Bob's rule #1: "30 wt. to show, 40 wt. to blend."
      If you use a decorative thread, most likely you want to add dimension to the project and highlight the thread. Therefore a heavier thread is better. A 40 wt. variegated thread will not be nearly as visible as a 30 wt. variegated thread.
      Q. I heardthat I should use only cotton thread in my quilts. Why?
      A.About 70% of quilters are traditional quilters, using only cotton fabric, cotton batting, and cotton thread. Recent trends show a growing percentage of quilters seek an effect that plain cotton thread cannot provide. Many of the winning quilts at shows are done in metallics, high-sheen variegated polyester, and other decorative threads. Some say that polyester thread is too strong and will tear the fabric. If the fabric ever tears as a result of heavy use, most likely it will tear at the seams. The seams are the true stress points of a quilt, not the machine quilted areas. One solution is to piece with cotton thread, thereby matching the nature of the fabric fibers with the thread fibers. This equalizes the stress points of the quilt. Then, use other threads such as metallics, polyester, and 30 wt. cotton to decorate and enhance the quilt by creative quilting. If a polyester thread is used in decorative quilting, it will not tear the fabric under normal or even heavy use because there is minimal stress away from the seams. Bob's rule #2: "Piece with cotton, quilt with any."
      Q.Does the bobbin thread need to match the top thread in type and size?
      A.No. The bobbin thread can be a lighter weight than the top thread and still provide sufficient strength without adding bulk. Using a cotton top thread with a poly bobbin thread is fine. Using a 50 wt. cotton bobbin thread with a 30 wt. cotton top thread will also work. If you want a reversible look to show off decorative thread on both sides, of course it is fine to use the same thread on top and in the bobbin.  Bobbin Thread | Bunching, Looping, Tangling Bobbin Thread | Learn More about Thread Sizes @ Crafty Cranberry


      Next - Sewing Machine Needles


      • One of the most significant parts of today's home sewing/embroidery machines is often the least appreciated and often ignored – the needle. We spend thousands of dollars on the most advanced machines, acquire the best digitized designs, use the most beautiful threads and fabrics to produce our projects, but all too often this is all for naught because we either use an old, worn, damaged, or wrong needle. Needles can be damaged by normal use. You don't have to hit a pin while sewing to damage it. They can become dull or bent through normal sewing. Even some new needles have defects. Any of these conditions will contribute to frustrating thread breaks and a frayed look on your finished projects. The best advice is this: When you start a new project, start with a new needle. It's the least expensive part of the entire project. Overall, a clean, well functioning needle will result in sharp, well-shaped stitches. Needles are inexpensive and easy to change. Keeping a good needle in your sewing machine is one of the easiest, least expensive ways to improve your embroidery and quilting projects.
      • The eye of the needle is punched out during the manufacturing process and it is difficult to make the eye smooth. Only thirty percent of manufactured needles pass inspection and the other seventy percent are melted down to start over. It is estimated that ten percent of new needles have burs that may snag the thread. If you have a problem with a particular thread, first change the needle, even if it is new. This may solve the problem.

      Needle type and size See Diagram

      • A 75/11 or 80/12 needle may be just right for a 40 wt. thread but will not work well with a heavier thread. If you are using a 35 wt. or 30 wt. thread, a larger needle (90/14 or 100/16) is essential. If you are using a heavier thread, a Topstitch needle works best since it has a deeper groove in which the thread lies as it moves through the fabric. If you are having problems running specialty threads, try a Topstitch size 90/14 or 100/16 and the trouble will likely disappear.

        Sharp vs. ball point 

        • Needles fall into two primary categories for embroidery – ballpoint and sharp. It is important to use the correct needle. Ballpoint needles are designed so that a sharp point does not cut a hole in knit or loosely woven materials. The cross fibers which constitute the knit or loosely woven materials are relatively far apart as compared to those in tightly woven materials. If a knit strand of thread is cut with a sharp needle, it will enlarge when the loose fibers pull back from the cut. To prevent this, the ballpoint needle is designed to push aside the individual strands of the knit. This assumes that the ballpoint needle point is in good condition. If you notice rough edges on your embroidery or other developing irregularities, it is time to change to a new needle. Sharp needles are designed for woven fabrics. Because of the tightness of the weave, individual cut fibers will not pull away and make holes. For this exact reason it is important not to use ballpoint needles on wovens. The blunt force of a ballpoint will tear through the fibers and actually pull them in the process, resulting in uneven, irregular embroidery and damage to the fabric. Sharp needles can be used on all wovens as well as dense fabrics such as leather, vinyl, and canvas. Everything You Need to Know About Sewing Machine Needles

          Needle sizes See Diagram

          • Needles range in size from a very fine 60/8 to a heavy duty 120/19. Most needles use two number measuring systems. The higher number relates to the metric system and defines the needle shaft diameter in hundredths of a millimeter. The lower number relates to the system in the U.S. and is an arbitrary number used to indicate relative needle shaft diameter.


          Parts of the Needle - See Diagram
          ShankThe shank is the part of the needle that is inserted into the sewing machine. The shank is the heaviest part of the needle and is designed so to minimize needle movement by attaching it firmly to the needle bar.
          ShaftThe shaft is the long narrow portion of the needle that supports the functional parts of the needle. Needle sizes refer to the diameter of the shaft.
          GrooveThe groove protects the thread by hiding it as it passes through the fabric on its way to join with the bobbin thread. Some needles (i.e. Topstitch needles) have deeper groves to protect the thread. A needle that is too small for the size of thread being used will result in inconsistent stitches and broken threads.
          EyeThe eye of the needle is the hole through which the thread passes. As the size of the eye increases, the size of the shaft increases to support it. Different types of needles have different shaped eyes.
          PointThe point of the needle is a primary distinguishing feature in needles. Points can be sharp or ball, or a hybrid of both. All are designed for a specific purpose and all give the operator unique applications.
          ScarfThe scarf is the cut away portion on the back of the needle just above the eye. This area accommodates the hook mechanism as it rotates past the needle to engage the thread loop formed by the lifting needle.


          Types of needles - See Examples
          UniversalA general purpose needle that can be used for general sewing on both wovens and knits. It has a sharp, but slightly rounded point and an elongated scarf.
          Ballpoint The ballpoint needle has a rounded point of varying degrees. Its primary application is to sew on knit type fabrics. The rounded tip slips between yarns rather than cutting them. This prevents broken fibers and unraveling.
          DenimThe denim (jeans) needle has a very sharp, acute point with a slender eye and a strong shaft. The sharp point is necessary to penetrate heavy fabrics like denim and canvas. The slender eye holds the thread in place for proper loop formation. The strong shaft prevents deflection of the needle and insures accurate needle placement for stitch formation.
          EmbroideryThe embroidery needle has a sharp point, a large eye and a special scarf to protect threads..
          LeatherThe leather needle has a wedge shaped point, which gives it the piercing strength it needs to penetrate heavy fabrics like leather and vinyl.
          MetallicMetallic needles have a large, elongated eye, larger scarf and a larger groove to protect fragile metallic threads during stitch formation.
          QuiltingThe quilting needle has a tapered point for stitching through multiple layers and across seams. The shape of the point minimizes damage to the quilting fabric.
          MicrotexThe Microtex needle is sharper than the universal point with a more slender shaft. It is used primarily on fine wovens, heirloom sewing on very fine fabrics, synthetic suede, and on tightly woven fabrics such as batiks.

          The Topstitch needle is a favorite of many professional embroiderers and quilters. It has an extra large rectangular-shaped eye which allows for smoother movement of thread. It also has a much deeper groove which works wonders with heavier threads. The deeper groove allows a heavier thread to lie in it, thereby reducing friction on the thread as it moves. The most popular sizes are 90/14 or 100/16.

          Next - Sewing Machine Tension and Thread


          Thread tension is a combination of the thread passing through thread guides and the pressure applied to the tension disks via the tension spring. Tension is applied to the thread as it passes between a pair of tension disks. Increased pressure on the tension spring increases tension on the thread. Most machines are factory preset for thin 50 wt. or 40 wt. threads and require tension adjusting for heavier threads.

          Tension can be adjusted manually by means of a thumb wheel or electronically through the computer. Don't be afraid to change the upper tension. This will not hurt your machine. You can always change it back. If the tension is too high, the thread will break or will be damaged as it is pressed between the tension disks. If the tension is too low, the thread will loop on the back of the fabric. When instructions recommend lowering the top tension, the purpose it to make the upper thread more loose, which then is pulled by the lower bobbin thread, snugly through your project. This makes the stitch look formed and definite, which adds to the beauty of the project. Lowering the top tension also prevents the bobbin thread from showing on top.

          When a 40 wt. thread is replaced by a heavier thread (35 wt. or 30 wt.), the larger thread diameter pushes the tension disks apart, increasing pressure on the tension spring, resulting in more tension, and most likely, problems.

          Therefore, it is essential to adjust the tension by loosening the tension disks and/or reducing the number of thread guides through which the threads flows. Bypassing the fist and/or last thread guide is sometimes the key to making a heavier thread work better because each thread guide adds to the overall tension.

          Whenever you change threads, remember to take the diameter of the new thread into consideration and make adjustments as necessary.

          Thread delivery system

          The trend of the future is larger thread spool sizes. Traditional machine spools cannot hold as much thread as the cone-shaped king spools or mini-king spools. Much of the cost of a spool of thread is in the winding process, so the larger the spool, the greater the savings. If you use a cone shaped king spool or mini-king spool, you will need a thread stand. The thread stand is advantageous over other home remedies such as a mason jar or coffee cup. The vertical arm of the thread stand lifts the thread higher than the machine which then facilitates an even feed without added tension. Thread stands can accommodate any type of thread which is wound on a king spool or mini king spool. The thread on these spools is cross-wound, which is meant to pull straight off the top as the spool sits flat on the thread stand. For small mini king spools, there are adapters available which fit onto the vertical pin spool holder. These are fine as long as the spool of thread is not too heavy. A heavy thread or a heavy spool placed on the vertical pin holder puts too much drag on the thread and prevents smooth rotation.

          If in doubt, choose a thread stand over a pin adapter.

          The machine

          Today's home sewing and embroidery machines have capabilities beyond even their more expensive commercial counterparts. Success is achieved by synchronizing quality threads, proper operator techniques in the use of threads, fabrics, and software, and the condition of the sewing machine. The latest embroidery machines are technological wonders and as with any mechanical device, settings and tolerances can be off, needles bent, moving parts become dirty or worn with use. All of this can affect the performance of the machine. It is vitally important to keep the machine clean and well adjusted. Proper operator techniques and annual trips to a qualified technician will enhance the overall sewing experience. There are differences among the many machine types.

          A specific thread may work better on one type of machine than another. This is because machines are preset to different tensions and running speeds. Some machines run specialty threads more easily than others.

          At any given time, about 10% of machines are not functioning properly. If you have trouble running a quality thread, it may not be thread's fault. Many things on an embroidery machine can cause thread breaks, but not all are obvious. The tension setting, timing mechanism, amount of lint buildup, and type of fabric and backing all contribute to the outcome. Adhesive from sprays and backings can also adhere to the thread, causing excess tension. Adhesives can also partially clog the eye of the needle, leaving less space for the thread to flow through freely. Have a can of compressed air nearby to keep the bobbin and feed dog areas free of lint. Clean these areas every time you change the bobbin.

          Machine Embroidery with Metallic Thread

          Metallic embroidery thread sometimes presents special challenges with machine embroidery and quilting applications. Both the machine and the thread are technologically advanced products that require special attention to reach their optimum performance.

           Next - Thread Buying Tips and Troubleshooting - Thread Problems Solved