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Selecting the Right Thread for the Job

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Click to Read MoreOh that we were spiders and could simply spin our own silk thread. Then there'd be no difficult thread choices. But that scenario would also require eating flies, so I guess it's worth the trouble to try to unravel the secret to thread selection.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of thread spools in the world. How on earth do you know which one to choose? It's part science and part art.

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The Science - The Basics

Content (what the thread is made of):

The list below outlines the basic rules of thread choice. When in doubt, choose the thread that is closet to the fabric you'll be using. Cotton blend pillow? Cotton/polyester thread. 

  • Cotton-wrapped polyester: usually labeled "all-purpose," this is the thread you will find the biggest selection of in fabric stores. It's great for all types of home decor fabrics and can be used for both hand and machine sewing.
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  • 100% polyester: best for synthetic fabrics or fabrics with a lot of stretch. Polyester is strong, flexible and usually very color fast. It can be used for hand or machine sewing. Some people don't like polyester because they think the finish appears too waxy or shiny. I think it looks fine.
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  • Heavy duty polyester: pick up a spool with this designation for projects that require extra strength and stitch durability. For example: a seat cushion in a heavy upholstery fabric or a window shade that needs to stand up to a lot of yanking and pulling. It can use used for hand or machine sewing. 
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  • All-cotton or silk: for light to medium-weight fabrics or delicately woven fabrics with little or no stretch. All-cotton thread has no "give," so the stitches may break if used on a stretchy fabric, like knit. Silk is more elastic than cotton, so opt for silk if your delicate fabric has any stretch to it at all. Either type can be used for hand or machine sewing.
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  • Quilting: traditionally made of 100% cotton with a special finish that allows the thread to slide easily through multiple layers of fabric and batting. Quite strong and sturdy, quilting thread is particularly good for hand sewing and also good for machine sewing.
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  • Metallic: usually reserved for top stitching or embellishment in home decor, this type of thread is made from metal strands twisted around a polyester core. There is a difference between hand sewing metallics and machine sewing metallics so check the spool before you buy.
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  • Buttontwist: a soft, heavy thread that's perfect for making buttonholes, sewing on buttons and top-stitching. 
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There's also wool, embroidery, serger, nylon, monofilament, bobbin, yarns and more. But these and others are very specialized so we'll save their discussion for another day. The kinds listed above are all you need to get started.


This is what I love about thread: the heavier the thread the smaller the weight number. I wish my bathroom scale worked that way. If you want a fine thread for a fine fabric go for a 120 weight (abbreviated wt.). If you need a thick thread for a top-stitching accent, try a 12 wt. or 15 wt. 

The Science - Stuff to Impress Folks at a Cocktail Party

Tensile strength

This is how far a thread can stretch before it snaps. There are little robots in the thread factories that do nothing but stretch a thread to its breaking point day after day after day ... much as your boss does to you each day.

Dye lots and consistency

Thread is dyed in huge vats so it's possible for there to be color variations from batch to batch. It's best to buy all the thread you think you'll need at one time to help insure a perfect color match from spool to spool. For most home decor projects, one spool is probably plenty.

The Art


This is where the fun begins. Talk about a rainbow of choices! There are so many beautiful thread colors on the market today. It's like that big box of 64 crayons, but without the waxy smell or the cool built-in sharpener. Choose a color that matches the most dominant color in your fabric. If you can't find a perfect match, go one or two shades darker. Light color stitching tends to stand out. Darker colors blend in. 


Soft cotton, organic blends, glittery and shiny -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Don't let anyone but your inner stylist tell you what is right or wrong. Go with the rules above for stretch and stability. Go with your heart for look and feel. 


After a while you'll probably come up with your own favorite brands based on color selection, availability and/or quality. But here are some good names to look for when you start your shopping:

  • Madeira
  • Robison Anton
  • Mettler
  • Gutermanm
  • Coats & Clark
  • Sulky
  • Dual Duty


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