There are so many different types of thread on the market, and each one serves its own purpose. We’ll explain 4 different aspects to consider before buying thread for your next project: material composition, weight/ply, applications/types, and which machines and needles work best for each of the types we list. I, in no way, claim to be an expert on this topic, nor does my mother. This is the best information we can give you based on our sewing experience and from the bit of research that we have done. (If you happen to see any errors in what we have written or just have information to add, we are happy to amend this article to make appropriate changes.)
As you go to the store and are considering how to buy thread, one of the more important aspects to consider will be material composition. Generally speaking, there are 5 types of material that are commonly used to make thread for different sewing applications. There’s cotton, polyester, rayon, silk, and metal. Take note that most common threads bought, such as Coats & Clarks, are a polyester-covered thread of either cotton or polyester.
Cotton: a soft white fibrous substance that surrounds the seeds of a tropical and subtropical plant and is used as textile fiber and thread for sewing.
Polyester: a synthetic resin in which the polymer units are linked by ester groups, used chiefly to make synthetic textile fibers.
Rayon: a textile fiber or fabric made from regenerated cellulose (viscose). ( viscous orange-brown solution obtained by treating cellulose with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, used as the basis of manufacturing rayon fiber and transparent cellulose film.)
Silk: a fine, strong, soft, lustrous fiber produced by silkworms in making cocoons and collected to make thread and fabric.
Metal: well, metal. I’m not sure what type of metal is used to make metallic thread, but it’s a metal nonetheless.
Cotton thread is the most readily available of all of the kinds of thread on the market. The price is good and the product is typically strong and reliable. Polyester threads will often either be polyester alone, or a blend of that and cotton. On it’s own, I’ve found that polyester will break a bit more easily than a cotton thread, but together with cotton, you get a more durable end product. The price is similar to cotton thread in most instances, and often has the ability to stretch a bit more compared to it’s cotton counterpart.
Rayon thread is often used for projects where its sheen will be visible, such as machine embroidery. It is not typically used for piecing projects together and is generally more expensive than some of the other types of thread. Silk thread also has a nice sheen to it, so it can sometimes be used interchangeably with rayon, but it is more delicate than rayon, and more expensive yet. Metal threads are far less commonly used, and much more prone to breakage and can also become “kinked,” making it more difficult to work with.
Different types of thread will have a different “weight” which refers to the thickness of the thread. 1 ply is simply a single… layer… of thread. 2-ply is two 1-ply pieces twisted together, 3-ply is three 1-ply pieces of thread twisted together, and so on. Most of the thread you will come across will be 3-ply, but they can be anywhere from 1-ply to 9-ply (to my knowledge…I could be incorrect about that).
Thread weight is not a very helpful term as it can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and there are other numbers that go along with weight that make it even more confusing. For example, most thread is 30wt., 40wt., or 50wt. But from the same manufacturerer, you could potentially have two 40wt. threads that are not the same thickness. Each ply of thread is designated a weight (such as 40), and it could be followed by a second number which would indicate how many ply it is. 40/3 would be a 40 wt. thread with 3 strands of ply, but 40/2 would be a 40 weight thread with 2 strands of ply. The higher the number (10-100) the finer the thread.
With all of that confusion, ply and weight are probably not going to be the main things you are looking at when you go to buy thread for your next project, but a true thread thickness will be. Pay attention to the thickness of the thread that you are purchasing so that you don’t come home and find out that you have mistakenly purchased a heavy-duty thread when you needed to buy something more standard. If you are new to buying thread, take your time and compare the different types. Often times, your store will display each type of thread separately. Coats & Clarks typically separates the types of thread by labeling each shelf with a color-code label which makes it easier to see the differences.
When buying thread, keep in mind that different threads are designed with a particular purpose in mind. But just because a spool of thread says “quilting” on it does not mean that it can only be used for quilting. The purpose in labeling them is to help you determine the right thread for your projects.
Dual-Purpose/All-Purpose Thread: The name kind of says it all. It’s meant for multiple applications. You can assemble quilts with it, sew a dress, make a pillow… this thread can do most work that you are looking for. MOST dual-purpose or all-purpose thread is either cotton, polyester, or a cotton-polyester blend. This is the most common thread you will find in any store and you will probably use it more than any other thread.
Quilting Thread: This thread tends to run just ever so slightly thicker than most all-purpose/dual-purpose thread. It’s intention? To assemble quilts and to actually quilt the whole thing together. (If you are unfamiliar, quilting has two meanings… one is making a blanket by piecing fabric together, the other is to assemble the layers of backing, batting, and the quilt top, using hand sewing, machine sewing, or some other method of joining the layers together, such as tying.) There is a difference between hand quilting thread and machine quilting thread. Hand quilting thread has a coating on it to make it more durable and thicker, so sewing machines typically do not like this product because it causes build-up on the machine needle and can get pushed into other parts of your machine.
Machine Embroidery Thread: You know that cute embroidered logo you saw on a bag, or the design stitched into your shirt? Chances are, it was done with a machine embroidery thread. Most of these threads are rayon because it has a nice sheen to it which allows the design to stand out. But there are other types of thread that can be used for embroidery.
Heavy-Duty Thread: Heavy-duty thread is most commonly used to sew things like jeans, coats and tents together. This thread is thick and is designed to hold up to extra wear and tear.
Upholstery Thread: Upholstery thread is nearly identical to most heavy-duty thread, but is typically coated in some kind of wax to give it even more durability without adding bulk to your final product. It’s used in upholstery projects of course, so if you are re-covering a chair or a couch, you are likely to find this thread in the seams.
Silk Thread: Silk thread is in some ways, similar to rayon. It can be used for embroidery purposes because of it’s sheen, but is more likely to be used for delicate items. The thread tends to be fine and delicate and won’t stand up to much wear. It is often used to apply appliques because it is so fine and far less visible when the project is finished.
Metallic Thread: Yes, as I said before, metallic thread is a real thing! It’s usually used for embroidery purposes or for finishing work where you want certain details to stand out. It’s delicate, so when you sew, you need to go slow and use a larger needle as the friction on the thread will make it more likely to break.
Serger Thread: Serger thread is often cotton or a cotton blend, though you may notice on things like athletic clothing that special thread is used. It hasn’t been wound and gives the fabric the ability to stretch much more. Serger thread is typically found on cones, much larger than a standard spool of thread. I have used serger thread in my sewing machine when in a pinch, but you need to be able to set up the spool for use on your machine… something that is not easily achieved unless you have a special stand that can sit on your table or on your machine. Take note: serger thread is typically thinner than all-purpose thread. It is best used on a serger because you are working with multiple spools of thread and seam allowances and finishes.
Variegated Thread: Variegated thread could be made of any of the aforementioned types of thread, but the difference is that the color changes throughout the length of the spool. This thread would typically be saved for where you want the variegation to be noticed, such as in embroidery or finishing work. “Hombre” would be considered variegated.
Embroidery Thread (For Hand Embroidery): This thread won’t be used in your sewing machine, but since I’ve used it in a few projects, I thought I’d explain a bit more. Obviously, it’s used for embroidery purposes. It’s often used in felt work, and is always meant to be seen. There are several types of embroidery thread as well, and they can come in different forms… some are several strands of thread, just ever so gently twisted together. Others are something like 9-ply.
Finding the Right Thread and Needles for Your Machine:
Not all threads are meant to be used on all machines, and not all threads can use the same needles. Not only do you need to know how to buy thread, but you’ll also need to know which threads can be used on your machine and what type of needle you need for each thread! While you can probably get away with putting embroidery thread in a standard sewing machine, you aren’t going to want to put a heavy-duty or upholstery thread in most embroidery machines. Yes, there are machines that specialize in embroidery. Some machines can do very, very simple embroidery, some do standard work (but not anything heavy duty) and have specialized embroidery equipment, and others yet are solely for the purpose of embroidering on fabric. Either of the last two we mentioned are not intended for heavy wear. There computerized parts are very expensive and even more expensive to have repaired, so they should always be used accordingly.
While you might be able to get away with popping a few standard spools of thread onto a serger, they will cause you a lot of frustration because that’s not the machine they are intended for. The spools made for a serger are a cone shape which allows the thread to pull off of the spool smoothly. Again, unless your serger is more of an industrial machine, you are not going to want to use a heavy duty thread in a basic serger. You can get away with using embroidery threads or some of the other specialized threads, but you have to understand the tension settings on your machine very well if you want to get experimental, or you will drive yourself crazy from all of the broken thread. If you break thread on a serger, you’re typically going to have to go back and re-thread the entire machine… with at least 4 spools of thread and a crazy maze of tension disks and hooks, it can be quite a headache.
As I said before, you’d never want to use hand embroidery thread on your sewing machine. This thread is even thicker than heavy duty or upholstery thread and would probably damage your machine. And again, with a heavy duty or upholstery thread, you should have an understanding of your machine’s capabilities before using these threads. The machine that I own is a very basic, but high quality sewing machine. It doesn’t have computerized parts, and it was built to be abused. It’s probably the closest thing I could get to an industrial machine without the investment of such a machine. The problem with an industrial machine is that most serve one very specific purpose, and wouldn’t allow me to do the wide variety of work that I do. But I’m rabbit-trailing. The point is, even a basic sewing machine might not handle heavy duty work well. I wouldn’t say that this is a rule to live by, but when it comes to basic machines, the less expensive, the harder a time it will have with thick thread or thick fabric. Some of the old metal machines handle that kind of work well, others do not. If you aren’t sure, check your owner’s manual, call up the last person that owned it, or take a peak around the internet to see what you can find. Chances are you won’t hurt your machine just from trying a bit of sample work, but keep in mind that your thread tension and stitch length will likely need to be adjusted, and go slow. This is not a time to race through your work!
As far as needles are concerned, you may want to ask somebody who works at the store if they can give you a hand. A “universal needle” in the standard sizes 10/70-10/90 will work for a lot of threads, but you’ll want to look for a leather needle or other large needle if you are using a heavy duty/ upholstery thread. Sometimes you can find machine needles labeled specifically for those purposes, but if you can’t find it, look for a leather needle, or at the very least, a large needle. Different types of fabrics require specialized needles, so your best bet is to pick the right kind of thread for your project, and match your type of needle to the type of fabric you will be using. Do note, that you can often find the intended purpose of a needle listed on the back of a package of needles.
While I don’t go into great detail in these other posts, if you want to learn a bit more about thread and how to shop for and use it, you can check out these posts: Introduction to Sewing: Part 2, Basic Hand Sewing: Part 1 talks about waxing your own thread for hand sewing, and This Post will teach you how to thread a needle and knot your thread.
So, now that you know more about thread than you probably realized you wanted or needed to know, some of you might be wondering where the best place to buy your thread is. Well, if you would talk to somebody who makes thread, I’m sure they’d have an opinion, but neither of us do so… I’d have to say that it doesn’t really matter. Just make sure you get the right kind of thread for your project. If, after reading this, you still aren’t sure, I’d say to asks whomever is working at the fabric store. Chances are, they’ll be able to help point you in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to spend 20-30 minutes staring at all of the spools of thread, comparing, reading labels. That’s the best way to get comfortable. It still takes me forever to find the right thread sometimes! But if you are still trying to figure it out, there’s a sight called Superior Thread, and they have a chart that helps walk you through their thread selection, and overall, is a pretty good breakdown of which threads can be used for what applications. And if you prefer to order things online, Connecting Threads (not an affiliate) is the site Trudy uses frequently to get the thread she needs for her work (mainly for quilting purposes).
Danielle: I’m so glad that this question was asked, because it forced me to take another look at a subject I always thought of as simple or basic. While I knew most of the things written in this post, I did have to do a little bit of fact-checking to make sure that I was accurate in what I was writing, and I even learned a few things in the process! If you have any more questions on how to buy thread, please, let us know in the comments! At the end of the post, you’ll find links to our other Sewing Saturday posts. I hope we’ve taught you enough about how to buy thread that the next time you go out shopping for some, you feel you have a good understanding of what you are looking for!
One last thing before you go. You all know how much I love sewing, and I’ve collected lots of helpful, frugal tips over the years. This week I’m sharing my Top 10 Frugal Sewing Tips over at Apron Strings & other things. So make sure to pop over and get some creative ideas!
Love~ Danielle and Trudy