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Types of Quilting Thread

By: Penny Halgren

Quilters are artists. Their canvas is fabric, and their paint is thread. But that is only part of the picture. Thread holds the canvas (quilt) together, and using the wrong thread can cause frustration, aggravation and even a quilt destroyed before its time.

There are three basic types of thread:

• Natural Fibers – wool, silk, cotton, flax, jute
• Regenerated – rayon, acetate
• Man-Made – polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastic, polypropylene, glass, metallic

Natural Fibers
High quality 100% cotton thread is easy to sew with and it shrinks at about the same rate as the fabric in my quilts. There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of colors available. And with our global economy, some of the variegated threads are made from high quality Egyptian cotton or silk.

Natural fiber threads are made from short or staple fibers that are spun into a single yarn and then twisted together to make the thread. The longer the staple, the better and stronger the thread.

Silk thread is stronger than cotton because it is a continuous filament, unlike the short spun fibers of cotton. Silk also has more stretch than cotton. Many quilters use silk for appliqué and other hand work. The thread glides through the fabric more easily than cotton thread, and it is finer, making it easier to hide the stitches. And it is less prone to fraying, so you can use a longer length of thread to start your stitching.

Cotton-Wrapped Polyester
When synthetics were developed, it was natural that the manufacturers would attempt to replicate the process for making thread with natural fibers. To get the strength of polyester along with the feel of cotton, cotton-covered polyester was developed.

Regenerated
These threads are made from natural products that are processed and converted into thread fibers. For example, rayon begins as tree pulp (pure cellulose). During the manufacturing process, the pulp is turned into liquid and then extruded into endless strands of fibers. The quality of the raw materials, then, affects the quality of the thread. Generally regenerated threads are stronger than cotton and virtually lint-free (unlike cotton).

Rayon thread is frequently used for embroidery and machine quilting because it has a beautiful luster and lays flat on the fabric surface. Due to its strength, it may not be the best choice for piecing patchwork, though.

Man-Made
These are threads that are made completely from man-created products. Polyester offers strength (which may be a downside, since the thread may be stronger than the fabric and cause the fabric to tear), and color-fastness. That means that the color of the thread will not bleed into the fabric (some cotton thread will do that).

Metallic threads offer some fun and interesting options. There are two ways that metallic threads are made. One is with a round polyester or nylon core, wrapped with metallic foil and colored. The other method is with sheets of polyester film which is cut into thin, flat strands and then metallized with an aluminum layer. One of the challenges of sewing with metallic thread is that it may break easily – both with machine use and with hand stitching. Changing your sewing machine needle may help prevent this. In hand sewing, using shorter lengths of thread helps. In addition, the flat metallic thread tends to be somewhat stronger.

Happy Quilting!


Penny is a quilter of more than 24 years who seeks to interest new quilters and provide them with the resources necessary to create beautiful quilts.

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©2006, Penny Halgren