Thread is at the heart of all we create as embroiderers, so it’s no surprise that we look to specialty threads to alter the look and feel of our pieces and imbue them with unexpected and surprising qualities. Machine embroiderers almost always begin with the standardized tools of the craft; 40 weight rayon or polyester with a smooth finish and a high sheen. Most embroiderers with any experience know how 40wt thread behaves and how to control it, but that standard thread is only the most basic medium with which we can work. By employing specialty threads, we gain variations in color, texture, and sheen that our everyday thread just can’t provide, let alone what we can achieve with special effects threads with features that go beyond a mere change in hue or surface.
A quick post could never cover the full range of specialty threads, but a discussion of the common types, classified by how they differ from standard embroidery thread, can both ignite our imaginations and help us take our first steps with new threads with confidence.
Non-Standard Coloration – Most common in this category is variegated thread, dyed in stripes of multiple colors, resulting in columns of stitching with a striped appearance. These range from wildly contrasting palettes to those with a monochrome or shallow color range, adding the interest of multiple colors or bold stripes to single color designs. It is, however, unpredictable. The varying shape and starting point of each stitched element shifts the position and thickness of these stripes. Some are dyed with gradual, monochrome color shifts, sometimes called ombre. It’s tempting to think that ombre threads would produce easy gradients, but the unpredictable starting and stopping of elements in relation to the color currently coming off of your spool eliminates the possibility of achieving uniform gradients; you are never certain where the light and dark areas will fall. A final variation in coloration comes from threads twisted from smaller threads of more than one color. These ‘twist’ threads are uniform along their length, providing a textured-looking and varied finish through flecking created by those threads wound from contrasting color fibers. They add a sense of natural variation and even movement to a piece- light/dark blue twist to make a rippling surface of a river, for instance. A color and sheen variation on twist threads comes from combining a metallic filament with a standard color. It provides a more subtle, sparkling finish than a fully metallic thread, and avoids many of the production issues that stem from using metallic threads.
Diameter – The most common threads that depart from the thickness of 40wt are identical in fiber and sheen to standard threads. Many embroiderers utilize 60 weight thread, which runs roughly 25% smaller than 40 weight, allowing for the execution of smaller details and text. 60 weight thread allows 25% smaller lettering and elements, but requires a roughly 25% increase in density on the digitizer’s end as well as the use of a smaller needle, a 65/9. Less frequently seen is 30 weight thread; thicker than 40wt. It is useful for filling large, uncomplicated design areas requiring about a third less density than 40wt thread to achieve full coverage, though it requires a larger 90/14 needle. Though thicker threads exist, they are more remarkable for other qualities, being made of natural fibers and/or having a fuzzy finish, so we’ll leave them for the next category.
Lustre/Finish – This is where the most visible alteration of surface textures and sheens occur. On the rarer side, you have those with less shine than classic rayon and poly, from smooth, but matte-finish versions of the usual 40wt to fuzzy threads, some both fuzzy and thick, and some even made of cotton or wool fiber. Matte-finish threads produce flat, even-color due to their lack of shine, and can be used for subdued decoration or for creating surface contrast with shiny threads and substrates.
Fuzzy threads, especially the thick variety, create a hand-embroidered or rustic feel while using less density to attain coverage. For ethnic and bohemian embroidery or adding personalization to a previously hand-embroidered heirloom, the hand-worked look of fuzzy thread is a perfect match, provided you digitize or use designs digitized to offset it’s extra bulk.
Far and away, the most popular kind of enhanced-sheen thread is metallic. Anything that shimmers can benefit from metallic threads. Constructed of a core wrapped with metallic and colored foils and films, these complex threads are often prone to breakage and tension troubles. Considering it’s wide popularity and it’s propoensity to cause frustration, I present the following five tips to make embroidering with metallic threads a less stressful experience.
- Fight Friction – Keep your thread path clean and digitize with light-handed densities to avoid metallic thread binding as it is pushed through dense parts of your design. Use a large-eyed needle when stitching with the thicker metallics. Lubricating your needle or thread with clear thread-specific lubricants may also keep fraying at bay.
- Control Tension – rough texture and friction are natural to metallics- loosening your upper tension will help keep that in balance. Some metallics also stretch and recoil while running, so you’ll have to keep the tension balanced to prevent that recoil. A simple satin stitch test can tell you a great deal- stitch a letter H or the word ‘FOX’ to see all the angles – the back of your satin stitches should show 1/3 top thread, 1/3 bobbin, and 1/3 top thread when your tension is dialed in.
- Avoid Kinks – Not personal kinks, those are your business- rather metallic thread tends to kink or twist on itself. The creases and loops that creates tangle or break when they hit tight spots in the thread path. Embroiderers have a host of solutions for this from exaggerating the distance between spool and machine with external cone holders, to hanging a heavy paperclip from the thread, even to passing it through a piece of styrofoam before it hits the machine. The sound theory behind these wacky-sounding fixes techniques is to physically prevent the thread from twisting on itself and straighten out the kinks before they reach the machine. Just remember to account for any extra tension from these methods and adjust accordingly.
- Slow your Stitch – More speed, more tension, more material stress. Back down your speed to lighten the load on fragile metallics.
- Play Favorites– This couldn’t be more crucial – not all metallics are equally well constructed or suited to every use. Test them on your machine and particular combination of materials to find a favorite- some combinations are easier to run than others.
Special Effects – These outliers don’t always see much use, but their exciting effects command attention. Glow-in-the-dark thread makes luminous designs that spring forth when the lights are down. Solar-reactive threads change color in sunlight and shift from white to any number of hues, allowing for colors to be revealed gradually when displayed outdoors. UV reactive threads fluoresce in neon hues for stunning designs that liven up time spent under the black light. Be sure for any of these special-effects marvels to adhere to manufacturer’s instructions for laundering and care, lest you ruin your good work with bad washing. These threads sincerely surprise and delight.
Embroidery’s dimensionality and physicality sets it apart from so many other kids of mark-making; machine embroidery, though it adheres to some standards set by the nature of the machines, still allows for an incredible range of structures and finishes- and it’s the underlying nature of thread that makes it all possible. When we add specialty threads to our, we don’t detract from that nature, but deepen and extend the qualities that make embroidery so compelling. Experiment with the wonderful textures, colors, sheens, and effects found in these threads- the wonder you create will not fail to captivate and delight.
Erich Campbell is an award-winning machine embroidery digitizer and designer and a decorated apparel industry expert, frequently contributing articles and interviews to embroidery industry magazines such as Printwear, Stitches, and Wearables as well as a host of blogs, social media groups, and other industry resources.
Erich is an evangelist for the craft, a stitch-obsessed embroidery believer, and firmly holds to constant, lifelong learning and the free exchange of technique and experience through conversations with his fellow embroiderers. A small collection of his original stock designs can be found at The Only Stitch