A Love Affair with Thread

I love thread.

I love fabric, but I also love thread.  The choice of thread in your project is just as important as the fabric you pick.  Different thread works for different effects in your quilting.  I’ve always known this, but it wasn’t until I acquired Loretta the Long Arm that my true love affair with thread began.  Why then?  Well, long arms, as a whole, can be pretty darn picky about the stuff you run through their needles.  Then I purchased Emily the Embroidery Machine, and she completely upped my thread game.

Let’s start with piecing thread and move on from there.  It would seem, after everything else is prepped to get ready to piece – reading through the directions, choosing the fabric, cutting it out – that the thread is really not that big of a deal.  But it is.  Trust me.  I’ve written several blogs about piecing thread, and I’m not going to revisit all those details (if you’re really curious, Google my blogs on thread), but I will hit the highlights.  First, you want a long staple thread.  Thread can be made in two ways – with shorter fibers that are wound and twisted around each other or with longer fibers that are wound and twisted around each other.  You want to go with the longer fiber thread – also called long staple.  The long staple fibers supply two important factors to your sewing experience.  First, because they are long, they don’t break as often as the short staple thread.  Second, they produce less lint  – so it’s “healthier” for the machine. 

Also, remember the higher the number on the spoon, the finer the thread. Somewhere on the spool should be a number.  A lower number, such as 30, indicates a thicker thread.  That thread is suitable for machine applique or quilting, because it’s a thicker thread.  It’s not made for piecing.  Because the thread is thicker, it takes up more room in your seam.  And since precision piecing generally requires that the ¼-inch seam be treated as accurately as possible, a thicker thread will throw that seam allowance off a bit.  Look for a thread that’s a 40 or less.  My favorite is a 60.  If you can’t remember all those numbers, thread companies such as Aurifil and Superior Thread (two of my favorite thread companies) now simply offer the “Piecing” category.  These threads are finer and piece wonderfully.  My very favorite piecing thread is Alex Anderson’s Master Piece thread.  It’s fine, but it’s strong.  These thinner threads don’t take up a lot of room in the seam allowance, keeping those ¼-inch seams truly the correct size. 

On this spool of Mettler thread, the weight is printed on the spool base. In this case, it’s 50-weight, so it would make great piecing thread.

The spool on the left (from Superior Thread) is 40 weight, so it would not be good for piecing but would be perfect for machine applique or quilting. The right is a 50-weight embroidery thread (I’m sorry it’s difficult to read). This thread would work for prepped-edge machine applique or for embroidery work.
This 100-weight hand piecing thread. It’s the finest thread I’ve ever worked with. It is designed only for hand piecing. You can tell how fine the thread is by the wisps escaping from the spool.

Decorative threads require different consideration.  This choice depends on how you want your quilt to look.  I’m also talking primarily machine applique at this point, not the decorative stitches that might be available on your sewing machine or anything done on an embroidery machine.  The first consideration should be is the type of machine applique – is it raw-edge or prepped edge?  If it’s raw-edge applique, then there will be lots of thread changes – you’re going to make sure the thread matches the fabric (unless you’re going for a 1930’s vintage look and using all black thread throughout).  With raw edge applique, either a zig-zag stitch or a blanket stitch is used, so the next consideration is the thread.  Check this one out:

This is a 40-weight Superior Thread King Tut spool. Yes, you can quilt with it, but for raw edge applique, it’s wonderful.

I use lots of different kinds of thread with raw-edge applique, depending on the look I want.  I’ve used embroidery machine thread, quilting thread, and regular 40-60 weight machine piecing thread.  What I use depends on the way I want my applique to appear on the quilt.  If I want only the applique to stand out, I will opt for a finer thread and will usually go with a machine embroidery thread.  I will also tighten up my stitch.  I use a blanket stitch with REA, so I will shorten my stitch to make sure that the fabric edges are completely surrounded with thread. 

However, if I want my thread and fabric to sing harmony together, I will go with either a 40-60 weight machine piecing thread or a thicker, decorative thread so that it will be noticed.  I will keep my machine stitches at the factory-set default on my machine, unless my applique pieces are small. 

Love my variegated thread!

At this point, let me also sing the praises of variegated thread.  I know variegated thread can give long arm artists issues (the bobbin thread and top thread colors will not match up and if the tension is off, the bobbin thread will show on the quilt top), but for machine applique – either raw-edge or prepped edge – variegated thread is awesome.  For instance, if I’m constructing a floral applique, using lots of greens, I can use a spool of variegated green.  That way, instead of changing thread colors every time I applique a different green, the variegated with blend right in and I don’t have to stop and change out spools.  It’s a game-changer and time saver. 

Prepped-edge applique is a bit different.  The applique edges are turned under and pressed.  A monofilament thread (either clear or smoke) or a fine thread that matches the fabric is used.  You’re more limited with thread choice on this type of machine applique.  The applique is the star and there are no co-stars.  The thread holds only the supporting role. 

Now let’s talk about thread for quilting.  Thread choice in this area used to be limited, since it was always assumed that most quilters were either hand quilting their quilts or quilting them on their domestic machine. Either method used the same type of thread.  With the cost of long arms dropping considerably in the last 10-15 years, this has completely upped the quilting thread game to new levels.  And allow me to blast another quilting myth out of the universe:  You don’t have to use cotton thread to quilt your quilt.   For years quilters were instructed to only use cotton thread.  The thinking was that polyester thread would cut through the cotton fabric and cotton batting.

Let me be the first to tell you, polyester thread has come a long way.  It’s been re-researched and redeveloped out the wazoo.  It’s now fine to use a polyester thread on your all-cotton quilt top. 

Whether you are using a domestic, mid-arm, or long-arm machine, it’s important to decide how you want the quilting stitches to appear.  Do you want them to accentuate the quilt blocks, blend into the background, or be the star of the show?  A quilter has to consider what role the quilting will play with the top.  If I’m making a whole-cloth quilt (or something similar), the quilting will truly be the star of the show.  I may opt for a thicker thread than I would normally use so the quilting stitches will stand out.  If I want it to blend in with the blocks, I may choose a “regular” quilting thread –something around the 40-weight rage.  If I want my quilting stitches to sink into the back ground, I will pick as fine of a thread as my long arm will take.

One of my favorite threads to use on Loretta is actually a bobbin thread. This is Superior Thread’s Bottom Line. It is a polyester thread and just quilts beautifully.

Let me state here that sewing machines can be pretty persnickety about the thread you used when you’re quilting on them.  Get to know what your machine likes and what it absolutely refuses to work with.  If I’m quilting on my domestic machine (Big Red) or if I drag my mid-arm out to quilt on her, almost any type of thread will do.  Neither of them is very picky, unless the thread short-staple, cheap stuff.  Variegated?  No problem.  Thick thread?  Not an issue, as along as I’m using the right needle.  Super-fine thread? Sews with it like a hot knife through butter.

I’ve learned the hard way that Loretta the Long Arm is a different machine.  Most long arms are.  If you have a friend that has a long arm and he or she raves about a certain kind of thread, don’t be surprised if your machine coughs and sputters all the way through the spool.  For instance, Loretta is a King Quilter, which is a kind of generic Tin Lizzie.  For years I heard about the wonders of Glide thread.  After I had her all put together, I purchased a couple of spools of Glide, threaded her up, and tried to practice. 

Loretta gagged through the entire process.  Fortunately, I had only purchased two spools, so no major financial investment here.  I gave those spools to a friend that has an APQS machine.  Loretta also does not like variegated (has to do with the dying process and weak areas in the thread). Her favorite thread is this:

That’s right.  Serger thread.  Loretta is a cheap date, if nothing else. 

Currently, I’m loving this thread from Superior Thread Company.

It is literally only two strands of ultra-fine polyester thread.  But it quilts so beautifully and all my machines – even Loretta – love this thread. 

You can tell how fine the Micro Quilter thread is from this photo. The top thread is a strand of black Bottom Line and the bottom strand is black Micro Quilter. Bottom Line thread is fine, but the Micro Quilter is even finer.

Next to fabric, thread is the second most awesome thing about quilting.  Learn to love it.  Learn which thread to use with each quilt step and what needle to use with each weight of thread.  Begin a love affair with it. 

Now let me put my standard disclaimer here:  I’m not employed by Superior Thread Company or Aurifil Thread.  I’ve used both products for years without any compensation and have found both the product and each company’s customer service to be stellar.

Until Next Week, Quilt with Passion!


Sherri and Sam

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