Thread primer

Author: Lindee Goodall  

Thread primer main image

The purpose of this article is not to cover the entire science of how thread is manufactured along with the details of every potential embroidery thread available. Instead, I'll give you a brief overview of how to select and use common embroidery threads.

Here are the two most basic criteria when selecting threads for your design:

  1. Always use a high quality thread designed for embroidery; this includes bobbin thread.
  2. Look at the design's colour reference chart (this is usually a PDF file which is included with the download file or on the design set CD) to see if any and what types of specialty threads are used.

Use high quality thread

Attempting to reduce your embroidery costs by purchasing cheap thread is not an economical decision; price is not the only cost involved with thread. Cheap thread breaks and shreds more easily. With thread that is abraded, simply going through the sewing process will result in embroidery that looks "sand papered." Your sewing time will increase, your frustration level will increase, and your sewing quality will decrease. Is that worth saving a little money? Embroidery lasts the life time of the garment, use quality ingredients! A good, quality embroidery thread not only makes an embroiderer's work possible, but it also makes it more appealing to the eye, and to be perfectly honest, worth more money.

What constitutes good thread?

First of all, select one that has been specifically made for embroidery not only for the needle spun polyester pre-wound bobbinsbut the bobbin as well. Do not be tempted to substitute serger thread for embroidery bobbin thread. My preference is for spun polyester pre-wound bobbins. If I'm using a machine that requires a machine-specific bobbin, I simply wind one of those bobbins from the prewound.

A good-quality thread is smooth and feeds evenly. A poor-quality thread has thick and thin areas that restrict the smooth flow, causing excessive lint and strip-back. Hold a light thread against a dark fabric and a dark thread against a light fabric to check the quality. Look for colour fastness, which is the ability to retain colour during normal use, including ... under proper laundering conditions. Colour fastness does not mean bleach fast or even bleach resistant. Check also for the ability to retain colour when exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.

Polyester or rayon?

Up to the early 1990s, rayon was the overwhelming thread of choice for embroidery. It had the strength, lustre, and softness to run smoothly in the machine and produce a beautiful, consistent stitch. Polyester has now become the favourite due to its strength and resistance to chlorine bleach, abrasion, and other environmental and chemical actions. It is also more economical than rayon. However, polyester's strength can be its weakness if you aren't careful at managing machine tensions and proper hooping techniques. Under higher tensions, polyester can stretch whereas rayon will snap – and this means you may not be aware of a tension issue. After sewing, the thread will relax back to its normal state and cause the fabric to pucker.

What colour and type?

Hemingworth thread colour chart When selecting threads for your design, first look at the design's colour reference chart to determine what colours were used and if any specialty threads were used. Reputable digitizers will test their designs using any required specialty threads because adjustments must be made during the digitizing process. If you opt for a different type of thread, you may get undesirable results. For example, if you substitute a metallic thread for embroidery thread, the design's stitch length may be too short and/or the density of the area may be too high to permit smooth sewing. Translation: lots of thread breaks!

Thread weight or size

When measuring thread, the higher the number, the thinner or finer the thread. Thus, 60 wt is finer than 40 wt, which is finer than 30 wt.

In general, most designs are digitized for 40wt rayon or polyester thread. Yes, technically speaking, there are ever so slight differences in how thick these threads actually are but for our purposes it is not worth considering. Note that the 2-colour twist threads are typically 35 wt and will result in a thicker feel but in most cases can be substituted for a 40 wt.

What if I use a different brand from the design's colour reference chart?

I often find myself in this situation. For monochromatic (single colour) designs, this is not an issue at all. And many times you are selecting colours based on the fabric choice or personal preference. I'm also confident in my ability to pick colours that blend well even in most multi-colour designs.

Consider the situation where you are embroidering a design with many colours featuring tight blends. In this instance, substituting brands might pose a problem if your brand doesn't offer a comparable colour range. I ran into this issue with a series of dogs I digitized in a brand of thread that wasn't widely available to home embroiderers. I simply could not find the range of browns, beiges, and caramels I needed in the brand popular at that time. So if you need a colour in a different brand, get it! If you have comparable colours in your collection that you are happy with, then by all means, use those instead. There are no thread colour police (that company is out of business) who will harass you if you don't use the same colour as the original designer.

Thread care

Thread can age rapidly if exposed to sun, light, heat, moisture, dust, dirt, and dryness. Old thread breaks andHemingworth thread spool and cap system shreds more easily. Thread fibres can become bruised through dropping or bumping and oils from your hands can break down some fibres. I especially like the new threads from Hemingworth. Their plastic caps protect thread from bumps and dirt, eliminate tangling, and keep thread running smoothly on the machine. Plus, they feature a beautiful colour range.


Beissel embroidery needles No discussion of thread is complete without also talking about needles. The needle has the ultra important task of carrying the thread through the fabric, picking up a loop from the bobbin to form the stitch, and then pulling the thread back out. The correct needle is the smallest one that can do this repeatedly without damage to either the fabric or the thread and without causing excessive needle deflection.

For 40wt thread I prefer a size 75/11 needle unless the fabric is "tough" and then I'll move up a size to the slightly heavier 80/12. Synthetic fabrics will wear down a needle faster than natural fibres so be sure to change the needle as necessary. As with cheap thread, cheap needles or using a needle too long is false economy.

So, there you have it

Yes, there are other things to know about needles and thread but these are the essentials for getting up and running with your embroidery machine.

  1. Choose high quality threads designed specifically for embroidery.
  2. Refer to the design's colour reference chart for colour and type selection.
  3. Protect thread by storing in a temperature and humidity controlled area and protected from direct light, dust, and dirt. Handle with care to avoid damage to fibres.
  4. Use embroidery needles in a size appropriate for your thread and fabric choices.Hemingworth Embroidery Thread Logo

All Hemingworth spools come complete with the patent pending spool, cap, and stopper system. Remove the soft plastic stopper but leave the clear plastic cap on while stitching, for perfect tangle free thread delivery. When storing, reinsert the soft stopper for hassle free thread storage. Download a Hemingworth Thread colour chart.

View the Hemingworth thread video