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Friday, May 23, 2014

Hand Quilting for Beginners: Thread

This is the fourth article in a series of articles by Caron Mosey geared for the beginning hand quilter.  If you have NEVER hand quilted before, or just dabbled in it with no instruction and want to know how, this is for you!

What kind of thread do I need to use for quilting?

Please note: The thread mentioned below is thread used for the QUILTING process: stitching the three layers of the quilt together (the top, batting, and backing of the quilt).

There are so many different kinds of thread available today, that for a beginning quilter it can be mind-boggling. Let’s learn a few basic things today; we can add more information at a later time.

The thread that you use for piecing your quilt top should not be the same thread that you use to do the quilting. Quilting thread (thread used to hold the top, batting and backing together) is a stronger thread. Quilting thread should never be used for applique, as you need a thinner thread that will be almost invisible when you do applique.

In most situations, quilting thread should be 100 percent cotton, or cotton-wrapped polyester. 100 percent cotton is strongly recommended. Invest in a quality thread, not the cheapest thread you can find. Thread you pick up in an estate sale or auction may not be your best choice either, as you don’t have any idea how long it has been sitting around or in what conditions it has been stored. Thread can weaken and rot, which is not a good thing! You want a durable thread that is easy to stitch with and will last for the duration of the quilt.

Thread made specifically for quilting will be durable, should not knot up when you are using it (unless you tie a knot in it), and should have minimal tangling. There is nothing more frustrating than having to continually stop your stitching to pick out a knot or tangle that should not be there!

Cotton thread is measured by plies (think about toilet paper… how many sheet layers are put together to make a square?), only with thread “ply” refers to a strand of thread. It is also measured by thread count. A good hand quilting thread is 40/3; a number higher than 40 means that the thread is thinner. Don’t put hand quilting thread in your sewing machine. It can be very linty in a machine, which is not at all good for the machine.

As with needles and thimbles, the brand of thread you use is a matter of personal choice, often found through trial and error. Everyone has a preference. Experiment until you find what you like best.

I don’t consider myself a “thread snob;” I don’t have to have the most expensive thread in my quilts, but I want a quality product. It doesn’t matter how popular it is, or how gorgeous the colors are, but if it is a nasty thread to work with, it isn’t worth my time and money.

photo a
I like the colors of YLI thread which are available. I am using a variegated YLI quilting thread in my Feathered Star quilt which is in progress (see photo, left). I love the subtle change of colors along the thread (the thread I’m using is called “Sticks and Stones”). What I have had a problem with is knotting. A BIG problem. It could just be this particular thread color, or it could be the YLI thread in general. Or, it could possible be the wool batting that I have in the quilt. I know many people who swear by YLI, so I won’t rule it out for the future. I’d like to try it in a small quilt with Mountain Mist Poly Light batting and see how it works.

Recently, I was given three spools of Presencia thread to try.  Presencia is 100% extra-long staple Egyptian cotton grown in the Giza Valley, home of the highest grade of cotton available. I am in love. Seriously! The thread is 40 weight, and it makes me smile. I have had few problems with knotting and tangling; I won’t say no problems, because I have never met a thread that didn’t tangle. But very, very few problems. This thread is soft, gentle, yet strong.

photo h

The quilt that is getting the Presencia thread (above) has 100% cotton fabrics and a Mountain Mist Poly Light batting.  It is like quilting through butter, and the thread just glides through. I love the feel of the thread.  It is very soft, and doesn't have the wiry-stiff feel that so many hand quilting threads seem to have. I was concerned about breakage, but have had none at all.  I tried it as-is off the spool, and also tried it using Thread Heaven thread conditioner. It is really not needed at all.  The colors are absolutely yummy, and this will be my new go-to thread!

Other brands of thread available for hand quilting that you might try:

  • Treasure Hand Quilting thread
  • Gutermann
  • Coats and Clarks
While I don’t have a problem using a poly batting in my quilt, I will not use a polyester thread for the actual quilting. Polyester thread tends to be stronger, and I have heard too many stories that it could, over a period of time, cut through cotton fabric. This could be fact or fiction, but I don’t want to take any chances, so I stick with cotton. You can choose for yourself.

What color should you choose? That depends on several things.
  • If you are a beginner, you should start with a thread that will blend into the fabric, not jump out at you. You are just learning the quilting stitch, and when any beginner starts, stitch length is variable. This is to be expected. If you go with a black thread on white fabric, every little flaw will glare at you and laugh. The longer you quilt and the more practice you get, the more consistent your stitch length will be.  So for your first quilt or two, blending the thread color into the fabric is best.
  • What look are you going for? Colorful? Traditional? Modern? The thread you use should match the look you want. Example: If you’re making a quilt to resemble an old Amish style, use a black thread.
  • You can never go wrong with an off-white or cream colored thread. Any neutral thread is a good choice. Light grey! Tan!
When you purchase thread for your quilt, make sure you buy enough of the color you want. I always buy twice as much as I need so that I make sure I have enough for the WHOLE project. I put a lot of quilting into my quilts; the Feathered Star quilt will probably have 12 spools of thread in it when it is complete. One spool is 400 yards.  Do the math… that’s a lot of thread! If you attempt a whole cloth quilt at some point in your quilting career, expect to use a lot of thread!


Have you read the previous articles for beginners?
1) Fabric  2) Needles  3) Thimbles


  1. Do you ever use beeswax on your thread before you use it? I've seen many who recommend it but I have never understood its purpose.

  2. Caron, try knotting tge other end. I'm quilting with Signature thread right now. If I knot one end and it starts to tangle, I stop, change the knot to the other end and Voila! No knotting.


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