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There are so many different machine embroidery threads available that you might not know where to start as a beginner! I, too, had a slew of questions when I first started embroidering. For instance, can I use sewing machine thread in an embroidery machine? What thread goes in the bobbin? What material or weight of thread works with an embroidery machine? There were so many things I needed to learn.
Since beginning to embroider, I’ve now learned through experience, print resources, and local embroidery enthusiasts that not all threads are created equal. Sewing machine thread is different than embroidery machine thread, which is even different from serger thread! So what’s the big deal about embroidery thread?
That’s what I want to teach you today in this beginner embroidery tutorial. We’ll learn about the different types, weights, and finishes of embroidery thread and how to pick the best embroidery thread for your next product. So, let’s get started!
(Now to note, hand embroidery and machine embroidery use different types of threads, so this post will be focusing on the best threads for machine embroidery only.)
Checking for Quality Embroidery Thread
Not every thread you see online or in-store is going to be a quality embroidery machine thread. Choosing a poor-quality or incompatible thread can lead to threads breaking, shredding, or fraying. This is not fun, especially if you’ve decided to embroider something expensive or sentimental!
So what should you look for? Check to make sure the thread is smooth and uniform with no lumps, bumps, or visible fibers sticking out from it. Because embroidery happens so fast, minimizing friction between the thread and the eye of a needle means choosing a smooth, uniform thread. This also means trying not to use sewing machine thread, which can produce more fuzz and make a mess of your machine.
Sewing Machine Thread vs Embroidery Machine Thread
Since we shouldn’t really be using sewing thread on our embroidery machines, let’s spend a moment with how these two types of threads differ. First, sewing machine threads tend to have a dull, matte finish. Embroidery threads, on the other hand, have a beautiful, lustrous sheen to them. This is why stitched embroidery designs look so gorgeous!
Sewing machine threads also tend to be stronger and more durable than embroidery machine thread, which is why you don’t want to use embroidery thread for sewing seams. Sewing threads, though, can shred more in an embroidery machine due to the increased friction from high-speed stitching. Thread weights can also differ.
Embroidery Thread Weight Explained
Threads are characterized by their weight, which is a measure of the thickness of the thread. The larger the weight number, the thinner the thread. Thus, a 50 wt thread is thinner than a 40 wt thread. In general, machine embroidery designs are digitized for a 40 wt thread, unless otherwise stated. This is the most common weight for embroidery machine thread. So, be careful veering from this weight without understanding how changing weight will affect the design.
Because while the weight of your thread might seem trivial, it actually plays a big part in the finished product! For instance, if you need threads to really fill in an embroidery design, a thin thread isn’t going to provide as much coverage as a thicker thread. Finer threads (larger wt) also work great on delicate fabrics, whereas thicker threads (smaller wt) are better-suited to heavyweight fabrics.
Before selecting an uncommon thread thickness, make sure to check your machine’s user manual to confirm the weights of thread it can accommodate. Also, consider that larger threads may have more difficulty fitting through the eye of a small needle, so adjust accordingly. (Read: guide to choosing the best embroidery machine needle size and type if you need more information about that!)
Types of Embroidery Machine Threads – Top Thread
There are three main types of everyday embroidery thread that you can use in the spool as the top thread: polyester, rayon, and cotton. Then, there are several types of specialized threads that also work great on an embroidery machine with some special TLC. I’ll discuss upper thread options first, and then we’ll move onto bobbin thread types.
Rayon Machine Embroidery Thread
Rayon embroidery thread is a longtime favorite of embroidery enthusiasts. It’s known for its gorgeous, lustrous, and reflective sheen. Shinier than most other thread types, it’s also strong and durable and comes in a large color range. Made of organic cellulose, rayon thread is soft to touch.
It’s been decreasing in popularity over the years and slowly being replaced by polyester thread. Why? Some brands of rayon threads bleed when washed, they don’t withstand bleaching well, and they fade over time and in the sun. When I first bought my machine and was looking for the best embroidery thread for it, the lady helping me recommended against rayon. Since I live in the hot, humid South, rayon thread doesn’t hold up as well here as it does in lower humidity, cooler climates.
Polyester Machine Embroidery Thread
Polyester embroidery thread is becoming more and more popular over time thanks to its great properties. It has a beautiful sheen and luster and also comes in a large variety of colors. It’s very strong and resistant to shredding from friction as it runs through the eye of the needle.
Often polyester and rayon threads are interchangeable when stitching designs. So, what is the difference between rayon and polyester embroidery thread? Is rayon or polyester better? Well, rayon threads have a better luster, but polyester threads are stronger, won’t fade over time or in the sun, don’t bleed in the washer, and can withstand bleach. Polyester machine embroidery threads also have a higher elasticity than rayon threads, which is helpful on projects that will need a little extra stretch.
I’ve found that the best machine embroidery thread for my Brother machine and stitching needs is polyester thread. It’s what was initially recommended to me, it’s affordable, and since I’ve not ever had problems with it, I’m sticking with it!
Cotton Embroidery Machine Thread
The least popular of the three main types of thread, cotton embroidery thread is formed from natural fibers and comes in the largest variety of weights. Unfortunately, most cotton embroidery threads have a matte finish rather than the glossy sheen seen with rayon or polyester. Also, cotton embroidery threads are fragile and break most easily. They can shrink when washed (unlike polyester) and have no elasticity so will snap when pulled. Cotton threads fade in the sun and can fuzz up your embroidery machine if used with complicated designs. Some embroidery enthusiasts swear by cotton threads for embroidery, but I’ve never seen a need to switch from the much more popular polyester!
Silk Embroidery Thread
Also a natural fiber embroidery thread, silk thread is a specialized type of thread that is strong yet luxurious. It’s very expensive and difficult to find but pairs well with delicate fabrics like silk and satin.
Metallic Embroidery Thread
Metallic machine embroidery threads have in internal core wrapped with metal foil. While these threads produce a shiny, awesome finished product, they are notoriously difficult to embroider with. They break easily at high speed and will require a special needle as well as fine-tuned thread tension. If you can learn to navigate using them with some patience, they’re worth the effort!
Glow-In-The-Dark Machine Embroidery Thread
Glow-in-the-dark thread is a new addition to my thread collection, and I’ve enjoyed using it so far! It also requires a special needle and can be a bit finicky to set up. It comes in a fair variety of colors, but they only glow different shades of yellowish. Some colors are brighter than others, too. Need a cool Halloween project? Consider glow-in-the-dark thread next time! (And, check out my list of where to download free Halloween embroidery machine designs!)
Variegated Embroidery Threads
Variegated embroidery machine threads are made from two or more colors of thread put together. They can be made from rayon, polyester, cotton, or even silk. Using variegated thread has been much simpler than using other specialized embroidery machine threads like those pesky metallics!
Bobbin Thread for Machine Embroidery
Unlike sewing, where you use the same thread in the bobbin case as on the spool, the bobbin thread for an embroidery machine is typically finer than the top thread. Because it’s lighter weight, this reduces embroidery thread bulk. As such, the top stitches lie smoother and dense designs don’t become too stiff or puckered.
The best bobbin thread for my embroidery machine is 100% polyester 60 wt thread, but some machines may require a different weight. The best thing you can do is to check your machine user manual to figure out what your machine requires.
One great thing about bobbin embroidery thread is you can use white thread for most projects if the back won’t be seen. Thus, there’s no need to change the bobbin thread color after every color change! What a time-saver. Of course, if your bobbin thread is going to show on the front of the project or be visible (like embroidering free-standing lace), it’s important to choose similar colors.
You can wind your own bobbins if you want from bobbin thread (only comes in limited colors), but I prefer to buy pre-threaded white bobbins, which are the coolest thing ever! Just make sure you know if this will work with your machine and the size of bobbin your machine needs.
How many colors of thread do you need?
With sewing, while you can get away with white, black, and a few neutral colors of threads for most projects, embroidery is different. You’ll see every thread color you use, and certain colors will be necessary. Photo-stitched and intricate designs can feature over a dozen colors!
So, should you buy the 40 pack or go all out on an 80+ pack? When I first started embroidery, I began with a Floriani 30-pack of 40 wt polyester thread. This gave me an idea of the colors that I used frequently, and I was easily able to make substitutions in embroidery designs for the threads my collection didn’t contain. Turns out, white, black, and red are my three most frequently-used colors by far! When I ran out of these colors, I then bought the humongous spools of those colors to be most cost-efficient. (Note: these big spools will not fit on your machine’s spool holder, so you’ll need a separate one.) When I started getting low on other colors, I later added the 80 color spools to my collection and now just replace individual spools as I run out.
Best brands of embroidery machine thread?
There really is no best answer to this question! You can ask 10 embroidery enthusiasts their favorite threads, and you’ll probably get at least 5 different answers. First, there’s the rayon vs polyester debate, which is largely up to user preference. Then, certain machines have recommendations for certain brands. Certain machines also just work better with certain brands. Cost plays a part as does the intended use of embroidered items.
Examples of thread brands include Sulky, Gutermann, Coats and Clark, Madeira, Isacord, Floriani, Simthread, Embroidex, and Brothread. I started splurging on Floriani thread per a dealer recommendation at first but got discouraged by the cost and my dwindling craft supplies budget. I eventually decided to try Brothread from Amazon, and I’ve had no problems with it in my machine so far. So, I’m riding this money-saving train from here on out!
A Few More Thread FYI’s + Troubleshooting Tips
- When changing from one color of thread to another, don’t pull the thread out of the machine back towards the spool. Instead, clip the thread before it enters the thread guides, and pull it down and out through the needle clamp. You risk offending your tension discs if you pull thread the wrong way through them!
- Replace your needle if you have skipped stitches, threads breaking, or other stitching problems that don’t have a known cause. Sometimes a dull, bent, or nicked needle can wreak havoc!
- Threads are commonly wound one of two ways: cross-wound or stacked. Stacked threads have threads wrapped parallel and work best on vertical machine spools. Cross-wound have a crisscross formation and perform best on horizontal machine spool holders.
- I can’t live without my thread stand! Since a multi-needle embroidery machine is not in the budget, nor do I have space for it, I line my embroidery threads up in order on the thread stand. The thread stands also work well for holding very large spools of embroidery thread. And, if your thread regularly gets tangled when coming off the machine’s spools, consider trying out a thread stand for better thread unwinding. That way you don’t have to worry as much about vertical vs horizontal spool holders on your machine.
Best Thread for Machine Embroidery – Conclusion
I hope this beginner embroidery tutorial has taught you how to choose the best embroidery machine thread for your project. So, what do you prefer to use? Rayon, polyester, or cotton?