What weight of thread?

Recently we invited readers of our free weekly newsletter (sign up a the bottom of this page) to send us their questions and we’d do our best to answer them. One interesting question we received was this:

Q: What is the best thread weight for quilting?

Linda and I both do a lot of quilting, by hand and machine. For this article I’ll limit it to machine quilting, maybe we’ll have to talk about hand quilting threads another day.

In this piece on the left, the entire design is created by the stitch, there’s no appliqué, or print or piecing. I love that you can achieve so much in terms of line and colour simply with a machine straight stitch. This example is worked onto white fabric with three different coloured threads – the black, turquoise and peachy colours.

If my memory serves me well, I think it’s all done with cotton threads (the peach one might be rayon, it looks like it has quite a sheen in the photo don’t you agree?) If I seem a little vague about what the threads that I used were it’s partly because I don’t stick to any rules when it comes to thread selection. On the day I just look at the threads I have available to use and I choose the ones that will give me the best effect.

When it comes to a quilting line, your work might be relying entirely on the quilting like mine is above, or it might be a complementary technique that’s working with other processes such as piecing or applique. Either way, the line that you make with your quilting has a huge effect on the overall visual impact of your work.

For the piece above, I’d been working with some ideas explored in my sketchbook where I’d drawn with fineliner pens. As the name suggests, these pens have a fine tip and they also produce a consistent line, it doesn’t vary in thickness like the line from a calligraphy nib pen might. In this drawn work, I’d been exploring differing effects from the colour choice of the lines, the proximity of each line to the next and whether or not they were cross hatched. Everything I was doing with pen on the page, was relatable to what I would then do with thread on the fabric.

Here’s a little look at some of the pens that I draw with. You can see the different nib sizes and how that affects the boldness of the line that you can draw.

Translating that to thread, I’ve just grabbed a few threads from my stash and stitched out this sample. You can hopefully see that they vary top to bottom:

40wt Lyocell

40wt Rayon

50wt Cotton

80wt Cotton

30wt Cotton

With thread, the higher the number the thinner the thread so the 80weight thread is the finest and of this group, the 30wt is the thickest.

Comparing those threads in the sample, it’s obviously the 30weight that gives the boldest mark. This would be the ideal choice if you want your quilted line to be quite bold and make a statement.

If you want something more delicate, or you want to stitch a design that has some very closely worked lines and lots of detail then you might choose a finder thread such as the 40 or 50 weight.

You’ll notice that one of the threads I chose for the sample was a rayon. I think it’s also important not only to think about the thickness of your thread, but also the sheen or lack of it. Although a single line of quilting is narrow, when you put down enough of it, the surface quality of your thread will make a difference. I quite like a matte thread like a cotton, but for other projects, the reflective sheen of a rayon might be more appropriate.

So we’ve talked about thickness and surface, the other key question to ask yourself is “what colour?”. A thread that matches the fabric you’re quilting will visually melt into that fabric and your quilting will be less about line and more about texture.

I think that can be a missed opportunity as the thread colour can do so much more. As you’ve seen in the poppy examples on this page, the colour can completely draw a design and define it. But if you’re working on a quilt that has printed, pieced or applique shapes, maybe you don’t want to ‘draw’ in anything extra. In that instance the thread colour can be used to modify or enhance the colour of the existing elements.

In this example the quilt is a printed whole cloth. I’ve used a neon coral-orange thread to quilt the background areas around the black rings. On the spool this neon thread looks quite out of place with this work – it’s super bright and doesn’t seem to sit with the palette of this quilt. But remember, a quilted line is so fine. Often you need to oomph up your colour choices for them to have any impact at all. On this quilt the neon pinky-orange is making that area look more luminous and warm.

So when you’re next selecting threads for your quilting, think about how thick or thin you want that line of quilting to be, should it be a bolder line, or something much thinner and delicate?

What surface quality does the thread have? Is it a shiny rayon that’s going to reflect light and look quite decorative? Or is it a matte thread like a cotton or lyocell?

And what colour is it? Are you blending and allowing that quilted line to merge harmoniously with the background fabric? Or are you contrasting or modifying the colour of the fabric with your thread?

As always, lots of things to think about and lots of potential to explore! Hope you found this helpful. If you’d like to know more about the ‘fineliner’ quilting technique I do have a video workshop on that topic. Just click here to find out more.

Thanks for visiting the website today. If you have a question that you’d like us to answer please just email!

Bye for now,

Laura x

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