Erich Campbell explains why it’s important to curate your thread stock and handle it with care

The most essential part of embroidery isn’t hard to guess: it has to be the thread. That said, even without bringing in speciality threads with fanciful colourations, metallic films, or fuzzy textures, there’s still more to learn about basic embroidery thread than you might think. For that reason, it’s worth looking at the most common threads seen in every embroidery shop, considering the pros and cons of the most-used fibres, and reviewing the best way to care for your collection.

Weighing the options

Almost every commercial embroiderer will do the bulk of their work using the same standard thickness of thread: 40wt. The combination of 40wt thread and the 75/11 needle can accomplish almost any logo design and render everything from the largest banner to text measuring just under 5mm in height with great regularity. Available in a dizzying array of colours, 40wt thread is a given in any shop. That said, the fibre you select for your standard stock can vastly alter the way it performs for your customers. An embroiderer’s most critical choice at this stage is between rayon and polyester.

Erich recommends curating a collection of colours

60wt rayon thread

The importance of fibre

Rayon threads are classic, providing an excellent sheen and running at slightly lighter tensions than you use for polyester thread. This makes rayon threads a favourite for those doing home-décor and fashion work. Polyester, despite being more elastic and prone to pulling than rayon, boasts excellent colourfastness and can even resist chlorine bleach and industrial laundering, as well as having a higher resistance to abrasion and snagging.

With more thread companies achieving higher lustre finishes on polyester, the fibre you choose will largely be determined by the context of the end user. If your customer base includes workers in foodservice, medicine, or trades, or you expect to handle a great deal of sports kit, you need the durability and ease of washing that comes with polyester. If your end user expects to launder pieces with some delicacy and/or your products are not intended for washing, rayon’s lustre and less-tense stitching may be to your advantage. For my shops, polyester prevailed as the primary fibre, although we carried rayon stock for specific applications.

Caring for your cones

Some embroiderers make their choice of fibre based on thread breakage. The durability of polyester can make it less vulnerable to snapping due to nicks and snags in the thread path, however most embroiderers I’ve helped with chronic thread breaks actually had problems with the age and condition of their thread more than their choice of thread. This often had to do with storage – despite how impressive it may look to set up your production thread on a pegboard, making a rainbow wall of thread choices at which a customer can marvel, I prefer to keep thread contained in covered plastic bins or drawers with speciality inserts to separate the cones. Using containers for your thread prevents infrequently used threads from becoming dusty, prevents exposure to UV rays streaming in from nearby windows, and helps to control the humidity, or lack thereof, from harming the thread. In my New Mexico shops, the desert air and extreme UV can make exposed threads brittle, whereas my friends in more humid climes have reported mildew formation on thread cones kept on cool exterior walls.

A small display of wound spools for customers to choose from

Small spools used for sampling

Thread presentation

Keeping your thread covered, in a fairly controlled level of humidity, away from UV exposure and extreme temperature swings will keep it clean, pliable, and unfaded. Create a small display of wound spools if you want customers to pick from threads ‘in the flesh’ for good colour matches, but store your stock away from the elements. Even with careful storage, you should think of your threads like canned goods: though they store well for a very long time, they are not likely to stay perfect forever. Use thread within a reasonable amount of time to avoid loosening and deterioration, and ditch thread that starts to show signs of ‘going off’, such sloughing off the cone or breaking too easily when tugged.

Having a curated collection of colours in your preferred fibre is the base on which your thread stock must be built. From this versatile staple of stock 40wt thread, you can expand to the detail-enhancing thin threads, the stitch-count saving thick threads, and on into the specialities – from simple variegated colours to expensive retro-reflective yarn. Having your stock well-sorted and stored for longevity means that you have the ability to execute almost any design in-house at a moment’s notice. No matter what other thread you choose to expand beyond the standard, treat your basic stock with care, as it will support the largest part of your work as an embroiderer.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with more than 20 years’ experience both in production and the management of ecommerce properties. He is the programme manager for the commercial division of BriTon Leap.