Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Machine Embroidery, Embroidery Thread & Thread Colors

I have gotten a few questions on the thread that I use, what the colors are, and how to get thread for embroidery.  I'll try to explain the differences between thread types and sizes, and how to match colors for those that want to learn machine embroidery.  This is going to be more of a 'stream of consciousness' type post, and be a giant wall of text, but hopefully it will answer those questions.  first, I think a primer on thread would be good.

Cotton thread is made out of cotton, and is not very shiny.  It is good for hidden seams, or seams on things that are made out of cotton for a matching color.  It can be embroidered with (in fact, the small designs on some polo shirts are done in cotton) but it looks funny on big designs.  I have some some towels in regular cotton where regular cotton would look good.  If you do regular sewing, you probably have tons of this.

Mercerised cotton is cotton thread that has been mercerised. Mercerisation is a chemical process that makes cotton thread slightly stronger and shinier.  High end cotton is generally mercerised, while cheap thread like overlock thread is generally not mercerised.

A popular thread for embroidery is Rayon.  Rayon is semi-synthetic and is very shiny.  Some say it is even shiner than polyester, but I can't personally tell the difference.  The main reason I don't use Rayon is that Rayon is not color-fast.  The color can run, especially in cold water.  Rayon basically requires dry cleaning, especially on a white shirt, so I haven't used it much.    Rayon is more expensive than cotton, but less expensive than polyester.

Polyester thread is thread that is man made unlike wool, cotton or silk.  It is thermoplasic, and very strong for its size.  It is also very shiny, making it well suited to embroidery.  It is the thread that I use in almost all my designs, as it has many properties that other thread choices don't have. A big one is that Polyester thread is color fast (bleach will generally not harm it).  That means it will work on white towels that get bleached as part of the normal wash.  It is also available in a ton of colors, and is stocked on most sewing stores.  A drawback is that if it gets hot enough it will melt, so be careful when ironing it.   The rest of this article is based on polyester thread.

Embroidery thread is generaly one of 3 sizes (diameter).  Rayon is usually 35 or 40 weight, and Polyester is 35, 40, 50, 60 or 100 weight.  The higher the number the thinner the thread. I prefer to use 40 weight thread on the top (colored thread) and 60 weight on the bottom (bobbin thread, usually white).  This keeps the back of the desgin softer against skin with the huge amount of stitches required in some embroidery designs.

Once you decide on the thread, you need to get the size spool that will fit on your machine. The pic is of some different thread spools. from left to right it is Coats and Clark cotton thread (brown) on a normal spool (200 yards), Marathon Poly embroidery thread (purple) on a mini spool (550 yards), Threadart Poly embroidery thread (black) on a mini king spool (1100 yards) and Madeira Poly embroidery thread (green apple) on a king spool (5500 yards). In front is a bobbin wound with 125 yards of bobbin thread.  the first 2 will fit in my machine, the 2 largest (mini-king and king) will not without a custom feed mechanism.

Thread Spool Sizes and a computer mouse for relative size.

Now, on to actual embroidery. First and foremost, the designs that I post here are machine embroidery designs.  That means they are loaded into a sewing machine that can do embroidery.  This is called 'machine embroidery'. If you go to a craft store, you will see embroidery floss, (usuallty just called floss) that is sold on skeins instead of rolls.  These are generally very short, 20 yards or so in length. Machine embroidery does not use the hand embroidery floss as it will not physically fit into an embroidery machine. Much thinner thread is used.

I mainly use a Brother LB6800PRW combination sewing & embroidery machine.  It is functionally equivalent to a Brother SE-400 machine.  The only difference between the machines is the cart, and some extra stickers (seriously) on the Brother LB6800PRW.  If you don't need a cart, I suggest the Brother SE-400.  Both have the same 67 regular sewing stitches, 100 by 100mm field, hook up to your computer via USB to download embroidery designs, sew at the same speed, and they take all the same accessories.  The SE-400 is about $50 more than a good sewing machine, and it can do everything a sewing machine can along with embroidery.

Brother SE-400
Sadly, moving to a different size than 100mm by 100mm is very expensive.  The next size is about 5" by 7" and machines that can do that size are about $600, and only do embroidery.  Going beyond 5 by 7 means the machine will cost thousands of dollars.  Fine for a business, but probably not as a hobby.  don't make the same mistake I did, and assume you could make bigger designs by splitting the design into smaller pieces.  Trying to line up the designs is pretty much impossible, even with the alignment tools provided in the hoop.

To do embroidery, you need a few things besides the machine.  For the machine, you may need a hoop, but most machines will come with one.  This hoop goes on the piece of cloth being embroidered, and hooks the cloth to the machine.  The smaller the hoop, the less the fabric will move, so always use the smallest hoop possible.  The Brother machines above come with a 100mm by 100mm hoop (4 inch by 4 inch) but smaller hoops and larger hoops are available.  For example, I also bought a 4 inch by 6 3/4" hoop. (100mm by 170mm)   This allowed me to do a larger design without taking the fabric out of the hoop.  The hoop has 3 sets of mount points where the hoop mounts to the machine, so you sew part of the design, then move the hoop to the next position.  The design has to support this movement to work.  I have done a few designs that need the larger hoop to work.

Brother 100mm by 100mm Hoop. Note the 2 pins to the left where it mounts to the machine

Brother 100mm by 170mm hoop. Note the 4 pins that allow 3 separate mount points

You will also need stabilizer.  This goes under or over the fabric being embroidered and holds the stitches together.  Embroidery has so many stitches in it, that fabric can pull apart by itself.  Stabilizer doesn't have any stretch in it, and will hold everything together.  There are many different kinds of stabilizer, and you need the one suitable for what you are doing.  High stitch count (more than 10,000 in a 4 inch hoop) pretty much needs cut away stabilizer.  Smaller stitch counts can get away with tear-away stabilizer (one you need scissors to remove, the other you tear off).  Both will cost between 50 cents and a dollar per design depending on how much you buy at once.  I almost always use 2 sheets (sometimes as many as 4) for each design as it is cheaper to use extra stabilizer than buy a new shirt.

For anything with a large nap (like a towel) you will also need a water soluble stabilizer like Solvy or Sulky.  This goes on top of the design, and keeps the nap of the towel from sticking up between stitches.  It costs about 50 cents.  When washed, any extra water soluble stabilizer will wash away, leaving beautiful stitches.

Stabilizer types. Picture courtesy Threads Magazine
You will also need bobbins, which will be wound with bobbin thread.  For embroidery, the color doesn't matter much as it will not be seen in the design.  Bobbin thread will only be visible on the back of a design.  I generally use white, unless on a very dark shirt.  For dark shirts, I will use black.  Bobbins come in different sizes, so make sure you get the ones for your machine.  I used to wind my own bobbins, but that took way too much time.  Now, I buy prewound bobbins.  They cost roughly 30 cents more than the thread by itself, but to me, that 30 cents is worth the time spent winding them.

The last thing you will need is thread.  There are so many choices out there, and everyone has their own preference.  I have used many different brands, and I don't really have a favorite.  All Poly thread seems to act the same in my machine.  My recommendation is to stick with a big company, so that die lots will match.  It wouldn't be too good if your designs change color between thread spools, or even worse, in the middle of a design.

Having said that though, the designs I post have the thread color numbers for Marathon thread, and in a few instances, Madeira Polyneon. If you want to convert the colors I post into other colors, I suggest this tool.  It will convert the color to other brands if you don't use Marathon.

I usually determine how much thread each design uses by how many bobbins the design uses, with each bobbin being about 125 yards in length.  In general, my designs are between 1 and 3 bobbins, which means between 250 and 750 yards of thread total (half bobbin half top color thread).  550 yards of thread is about $5.  If you are keeping count, that means the full cost of a 4 inch by 4 inch embroidery design is $1 to $1.50 for the stabilizer and $2.50 to $7.50 for the thread.  That isn't including incidentals, like scissors, machine wear and maintenance, needles, and other stuff which will add about another $1.50 for each 100mm by 100mm design.

This was a decent primer on embroidery machines and some of the supplies.  I hope it answered your questions.  If not, please post them and I'll add those answers.


  1. I'm new to the embroidery world, and this information was very useful. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Wow what a great run down of Embroidery! I do have a question: Where do you buy your thread? I went to the Marathon site and noticed that the smallest they seem to sell is the mini Cone, but you said that wouldn't fit on your machine (or mine either, I have the BROTHER SE-400). Just wondering, but I'm always on the look out for good information!