Love, Your Longarmer: How to Choose a Quilting Thread

Ebony Love

Your choice of thread can have a huge influence on how your design looks on your finished quilt.

There seems to be a nearly infinite number of threads to choose from, which is exciting, but also overwhelming at the same time. We longarmers have serious discussions about favorite threads—which one is the lintiest, which ones make us want to throw everything into a dumpster, and which one shines above all others. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get different answers for each one.

how to choose a quilting thread - Thread as Texture

Here, the thread color was chosen to blend in with the fabric—practically disappearing—to create an overall texture. A variegated 40wt cotton thread was used for this design.

Even so, I’m confident there’s one thread most of us agree should never be used in longarm. I’ll reveal that at the end…

The Content of Your Fiber

Thread is made from all sorts of materials these days. Whether it’s a bonded metallic, 2-ply cotton, wool, polyester blend—and everything in between—you want to think about how your project will be used and how you want it to wear.

There’s a rumor going around that it’s bad to use polyester thread for quilting. It’s so strong, people whisper, that polyester will cut through your cotton fabric like razor wire. In reality, I use polyester in 99% of the quilts I work on. The quilting stitches are what will still be holding your quilt together long after someone’s loved the stuffing out of it.

I have no problem quilting with polyester or recommending it to others, though I do shy away from piecing with polyester for a totally different reason. Polyester has a lower heat-tolerance than cotton, and so I don’t like the prospect of potentially melting the seams in my patchwork under the blast furnace of my iron. My finished quilts will never be subject to that level of heat ever again, so polyester quilting thread does not give me pause.

Bad Thread Choice

Here’s what happens when you choose a thread that can overwhelm a design. The color is much too strong for the density of this quilting on the fabric. The quilting takes over and you can’t see the beauty of the fabric. Thread is a 30wt polyester.

In the reverse situation, I rarely quilt with cotton thread. I have before and may again, but in a longarm scenario, cotton thread throws off way too much lint for me (which means stopping to clean a lot). In addition to that, I have to go slower to reduce thread breakage. Both of these things frustrate me.

However, cotton takes dye beautifully. And I can’t resist a beautifully dyed, variegated cotton thread. I save those for smaller wall hangings and art pieces, where I can take my time to quilt slowly and deliberately. And those quilts aren’t subject to daily abuse.

That said, it’s fun to experiment! Metallic threads can be a blast, and glow-in-the-dark threads are a hoot to use in children’s quilts or those with a spooky theme.

Better Thread Choice

Here is the same quilting design, on the same fabric, with a different thread color. It’s also a 30wt polyester thread. Note how the fabric and the quilting design play well together, and you can see how the quilting design imitates the fabric.

At the end of the day, when choosing the fiber content of your thread, take into consideration your own preferences and the end-use of the quilt. In general, for high-use and large-size quilts, I stick to synthetic fibers like polyester for strength. For show pieces, where I can take my time to experiment and enjoy the process, I’ll turn to dyed cotton or specialty threads.

A Weighty Issue

A second important factor in choosing thread is in the weight. There are tons of articles you can read that get very technical, but I’m going to make a sweeping generalization: the lower the number of the weight, the heavier the thread is. And the heavier the thread is, the more it will show up on your quilt.

If you’re looking just to create texture with the quilting, without calling attention to itself, a 50- or 60-weight thread is great for this purpose. If you are quilting an intricate design in a small space, or using a design with a lot of backtracking, a lower weight thread will reduce thread build up, so quilters use 60-, 80- or even 100-weight thread to achieve this.

For bolder designs, a heavier thread like 28-, 30- or 40-weight will make your quilting stand out. You can even get into thread couching with thicker materials, if making the thread part of your design is the ultimate goal.

Once a thread is too thick to pass through the eye of a machine needle, we stop caring about the thread weight and just call it yarn.

The Impact of Color

Thread color is a funny thing; it looks totally different wound up on a cone than it looks on a quilt, and a color that you think would never go turns out to be the perfect thing.

Sometimes, you don’t discover that a thread was a terrible choice until after you’ve quilted for a bit, and your heart just sinks. Imagine quilting pebbles for five minutes, only to spend three days ripping them out…

Do yourself a favor: unspool about three yards of thread from your cone and lay it on different areas of your quilt top to audition it. Sacrificing three yards of thread is far better than spending three days covered in thread fluff and dulling seam rippers.

The Thread I Avoid Like the Plague

I rarely say the words “never,” “won’t,” “can’t” or “don’t” when it comes to quilting, so you know that it’s serious when I say there’s one thread I will never, ever use in my longarm.

That thread is serger thread. I’m not talking about thread that works in your serger; I’m talking about thread that’s specifically designed for overlocked seams.

Thread as Design

This is where the thread is meant to
stand out. The 50wt polyester thread I used
here demonstrates how thread can be used as
a major design element. In eff ect, the thread
is the design of the quilt. Original artwork by
Catherine Scanlon, quilted by Ebony Love.

I know someone out there is saying, “I’ve used serger thread for quilting and never had a problem!” To which I say, “Yet. You haven’t had a problem yet.” You have the perfect right to do as you will, but I know that serger thread is designed for a 3- or 4-thread overlock stitch scenario. That means serger threads are created to work as a group—three or four threads working together, whereas quilting threads are designed to stand alone. You are simply not going to get the same level of performance from a single serger thread as you can expect from a thread designed for quilting. Also, have you seen the lint that comes off those threads? Yuck. For those reasons, I will never put serger thread in my longarm.


What’s your favorite quilting thread? Tell me about it! Tag @lovebugstudios on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook with any other weighty, quilty issue!

Ebony Love’s “Love, Your Longarmer” column appears in each issue of Quilty magazine.

Comment (1)

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    Ebony Love is so talented in many areas. I love her die quilting and she has come out with some new, exciting dies! If you have the chance to take a class from her, do – she is Awesome!

    April 12, 2018 at 6:48 pm

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