My good friend Karen has recently asked me to explain the difference between the amazing array of sewing threads that are available…so here goes.

Threads, like paints in an art store come in a plethora of varieties. They vary in weight, fibre composition, appearance and elasticity. Have a dig through your sewing box and see what you have in there. I find vintage sewing boxes/baskets fascinating – some of the things in there are far too pretty to use.

The easiest type of thread to find in the shops and to work with at home is Polyester Thread. Polyester Thread is often called “Sew All Thread”. Generally, if a shop has just one type of thread – it will be polyester. It is quite strong (stronger than cotton thread but not as strong as upholstery thread or heavy duty thread), it has a slight stretch to it. Most sewing machines love it as it usually has a wax or silicone coating to make it glide well. It is fine for sewing soft furnishings and clothes. In art shop terms it is the equivalent of Acrylic Paint – modern, useful and general purpose – It does not have the cache of say Oil Paint…

Polyester sewing threads

Polyester Threads - A small selection of my collection

The sewing thread version of Oil Paint is Cotton Thread. Traditionalists swear by it and won’t use anything else. Modernists can’t be doing with it and steer well clear. Cotton Thread is harder to find in the shops – if you were digging through a vintage sewing box earlier – you may have found some cotton thread in there. Modern curtain workrooms won’t touch cotton thread it as it has no “give” (elasticity) and is more prone to breakages (not what you want when you are sewing  3 metre long curtains). The cotton fibre takes up dye really, really well (better than polyester – as you will know if you have ever tried to hand dye anything with polyester fibres), so cotton threads have a great intensity of colour. They also “feel” nice to hand sew with. Bear in mind that as cotton thread has no stretch, you should not use it to sew stretchy fabrics.

Vintage Cotton Threads

Vintage Cottons Threads - Pretty what if I like pretty things


Quilting thread is similar to cotton thread but slightly heavier. It has a coated, smooth finish which makes it perfect for hand quilting as it is less prone to tangling (I can still make it tangle though – doh!). Quilting thread is for hand quilting only. For machine quilting you need a Machine Quilting Thread which is mercerized (strengthened and generally improved) – some machine quilting thread is cotton others are cotton-wrapped polyester.

Next we have Invisible Thread which as the name suggests is designed to be invisible. It comes in two shades “transparent” and the less easy to find “smoke”. It is made from nylon and feels quite “plasticky” – personally I find it a bit of a bugger to sew with and try to find a good colour match on a Sew All Thread instead – which is all but invisible anyway (in my opinion – try it for yourself though).

Machine embroidery thread. This is for your decorative embroidery and comes is a huge array of finishes – from metallic to matt and from cotton to silk. Decide on the finish you want on your embroidered embellishment and choose accordingly. It should be noted that my “inner magpie” made me buy the metallic threads in the photo below (and many more beside!) but I have never, no not once, used them (oh the shame).

Metallic - Machine Embroidery Threads - Shiny!!

Upholstery Thread – This is a super strong thread designed to cope with the demands of seams being strained on a regular basis. Upholstery thread is stronger than the generic Strong Thread (see below). This type of thread is usually sold on extra big spools as it is predominately used commercially rather than by hobbyists.

Strong Thread – Sold in much smaller quantities than Upholstery Thread (often on a card rather than a spool) – aimed at sewers who are repairing something (like a pair of jeans or a canvas bag). There are just a few colours readily available – normally just white, black and brown.

General thread advise:

* Take your fabric with you to choose a matching thread (this sounds obvious I know, but you would be amazed how many people don’t and “wing it” resulting in a poor  finish).

*Choose a colour that is an exact match to your fabric or one shade darker.

* If your fabric is multi coloured, choose the predominant colour to match to.

* You get what you pay for…cheap £1 store thread kits are often horrible quality, break easily and are supplied on the smallest reels possible (what looks like a great buy can be a waste of time and money)

* Buy smaller reels of colours you will not be using very often and larger reels of more useful colours (larger reels are generally a better deal).

* Before you invest in lots of reels of one particular brand, make sure your machine “likes” it. Some people swear that their machine prefers one brand over another (none of my machines have expressed a preference – but maybe I’m just lucky).

Well, that a basic guide to threads for you…and we haven’t even started on hand embroidery threads or tapestry wools – but that is for another day.