Dealing with Difficult Threads

Tags: decorative threads, free motion, how-to, quilting, quilting lesson, threads

This article is written by Linda Schmidt

What can you do if you really want to sew with specialty threads in the needle?

Keep in mind that if you cannot get the thread to sew properly in the needle, you can almost always use it in the bobbin and work upside down instead. That being said, what can you do if you really want to sew with specialty threads in the needle?

Buy a good metallic or specialty thread. Good, easy-to-use metallic threads do exist.  My current favorites are Yenmet, YLI and Superior.  These are fine metallics in beautiful colors that are coated with a fine resin and do not shred in your needle.  If you want a good sliver metallic (flat, tinsel-like thread), buy Superior Glitter thread.

Pay attention to the way your thread is wound on the spool.

Look carefully at your spools of thread.  Some threads, like Sulky rayon, Gutterman and most tall spools of thread like Yenmet, are cross-wound, which means the thread is put on in such a way that it crosses over itself diagonally as the spool is wound.  These cross-wound threads are meant to come off the top of the spool. 

cross wound threads
Examples of cross-wound threads

Other threads, like Coats and Clark Dual Duty thread and Madeira sliver thread, are stacked, where the thread is wound in an even spiral, not crossing over the other threads.  These threads need to come off the side of the spool, not over the top. 

Examples of stacked threads
sliver off the end of the spool   sliver off the side of the spool
Sliver thread off the end (left) twists more than
when it comes off the side of the spool

To illustrate this, just try pulling sliver thread off the top of the spool and watch it spin itself into a tizzy.  This is not a typographical error. Sliver is the trade name for a flat, tinsel-like thread with remarkable shiny qualities.

If you try to sew with sliver thread coming off the top of the spool, it tries to go through the needle twisted, and the more you sew, the more it twists, until it cannot go through the needle any more, and it snaps.  If you pull it off the side of the spool, it will still break, eventually, but it will break much less often.

ThreadPro spool holder

All this is why thread spool holders were invented. My favorite, which is unfortunately no longer being manufactured is the ThreadPro.  You can still find them on the web, if you look hard enough, but they are no longer reliably available.  The ThreadPro came with a horizontal and a vertical spool pin, so you could use it for any thread.

Even without one, you can get creative and figure out a way to position your thread so that it comes off the spool correctly before it goes to your thread guides. Some machines only have a horizontal spool pin, so the thread lays on its side on a spindle, and thread only comes off the top. This is great for cross-wound threads, not for stacked threads. To use stacked threads with this kind of machine, lay the thread on its side behind the machine, rolling toward the machine, pull the thread off the side of the spool and lead it through your thread guides OR buy the vertical spool pin attachment that often comes with these machines.  Either way, the thread will be coming off the side of the spool, not the end or top of the spool.

Some machines come only with a vertical spool pin (on top of the machine, like my Elna in the picture with the straw), where the thread spins on a vertical spindle, and the thread comes off the side of the spool. This is great for stacked threads, but not for cross-wound threads.  With this kind of machine, stand the cross-wound thread behind the machine standing up on its base or on a vertical spindle and let the thread wind off the top of the spool.  Most cross-wound threads have a larger bottom than top (see the two on the right in the cross-wound picture above) so they will easily stand on their own; however, some do not.  For those threads, you need something like a glass, teacup, spindle or something else to keep the thread upright as the thread comes off the top of the spool.

Some machines, like the Janome machines, have two vertical spool pins, but the thread is still pulled off the top of the spool. Again, this is great for cross-wound threads, not good for stacked threads. On my Janome, I rigged up a horizontal spool pin for the stacked threads, where the thread is pulled off the side of the spool, to the thread guides, then to the needle. Here you can see both the green cross-wound thread coming off the top of the spool and the stacked thread coming off the side of the spool to the first thread guide.

Stacked thread on a horizontal spool pin
Stacked thread on a horizontal spool pin

Now, we have another problem.  Which end is the top of a cross-wound thread?  When the cross-wound threads have a fat bottom to the spool like the ones on the right in the picture above, the fat bottom is the wrong end, you sit it on its fat bottom and the thread comes off the top.  With the cross-wound threads like the two on the left (above), you cannot tell which end is the top of the spool.  In order to figure it out, you have to figure out which way the thread twists the most, by pulling thread off each end, alternately. Follow the steps below.

Step One: Hold your cross-wound thread horizontally in front of you.  Pull about two feet of thread off, then hold that end of the thread so it touches the end of the spool on one end of the spool.  Watch and see how much the threads twist together.

threads have twisted together
Notice how much the threads have twisted together
Step Two: Hold the thread in front of you and pull about two feet of the thread from the OTHER end of the spool, then hold the end of the thread up so it touches the end of the spool.  Watch and see how much the threads twist together.

The end of the thread where the threads twisted together least is the TOP of the thread.  Make sure the thread comes off this end of the spool when you sew, and mark it with a "T" for future reference.

Sometimes, especially at the beginning of the time you are using a thread, you will not see much difference between the two ends.  Do not worry about marking it yet.  By the time you get to the center of the spool, there will be a marked difference.

threads hang relatively straight

Notice how the threads hang relatively straight

Lower your top tension, as much as you can lessen it and still get a good stitch.  Superior Threads even recommends turning the top tension down to "1" for some of their threads.  Keep in mind that you MUST have your presser foot UP to thread your needle and DOWN to change the tension.  You can twiddle the dial all you want, but it will not take effect unless you have the presser foot DOWN.

It may be sufficient just to use the same thread in the top as you do in the bobbin, but you may need to put a fine thread in your bobbin such as a fine machine embroidery thread, bobbin or lingerie thread to keep the stitches locking evenly.  When I quilt a two-sided quilt, I will often use a very fine (.004 mm) invisible thread in the bobbin, so that even though I lessen the top tension considerably, I never see the thread coming to the top.  If you do this, be sure to wind your invisible threads more slowly than you usually do, and only fill the bobbin halfway.

Put a topstitching needle in your sewing machine, preferably a Schmetz System 130N, size 100 or 110. These needles are as big as a horse’s leg, but do you really care how big a hole you make as long as thread does not break?  They are somewhat hard to find, but you can usually find them at a store that specializes in selling sewing machines.  I get them from my local Bernina/Pfaff/Elna/White/whatever sewing machine store. (He also carries Yenmet & YLI thread, so I figure I have it made.) Truly, a topstitching needle makes all the difference in the world. Get them directly from Schmetz, if you need to, at

Determine whether or not your sewing machine has a computer-regulated tension disc, and lubricate your thread accordingly.  If your machine is old, like mine, you can use Sewer’s Aide or Sewer’s Ease, which you can get at any fabric store.  All of these are silicone thread lubricants that you squirt directly on your thread.  Just squirt a bead or two of this lubricant down your spool, and put a little drop on your thread guide.

In addition, you can stick a little square of felt or moleskin to your machine just above where the thread goes to the needle, and squirt a little bit of lubricant on that patch so the thread is lubricated as it passes over the moleskin.  Some people even use a specially lubricated piece of fabric to sew through every now and then, but I cannot be bothered to keep doing that. With Sewer’s Aide, you only have to do it every half hour or so or whenever the thread starts to break.  If there is nowhere to put the moleskin, and your thread is giving you fits, just squirt a little Sewers’ Aide on the back of your needle every half hour or so.

Avoiding thread that falls off the spool. Another problem that some threads (especially the 1000 yard stacked thread spools) have, is that they tend to hop off of the spool and twine themselves around the bottom of the spool pin where they get caught and the next thing you know, you break the needle. 

If you are lucky enough to have two vertical spool pins, put your thread on the spool pin farthest away from the needle, with the thread coming off the back of the spool.  Put a plastic drinking straw over the other spool pin.  Thread your thread through a large sewing machine needle, and stick it through the drinking straw, above the level of the thread spool. Take the thread out of the needle and continue threading the machine normally.  With the thread going through the drinking straw above the level of the top of the spool, the thread cannot get caught around the bottom of the spool pin.

Using a drinking straw to hold threads
Using a drinking straw

Some people buy little stretchy things and slip them over the spool from the bottom or tie a piece of yarn around the spool in the middle, forcing the thread to come off the spool from the top.  This also works if you do not have a second spool pin.

Some machines have a hooky thing as their first thread guide, and you can actually watch your thread being shredded as it goes through this guide (Berninas, especially).  Tape a little safety pin to the top of the machine just by this guide, and thread the thread through it instead of the thread guide.  It will really help.

If you are having trouble with free motion stitching and you have a Brother electronic machine, set the stitch length on "4." This will override the magical thing inside that breaks your stitches.

Written by Linda Schmidt

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