Thread: Which One Should I Use?

At some point in our quilting journey, we've all stood at the thread display whether at our LQS or the J-store, wondering which one to get for our current project?  We try to recall what it was we read in a magazine or online, wonder if we should ask someone (if they'll know?) or my personal fail safe, call my mom.
Some of us just want to be told what to use and wonder no more, and some of us need to know the why? behind the which one.  I'm hoping to answer both of these questions without overloading you with too much information and offer resources to those of you who'd like to know even more.

To begin at the beginning, if you'd like to know exactly how thread is made has an excellent slide show of thread production at Coats and Clark.

YLI has a fabulous online publication, A Thread of Truth that I highly recommend which details the various types of threads, coatings and sizing standards for each.  For quilters, the information provided on cotton threads is pertinent.

NEc is Cotton Count which is universal standard for measuring size and weight of cotton threads.  The same size threads can be made by using a different number of ply's.  To determine the equivalent size, divide the yarn count by the number of ply's.  As an example, Aurifil's 50 is 2 ply so its' equivalent size is 25.  Gutermann's 50 wt is 3 ply so its' equivalent size is 17.  The larger the number, the finer the thread.  We'll come back to this again in an informal comparison but I wanted you to know that pertinent tidbit before we ask an expert what we should be using.

So which thread should we be using?  Though useful and interesting, all the technical how it's made information does not always give us the best answer as to which thread is best for our quilting project.  For me, the best answer comes from someone who has the actual quilting experience of doing what I am trying to do.   I asked these questions to Lori Gillick, who is one of the co-owners of my LQS.  Lori has been quilting for 26 years.  Eagle Creek Quilt Shop has been open over 11 years and she had another shop for 6 years prior to that. Lori didn't want her picture taken but consented to a few store photos. 

Here are my questions along with her answers...

For machine piecing what thread should be used?  100% cotton thread.  You do not want your thread to be stronger than your fabric as it will break down your fabric.  You would rather have to repair a split seam caused by thread failure than to have your fabric cut or worn through by a polyester thread. (which would not be so easy to repair) Use a high quality 100% cotton thread that sits well and doesn't add bulk. (And a higher quality thread usually has less lint.)

For machine quilting what thread should be used?  100% cotton thread for the same reasons.  Lori's favorite is Aurifil 50 for piecing and quilting. 

For machine applique on a quilt top what thread should be used?  A very thin cotton thread with a fine needle.  Again the Aurifil 50 is very suitable.

Hand Piecing: 100% cotton and use shorter amounts of thread and reload frequently.  If you use longer pieces of thread that are being continually pulled through, you are stripping the thread.

Hand Applique: A silk thread (her fav is YLI) slides through well, sits well and virtually disappears.

Hand Quilting:  Coats and Clark makes a poly coated cotton core thread that is Lori's favorite.

We also discussed some alternatives as the use of poly threads by long arm quilters and use of a heavier weight thread on top and thinner thread on the bottom as suggested for King Tut thread.  Lori did not admonish the use of the poly thread by a long armer, but suggested relying on their expertise as their machine is completely different than that of a domestic home machine.  I recently tried the King Tut thread myself using it both  in upper and lower threads and asked how difficult it was to work with different weight threads and Lori suggested it as something for an intermediate level quilter.

As we were finishing up, I found her last comment very relevant - This is your hobby, it's suppose to be fun.  Time is precious and valuable, use what works easily and works well. This comment hit home to me, while I haven't had thread issues I can remember trying a batting that was nothing but trouble.

Despite expert advise, logistics, cost and possible machine issues also affect what we choose to use.  I recently did a survey on my blog and found that 33% of respondents use Aurifil thread, 2% Mettler, 48% Gutermann, 4% Superior King Tut, 1% Superior So Fine, 6% Connecting Threads Essential and 6% Coats & Clark.  Cost was definitely a factor to many, just be sure to consider the amount of thread on the spool to make a fair comparison.  Aurifil's 50wt spools hold 1300m compared to the super size Gutermann at the J-store which is only 800m or Superior's King Tut spools that hold 500 yards. (When I mentioned machine issues to Lori, she offered a few suggestions.  Most machines have a spool pin that will accommodate larger spools and sometimes changing the position is helpful even if not necessitated by spool size.  Also, if spool size is an issue she has simply set the spool behind her machine or placed it on the table in a baby food jar to keep it contained.)

Lastly I want to come back to equivalent size as I think that is a pretty significant part of the choice process that I don't see addressed very often.  Here is a list of the equivalent sizes of the cotton threads mentioned by our expert and in my survey.

Aurifil 50 is my absolute favorite for piecing and now I see why it lays so well in seams, it's the finest.  I have used Connecting Threads (which I think is similar to Coats & Clark/Star) and it is fine for quilting other than all the lint, but I found it too thick for piecing for my taste. My favorite for quilting is the Aurifil 40 or Mettler as I am not at the stage where I am comfortable to draw so much attention to my stitches as I think a larger thread like the King Tut does.

Like anything, there are many right ways to do something so whatever you choose and is right for you will be a function of your variables: task, time, pocketbook, etc.  My goal was to help you make a more informed choice the next time you're standing there wondering what thread to buy and to provide additional resources for those of you that love the paralysis of analysis.  So hopefully, that is just what I've accomplished.  


  1. This is a great review, thanks for writing it. I would like to point out, though, that poly threads in fact do not tear or break down fabric. That is a myth that has been passed down for far too long.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and your input Barbie. I do know that Superior Threads states that point on their website also. I stand behind my experts opinion that only 100% cotton thread should be used for piecing for reasons mentioned above, and to use 100% cotton thread for machine quilting on a domestic/home machine with deferring to your long arm quilter for long-armed quilts. As I pointed out, each persons' unique variables will determine what they choose. It looks like you are a long armer so I am sure that experience factors into your choices, where in my case I don't see any advantage to use a particular thread vs. risking the longevity of my projects. Fortunately, there are many methods in the quilting universe so despite disagreeing to agree we can all enjoy creating quilts for our families and friends to enjoy now and into the future.

  2. I'm am a firm believer on "cotton on cotton". No poly gets used here at all! Thanks for the article!

  3. Can you comment n YLI 50 wt? I am a beginner quilter and have had some success with that thread on my domestic machine.

  4. I have looked everywhere for a good article on quilting threads. Thank you for this great information!

  5. I'm now in my 60's and have been both hand and machine sewing since I was 12. I've been hand quilting recently usung King Tut thread, and I can honestly say it's one of the worst sewing threads I've ever used. It constantly tangles and spirals up. I don't sew with a particularly long thread, but I do expect to quilt more than x1 4 inch square at a time.
    On my own personal experience I wouldn't recommend this thread which is also quite expensive.
    Sorry to be negative but must speak as I find!

  6. I love aurifil 50 at, have used for piecing and quilting. I just tried the 50 wt for quiloand was so frui, kept having thread breaks, despite moving to larger needle, what needle do you use?

  7. This blog is so nice to me. I will keep on coming here again and again.

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  9. Such a wonderful review. Since there is such a huge amount of thread, choosing the right one can leave you in a whole lot of confusion. This post is certainly helpful.

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