On storing thread

A few people have asked about how I store my embroidery threads, so I thought a brief tour of my collection might be helpful.

I use a wide variety of threads, from very chunky cotton yarns (mostly for couching) to very fine silks, and pretty much everything in between. I will write a post some time about the various weights of thread that you can get and what you can use them for. For now I’m focusing on how to organise thread. This jumble of blue threads doesn’t look very organised, I know. I guess all things are relative.

Blue threads

When I dye threads, I dye them in skeins. They look really pretty in skeins, but I find them difficult to use like that because they very soon get horribly tangled, especially if you keep them all in the same box. I find the only way I can make them useable is to wind them somehow. I went through a phase a while ago of winding threads from skeins into little balls, but these also get tangled quite quickly.

Skeins of thread

I used to use sections of plastic drinking straw for winding threads from skeins after dyeing, which works quite well if you cut a little snip in the ends to anchor the thread before you start winding. The straws were left over from the olden days before we knew how damaging they are, and I figured it was better to use (and re-use) them than to let them end up in landfill.

Drinking straw bobbins

Some of my threads are still on straws, but these days I tend to use little squares of regular 80gsm copy paper, about 3” square, and roll them up.

Squares of copy paper ready to roll

Again you need to snip the end of the paper tube so that the thread has somewhere to anchor itself to stop it unravelling. I find you don’t need to glue the roll of paper; the thread keeps it rolled quite securely.

Purples. That horribly tangled black thing (top left) is coton a broder and needs winding

I find it quite therapeutic to wind threads from skeins onto tubes, but it can take a long time depending on how fine the thread is.

Green threads. Some of these are commercial threads; most are hand-dyed cotton and silk

The only time I use the commercial card bobbins (the kind that you can buy from embroidery shops) is for winding DMC stranded embroidery floss. I don’t like these card bobbins much because when you get to the end of the skein the thread ends up with permanent creases from being wrapped round the flat edges of card. I find there is no other sensible way of storing these though – I can’t see colours clearly enough with them piled up in skeins, and you need to label them in case you need to buy that particular colour again.

DMC stranded embroidery thread

So there’s a little tour through my threads. I know lots of people who use sticks and twigs, and the old-fashioned wooden clothes pegs, to store thread. They look lovely, but I imagine would be bulky in large numbers. So – how do you store your threads? Let me know if you have any good tips.

On Needles

I’m often asked what kind of needles I use, and what size. If you’re new to hand sewing, needles can be a minefield as there are various brands and different sizes within each type. I wondered if it might be helpful if I gather some thoughts, and needles, together this morning.

Birdie is carrying far too many needles at present. He can barely stay on his feet

My favourite needles are made by John James, who have been manufacturing needles since 1840. In my view their needles were better before they developed the association with Entaco, who appear to be overseeing the manufacturing, but they are still good quality needles. You can read about the history of the company here. I am not on commission, by the way – I just like a good needle. What I especially like about this company is that they do a downloadable needle catalogue, showing each needle at its actual size – you can see that here.

The needles I use most often are embroidery needles, and quilting needles. You can buy embroidery needles in a range of sizes; in the picture below you can see sizes 3 to 10 (the higher the number, the smaller the needle). Embroidery needles are sometimes sold as crewel needles – they are more or less the same thing. They have a fine, pointed body with an elongated oval eye which is ideal for stranded cotton (other threads are available – I generally use this kind of needle for my hand-dyed silk and cotton threads). The size of needle you need depends on the type of thread you’re using as well as the kind of fabric you’re sewing on, and the kind of stitch you’re doing. If in doubt, go for matching the needle to the thread. Your thread should go through the eye of the needle comfortably without too much effort. If your thread rolls around in the eye or falls out, you probably need a smaller needle; if it feels too tight (you can sometimes hear it when this happens, and you will feel some resistance when you pull the thread through), then you probably need a larger size. I don’t take much notice of what the size is called, I just use whatever feels right for the thread.

Embroidery needles: from the left (ignore the two random ones on the far left, photobombing – they are a size 5 embroidery needle and a size 24 tapestry needle) – sizes 3, 5, 7, 7, 9 and 10

Quilting needles (often sold as Betweens) are shorter, stronger, and more flexible than embroidery needles. They are designed to pass easily through all three (or more) layers of a quilt, and to enable you to make small, fairly regular quilting stitches to hold the layers together. I often use these for general sewing as well because I like the shorter length. I use mainly size 10 and 11, and I like the Big Eye variety because my eyesight isn’t what it was. These needles also allow me to quilt with thicker threads.

John James Big Eye quilting needles, with grid ruler for scale

For utility hand sewing (sewing seams, piecing patchwork, etc – anything that needs regular cotton sewing thread, the kind that you would use in a machine) I use sharps. These also come in a range of sizes, and probably the easiest way to buy them is in an assorted set so you can choose the best needle for the job. Sharps are flexible, but not as strong as quilting or betweens, which makes them prone to breaking more easily. I generally use size 11 for sewing most lightweight fabrics together (quilters cotton fabric and lighter), and size 7 if I’m sewing thicker fabrics like medium to heavyweight linen.

Sharps needles, sizes 7 and 11

Probably the easiest way to see which needles you like, if you’re a complete beginner, is to buy a set of assorted needles and try them all on various fabrics with different kinds of thread.

Assorted needles: betweens, sharps, darners and tapestry

I am very bad at looking after my needles, which is why all these packs look so new. I’ve had to replace most of my needles recently because I leave them out, stuck in pincushions (like birdie), where they pick up dust and moisture from the atmosphere which turns them rusty in the end. They also become blunt over time. I thought it was probably time I made myself a needle case.

Birdie watches with interest. He will not be redundant, but he will have a bit of a tidy-up.

I’ve used a bitty background that I made a while ago – layered scraps covered with a sheer, with hand stitching across the surface. I’ve backed it with some hand-dyed cotton fabric, added a button and a buttonhole bar, and that was a very nice Sunday morning’s productive stitching.

Little needlecase

So there we are: a very quick gallop through some needles for hand-stitching, which I hope has been useful.

Many people these days tend to refer to hand-stitching as slow-stitching (though they’re not necessarily the same thing, as I understand it) and most of us are all about taking time out and slowing down. Needles in the past were valued for their ability to enable hand stitchers to sew more quickly. How times change.

Vintage needles: no friction no stop rapid work!

Klee sketchbook cover

I finished my painted/stitched version of Klee’s painting ‘Clarification’, which is part of the cover for a sketchbook. I’m fascinated by that solid line across the lower third, which also features in the original painting, and somehow ties the whole thing together.

Paint and stitch based on a section of Klee’s ‘Clarification’ (1932)

I decided though that this is going to be the back cover, not the front, so there has been a bit of cutting and splicing.

Moving the front to the back

I’ve kept the seam on the right side because I’m going to cover the spine area later so the raw edges will be covered. The sketchbook is a 12” square spiral bound one, so I didn’t want the raw edges on the back interfering with the wire spiral, and I didn’t want the bulk of a turned seam.

So now I’ve started on the front cover, which is based on Klee’s ‘Small Picture of Fir Trees‘ (1922). I did a sketchy collage just to understand the colours and shapes and used a view finder to isolate a square area.

Klee’s ‘Small Picture of Fir Trees’ 1922

I’m trying this one in layered sheers and semi-sheers, with a base of hand-dyed cotton organdie and bits of silk organza over the top. You can just see the outline drawing underneath.

Sketchbook cover in progress

I really like layering sheer fabrics. I used to use them a lot; less so these days but it’s maybe something I might revisit. I like the way they are solid and transparent at the same time.

Pile of hand-dyed sheer fabrics – organdie, organza and chiffon, with some net and vintage sheer scarves
Building up the layers

The best bit is putting in some tacking stitches to get rid of the pins, which will be my next step. Then you can see much more clearly what you’re dealing with. Less hazardous too. I don’t know why, but I am always surprised by how sharp pins are. Makes me feel like I’m maybe not the sharpest pin in the box.

Painting thread

I did a little experiment yesterday. I imagine lots of people have done this before, but it’s the first time I’ve got round to trying fabric paint to colour thread. I used Jacquard dye-na-flow liquid colour, which behaves more like dye than paint, and applied it with a brush to create a space-dyed effect.

Silk and cotton threads coloured with fabric paints

I only used three colours – lemon yellow, turquoise, and purple – with a little black to ‘sadden’ rather than darken. I soaked the threads first in water and squeezed out the excess before painting. They dried outside on the washing line. Fabric paints generally need heat to set them, and I figured if you can iron fabric, which is basically woven thread, then you can also iron thread so I gave them a quick steam with the iron when they were dry. I think I’ve read somewhere that these paints will cure in the air as well if you leave them a few days.

Silk and cotton threads, space-dye effect with paint

I quite like the pastel/watercolour effect but maybe wouldn’t water the colours down so much every time. I wondered if painting the thread would change the hand, and it does, slightly – they are still soft, but maybe not quite as soft as they would be if I’d used dye. On the whole I think I prefer dyed thread, but I found there is slightly more control over the colour with paint. It will be interesting to see how colourfast and lightfast these threads turn out to be over time. I road-tested a bit on today’s stitch journal block:

Stitch journal 29th May, hand-painted cotton crochet thread

Good to try new things, I think.

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