Is There a Difference Between Hand Quilting Thread and Sewing Machine Thread?

quilting thread vs sewing machine thread

Hand Quilting Thread VS Sewing Machine Thread

Thread is thread, right? Not exactly. I mean, yes, it is on a spool of some sort and it is used for sewing or quilting, but not all threads are meant for all sewing projects. That is why it is important to know how sewing threads are measured.

Fiber Content

First, there is fiber content. Your threads may be rayon (wood pulp  processed with chemicals), cotton (natural), or polyester (synthetic). Generally speaking, match the fiber content of your fabric with the fiber content of your thread. 

Spool Size

Spool size matters least, but it is a factor in selecting thread. You will find sizes in small, medium, or large. As long as the spool fits appropriately on your sewing machine, it should be fine to use. Refer to your sewing machine user manual if you have any questions related to spool sizes that work with your machine.

Thread Weight

The third, and most important aspect of how thread is measured, is its weight. It makes sense that heavier fabrics need heavier threads to hold them together. But it is not a good idea to use a heavy thread on light fabric. It does not hold it together better just because the thread is stronger. As a matter of fact, it could really make your project suffer in terms of thread tension and stitch stability. So, heavy threads for heavy fabrics; light threads for light fabrics. To find the fabric’s weight on the end of the spool. Some will  have a number followed by “wt.” for weight. Others have fractions, like 50/2. That means it is a 50 weight thread made up of two plies. The more the plies, the stronger the thread.

But when all threads look alike at the store, the way to know if they are heavy, medium, or light weight is to check the thread weight. The larger the number, the lighter the thread. For hand quilting you would use a 28-weight thread (cotton is best). It needs to be heavy because of the tugging and pulling you will be doing with it to get it through multiple layers of fabric and batting. Please note, this hand quilting thread is not to be used for piecing your quilt. For that, you could use a general all-purpose cotton thread that is 50 weight or similar in weight to your fabrics.

Related: How to Organize Bobbins and Thread Spools (Ideas and Tips!)

The Main Difference Between Hand Quilting Thread and Sewing Machine Thread

The main difference between hand quilting thread and sewing machine thread is the weight. Machine sewing is quite calculated. All the gears and gadgets on the machine are designed to work together to create stitches easily that are sturdy. The machine keeps the thread tension consistent. The feed dogs move the fabric under the needle at the same pace. These things work in unison to make stitches that last. 

Hand quilting is not that consistent. With each stitch, we may pull a little tighter, push or pull the thread through at a slightly different direction than the last stitch. Make an occasional stitch a little looser than the one before. All those things are part of the natural variations of hand sewing or hand quilting. There is nothing wrong with those variations, they are just a nuance of hand sewing. But it is important to adjust your hand quilting thread for these reasons.

What about Monofilament?

Monofilament quilting thread is also called invisible thread. It closely resembles a fishing line on a sewing spool. Some quilters use monofilament thread because of its invisibility to play up the design the quilting stitches make. By fading the stitches themselves into the background, there is no distraction from the negative space created by the stitches. 

The problem with hand quilting with monofilament thread is that it snaps easily. Remember how we discussed that the sewing machine is a precision tool that makes each stitch perfectly? Hand stitching has too much pulling and tugging to successfully use monofilament that is long lasting. If you were to use monofilament thread for machine quilting, you would pair it with a cotton bobbin thread. Those two work together well.

Hand quilting, however, does not use a bobbin. That means you rely solely on the stability of the nylon thread.I actually do not like monofilament thread at all. In my experience, it yellows over time, or a stitch here and there ages and snaps on its own after average use of the quilt. It is ironic that quilters choose it to show off their quilt designs, but over time it can snap and lose that design anyway.

Related: When Did They Stop Making Wooden Spools For Thread?

More Sewing Thread Advice

  • Hand quilting thread should never be used in a sewing machine. It has a thin wax coating on it to make it stronger and easier to hand quilt through multiple layers. That same thin coat, a good thing when hand quilting, can be very bad for your sewing machine. That little coat of wax can gum up your needle and all the mechanisms that the thread must wind through to get to the needle.
  • If you change the weight of your thread, make a few test stitches on a similar piece of fabric to see if you need to adjust your thread tension levels.
  • Avoid using old threads in your hand or machine sewing and quilting projects. Aged threads grow brittle over time. Sometimes they even mildew, which would also jeopardize your project. If you have a collection of vintage threads, display them proudly on a shelf or in a jar in  your craft room, but don’t use them for any sewing projects.
  • Refer to your sewing machine manual to make sure you use the right needle size for the thread weight you have chosen. Most hand quilting will require a needle size somewhere in the 6 to 10 range.
  • Coats has a great thread chart as a downloadable PDF.
  • Speaking of Coats, some sewing and quilting enthusiasts have a favorite brand of thread. I have used a lot of Coats and Clark thread in my lifetime and it is simply because that is the brand my local department store carries in its craft department. In my experience, their threads have been great. If you are not happy with the performance of your thread, try another brand. You may find that it makes a difference and you will develop your own favorite brand. 
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