Machine Appliqué, Part 1: What thread should I choose?
Here at Sue Pelland Designs, we do a lot of decorative buttonhole (also known as blanket stitching) around appliqué shapes. At times we straight stitch the fused edges, or we may use any one of hundreds of decorative machine stitches found on today’s fancy sewing machines to accent the appliqué edges. Today we are going to focus on thread, so please know that we will specifically be talking about buttonhole stitch appliqué unless noted. In future blog posts we will dive into different decorative stitches and how they can be used to change the look of fusible appliqué.
Thread Choice: How do you know which brand, fiber content, weight and color to choose for decorate stitching around fused appliqué shapes? There are too many brands of sewing thread out in the marketplace to do a survey of every type. There is no substitute for experience, and I will be the first to tell you that I do not have experience with every brand of thread, with every fiber and every weight. But I do have a few general observations and some stand out favorites. Let me share my experience with you to help shorten your learning curve.
Thread choice has a big impact on the way your appliqué looks. Ask yourself: Do I want the stitching to be visible, or do I want it to disappear into the appliqué? Do I want the color to stand out or to blend? Do I want added texture, or do I want a smoother, flatter, less noticeable edge?
Your personal preference may be very different from mine. Your sewing machine may also have a thread preference. In the end you will have to decide what thread works best for you for each quilt. Here are some variables to consider.
Luster or Shine: Threads have a range of luster or shine to them. Metallic threads for are the shiniest threads available. Within the Metallic Category, there are a wide range of materials and different degrees of shine. One of my favorite metallic threads is Sulky Sliver. This thread reminds me of Christmas Tree Tinsel. I’m exaggerating just a little. The Sulky is so much thinner, but has the same flat super shiny look as Tinsel from the 70s! I very rarely use metallic thread for decorative machine stitching on appliqué; I generally only use this for quilting. You should absolutely play with metallic if you love “bling” and want to dress up the appliqué edges with a very visible stitch, it’s just not a look that I am going for in my quilts.
Fiber Content: Fiber content can be Nylon, Polyester, Rayon, Cotton and more. There is cotton wrapped polyester and a whole host of other blends. On my wall, I have a wide range of colors in polyester, rayon and cotton. These are the most common sewing threads you will find at your quilt shop. In general, rayon and polyester threads tend to be shiny compared to cotton. Rayon is wonderful for machine embroidery and comes in so many colors. Rayon is a bit shiny for my liking next to cotton appliqué fabrics but if you are looking for stitching to be the star of the show, rayon thread is a great choice.
Cotton has the lowest luster of all the threads and it is the most commonly used thread for fusible appliqué. I like the look of thread that blends into the cotton appliqué fabric, so cotton thread is normally my first choice.
Polyester thread comes in a close second to cotton. The 100 wt. polyester from companies such as Wonderfil and Superior act like cotton but have the strength of polyester. Read more about these below.
Silk threads are very slippery, and I don’t normally use them in my machine. Silk is wonderful for hand appliqué, the thread melts right into the turned edge of the cotton fabric making it nearly invisible.
Monofilament thread can also be used for machine appliqué. There are poly and nylon monofilament threads. Many quilters like using monofilament with turned edge (prepared) machine appliqué. Again, if this works for you, go for it! Make sure you choose the right monofilament. Monopoly from Superior is a good choice and comes in clear and smoke. YLI also makes a good monofilament.
I do not use monofilament at all, however. Even though great improvements have been made in monofilament threads, I do not like the way they catch the light and shine on the appliqué edges. I also do not think they help at all to camouflage the edges of raw edge appliqué and they do not build up along the edge to prevent fraying. For all of these reasons, I never finish raw edge appliqué with monofilament. Even for turned edge machine appliqué, I prefer 100 wt. Polyester.
Thread Weight: What weight of thread should you use? Thread weight will have a great impact on the look and visibility of stitching. Note: The higher the number, the thinner the thread.
100 wt: There are several brands of 100 wt. polyester thread that I use when I want my appliqué stitches to disappear into the edge of the appliqué shape. Wonderfil’s Invisifil will make your stitches blend right in with the fabric and there are 60 colors to choose from. Superior’s MicroQuilter is very similar and is available in. Both of these polyester threads have been manufactured with a matte finish so they look more like cotton, but have the strength of Polyester. I use 100 wt. polyester thread where other quilters would use monofilament. These threads are a great choice for turned edge machine stitched appliqué, raw edge appliqué, machine quilting, quilting in the ditch, English paper piecing and even regular piecing. Your seams will never lay flatter!
80 wt. Aurifil 80 wt. cotton thread is available in 88 colors and is wound on small wooden spools. Kind of nostalgic don’t you think? Both 100 wt. polyester and 80 wt. cotton are wonderful choices for invisible appliqué. Use 80 wt. cotton thread anywhere you would use 100 wt. polyester. It will be slightly more visible, but is an excellent choice especially if you are “old school” and only like to use cotton thread on cotton fabric.
50 wt: Every thread company probably has a 50 wt. thread. I generally use 50 wt. cotton for machine piecing, and I also use 50 wt. for machine stitching raw edge appliqué. This fairly light weight thread is much less noticeable than 40 wt. and under, yet it is much more visible than 80 or 100 wt.. 50 wt. is my “go to” thread, just because I have so many colors already on my thread wall from so many years of collecting. My favorite brand is Aurifil, however there are many great brands out there! You probably already have a preference for your general piecing weight thread. Use what you have. As long as your machine likes it, and you have the color you need, use what you have on your shelf. Great brands that I often use include Aurifil, Superior, Mettler, Gutterman, YLI and Wonderfil and Coats and Clark.
40 wt: I recently discovered 40 wt. Aurifil Cotton thread. I love this weight, and use it when I want a bolder stitch around the fusible raw edge appliqué. The reason I like the thicker thread is that it builds up more heavily along the edge of the appliqué giving the raw edge a really nice finish. The thickness of the thread camouflages the raw edges of the appliqué. When I pair the heavier thread with a heavier stitch the result is very visible and much more decorative.
Variegated threads that I like are generally 50 and 40 wt.
28/30 wt: You can find 28 and 30 wt. threads, but for me, they are just a bit too hefty.
12 wt: I absolutely do not use 12 wt. thread for machine stitching. My machine hates it! Use 12 wt. thread for hand buttonhole stitch appliqué, big stitch quilting, redwork and hand embroidery.
Color: There are threads in every color of the rainbow and there are variegated threads that change color along the thread length. When you want your appliqué edge to blend, choose a solid color thread that matches the appliqué fabric as well as possible.
Use variegated thread to make the appliqué edges stand out, or when you have a wide range of fabric colors and you do not want to change colors. For example, when making a floral appliqué quilt, we often use many different green fabrics for stems and leaves. Using green variegated thread makes it unnecessary to change thread colors for each leaf.
A few of my favorite variegated threads are King Tut (40 wt.) by Superior Threads, YLI (40 wt.), Tutti by Wonderfil (50 wt), and Sulky (30 wt.). These companies have a wide variety of color in variegated threads. The variegation length varies depending on the company. Some change in a very predictable pattern while others change more gradually. Valdani has a wide color range of hand dyed variegated threads in both 35 and 50 wt. cotton.
A note about Bobbins: In general, match the bobbin thread (weight and color) to the decorative top thread. There are always exceptions to the rule! When using variegated thread on top, use a solid bobbin color that blends well. Don’t waste the variegated thread (the color on the top and bobbin thread will never match up anyway!) I find using a bobbin thread that is one weight less than my top thread works the best in my machine. For example, when using a 40 wt. variegated tread on top, choose a blending color of 50 wt. thread in the bobbin. Every machine is different and you have to find the right combination of top and bobbin threads that match to even out the tension. Machine tension can be a little tricky when decorative machine stitching.
One thread that often works well in the bobbin no matter what is on the top is Decobob from Wonderfil. Decobob is 80 weight cottonized Polyester. It behaves like cotton with the strength of a polyester thread. The very lightweight allows you to get a lot of thread on your bobbin, so less time is wasted winding and changing bobbins. And the best part is, you can get them pre-wound! Look for those in my shop.
Test Drive before you decide! Play with leftover fusible appliqué shapes fused to a sample of your background fabric and test different decorative stitches. Adjust the length and width and test drive different threads. Make sure you can’t see the bobbin thread coming up to the top.
Once you decide on a stitch, write down the stitch number and the length and width you like best. Make a note of the top and bobbin thread names, colors and weights. Keep the stitching sample in your project box and each time you sit down to sew, test your stitches before you get moving on the actual quilt project. Choosing the right thread can make the difference between a project you love and a project you dislike! Test driving your thread and stitches every time you sit down at the machine will save you hours of unstitching. Ask me how I know!!
For more information about thread direct from the manufactures, here are websites links:
Watch for Machine Appliqué Part 2: Which Stitch should I use?
Machine Appliqué Part 3: Buttonhole (blanket) stitch appliqué, how to turn curves and points.
And Machine Appliqué Part 4: Straight stitch (soft-edge) applique: benefit and limitations.