Saturday, January 16, 2010

Senior Thread

Recently I received a fabulous package from Mom containing some fiber finds from her most recent tag sale adventures. In addition to some lovely fabric, she sent me a whole bunch of thread. Much of it was 100% cotton. Based on color alone I would definitely consider quilting with the cotton threads. But I'm concerned about the age of the thread. How can I tell if I should use it?

I'm not just being ageist. Somewhere in my quilting education a wise woman said that thread can dry out and lose its strength over time, so beware of using great-grandma's thread collection on your quilt. Much depends on the quality of the storage. Given that this was a Floridian tag sale find, I suspect there was plenty of moisture in the air where this thread was stored. As you can see, much of it is wound on beautiful wooden spools, so even if the thread itself is no good, I'll certainly use the spools for winding handmade trims and whatnot.

I'm not going to shell out $42 for ASTM's Standard Test Methods for Sewing Threads, but the description shows that they measure colorfastness, shrinkage, strength and elongation, loop strength, and knot strength among other properties. The peanut gallery at Askville seems to favor the pull until it breaks test. Elphaba over at favors the bobbin winding test. If I were super cool, I would break out a microscope and check out the quality of the thread under 60x magnification like Debbie Colgrove over at

First, I did a snap test like the peanut gallery at Askville suggested. I wound the ends around my index fingers like I was preparing to floss my teeth. I put my index fingers together. Then I moved my index fingers apart as fast as I could. I did this with a few different strands of the tag sale thread and a few strands of brand spanking new thread. Same results. So far, go old thread!

Second, I wound a bobbin at full speed from one of the spools of old thread. No problemo.

Finally, I used the thread to finish the edges of some flannel to make reusable wipes. I sewed at CRAZY high speeds. I don't usually sew that fast, so I'm not sure if it was the thread's fault or mine, but I did experience a few thread breaks over the course of maybe 10 bobbin's worth of sewing. I washed the resulting wipes on the sanitary cycle of my washing machine and dried it on high. No color ran and there was no discernible shrinkage.

Final verdict: yay, old thread!

For more information on thread, check out YLI's A Thread of Truth (PDF) which I discovered via Pin Tangle.

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Sam said...

Just googled your post on Gwen Marston and I wanted to congratulate you on an insightful original take on Gwen's traditional American quilting methods. Thanks. I appreciate and applaud your even-handed research and authentic response. -- Sam

Anonymous said...

if you quilt with vintage fabrics some recommend USING aged thread as then the thread would break before the fabric would pull apart--does that make any sense to you?

Sarah said...

Certainly the conventional wisdom for matching modern thread to modern fabric is to match the fiber content. For example, if you're quilting with 100% cotton, sew with 100% cotton thread. The reasoning behind the matching fiber content "rule" is that 100% cotton sewing thread has the same qualities as the 100% cotton thread used to make 100% cotton fabric and thus will hold up to stress in a similar fashion. The, perhaps apocryphal, example I heard was that polyester thread cuts through cotton fabric along seams under stress. If you accept the reasoning behind matching your thread to your fabric in terms of fiber content, the same reasoning would support matching vintage thread with vintage fabric. So the advice you got to sew vintage fabric with aged thread makes sense. I've never sewn with fabric older than me, so I don't have any personal experience on point.

But in the spirit of quilters from yesteryear, it's best to use what you have. As the great philosopher Jagger once said, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you'll find you get what you need." :)