In general there are seven different types of embroidery thread, each very similar but designed for a specific purpose or intended to achieve a certain look. Stranded cotton floss tends to be the most common, and is often seen as the “standard” in the craft. Matte floss is similar, but is usually made with one less strand and has a less shiny finish. Perle varieties have a high sheen and can’t usually be separated into individual threads, and in most cases are sold by weight; crewel yarns, though, tend to be the heaviest, and are commonly made of thick wool. Persian thread is most often used in needlepoint, and tapestry wool and Medici threads are common choices for embroidery involving heavy materials. People who use an embroidery machine rather than crafting by hand might also want a thread specially designed for the machine’s stitching arm. It’s usually the case that the different threads and variations can be interchanged, but the results aren’t always great; using a dense woolen yarn for a craft that was intended to be made with a shiny floss will usually still work, but the result will likely be different than expected. Making the right choice is usually a matter of understanding the options and having a firm sense of the end goal.
The Craft Generally
Embroidery is a traditional sewing craft that involves decorative stitching in colored thread atop a fabric. It is an art form that requires different types of thread depending on a few factors, including what type of fabric is used, what stitch or embroidery technique is being performed, and what kind of needle is required. Although embroidery and other needlework are traditionally done by hand, in recent years sewing machines have been developed that can complete complicated embroidery patterns using software programs to design and execute precision stitching.
Almost any material can be embroidered when the right type of thread and other supplies are used. One of the most popular mediums for picture embroidery is 14-count Aida cloth, an open weave fabric. Plain or patterned materials are good choices, too, and experienced crafters can put embroidered designs on nearly anything. Clothing and accessories are common applications, but even paper and thin wood can be good mediums, depending on the desired outcome.
Standard Embroidery Flosses
Many craft supply stores and fabric retailers sell a product known simply as “embroidery floss,” which is usually one of two things: either stranded cotton or matte floss. Stranded cotton is usually made of six strands of thread that have been twisted together. It is usually slightly shiny. Typically made of cotton, this type can also be made of silk or rayon blends. It is most often used for cross-stitch crafts, and is easy to divide into single strands.
Matte embroidery floss is similar, but is made of just five strands of tightly-twisted thread instead of six. It gets its name because it is matte instead of glossy or shiny. This variety is also sometimes called embroidery cotton.
Perle cotton, sometimes also called pearl cotton, is a thread made of non-divisible strands. It typically has a high sheen and is quite dense. Its thickness is usually one of its most defining characteristics. Unlike other types of floss that are sold by color or thread count, perle threads generally come in different numbered weights. The heaviest of these is 3, while 16 is the lightest and finest. Other standard weights include 5, 8 and 12.
Persian and Crewel Yarns
Persian yarn can be made of wool or may be synthetic. It is comprised of three loosely-twisted strands and is most often used in needlepoint.
Crewel yarn is similar in look and feel, but is a two-ply rather than a three-ply thread. It is heavier than other embroidery flosses because it's made of natural or synthetic wool, and it’s often used for tapestry work or stitching on heavy fabrics.
People who are doing a lot of tapestry work often look for threads designed specifically for heavy materials; most of these are made of durable materials that will both look sharp and be noticeable on heavy materials but will also retain their color and quality through many years of use and wear. Most flosses in this category are called tapestry yarn or tapestry wool. They are typically twisted very tightly and are usually made up of four strands of thread.
Yet another type or tapestry thread, known as Medici, is also made of wool. This is a finer, lighter-weight type when compared to the other wool embroidery threads. For this reason it’s often easier to work with when it comes to smaller, more intricate designs.
Options for Embroidery Machines
Machine embroidery thread is usually synthetic is most often made of polyester or rayon. Metallic thread is also available in many places. Both hand and machine varieties come in a vast array of colors. Dye lots are usually numbered, so crafters can match colors exactly.