What is Pearl Cotton?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

You may be confused when you hear the term pearl or perle cotton, but they are just variant names of the same item. Pearl cotton is a 2-ply, hi-sheen, non-divisible twisted thread used in many forms of needlework. Although this thread is sometimes described as being “one strand,” this may be due to confusion over the non-divisible 2-ply thread. In any case, pearl cotton is a popular and versatile thread.

Pearl cotton is a 2-ply, high sheen  thread used in many forms of needlework.
Pearl cotton is a 2-ply, high sheen thread used in many forms of needlework.

A list of the uses to which pearl cotton is put will help convey its broad range of applications. It is used in appliqué, blackwork, crochet, cross-stitch, cut work, drawn threadwork, hardanger embroidery, huck embroidery, knitting, lacework, needlepoint, pulled threadwork, quilt tying, redwork, smocking, and tatting. The thread can sometimes be substituted by crochet cotton, embroidery floss or other threads or yarns, depending on the size of the thread and the particular craft.

Cotton bolls on a branch.
Cotton bolls on a branch.

Though not all companies make all sizes, pearl cotton is available in sizes 3, 5, 8, 12, 16, and 20. In this scheme, the largest diameter of thread has the smallest size. Some crafters use sizes 5, 8, and 12 in their sewing machines or sergers.

Sold in skeins and balls, pearl cotton is available in a wide variety of solid colors as well as variegated hues. Multicolor thread is also sold in a few color combinations at size 5. In general, sizes 3, 5, and 8 have the widest color choice. Metallic thread, incorporating polyster and viscose, is also manufactured.

Pearl cotton is sold both in twisted skeins and in balls. Unlike some yarns that are only sold in skeins by length, this type is sold both by length and by weight, for example, in 5 or 100 gm (0.2 or 3.5 oz) and 16 or 27 yard (14.6 or 24.6 meter) skeins and in 5, 10, or 50 gm (0.2, 0.4, or 1.8 oz) and 49, 87, or 131 yard (45, 80, or 120 meter) balls.

Pearl cotton may be used for knitting.
Pearl cotton may be used for knitting.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@closerfan12 - I think a size 8 is only made in a perle, which is about the same size as normal cotton thread, size 20, ie. very thin. I need my reading glasses and a strong light to work with it so I prefer size 10 much more. As for quality, the perle is lovely but I wouldn't say there is a great difference, I would go for a good price as it is all mercerize and therefore quality isn't really an issue.

@galen84basc - personally I wouldn't knit or crochet socks in 100% cotton as it has no stretch and when it gets wet, it can lose shape. Socks need yarn with memory to bounce back into shape with the heavy wear they receive. There are plenty of lace weight sock yarns out there which aren't much thicker. In fact, a lot are thinner than a size 3. If, however, you don't want wool in the socks, I'm just after crocheting a pair for my very allergic husband in Wendy Happy, silly name but beautiful yarn, it has bamboo and some sort of elastane percentage, I think, and it feels so beautiful and soft, you won't be disappointed, only that they may not stand up to lots of wear but there are patterns that allow you to double the yarn on toe and heel sections to make them stronger. Crystal Palace, Patons, Kollage all do non wool sock yarns and a few more, they're harder to come by but well worth it to have that blend in the cotton. Happy knitting -Jo


I always find it interesting to see all the products that you can get by cotton ginning -- that has truly got to be one of the most widely impacting inventions of our time. You get everything from yarn to clothing to sheets to flags.

Very interesting.


When choosing pearl cotton 8 balls, what should I look for? When I first read that in my crochet instructions I had quite a laugh thinking of a cotton 8 ball, but then I realized what they were talking about. How do I choose a good one?


Has anyone used pearl cotton size 5 for knitting socks before? I've only used pearl cotton size 3, and I'd like to know what the difference in the outcome is in using pearl cotton 5 rather than 3.

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