21 Types of Sewing Thread & When to Use Them (+ PDF Chart)

With so many options available, choosing the correct thread for your sewing project can be daunting – but we’ve got you covered! Today, we’ll take an in-depth look at 21 different types of sewing thread, plus tips and tricks for how and when to use each one.

Overview 

In nine out of ten cases, your project will most likely use general purpose, or “sew-all” thread. Lighter weight items can benefit from extra-fine thread, while heavier projects may require extra-strong, upholstery, or topstitching thread. Specialty threads like tacking and wash-away threads make tasks like basting and toiles easier to sew, while decorative threads like metallic, rayon, and even glow-in-the-dark threads make your projects truly shine!

Get a printable PDF chart that summarises each thread type and when to use them. The sign-up form is below. Sewing tips for each thread are not included (not enough space!). These juicy tips are only in the blog post below…

3 polyester sewing threads placed on blue and white floral fabric.
General purpose polyester thread by Gutermann. Photo credit: Sara Maker

Contents list:


General purpose thread

What is it?

General purpose thread is most commonly 100% polyester, which makes it strong, durable, and flexible. It’s the thread you’ll use most frequently in your sewing projects, and the one you’ll want to buy in every color. 

a hand holding pink general purpose sewing thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Sewing construction seams on garments or quilt tops
  • Fabrics from silk gauze through to denim or midweight canvas
  • Hand and machine sewing

Tips for using this thread:

  • Select a needle size and type appropriate for your fabric – usually a 70 to 100.

Polyester thread

What is it?

General purpose threads are usually polyester, but polyester takes many forms. This thread is manufactured differently to have a smooth, shiny finish to be used for decorative applications.

a hand holding yellow polyester thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Machine embroidery
  • Decorative stitching or embellishment
  • Embellishing children’s clothes with decorations that need to be durable

Tips for using this thread:

  • Silky threads like this can unwind from their spool prematurely, so a thread net is often useful if your machine holds spools in a horizontal position.
  • Use a needle suitable for your fabric – usually a 70-80.

Cotton thread

What is it?

If you’re interested in natural fibers, it can be tempting to choose cotton instead of polyester thread for a sewing project, but cotton is not as strong as polyester, and lighter weights won’t stand up to the stress of wear over time. If your project isn’t going to be under stress, it’s a perfect natural option.

a hand holding yellow cotton thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Loose-fitting garments or accessories
  • Machine quilting, for a more rustic, matte look
  • Sewing a cotton fabric that you plan to tie-dye

Tips for using this thread:

  • Cotton thread is notorious for shedding! Be sure to give your sewing machine a good clean once your project is complete.
  • It also tends to split more easily than general purpose threads – if your thread splits while sewing, choose a larger needle size.

Quilting thread

What is it?

This specialty thread is designed for hand sewing your quilt top to its batting and backing, creating a quilt. It is 100% cotton with a glazed finish for strength and sheen.

When should I use it?

  • Hand sewing a quilt
  • Hand sewing buttons
  • Attaching beads to a garment

Tips for using this thread:

  • This thread should only be used for hand sewing, as the glazed finish will rub off on your machine’s needle and tension discs.
  • Choose a quilting needle that fits with your style of quilting, but ensure the eye is big enough as this thread is slightly thicker than general purpose sewing thread.

Silk thread

What is it?

Silk is a beautiful option for special projects, and is particularly prized for hand sewing and embroidery because of its smooth texture, lustrous sheen, and ability to take on gorgeous, vibrant colors.  Although you can sew with silk thread in your machine, it’s most frequently used in hand sewing.

a hand holding turquoise silk thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Any hand finishing – buttonholes, hand sewn hems, and whip stitched seams.
  • Hand embroidery and thread painting
  • Machine sewing delicate silk fabrics like gauze or chiffon.
  • Hand or machine quilting (in both the top and bobbin)

Tips for using this thread:

  • Silk thread tends to unravel at the cut end easily, but running your thread end through a bit of beeswax can help prevent this when hand sewing.
  • If you’re sewing with delicate fabrics or a lighter weight silk thread (or both!), be sure to reduce your tension and select a smaller needle, such as a 60 or 70 (depending on the fabric) and test on a scrap first!

Rayon thread

What is it?

Most commonly used in machine embroidery, Rayon thread is one of the most lustrous, vibrantly colored options available for embellishing your projects.

a hand holding dark rayon thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Not suitable for construction seams
  • Machine embroidery
  • Decorative stitching on pockets or hems
  • Quilting projects that need a decorative shine
  • It can be used as a less expensive alternative to silk thread

Tips for using this thread:

  • As rayon is so silky, it has a tendency to unwind from the spool. Use a thread net to prevent it from unspooling prematurely, especially if your thread is on a cone instead of a spool.
  • Select a smaller needle appropriate for your fabric, such as a 60-80.
  • It can be used as a less expensive alternative to silk thread.

Linen thread

What is it?

Made from 100% Linen, this heavyweight thread is a great option for thicker fabrics. In addition to being extremely strong, it’s also resistant to friction so it’s perfect for things that will be under a lot of stress.

a hand holding brown linen thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Attaching bag straps
  • Sewing on buttons
  • Leather accessories like wallets or bags

Tips for using this thread:

  • Select a larger hand sewing needle to accommodate this thick thread.
  • Conditioning your linen thread by running it through a block of beeswax and then ironing it between two sheets of waxed paper will give it extra glide while hand sewing.
  • Take it slow: Linen thread is dense and stiff, so it can knot easily. Hand stitch slowly and watch for knots before they become too tight to detangle.

Extra strong thread

What is it?

Extra-strong thread is essentially a heavier-weight, heavier-duty version of general purpose sewing thread. It’s perfect for seams that will be subject to heavy stress or undergo a lot of abrasion.

a hand holding black extra strong sewing thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Cushion covers, upholstery, rucksacks, and heavy tote bags.
  • If the topstitch thread color you need isn’t available, extra strong thread can be used as topstitch thread.

Tips for using this thread:

  • As this thread is thicker than general purpose thread, use a thicker needle size, such as a universal 90-110.
  • Heavier weight projects tend to benefit from a longer stitch length, so test this before you begin.
  • This thread is too thick to be used in a bobbin, in most cases.
  • Your machine’s tension may need to be reduced to accommodate the thicker thread.

Topstitch thread

What is it?

The description is in the name, here! Topstitch thread is used for the decorative (but still very functional!) topstitching on items like jeans, denim jackets, canvas bags, and more.

a hand holding golden yellow topstitching thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Topstitching on jeans
  • Jackets, heavier garments, and bags
  • Topstitching on cushions or upholstery

Tips for using this thread:

  • Increase your stitch length slightly when topstitching.
  • Your machine’s tension may need to be reduced, similar to heavy duty thread.
  • Don’t use topstitch thread in your bobbin. Choose a matching general purpose thread instead.
  • Depending on your fabric, you can use a size 90-110 universal needle with this thread, but you can also purchase specific ‘topstitching’ or ‘denim’  needles if needed.
  • Some machines don’t handle zig-zag stitching with thicker thread. If you have trouble, switch to a general-purpose thread in a matching color to sew bar tacks on your jeans.

Jeans / denim thread

What is it?

This specialty thread is purpose-made for denim projects. It’s a special construction with a polyester core for strength, wrapped in a cotton sheath that has been dyed in tonal shades of blue so that it blends in with denim fabric.

When should I use it?

  • Sewing with denim
  • Mending holes in denim

Tips for using this thread:

  • This thread has a cotton sheath, so be sure to clean the dust out of your machine after your project is finished.
  • Use a needle appropriate for your fabric – a universal 90-100 will work for denim.

Upholstery thread

What is it?

Upholstery thread is a specialty thread designed to be strong enough to withstand stress and abrasion. It’s usually nylon or polyester, and there are options available for outdoor versions that are weather and UV-resistant.

When should I use it?

  • Seat cushions and couch covers
  • BBQ covers and outdoor projects
  • Floor poufs
  • This thread can also be used to topstitch these projects, if needed

Tips for using this thread:

  • Research your upholstery thread carefully before buying – some options are designed only for industrial sewing machines, and will be too thick for a regular machine.
  • Nylon options will have a shiny, silky finish. If you choose one like this, a thread net may be useful to keep it from unspooling prematurely.
  • Choose a thicker needle appropriate for your project. If you’re sewing with a particularly dense or coated fabric, leather needles are made with a knife-like tip to better pierce fabric and also protect the thread as the machine stitches.

Tacking / basting thread

What is it?

Tacking thread – also called basting thread – is a fine, lightweight cotton thread designed to be temporary and removable.

When should I use it?

  • Hand basting fabrics to mark darts or notches
  • Padstitching in tailored garments
  • Temporary garment construction to test fit
  • Use as an alternative to pins for pocket placement

Tips for using this thread:

  • This thread isn’t designed to be permanent. It shouldn’t be used for construction, as it’s designed to break easily to make removing basting stitches more efficient.
  • You may need to reduce your machine’s tension if you choose to use this thread for machine basting.

Extra fine thread

What is it?

Extra-fine thread is a 100% polyester specialty thread that is strong, yet very thin and smooth.

When should I use it?

  • Delicate, lightweight fabrics like chiffon or gauze
  • Buttonholes, seam finishes, and decoration on lightweight fabrics.
  • Topstitch lightweight blouses and shirts
  • Piecing, applique, and quilting.

Tips for using this thread:

  • Use a needle appropriate for your fabric – this will likely be a universal or microtex 60-70. Larger needles will leave a hole too big for the thread.
  • It can be used in both the needle and bobbin.
  • Some machines may require a reduced needle tension to prevent thread breakage, while others may require an increased tension due to the thinner thread. Test first, and make a note of the settings your machine needs for next time!

Bobbin fill thread

What is it?

Very similar to extra fine thread, bobbin fill thread is a specialty thread designed to be strong and durable for winding up your spare bobbins. It is thinner than general purpose thread.

a hand holding black bobbin thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Machine embroidery or quilting, only in the bobbin
  • Sewing delicate, lightweight garments, in both needle and bobbin
  • In the loopers of your overlocker for a finer, more delicate-looking finish

Tips for using this thread:

  • For some machine brands, you can purchase bobbins that are pre-wound with bobbin fill thread to save time.
  • Some machines may require a bobbin tension adjustment when using this thread, but only try this after you’ve adjusted your needle thread tension.

Serger / Overlocker thread

What is it?

Serger thread comes on larger cones, and is more cost-effective than general purpose sewing thread. It’s also designed to be a bit fluffy for greater coverage on a serged edge.

a hand holding grey serger / overlocker thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Don’t use it for construction seams in a regular sewing machine – it’s weaker than general purpose thread.
  • Use it in both the needles and loopers of your serger.
  • In a pinch, it can be used instead of basting thread.

Tips for using this thread:

  • Overlockers usually require four threads, so buy a set of four cones in some basic colors you use most frequently – black, white, and grey are great to start with.
  • Use your black, white, or grey spools along with a single matched color spool in your outermost needle if the thread is showing through to the right side of your fabric.
  • For a special touch, try getting two spools of rainbow multicolored thread to add to your loopers for a colorful surprise inside a garment!

Wooly nylon thread

What is it?

Wooly nylon is a multifilament thread – it’s made of multiple thin threads held together. The threads are crimped so they expand and contract, providing elasticity, softness and seam coverage.

a hand holding black wooly nylon thread
Photo credit: Kat Waters

When should I use it?

  • Swimwear and baby clothes
  • Flatlocking seams for activewear
  • Needle and bobbin thread in a regular sewing machine for knits

Tips for using this thread:

  • The most difficult part of working with wooly nylon is threading your machine. Use a needle threader with a large eye to help you, or paint the tip of the thread with some nail polish and allow it to dry before threading your machine.
  • Wooly nylon has a lower melting point than polyester thread, so be sure to iron your seams on a medium to low setting.

Invisible / clear thread

What is it?

Invisible thread has two main types – mono and multifilament. Monofilament is more common and resembles an extremely thin fishing line, while multifilament more closely resembles a traditional sewing thread. Both are made from nylon.

When should I use it?

  • Adding embellishments to tulle
  • Quilting multicolored fabric
  • Low-profile repairs

Tips for using this thread:

  • Choose a high quality brand, such as Gutermann as mettler, as lower quality alternatives have a tendency to break easily during sewing.
  • Multifilament tends to be slightly more visible than monofilament options, but it’s also easier to work with as it has more ‘grip’.
  • As it’s made of nylon, it has a low melting point – be sure to turn your iron down to medium or low!
  • The monofilament variety has a tendency to unspool prematurely, so use a thread net to prevent this.

Elastic shirring thread

What is it?

This thread has an elastic core. It’s specifically designed to be used in the bobbin of your machine for shirring projects.

When should I use it?

  • Shirring or smocking projects
  • Adding elastic to a cuff or waistband

Tips for using this thread:

  • This thread should only be used in the bobbin – use a general purpose thread for your needle.
  • Wind the bobbin by hand: machine winding will add too much tension to the elastic.
  • After shirring, lightly steam your project with your iron to help the elastic shrink to its original length.

Metallic thread

What is it?

There are a wide variety of metallic threads, but the one thing they have in common is their purpose: Adding a bit of sparkle to your sewing projects!

When should I use it?

  • Embellishment and embroidery
  • Adding a personalised touch to garment projects
  • This thread shouldn’t be used for construction seams

Tips for using this thread:

  • If your metallic thread is silky, use a thread net to keep it from unwinding too quickly.
  • Don’t use this thread in the bobbin.
  • If your thread is thicker or has a rough surface, choose a larger needle (90-110) and reduce your needle tension so the thread can flow smoothly through the machine.

Glow-in-the-dark thread

What is it?

It’s a specialty polyester embroidery and embellishment thread. It stores up light and glows in the dark.

When should I use it?

  • Embroidery projects that you wish to glow in the dark
  • Embellishment on children’s clothing
  • Embroidered eyes on spooky stuffed animals
  • Quilting projects

Tips for using this thread:

  • Choose a needle appropriate for your project, around 70-80.
  • Try it with glow in the dark fabric for an extra punch!

Wash-away thread

What is it?

This thread is water-soluble, and designed to dissolve when exposed to water or steam.

When should I use it?

  • Temporary seams, such as when fitting a garment
  • Use it to save time unpicking when you’re temporarily sewing a project, especially one with zig-zag or other hard-to-unpick seams

Tips for using this thread:

  • Some varieties will dissolve with a hot, steamy iron, so submerging in water may not be required.

The difference between low and high quality threads

Choosing a good quality thread can make all the difference to your project. Select a thread from a reputable brand like Coats & Clark, Mettler, or Gutermann, especially if you’re looking for strength.

Lower quality threads have the tendency to shed, leaving fluff in your sewing machine that needs to be cleaned more frequently. They’re more prone to breakage, and may snag or split in your needle.


Thread weights explained

Thread weights can get fairly complicated. Multiple measurements of weight are used in different applications. Unless you’re working on advanced projects (like digitizing machine embroidery or sewing extremely heavyweight upholstery items) you don’t need to worry about thread weight beyond the following:

Most standard, general purpose threads come in 40 or 50wt, and as the numbers increase, the thickness (and therefore strength) of a thread decreases. For example, super-fine threads are around 100wt, and thicker threads like topstitching and extra-strength thread are around 18wt. Thread weights that are thicker than 18wt aren’t suitable for domestic sewing machines.

4 polyester threads in different sizes on a white marble background.
General purpose polyester threads by Gutermann. Photo credit: Sara Maker.

This article was written by Kat Waters.



Sources

(Referenced in January 2022).