The extra flair of metallic thread in an embroidery design can enhance the look of the project. It can also reduce the embroiderer to a state of sobbing despair. That’s why metallic thread has achieved a legendary status of being hard to use.
There are multiple types of metallic thread. The most common type is made by wrapping a polyester core thread with fine metal fibers. This creates more bulk in the thread than you would normally find with non-metallic thread, so a needle with a larger eye is required. If the eye of the needles is not big enough, the metallic component may be pulled off the polyester core, leading to thread breaks.
Many needle brands have a range of needles specifically made for metallic use. Typically the eyes of these needles are both longer and wider than standard needles, which allows the metallic thread to pass through more easily. If you can’t find metallic needles, a good substitute is topstitch needles in larger sizes, e.g. 14. These needles also have a large eye and make a good substitute.
A critical factor in sewing with metallics is how the thread is fed from the spool. If your machine has a horizontal spool holder, the thread will tend to twist as it feeds. This can cause small knots to form before the thread gets to the eye of the needle, and it will then be unable to pass through. Thread that is made from thin strips of Mylar, which is shiny but not actually metallic, is especially prone to problems when fed horizontally. The best way to feed metallic thread is to have the spool mounted vertically so the thread rolls off smoothly.
If it is not possible to mount the thread vertically, or if the thread is wound on a cone, then your best option is to add distance. Use a thread stand and place the thread in a small jar or cup two or more feet behind the machine. This extra distance will minimize the tendency of the thread to knot up in a twist, resulting in much better performance.
Other factors can also contribute to your success or failure with metallic thread. You may prefer to embroider at the fastest speed your machine is capable of, but that can lead to frequent thread breaks. Slowing down to the lowest speed gives the thread more time to squeeze through the needle.
One solution to metallic problems is to use a thread lubricant. You can find such products online and in your favorite sewing store. The prescribed use is to apply it directly to the spool. These lubricants are generally silicon-based, so they don’t stain the fabric. However frequent use of them can cause a buildup of silicon on the tension discs in the machine, resulting in tension problems. You can prevent this by applying the lubricant to the thread after it leaves the tension area, although this is difficult and short lasting. Some people may stick a felt pad to the front of the machine, above the needle and lubricate that. If you follow the instructions and apply the lubricant directly to the spool, follow up by “flossing” the tension after you have finished embroidery. Take a narrow strip of cotton fabric, fold it in half, and run it back and forth through the tension area of your machine with the presser foot raised. This will help to remove residual lubricant. It can also help to remove any thread debris that can cause tension issues.
Speaking of tension, that’s another source of frustration with metallic thread. You may need to increase it or reduce it, depending on the thread. Before starting your embroidery try stitching a decorative embroidery stitch with your machine in ordinary sewing mode. Use a scrap of fabric similar to that used in your project, with the same stabilizer. Adjust the tension up or down until you get the best result. Keep track of the final tension number. When you embroider a metallic thread section adjust the default tension to that same number, but be prepared to adjust further if you have problems.
If your machine is equipped with an automatic thread cutter you should turn it off for any embroidery with metallic thread. The “crunchy” nature of metallics can cause bits of thread to get caught in the cutting mechanism, necessitating a trip to the machine doctor. Cutting metallic thread can also dull the cutting blades, again leading to repairs.
It can be helpful to keep notes with regard to various brands of metallic thread that you use in your embroidery projects. This will make the next project easier and more fun, with less “heavy metal head banging”!