Ten tips for using embroidery floss

selection of embroidery floss with title.

Even if you’ve never tried embroidery, you’ve probably seen embroidery floss. It’s those little skeins of thread that come in hundreds of colours. Maybe your mom or your grandma had a box with it wrapped onto little cards or maybe you used to make knotted bracelets with it.

Embroidery floss is a big part of what makes embroidery a great hobby. It is economical, easy to find and comes in hundreds of colours. Sometimes it is even called “embroidery thread” because it is the most common choice.

pink embroidery floss

Floss comes in eight metre (8-3/4 yd) skeins. They usually have two labels wrapped around them. One of the labels will have the colour marked. This is usually a three or four digit number.

It is made up of six strands of cotton thread. It is easy to separate the strands so that you can get whatever thickness you want.

These tips will make using embroidery floss even easier:

1. Pick a brand and stick with it

There are different manufacturers of embroidery floss. The most popular brands are DMC and Anchor. They are easily available, depending on where in the world you live.

The advantage of sticking with a single brand is consistency. There might be tiny differences in colour and texture that aren’t noticeable in the skein but stand out in your finished stitching project.

Also, the colours are standardized. A DMC #402 will always be the same colour. When I lived in Korea, I was able to go into an embroidery shop and get floss that exactly matched the thread that I brought from Canada.

There is no need to buy every colour right away. You can just get what you need for your project, and know that if you need more for your next project, matching thread is easily available.

2. Avoid bargain floss

Think twice before getting super-cheap thread. It won’t be worth it if the thread breaks when you are stitching or the colours run when you wash a finished project.

I totally support crafting on a budget. There are many high end tools and supplies that are luxuries and not necessities.

Bargain threads are great for crafts like making bracelets or embroidered greeting cards, but if you are going to put the time into embroidering a special piece, do yourself a favour and get a good quality floss.

3. Differentiate from other embroidery threads.

There are many other types of embroidery threads that are not floss. Some are specialty threads that are designed to give different effects with stitching.

different kinds of thread for embroidery.

Also, some discount stores sell thread that looks like embroidery floss, but it is not. The strands don’t separate easily and it has a different finish. See point #2 about using bargain floss.

When you see floss in the store, you see that it clearly is made of different strands that can be separated.

The label on DMC will probably say “mouline” which is French for stranded cotton. This is because it is made in France.

4. Labelling and storage

When starting a new skein, it will feed easily from the end of the thread without getting tangled. But if you are left with a a partial skein after your project, these can be difficult to store.

end of a skein of embroidery floss.

There are different methods for storing embroidery floss, but the most common method is to wrap it on something like a cardboard bobbin or wooden clothes pin.

embroidery floss stored on cardboard bobbins.

No matter what method you use to store your leftover thread, be sure to label the colour. Some of the colours are very close together which is perfect for stitching designs with gradients and fade effects. But it makes it challenging to identify the number that you have.

5. Separate the strands

Embroidery floss is made of six strands of thread. Usually you do not use all six in embroidery. Most commonly two, three or four strands are used.

To separate the strands, begin by cutting the length that you need. Then separate out all the strands individually. Choose the number of threads that you need and lay them together.

embroidery floss separated into six individual strands,

This is called stripping the embroidery floss. The process of stripping helps the floss to lay smoothly in the embroidery.

Avoid taking the six strands and just pulling them apart into two groups. This often leads to tangles and twists in the thread.

6. Use the right needle.

The type of needle you need will be determined by the type of embroidery you are doing. Cross stitch is done with a needle with a dull, rounded tip and crewel and freestyle embroidery are done with a sharp needle.

But regardless of the tip, all needles will have a long, thin eye. This accommodates the strands of floss in stitching. 

crewel embroidery needle

Don’t use a regular sewing needle (sharp) or quilting needle (between) unless you are only using one strand of floss.

Also match the size of the needle to the thread you are using. You don’t want to use a large tapestry needle. It will make the holes in the fabric too large to be filled in.

7. Consider a laying tool

After embroidering for a while, you might want to start using a laying tool to help all the threads to lay perfectly smoothly in your stitching.

Specialty laying tools can be purchased or you can use another needle. This would be a good use for a large tapestry needle.

My grandmother used to use plastic collar stays as laying tools. These are small pieces that used to be tucked into the collars of men’s dress shirts to help them keep their shape. Today, it is probably easier to find an actual laying tool than a collar stay :).

8. Use the right number of strands for your project.

If you are using a pattern, it will probably define how many strands of thread to use. In cross stitch, it will be determined by the count of the fabric you are using.

For surface embroidery, it will be determined by how large you want the elements to be.

If you are not sure of how many strands to use, try three and see how it looks. If you need more or less, then you can adapt.

9. Think about getting a colour chart

If you do a lot of embroidery and like designing your own projects, then a colour chart will be helpful.

A colour chart is a booklet with samples of all the colours of floss made by a manufacturer. You can use it to decide what colours you want.

It is especially helpful if you are ordering online, since you won’t have to rely on the accuracy of a screen for matching.

10. Have fun playing with it.

Remember that embroidery is not rocket science or brain surgery. It is a fun and relaxing hobby.

If you end up using the wrong brand of floss, different colour or too many strands, no one’s life is at risk. You can either just go with it or take it out and start again. Don’t waste so much effort striving for perfection that you take the joy out of stitching.

Enjoy the process.

Here are some fun projects that use embroidery floss:

embroidered pumpkins with title "part one - fabric prep".
house embroidery with title.
embroidered flower picture.

Elizabeth DeCroos - Epida Studio.

Elizabeth DeCroos

Elizabeth DeCroos is the designer and teacher at Epida Studio. She loves to work in quilting, pojagi and embroidery and teach these techniques to others.
Learn more and get her to speak to your group.

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