Thread Matters: Pairing Thread Weight and Needles

Today, I’m delighted to introduce Aurifilosopher Yvonne Fuchs of Quilting Jetgirl! We’ve had the honor of working with Yvonne for nearly 5 years, though she’s been using the threads for much longer. We were thrilled when she joined the Aurifilosophy team and knew that she’d bring her extraordinary knowledge and attention to detail into the role. Yvonne’s patterns are impeccable and her background as an aerospace engineer has certainly informed her approach to the craft. We love seeing each new project that she creates and have so much respect for the creative experimentation that she so generously shares with all of us. HUGE thanks to Yvonne for sharing her process with us here today!

Aurifilosophy has gone Virtual!  Consider scheduling a virtual program for your shop, group, or guild. Learn more about Aurifilosophy and find your favorite Aurifilosopher here.  

Happy Stitching!
— Karen L. Miller


Stone Sheep Mini Quilt by Yvonne Fuchs

Hello, I’m Yvonne Fuchs from Quilting Jetgirl and I am all about making sure you approach quilting with joy. I want you to try new techniques with determination and excitement instead of confusion and frustration. One of my favorite techniques to teach is thread painting, also commonly called free-motion embroidery. I’m here to help you find the perfect pairing of thread weight and needle for your sewing machine, because regardless of if you are thread painting or quilting, knowing the right combination and settings for your machine will take a lot of guesswork and frustration out of all of your future projects!

Aurifil 2600 in 80wt, 50wt, Forty3, 28wt, and 12wt

Today, I am going to walk you through the steps to create a test quilt sandwich so that you can evaluate all the thread weights that you have on hand in combination with a variety of needle sizes. The first place we want to start is by taking a look through our thread stash and picking out a representative selection for the different thread weights that you have on hand. When I took a look through my stash, because I use 2600 (Dove) so much in my work, I was able to find a wide variety of weights using the same color. If your thread weights are in a rainbow of colors, great! It is going to be easier for you to keep your stitching differentiated. 

One thing to consider while you are collecting your thread is what thread you will pair with the top thread in your bobbin. I highly recommend that you pair 80wt on top with 80wt in the bobbin, 50wt on top with 50wt in the bobbin, and, if possible, pair 40wt and thicker threads (Forty3, 28wt, and 12wt) with matching or very close to matching color in 50wt.

Comparison of Front and Back of Stone Sheep Mini Quilt by Yvonne Fuchs

You might be wondering why I’m suggesting keeping a lighter weight thread in the bobbin, which is a great question to ask! I am particularly thinking of using a lighter weight thread in the bobbin due to my interest in dense quilting and thread painting / free-motion embroidery. The more thread that builds up on a project, the harder it is going to be to move the project freely underneath the needle. While we can keep an eye on what is happening at the top of a quilt sandwich or project, it is hard to know how much thread buildup is happening on the back side. I suggest trying to stick with 50wt in the bobbin so that the buildup that is created on the back of the quilt sandwich stays to a minimum. Plus, I promise, it will still turn out to be a beautiful two-sided work of art (see example of the front and back of my Stone Sheep mini quilt above)!

Needle Selection

The next important variable that you will need to locate in your stash is a variety of needle sizes. If you are going to be quilting and working with 80wt, I recommend having as small as a 70/10 or 80/12 needle to test. For thicker threads and for when you plan to quilt densely, I recommend trying 90/14 and 100/16 needles as well. 

In addition to the size of needle, it’s important to note the difference between the point and eye shapes of needles:

  • Microtex or Topstitch needles are sharp pointed needles
  • Topstitching needles have a LONG eye to accommodate thicker threads
  • Embroidery needles have a WIDER eye to accommodate decorative threads
  • Denim/jeans needles are designed to penetrate very thick woven materials

As you can see in the photo above, I have a wide range of needle sizes and eye shapes that I have used and tested with my sewing machine. Because most Aurifil cotton threads are 2-ply (except for Aurifil Forty3 which is a 3-ply thread that stitches very similarly to Aurifil 28wt 2-ply), I have found that when working with thicker thread in bulky situations, a 90/14 or 100/16 topstitch needle is often the right choice for most machines. 

Tip: The heavier the thread weight, a larger needle and needle eye combination will likely make an improvement on stitch quality. It is also a good rule of thumb to slow things down just a little bit when working with thicker thread; it is important that the top thread not be bunched or stretched allowing the ply twists to straighten when quilting. In other words, if you are noticing your thread is shredding near the needle, consider using a larger needle and/or slowing down your speed to reduce how quickly your machine is moving the thread through the needle.

Fat Quarter Test Grid (Front)

Once you know the number of threads you want to test in combination with the number of needles, I suggest marking out a grid on the top of solid fabric fat quarter that will contrast boldly with your thread color selection(s). As you can see above, I tested out 3 needles in combination with 5 thread weights. Each grid space I marked was about 3 inches wide by about 2 inches tall. Label each row and column to help keep you organized, and then it’s time to baste the quilt sandwich (I also highly recommend using a high contrast solid fabric fat quarter for the backing).

I began by using an 80/12 Universal needle and paired it with 80wt on the top and 80wt in the bobbin. It is important to try a few different stitching motifs: if you are going to be doing dense quilting, quilt back and forth on top of the motifs a few times to get a sense for how that feels, sounds, and looks. I recommend a straight stitch free-motion motif and pebbles. The important thing about trying pebbles is that it will test out how the timing and tension is working with the thread/needle combination in all directions that you may move the quilt sandwich.

Once you have made your first test, I recommend keeping the same needle and moving through the rest of the thread weight combinations. In my case, I was able to switch my bobbin to 50wt and leave the bobbin the same for the rest of the combinations, just taking the time to rethread the machine. 

When the first needle has been used for all combinations (and don’t be shy, try out different bobbin weights and explore everything you are curious about while you are taking the time to try this), leave the thread and simply change the needle to the next size and then work backwards back to the first thread weight/bobbin combination.

Fat Quarter Test Grid (Back)

As I was working on my test grid, I had a few issues. With the smaller needle sizes, my 12wt thread shredded. And when I look at the stitch quality on the back of the quilt sandwich, I can tell that the top thread was being pulled to the back of the sandwich as well. For the 80wt thread, the larger two needle sizes left big holes in the quilt sandwich that did not get filled in by the thread, and my thread snapped when using the 90/14 needle. When I ran into difficulty, I tried going faster or slower to see if it had any effect on the quality of the stitches.

Take your time and look at the stitch quality on both the front and back of the test sandwich. Make notes about what happened as you are going: did the thread break with this combination? Write it on the quilt sandwich so you won’t forget!

Fat Quarter Test Grid – Evaluating Stitch Density

And if you are interested in thread painting / free-motion embroidery, once you have found the best combination of needle and thread for your machine, I suggest marking out additional 1-inch square grids on the test sandwich and testing out densely filling in those squares with thread. How many layers thick can you build up before your machine bogs down? What does it look like to layer thinner thread weights (80wt, 50wt) on top of thicker thread weights (28wt, 12wt)? Or thick thread on top of thin? Loose density quilting on top of dense quilting? Dense quilting on top of loose quilting?

Deep Dive Mini Quilt by Yvonne Fuchs

Once you have found the best needle combination for different Aurifil weights on your machine with this test sample, you will be ready to quickly get set up for your next project. The test sample is perfect to keep around to add to when you get a new thread weight or needle. 

On my Juki TL-2200QVP Mini, these are the thread and needle combinations that work the best for me when thread painting:

  • 80wt top thread – 80wt bobbin – Universal 80/12
  • 50wt top thread – 50wt bobbin – Universal 80/12
  • 40wt top thread – 50wt bobbin – Universal 80/12
  • 28wt top thread – 50wt bobbin – Embroidery 90/14
  • 12wt top thread – 50wt bobbin – Topstitch 100/16
  • 40wt/3 ply top thread – 50wt bobbin – Topstitch 100/16

Want to learn more about my thread painting / free-motion embroidery process? Be sure to read my Stone Sheep mini quilt series on my website.


ABOUT YVONNE
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Yvonne Fuchs is a Hawaii based Aurifil Aurifilosopher, passionate modern quilter, designer, and technical editor. Yvonne maintains her own blog called Quilting Jetgirl where she shares her quilts, tips and tutorials, and approach to quilting that is influenced by her aerospace engineering background. In her free time, Yvonne loves to hike, snorkel, and work on a 3-acre homestead with her husband.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for all your help with thread painting and needle size!! I too LOVE Aurofil thread. I discovered it at VQF in Burlington, Vt some years ago and then worked at a quilt shop that sold it there. Keep sharing your wisdom!!

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