The Free Motion Quilting Project: A Thread Story

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Thread Story

One of the number one questions I get both online via email and in person is "What thread do you use?"

It's an important question that a lot of quilters put stock in, particularly when you're doing stuff like this with your quilting:

But the thread you use is even more important if you're making bed and baby quilts because these will be washed so many times, drug around, and generally abused.

free motion quilting | Leah Day
So here's the deal: for free motion quilting, I only use Isacord Polyester Thread. For piecing and applique, I use Gutterman Cotton or Mettler Metrosene.

I've come to use these threads after experimenting and finding what worked the best, not only for my machine, but also my budget.

Here's the full story about how I came to use Isacord on my quilts, and so far at least, I haven't been struck my lightning, seen a quilt get shredded, or experienced anything to show that this was a bad choice.

When I started quilting, I believed in the Cotton on Cotton on Cotton propaganda. You know - the idea that quilters can only use cotton fabric, with a cotton batting, stitched with cotton thread?

I don't know where I learned this from, but I know I believed in it religiously when I first got started quilting.

I happily pieced my quilts, then basted them with a cheap cotton batting from Walmart. At first, I quilted with cotton Coats and Clarks thread, but soon found spools of serger thread to be cheaper.

Of course, this was back when I quilted only with my walking foot, so the thread didn't need to be super strong since the walking foot was doing all the work.

I can remember the huge balls of lint I was pulling out of my machines during this time. I could quilt for a few hours and by the evening, I was pulling out tablespoons of lint from my bobbin case.

I thought this was normal at the time, and just got into the habit of brushing out my machine every single day. Unfortunately I couldn't remove the covers to a Viking machine I was using at the time, and I ended up breaking a part in the bobbin case after it clogged with so much lint.

The man that fixed it warned me then to start looking for threads that wouldn't produce so much lint.

So I began trying new things. As I progressed through the beginning stages of quilting, I began to play with many different threads from rayon to invisible. While I like the idea of invisible thread, I've never liked it on my quilts. It kind of gives me a weird feeling, like I'm quilting with plastic.

It wasn't until I started quilting The Duchess that I began to see that cotton thread might not be all it's cracked up to be. By this time I was using a higher quality Gutterman 100% cotton, but the lint buildup in the machine was still ridiculous. I was also struggling to quilt designs like Pebbling and Paisley because I couldn't travel stitch much at all before the thread would break.

The stitches on the quilt didn't look that great to my eyes. From reading Karen McTavish's books I'd learned about Bottom Line bobbin thread. Trying it out and seeing that super fine, super thin thread on the surface of my quilt made the cotton look like a child's crayon drawing in comparison.

Suddenly I saw no lint building up, and no longer had to obsess about brushing my machine out every night to remove those hair balls. Unfortunately, my machine didn't like Bottom Line thread very much. I loved it, but my machine ate it more than it stitched with it!

There's nothing I hate more than sitting down to my machine, starting to stitch, and breaking thread. Something about it sets my teeth on edge, and I just never could get the hang of using that thread.

By this time I'd finished quilting The Duchess and had been asked to quilt the raffle quilt, Baskets in Bloom, for my local quilt guild. I went to a local quilt shop and began looking around. There HAD to be more threads available that could handle the speed of free motion quilting the way I wanted to quilt.

free motion quilting | Leah DayI brought home a couple different spools of cotton blends, Mettler Metrosene, and Isacord. After stitching samples and breaking thread a few times on the other threads, I tried the spool of Isacord.

What a difference! Finally a thread that fed smoothly and evenly, didn't skip stitches, didn't built up massive amounts of lint, and my machine didn't want to eat it for lunch!

Isacord wasn't as thin as Bottom Line Thread, but it also isn't as thick as cotton. It's much stronger too and doesn't break or shred, even when I stitch over my stitching lines multiple times.

Of course, I did try mismatching threads for awhile too and even tried using Isacord in the top of the machine and Bottom Line in the bobbin. While it's a nice combination, I could never get my tension just right, which is why I now religiously match my threads.

Whatever thread I'm using in the top of the machine, that exact same thread is going in the bobbin.

In the end, I was ready to settle down with one thread. After going through so many headaches, after trying so many different brands and types, I was ready to settle down with one thread that I knew would always work, and could always be relied upon.

And this is what I think you should do too! Don't just take my word for it that Isacord is awesome - go try other things! Pull out your thread stash and try everything you have before you settle on a thread just for free motion quilting.

Of course, everyone is going to have a different experience and opinion. My opinion is that polyester thread allows me to quilt in the way I want. If I didn't use Isacord, I couldn't quilt this way. The thread breaks and lint build up would drive me bananas first!

free motion quilting | Leah Day
For piecing, I find that my collection of Gutterman Cotton and Mettler Metrosene can still be put to good use. I like to use a thread for piecing that is very thin, but also rough so the fibers kind of stick to the cotton fabric.

I just find Isacord too slick for piecing or applique. Again, this is all down to personal experience! You've got to give yourself permission to try a lot of different things before settling on what works for you.

Don't stick with the All Cotton, Only Cotton, Always Cotton propaganda just because it's what you've heard and accepted. If it's not working for you, chances are there's something that will work better.

So many quilters email me asking what could help their free motion quilting ability. Almost everyone wants to blame their machine, but more often the real culprit for breaking threads and skipped stitches is the thread you're using.

Whatever you decide to use, make sure to match it. Use the same thing in the top as you're using in the bobbin and you'll have a lot less headaches and tension issues when you try free motion quilting.

Let's go quilt,

Leah Day


  1. Who makes Fine Line? Is it the same thickness as Bottom Line from Superior?

  2. Sorry Anya! I'm an idiot - the correct name is Bottom Line. I'm off to change that in the post...

    Thanks for pointing it out!


  3. thanks so much for this great information!

  4. I'm not surprised you didn't like Bottom Line for quilting. It is really a bobbin thread. I have a long arm and started with almost all Superior threads but I also use Isacord and LOVE it. You are right about it being a great thread. I love that there is virtually NO lint and that is never breaks and you get wonderful tension with it, not to mention it comes in tons of gorgeous colors. So, you are SPOT ON! Great post.

  5. great article leah! i have friends who use isacord and want to give it a go myself. i've been piecing with a very fine metrolene poly thread for years and my machine and i love it!

  6. I'm a huge believer of trying out different threads and see what you like best. Years ago, I did manage to settle on a good piecing thread - Aurifil - medium grey - 50 wt. I used to use a 40 wt but like 50 better. Its cotton, but the lint build up is way better than other cottons I've used. Also - since I get it in the big honkin' cones - its much cheaper. I do use it in my bobbin for piecing. Now that said - I've used EVERYTHING for FMQ. Whatever looks best in the quilt is what I used - love bottom line too - also a good bobbin threads. Even used Poly's and rayons to hand quilt (gasp!)

  7. The last quilt I did was all cotton. But that was because some of the recipient's kids are allergic to polyester. We received a baby blanket for on of the kids that was quilted with invisible on the front and something else on the back. It looks nice, but it is uncomfortable on the skin. I couldn't use it for my babies.

    My understanding is that cotton = heirloom. Not as in the highest quality, but something that is more likely to last a hundred years. I have little idea of how long it would take for polyester to deteriorate - but it will be more than long enough for almost every quilter's projects. It will be for mine. I'm not storing them in a box. They are to be seen, used, and appreciated.

  8. No, you're not an idiot, Leah! I just was curious to know if there was another thread out there similar to Bottom Line. I love to use Bottom Line in my mid-arm when I want the thread to almost disappear. And it makes for a lot fewer bobbin changes! Thanks for all the info you share with your fellow quilters, Leah!

  9. It's interesting that you didn't mention Aurifil at all. That's the one I have used for a long time, for everything: machine piecing, machine quilting, and even hand-piecing and applique. When you buy it on 6,452-yard cones, you get a real value for your money.

  10. Great info here. I feel like it was a light bulb moment when you said use the same thread on top and bottom. Last time I picked up my machine the tech said it was filthy. Not just in the bottom, but all up inside also and I clean the lint out constantly. I've been trying different threads, but fell into the cotton myth. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  11. I appreciate the fact that you encourage readers to give different things a try to see if it works for their situation.

    It's freeing to know that you're not crazy if something isn't working for you - especially when you're just starting!

    I wanted to love Isacord. I really did. I used it for a couple of small projects and was very disappointed. And un-sewing was a nightmare.

    Like Linda and Nina-Marie, I'm a big Aurafil fan. I use it for everything. I've tried many types of thread, and Aurafil is my choice.

    As far as lint goes, my routine is that I use up three bobbins, then clean the lint out of my bobbin case and put a drop of sewing machine oil in the mechanism before I put the 4th bobbin in. As long as I do that, I have no problems.

    Thank you for a thoughtful article!

    All the best - Chris

  12. Leah,

    I use Isacord and LOVE it. It is like butter, no lint, no breakage, and great stitches. I use it for piecing sometimes too. It is all about what works best for what you are doing.

  13. Great Post - thanks for the information - every quilter should have this knowledge in front of them when they are choosing treads for their projects!

  14. Leah -- I have used Isacord for thread painting and embroidery but I've never tried it for quilting. I'm going to try it. I'm sure that it will work because you haven't steered me wrong yet. I also have a midarm machine and frame and I see that some of the posters have commented that they use it for that as well. I love all the wonderful information you provide. I also enjoy free motion quilting so much. I have the big machine and frame and I do use it for many projects, but my true love is free motion. There's just something about having your hands on the quilt and the design flowing from your heart into the project -- satisfaction at its best! Thanks so much for all your inspiration and information!

  15. Hi Leah,
    Great summary! I like Metrolene a lot. It is so thin, yet so tough. Mettler recently changed their whole line from metro.... to Sera....

    Seracor (metrocor) is also thin, tough but matte, if someone wants that instead.

    Maybe you should mention that, in case someone is looking for it.


  16. Beautiful quilts! Thank you for referencing our Poly vs. Cotton myth too. Education is the key to successful quilting! (plus many other things :)

  17. Thank you for posting this! I was struggling with free motion quilting my first quilt and I kept skipping stitches and had tons of lint buildup. I was using cotton thread. I was getting so fed up, I searched the web for answers. I came across your site. I have been on here before as my mom regularly visits your site and recommended it.

    Long story short, I have an embroidery machine and use only Isacord thread with that machine. So I decided to try your recommendation of using Isacord with the free motion quilting. Oh my word! No more skipped stitches, no more lint. I was able to finish the quilting with no issues. It looks fabulous! Thank you for your project and learning so you can teach the rest of us how to quilt better.

  18. Thank you for this info. I struggled so much this week trying to FMQ a baby quilt. I used the slider but did drop the dog feeds. I will reinstate and leave stitch length at zero. I did mix my threads so that could also be a problem. Thank you for the Isacord recommendation. I have not tried it.

  19. This sounds intriguing. I got a new Pfaff last year and when I free motion it breaks threads ALL THE TIME!!! I've had my machine looked at, and nothing is wrong. I will try this thread and see if it makes a difference. I know I need to do something about a better table. I like your Ikea post...Thanks for all the wonderful information!

  20. Does isacord melt when hit with a hot iron?

  21. Wren - I've tested this many times and never found Isacord to melt, fray, or discolor when ironed. This thread is used to topstitch medical scrubs so I think it's made to take the heat!



  22. The Isacord thread, is it the embroidery thread? Does it have a sheen or matte finish?
    The thread I'm currntly using is rather linty. I love Aurifil, just not in the budget right now, darn.


  23. Rory - Yes, Isacord is an embroidery thread with almost no lint. I honestly don't clean out my machine more than once every 2 months because the lint is so minimal.

    The sheen is kind of in between shiny and matte if that makes sense. It's not super shiny, but it's also not a flat finish. I guess it's more of a subtle shine.



  24. Once again, Leah. You have pointed me in right direction.
    I am really new to quilting (4 months now). My first experience with quilting was with stitching in the ditch with cotton thread. I then experimented with Superior threads (Sigma) and I got decent results, although not stellar results. I finally shelled out the big bucks for a cone of Isacord thread. Part of the improvment may have to do with the increase of experience, but I do have to credit this particular thread.

  25. Thanks for giving me permission to NOT use cotton thread. I am working on a class sampler in machine quilting. I have done straight lines with my walking foot before, so no problems there. Then I moved on to free motion. I am using a 40 weight cotton thread. I have fiddled with the foot, the tension, the feed dogs, the needle and anything else I can think of to fiddle with and still am getting all kinds of problems. Unfortunately, it's a Sunday and I won't find a quilt shop open to purchase any Isacord to see if this will work...

  26. I am so glad that I found this post. I have a brand new Janome Horizon 8900, which I really like. I'm enjoying it very much EXCEPT I absolutely cannot FMQ with it and I was using Bottom Line thread. I brought the machine back to the dealer this afternoon because I just couldn't get the machine to sew properly - or so I thought. Of course, at the dealer, the machine sewed beautifully, but she was using a Gutterman poly. I brought the machine home, and the problem returned immediately - I was using Bottom Line. Switched to Gutterman poly and then again Sulky - no problems.


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