12 types of Metallic thread for Sewing {& Tips for Metallic embroidery}

sewing with metallic thread

What is Metallic embroidery thread ?

Metallic thread generally refers to the round, twisted speciality thread that is created by twisting and bonding a fine metallic foil around a strong core to create an exceptionally smooth, strong and pliable thread. The resultant thread has the shine of a real metal – be it silver, gold or bronze. They are mostly available in the shades of soft silver, silver, black-gold, bright gold, copper, and soft gold. 

Nowadays Metallic thread looks like they are made of metal but are actually made of a synthetic material. But earlier Metallic thread used to consist of thin strips of metal (usually silver) wrapped around a silk or linen fiber; Now it is made with a special type of plastic coated with metallic finish.

metallic embroidery

They are usually used in combination with other embroidery thread – both in machine embroidery as well as hand embroidery . In cross stitch, needle point blackwork and other embroidery techniques they are used as a highlight, giving the work an opulence and grandeur.

In goldwork embroidery metallic threads are used on their own fully, in all their glory – as a filling stitch as well as outline stitch.

From ancient times tapestries, garments, and furnishings were embroidered with golden thread. Metallic threads have been used for centuries by the clergymen and the royalty to denote their exalted status. The military uniforms were embellished with golden thread ( as they are even today) Even today metallic thread brings a kind of dignity to fabric they are used on and are extensively used

metallic thread

Different types of Metallic threads for embroidery

1 Passing thread

This is a thin metallic thread which is widely used for sewing as well as couching. It is smooth flexible, firm and durable. There are two types of passing thread – Smooth passing thread which is very thin flat and slightly stiff; this is thin metal wrapped around a thread core in a spiral manner. You can sew with it as well as couch it. The other type of passing thread has a slight crimp on it, beacuse of which this thread will have some difficulty going through fabric . This thread is also known as glace ( wavy passing thread)

2 Braids 

You get two types of metallic braids – hollow and flat. Fine braids are used for cross stitch, needle point and machine embroidery. Tapestry braids and canvas braids are more heavy and are used for couching

3 Cord /twist (Torsade in French)

A cord is a speciality metallic thread made up of various threads twisted together. A twist is a twisted cord. This is mostly used in gold work and for couching. You can get twists/ cords in varying thickness and in different colors. You can separate the strands of twists and sew them separately as well.

There are many different kinds of metallic cords and twists in the market – two cords twisted together to become one bigger cord , braided cords, flat wires wound around a heavier cord.A gimp cord is a cord made of three golden strands twisted together and is used for outlining stitches.Grecian twist is a beautiful twist made of twisting 4 strands of bright gold and dull gold together.Cannetille is a spirally twisted thread of gold or silver.

4 Japan thread

Jap is another name for this metallic thread, mostly used for couching. This is mainly used in oriental embroidery.

Earlier it used to be made of real gold . The gold was beaten into a very thin sheet and cut into small strips and wound in a spiral manner around a core of silk. Today you get alloy or a metallized polyester bonded to a paper base wound around a core thread of rayon or silk. It doesnot tarnish at all and so is highly regarded and widely used in gold work

This thread is wound on a square spool called Koma.

5 Crinkle

This is a metallic thread which is formed of metal wire wrapped around a cotton thread core with a crinkled appearance. It is usually used for couching

6 Bullion / Purl

Purl is a  metallic thread with a tube like shape – the hollow coil like shape makes it very soft and pliable. A  Bullion is a larger variety of purl thread.

There are many types of bullion thread / purl thread according to their appearance : Check bullion has a faceted and shiny and sparkly surface; It is a flat thin wire woumd around a triangular form; Bright bullion is a Round and smooth flat wire bullion which is very shiny and smooth( Smooth purl) ;Wire bullion / Rough purl is a metallic thread with a smooth and matt surface( not as shiny as other bullion). 

Purl is usually cut into small pieces and threaded and  used just like beads. Checkout the post on zardosi embroidery work ( also zardozi work) for details on how to use the bullion thread to make beautiful embroidery

zardosi embroidery work

7 Pearl Purl metallic thread

Also called Jaceron purl ,this is a stiff specialty thread which is a hollow spring like coil -made by winding stiff wire around a thin tubular form.This purl thread consists of tightly packed coils which make it look like gold pearls lined up together. It is stiff and firm than other purl thread, though at first glance you wouldnot know the difference.

8 Tambour thread

This is a very fine metal thread. It is used in couching to lay the couched thread. As it is real metal it may tarnish.

9 Lurex thread

This is a registered trade name for a synthetic metallic thread  wrapped around a cotton core instead of a real metal thread.The advantage of lurex thread is that it will not tarnish with time . It is used instead of tambour thread to lay couching because of its ability to withstand tarnishing of real metal threads. 

10 Plate

Plate is a narrow flat band/strip of metal. There are two types of plates – a plain flat broad plate and a broad plat with a wire wrapped around it. It is usually laid flat against the surface of the fabric and couched.They were made of real metals earlier now they are metallic coloured laminated films

11Gota patti

Gota patti refers to metal pieces cut from metallic ribbon and appliqued on to fabric with fine thread. This is an Indian embroidery technique and embroidered in elaborate patterns all over the fabric. This exquisite embroidery is a regular work done on bridal trousseaus in India.

12 Wire

Milliary wire usually consists of two wires with one wire coiled around another. They are used for outlining , for couching and for beading works. Roccoco is a type of metallic thread which consists of fine wire tightly wrapped around a cotton core.

What supplies are needed for doing metallic embroidery.

  • Metallic  thread

It can be difficult to find the best Metallic thread for sewing machines. You will have to test with several brands available at your place before you throw away the notion of doing metallic embroidery. Find one tiny bit of stretch to them so that you can sew with a lot less breakage .

  • Suitable needle
  • Scissors.

A serrated-edge embroidery scissors are best for cutting real metal threads.  If you do not have this type of scissors you can use a disposable razor blade. I would not use my scissors ( ie use regular ones for cutting metallic thread because they will be ruined). Or You can keep a separate scissors for this purpose alone.

  • A pair of tweezers – this comes very hand when doing hand metallic embroidery
  • Some glue / fray check

 I use this on cut edges of the metal thread as glued thread goes through needle faster – after it is dried of course.Fray check helps in keeping the twisted threads from unravelling

  • Thread lubricant

This can be helpful if you are sewing metallic thread on your machine. Thread lubricant is applied on the thread as well as directly to the top of your needle, close to where the needle is secured to your machine.

When you start sewing with metallic thread you realise some facts

  • It is not stretchy , so it breaks frequently
  • It has difficluty going through the eye of the needle and frustrates you.
  • It tangles and knots at the drop of a hat

I think that I should have titled this post – metallic thread problems and their solutions -because there are so many frustrations and problems that you encounter when you start working with this beautiful thread – for machine embroidery as well as hand embroidery. They are all solvable ofcourse – like any problem in life.

Guidelines to do  Metallic embroidery on a sewing machine

Always hoop the fabric and keep the surface taut

Not all metallic threads are suitable for machine embroidery. Some threads/cords can be, some cannot be used on machines. You will have to read the fine print on the thread to ensure the one you have is suitable.

Which needle to use with metallic thread on your sewing machine

You need special needle to sew with metallic thread if you plan to do a lot of it. a top stitch needle would do very well. There are special metallic needles available which can withstand long hours of sewing ( and abrasion ) with the metallic thread. They have a larger hole to accommodate the thicker metallic threads

Most of the guidelines for using sewing machine needles work when working with metallic thread – like changing the needle every project or 10 hours of sewing

You will need to buy different sizes of needles if you plan to tackle many projects with metallic thread. Usually a fine fabric calls for a finer needle than a heavy weight fabric

Make sure that you always store metallic thread upright without mixing with other thread and away from heat and light. You can stack in  a plastic container and store it separately so that it doesnot loose its shine with abrasion with other objects.

Always run the sewing machine a little slower when sewing with metallic thread

The most important thing when sewing with metallic thread is to use a maintained sewing machine free of lint and dirt. You can checkout the sewing machine maintainance tutorial for more details on this. Some people do the cleaning every 3 months or so( not me).

Try sewing with regular tension on our machine first on a test scrap. If this is not right change it slightly and see – usually lowering the tension a bit works.

How to deal with thread issues in the machine when doing metallic embroidery

Thread issues like twisting and tangling and knotting are common  when working with metallic thread on your sewing machine; then there are the thread breaking and splitting. 

Most of the time the metallic thread starts to tangle when using it . You may have to rethread the machine to see if it solves the problem. If thread breaks after sometime of using the metallic thread, change the needle and see. It maybe also be that the thread has dried out in your cupboard. A thread lubricant can help. You can also use some steam on it ( keep it in a shower area just after you have had a hot shower) to re-moisturise it.

kimono diy

Hand embroidery with metallic thread

In hand embroidery most of the time the metallic thread is couched onto the surface of a fabric and another silk thread in the same colour or tambour thread ( gold thread) is used to fasten the thread and keep it in place. Checkout the post on couching to see how it is done.Hand sewing silk thread should be used for good results.

After the couching is done the ends of the thread will be exposed. Usually this thread is carried to the back of the fabric ( you will have to make a hole in the fabric to take the thread to the back )and knotted or weaved among the back thread

Treat bullions/ purls very gently. They look beautiful when used properly. But the coils can unwind easily and leave the thread unusable. You can cut them into small pieces and thread through the hollow inside and use them just like beads ( more pliable and beautiful than any type of beads I know)

Do not cut long strands of metallic thread. Short strands of 18 inch would work. Longer thread will get spoiled with abrasion with the fabric and may also get tangled

If you are using very heavy metallic thread and is embroidering on a very fine cloth you may have to use another layer of fabric as interfacing

When doing cross stitch and other embroidery you may need to take out a single thread from the 12 or so strands of thread. Pull that one single strand from the bunch and cut it off. Straighten the rest of the bunched up thread.This is better than separating the strands one by one.

You should also use a bigger needle with a large enough eye with metallic thread

How to care for fabric with metallic embroidery

Silver threads will tarnish,Gold ones will not. Synthetic thread never tarnishes, be it gold or silver. So you have to see what make is your thread before caring for them. Dry cleaning may not be suitable for some kind of threads like the Japan thread

Be very careful when pressing a fabric embroidered with metallic threads. The metallic can melt with too much heat. Pressing from the back is better, that too with a pressing cloth

You should not overexpose metallic thread to too much sunlight or fluorescent light. Dry the fabric in shade for long lasting

The gold embroidery thread may irritate skin if they come into contact directly with skin. You may have to line or use facing or wear a slip inside a garment embroidered with metallic threads

Do not use bleach on fabric with metallic embroidery. Discolouration is a sure result. Also Keep metallic embroidered fabric away from sulfide-containing products such as rubber, urethane, or leather. Sulfide may cause discoloration or darkening by oxidation

Make sure that the metallic embroidered fabric is not exposed to wood, cigarette smoke, damp or acid.

Oxides in the air will cause tarnish on metallic thread so do not store in open. A fabric bag would come handy to store these fabrics/ you can also use acid free tissue paper to wrap the project in storage. 

With regular washing the metallic thread may tarnish, discolour or distort. So doing this metallic embroidery on a garment you intend to wash often is a mistake. I would suggest that you make use of this exquisite embroidery on home decor projects, brooches, wall hangings etc which will not have to be washed very often/ at all.

All real metal threads ( other than the synthetic ones) will eventually tarnish and they turn dark brown or black over a period of time.So do not be emotionally attached to your project. You will be less sorry when they do.Their opulence compensates for all the frustrations and problems in sewing with metallic thread, ofcourse.

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