Floss Cotton and the Honeybees of Smooth

No this isn’t exactly a story. Call it a learning experience with attached musings and explanations. And yes, we’re talking embroidery again, but don’t let that put you off. Meanwhile, in other news, I have some part-time work again. Only temporary, but it’s good to be in paid employment once more.

Back to the two Yellow Mats of my last-but-one posting. Yellow Mat One – that’s the finished one, this one –Yellow Mat Onewas beset with problems. The main problem was the thread, which was not robust enough to go through the closely-woven linen without fluffing up. Particularly as I didn’t always get the needle in exactly the right place first time, so was undoing a lot of stitches. (Sometimes it seemed I was working backwards more often than forwards. It gets like that some days!) I was using a single strand of stranded cotton – you may call it cotton floss, sticktwist, mouliné, it’s all the same stuff. I wasn’t using an economy brand, this was DMC thread and the thread was in good condition. But I struggled to stitch with it, even after I started making sure that I was working with the nap of the thread, not against it.

Stranded cotton has a nap?

No, not that kind of nap, Flossie!

Yes, it does. It’s not a very noticeable nap with good brands. (I’d never paid any attention to which end of the thread went into the needle before. I’ve never needed to. It’s never made any visible difference to the finished stitching before.) Yellow Mat One showed me that even that tiny difference could matter when the going gets tough.

How do you find out which end is which? Well, the simplest way is to run a strand between your fingers – in one direction it will run very smoothly, in the other direction it’s just not quite so smooth. It’s nothing like as noticeable as stroking a cat’s fur the wrong way (I’ve never yet had a strand of thread turn around and claw my hand, either). But when it matters, you want have the nap running from the end that goes into the needle to the end that you stitch into the fabric; so that as you pull it through the fabric, the fabric is not rubbing the fibres the wrong way.

This may sound horribly time-consuming, but once you’ve found the nap on one of the six strands in a length of cotton, all rest will run the same way, and other lengths cut from the same end of the skein will also run the same way. How you store cut lengths so that you know which way up they are when you get them out of your sewing bag is up to you. My current best idea is to keep them in a loose hitch, as I usually do, but leave the two legs of the hitch unequal lengths – the long one is the tail and the short one is the needle end. It’s not a perfect storage solution. Suggestions welcome!

Okay, back to the story. Using the thread the right way around certainly helped with Yellow Mat One. It wasn’t perfect and I was still wasting a lot of thread and having to make a lot of repairs, but it was better. Eventually I finished the mat.

Now we come to Yellow Mat Two. The new one. Good thread again, this time a shiny new skein of Anchor Stranded, but still fluffing up and still very hard to get through the fabric. Worse, the strand actually broke a couple of times while I was stitching.

What do I check when cotton breaks?

The first check is the most obvious thing: Is the eye damaged on the needle? Mine wasn’t actually broken, but it was bent and battered and could have had a rough edge in the eye. I sent that needle into retirement.

Second check: Is the needle big enough? Now this is quite a tough question. You want it small enough that you can get it into the right holes in the fabric. (It’s hard to see what you are doing with a big needle obscuring your view.) And on a closely woven fabric, you can’t get a very big needle through easily. But you want it big enough that the thread can get through without too much wear and tear. I had been using one of the smallest tapestry needles I have, a size 26. The replacement would be a size 24. One size larger.

The third check is worth doing any time you start stitching: Do you have a broken nail or a rough edge on jewellery or anything else that might be catching the thread? Oops! Yes, a split fingernail. Short pause for a five-minute manicure. (An emery board is useful in a travelling stitching bag – just keep it away from anything it could scratch.) I think the split nail on the worn thread was definitely the cause of the breaks.

There’s a fourth check, a very important one, if you don’t already do it from habit. That is: Are you sure you are not stressing the thread in the needle’s eye when you pull the thread through? It’s easy to do – especially when the fabric is hard to stitch through – so it’s worth getting into the habit of holding the needle and thread properly when you pull the thread. It seems awkward at first, but persevere with it. It will become second nature eventually. Here’s the grip:

The first finger and thumb grip the needle, then the second and third fingers trap the thread. So as you come to the end of the pull, all the stress is on the area of thread held between your second and third fingers. It’s not on the tiny bit of thread passing through the needle’s eye.

You probably already know to move the thread in the needle from time to time as well, so that same area isn’t always getting the wear. A slight digression: the risk of wear on the thread is one good reason not to loop one thread through the needle when stitching with doubled thread. The cut ends should go through the needle, if you use thread doubled. An obvious exception is for threading beads if you can’t get the thread through the holes any other way. I know that parents and teachers tell young children to fix the needle in a loop of thread – it saves a lot of dropped needles! But as soon as you are old enough to know better, you’d be wise to only put the cut ends into the needle, as if they were a single thread.)

And again back to the story. Having checked off points one, two, three and four, I tried again. This time the stitching went noticeably better. Better – but not as well as I’d liked. No more breaks, but I was still getting fluffing, and every stitch correction was making the thread more and more ragged. Who would rescue Floss Cotton from going to pieces on the Harsh Linen of Doom?

Cue the sound effects: the drone of the engines as the squadron races across the sky….

Back before the machine-perfect thread we take for granted today, before cotton was treated by ‘mercerisation’ and mechanically honed to silky-smoothness, there was beeswax. A wax holder was as normal a component of a sewing box as the scissors.

You don’t really want to use it when you can avoid it, but if you need to strengthen a frail thread on its journey through the hostile territory of awkward fabric and keep it from fluffing, beeswax is magic.

You can still buy special holders and expensive wax from shops that carry quilting supplies. (Hand-quilters often still like to use it to toughen up their quilting threads as they shove them through all the layers of cloth and batting.) You can also try a honey stall at a farmer’s market or talk to a beekeeper – they’ll sell you a chunk with no fancy holder, but at a far less fancy price. And all you do is pull the thread across the wax firmly, keeping under your thumb. (Pull it with the nap, remember – don’t rub the thread up the wrong way.) You might need to make two or more passes, but one may be enough, especially after threads have started to wear a little groove in the block, which lets the wax coat them more easily. It will make an alarming squeaky-creaky noise but don’t worry. You may overdo the wax a bit and end up with something as stiff as a cat’s whisker, but really you just need enough to give it that little bit of body – just enough to smooth things along nicely. It’s a matter of experience. Oh yes, you get that faint smell of wax and honey, too. (Hay fever, asthma and eczema sufferers – do make sure that you are not allergic to beeswax before you use it.)

Yellow Mat 2 in progress 16-05-2012

So now Yellow Mat Two is progressing remarkably swiftly. Despite the extra time taken in waxing the thread, I am working much faster than I was without the wax on Yellow Mat One. I haven’t had to spend so much time struggling with the thread. It’s also proving easier to cut the fabric away without snipping through the surrounding stitches, because they are not fluffy. No more stopping to rework damaged blocks. I’ve got this far with the first border already – the surface stitchery complete and the cutting and lace stitches well under way. I’ve done just over half the surface stitchery on the second border, too. I am delighted – I’m making much, much faster progress than I expected to. The stiffer, faintly tacky-feeling thread is not as pleasant to work with as untreated thread, but I am happy to put up with that in exchange for easier stitching.

This is an experiment, so I have yet to find out how easily I can remove the wax from the thread afterwards, and find out if the sheen of the cotton will revive (it looks a little dull with wax on it, but I assume that the gloss will come back when the wax goes). I will report the results of this experiment when I get to the cleaning and pressing stage, even if it all ends in hopeless failure. Meanwhile, so far, so good!

2 Responses to “Floss Cotton and the Honeybees of Smooth”

  1. From tailoring, I was taught to wax and then iron the thread (under a cloth to save getting wax on the iron). This softens the thread down a bit from the waxing and removes the ‘matt’ finish of waxed thread. You can also wax several threads together and then iron.

    • suetortoise Says:

      Thank you Rosemary. That sounds like a useful tip – as long as you have an iron handy when you are stitching. I rarely do, as most of my stitching is done while I’m away from home. I usually press my work after stitching anyway, with absorbent paper to take up the wax, so the thread loses any dull, hard look at that point. I’ve been pleased with how nicely the shine comes back. But if for any reason I couldn’t press the finished work and I really needed waxed thread, I’d definitely try your method.

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