The Awkward Squad: Rayon and Synthetic Metallic Threads

rayon and metallic thread jumble

I was already planning to write a piece about using rayon threads – which have a reputation for being ‘difficult’. When Mary Corbet recently reviewed the DMC metallic thread Diamant on her blog, Needle’n’Thread last week, the comments following that review prove that a great many stitchers have had bad experiences with synthetic metallics or are wary of ever trying them.

I don’t claim to have the “One True Method” for using these threads, but I am sufficiently happy with both that I no longer worry about using them. I hope this post will encourage you to give rayon and metallics a try. Do let me know how you get on. If you have other tips or suggestions or questions to share don’t be shy – I always enjoy getting constructive comments here on Tortoise Loft.

Strawberries and Gillyflowers Let’s start with rayon. My first serious piece of rayon work was this picture, Strawberries and Gillyflowers, which I made last year. I’ve already blogged a bit about it. I used  machine embroidery rayon from various sources, including cheap, unbranded Indian rayon and Gütermann Sulky Rayon 40. The detached buttonhole stitch on this piece is all worked with two threads in the needle.

All of these machine embroidery rayon threads are 2-ply filament twist. You can tease the two plies apart carefully and use one or moreof them as flat threads, if you wish. Pulling them under a wet thumbnail takes out most of the kinks – it does slightly reduce the shine. Rayon is at its most weak when it is wet, so it’s not a good idea to stitch with it if it is damp. I sometimes use a little wax when I am working with these flat threads, but it’s not essential.
Heartsease WIP 2For this rococo stitch heartsease piece on 36-count linen, I separated and straightened the plies and than combined two plies in the needle. This gives a good coverage, and the plies look more like floss silk than used just as they come from the spool. I could also use a blend of two wine red shades for the background to give a slightly antique look.

There are also hand-embroidery rayons available, such as Anchor Marlit, which have several strands, each a two-ply filament twist, thicker and softer than the machine thread These strands too can be used singly, or two or more strands at a time. Pink and Purple ButterflyAs with the machine thread, the individual plies can be teased out and straightened under the thumb. One ply of this thicker rayon is about the same weight as two plies of the machine thread.This butterfly in trellis and detached buttonhole uses single plies of hand-embroidery rayon.

(You may occasionally also come across spun rayon hand embroidery thread. It’s not divisible, not really shiny and behaves much like cotton. Spun rayon is no trouble at all.)

Two pieces of advice: firstly, rayon is a fairly delicate thread, so it won’t stand a lot of rough handling or needles with rough eyes. (The same goes for silk thread.) In a post from last year I talk about the trouble I was having with cotton thread breaking. All the comments about using a large enough needle, avoiding rough fingernails and making sure you don’t stress it in the eye of the needle apply just as much to rayon – I don’t apologise for repeating this diagram of how to grip the thread between the second and third finger to take the stress off the thread in the eye when pulling it through the fabric. It’s worth making this a habit – whatever type of thread you are using.

thread hold colour dwg

Secondly, you do have to watch the amount of twist that builds up in the thread. If you don’t counteract it while you stitch, you’ll have kinks and knots. You might find Rule 3 of Ten Rules  helpful. Again, the advice in that piece applies to all sorts of threads, not just rayon. I tend to work with threads 35-40cm long with rayon, but if you find your threads getting too tatty before you reach the end, change to a shorter thread length until you’re more comfortable with the thread.

One thing I do like with rayon and silk is to use a good gold-plated needle. It helps the thread glide smoothly. (Okay, and it’s just nice to have an excuse to use a gold one now and then. Neither rayon nor silk will damage a gold–plated needle, but a rough needle will damage rayon or silk very quickly.) I usually use tapestry needles, even on work where most people would advise a crewel needle. (That’s just my stitching preference – I like the way they don’t split fabric threads). And because I use mainly tapestry needles, I was delighted to find a good source for well-plated gold needles at The Cross Stitch Guild. (I already had one each of their size 24 and 26 needles, which came with either a magazine or a cross-stitch computer program back in the last century. I’ve treasured them for years but have been scared of losing one of them.)

Gold-plated needles from The Cross Stitch GuildMy father bought me these for my birthday this year, 10 needles in size 24 and 10 in size 26. (Aren’t the packets pretty!) The needles really are excellent. This present should keep me happy with silk and rayon for years!

Okay, on to the subject of synthetic metallic thread. Some metallics have a rayon core, others have polyester either as a core or as supporting threads. The shiny metallised strips they contain are coated polyester. Metallic threads are delicate, like rayon. The same advice I’ve given on working with rayon also apply to synthetic metallic thread. Particularly the one about using a large-enough needle. You don’t want the thread fraying on the fabric as it passes through a too-small hole. I’d also advise shorter lengths of thread – say about 30cm – but it does depend on the type of thread and the amount it has to pass through the fabric, and the type of stitching. Those threads with twisted plies like DMC Diamant and Maderia Metallic 15 are the strongest of the finer ones, the single plies, stranded threads and blending filaments are more likely to come to pieces. The braided type, often seen as crochet and knitting yarns, are sturdier still, but they are thick and less glittery than the finer threads, not so pretty.

I don’t use my best gold-plated needles with metal threads, they are likely to damage the plating. I do however make sure I don’t use a needle with a rough eye, and do something else that protects the thread from the needle.

S&G in progressHere you can see Strawberries and Gillyflowers in progress last year. The gold needle is busy with some blue-green rayon thread on a carnation. The steel needle with the tag of red thread at the end is the one I’ve been using for the metallic thread (Madeira Metallic 15). That odd scrap of thread (it’s rayon, but could equally well be silk or cotton) is hitched around the eye of the needle to protect the fragile metallic thread from the rim of the needle’s eye at the main point of wear. I was amazed how much of a help this is! When the tag gets too worn, which it does after every few lengths of metal thread, pop on a fresh one.

I’ve not seen mention of using a tag of ‘sacrificial’ soft thread in any embroidery book. Maybe I just haven’t read the right books? Kevon tells me that a protector put under a rope where it goes over a sharp edge is called a ‘scotchman’ from the old word ‘scotch’ meaning to scratch or cut – it’s the ‘scotch’ in ‘hopscotch’ too. The protector keeps the rope from damaging the boat, cliff- edge or whatever it is running over, and the keeps the edge from damaging the rope. So try a little thread scotchman on your needle when you’re using metal thread and see how you get on.

And please let me know what happens!

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12 Responses to “The Awkward Squad: Rayon and Synthetic Metallic Threads”

  1. I haven’t had any experience at all with synthetic embroidery threads, since authenticity is a big priority for me. I did have one haberdasher try to fob me off with polycotton sewing thread last year though, stating categorically that “no one makes pure cotton threads any more” I hate it when people lie to me!

    • suetortoise Says:

      Oh, they will tell you all sorts of things if they think they can make a sale! Fortunately there’s usually someone somewhere who can prove them wrong and provide the ‘impossible’.

  2. nelda wagner Says:

    I need a bit more info on the “tag” you mention. I have been embroidering a long time but that is a new one to me.
    You and Mary Corbet have open a whole new world of handwork.
    Thank you so much
    Nelda Wagner

    • suetortoise Says:

      This is the tag:
      Take a short length of thread (you can use two strands if it’s very fine thread). Fold the thread in half, thread the folded end through eye of needle, push the cut ends through the loop in the thread and then pull them tight so the tag sits at the end of the needle. It’s just a lark’s head knot (also called a cow hitch). Cut the tails off at about 1.5cm if they’re longer, and that’s it. Thread the needle as normal with your metallic thread. The tag helps to stop the metallic thread from rubbing on the eye at the blunt end of the needle.

  3. TerriSue Says:

    I think your tag is ingenious. I intend on trying it the next time I work with metallic threads.

  4. Alison Hickson Says:

    What a great idea your scotchman is! Thank you so much. I have just found your blog (through Mary Corbet) and will continue to follow it now. Wonderful!

  5. suetortoise Says:

    The ‘scotchman’ really helps me – I hope it will do the same for others, that’s why I wanted to share it. Thank you all for your kind comments on the blog. And a huge thankyou to Mary for mention me on the ever-inspiring Needle’N’Thread – Tortoise Loft has never had so many visitors in one day before!

  6. meg coughlin Says:

    LOVE! your generosity in your sharing of knowledge and positive spirit! Metallic thread info super, thanks ?? Maybe when I fill in email info you’d be able to send daily blog to me in my email inbox?? You and Mary Corbett will make my inbox sing!!

  7. suetortoise Says:

    You can request a notification when I put a new post on the blog, Meg. There’s a tick box at the bottom of this page. I don’t blog every day, though – I simply don’t know how Mary manages it!

  8. Thanks so much for this practical, helpful, and detail-oriented info!! Have you ever used a thread conditioner like Thread Heaven? Is this frowned upon? Is it helpful with the finer rayon threads?

    • suetortoise Says:

      I haven’t used Thread Heaven, Gailllc, because I haven’t seen it in any local shops here. I did read through the product information on their website, and I can’t see that it is likely to do any harm to rayon. I’d suggest that you do a test piece first, if you try it, but I would expect Thread Heaven to be fine. Perhaps another TLTB reader can tell us for sure? Rayon is happy with my chunk of beeswax – which also smells wonderful and comes from a local beekeeper – so I use that when I need a little bit of magic on my threads.

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