Mary Corbet

writer and founder


I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

Contact Mary

Connect with Mary



2024 (72) 2023 (125) 2022 (136) 2021 (130) 2020 (132) 2019 (147) 2018 (146) 2017 (169) 2016 (147) 2015 (246) 2014 (294) 2013 (294) 2012 (305) 2011 (306) 2010 (316) 2009 (367) 2008 (352) 2007 (225) 2006 (139)

Selecting Stitches & Threads for Embroidery Projects


Amazon Books

Perhaps I’m slow. Perhaps I’m backwards. But whatever the case, when I decide to work a specific design into a hand embroidery project, I rarely know right off the bat what threads, stitches, or fabric I’m going to use. I usually work these things out, through the aid of small samples.

Hungarian redwork embroidery project

With the Hungarian Redwork Runner project, this approach held true, even though, in concept, this is a pretty simple project.

I knew I was going to use cotton thread (remember, the piece needs to be washable).

But which cotton thread? And which stitches?

The two questions are tied together. The heavier the thread, the more problematic it would be on this project to use stitches that produce a very heavy line.

In the photo above, from left to right starting with the curl on the left, I tried perle cotton #5 using the Hungarian braided chain stitch. It is too thick. Then, I tried cotton floche with the Hungarian braided chain stitch, but it’s too fine. Feeling a lot like Goldilocks, I then tried perle cotton #8 with the Hungarian braided chain stitch, and I found that I liked it pretty well.

Then, on the straight lines at the base of the sample, I tried coton a broder #25 in Hungarian braided chain stitch, then coton a broder #25 in regular chain stitch, reverse chain stitch, and heavy chain stitch.

I found the coton a broder #25 was a nice weight, but still too fine for the heavier lines that I envision in the design for the runner. Still, I did like the coton a broder #25, so I didn’t discount it right away.

I also tried a DMC matte cotton called Retors mat (Art 89), which is a softly twisted, non-mercerized (i.e. no shine) cotton tapestry thread. It was Way Too Thick. And I forgot to take a photo.

This sample was worked on a natural colored linen, which was one of my options for the runner.

Hungarian redwork embroidery project

Then, I switched to a white linen – Alba Maxima by Legacy – and tried the perle cotton #8 on it.

Hungarian redwork embroidery project

On the sample above, the center line, the heart, and all the stitching on the right side of the sample is in perle cotton #8, in Hungarian braided chain stitch.

On the left, the curl coming off the heart is reverse chain stitch in perle cotton #8. The second scroll down (in the middle) on the left is regular chain stitch worked rather large, in the perle cotton #8.

And the base squiggly line on the left is coton a broder #25 in regular chain stitch.

Pros and Cons of Coton a Broder #25 vs. Perle Cotton #8

Coton a broder has the advantage of being Very Easy to stitch with. It is just a beautiful cotton embroidery thread, and handles so nicely. It has the disadvantage of being a little too fine for the heavier lines in the design, but I could see using it here and there for certain elements in the design, to give the design a bit of variation in weightiness. Another disadvantage: coton a broder #25 is not easily accessible – it has to be ordered online.

The advantage of perle coton #8 is that it makes a nice bold line with a nice braided, ropey look to it, which is what I had in mind for the design. The twist in perle cotton is quite a bit tighter than the twist in coton a broder, so it’s a little more finicky to stitch with, though not difficult, really. Perle cotton #8 in color 321 is pretty readily available locally (you can find it at most craft / hobby stores that have a needlework section – it comes in balls, not skeins).

Thread Decision

The majority of the runner will be worked in perle cotton #8, color 321, in a combination of Hungarian braided chain stitch and chain stitch. In some parts of the design, I may use the coton a broder #25 for a lighter touch here and there. This, though, remains to be seen – I’ll feel that out as I go.

The Advantages of Stitching Samples

By stitching small samples with the threads you have in mind for a project, and by trying out the stitches you want to use on the ground fabric you want to use, you can make better decisions about your needlework projects, without the “pressure” of changing your mind in the middle of the Real Project. In the long run, though it may seem as if it is wasting time and resources, you actually end up saving a lot of time and possibly saving a lot of money and supplies by working out your ideas in small samples first. Prior Proper Planning, and all that…

Next time up, we’ll discuss the final fabric choice, and I’ll share with you the final straw in making that decision. The fabric decision actually made the whole project 100 times easier, in a way!

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Have your say below!

If you’d like to read more about this project from the beginning, you’ll find all the articles relating to it listed in the Hungarian Redwork Runner project index.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


(44) Comments

  1. Oh, Mary, how I wish I was so patient – That’s why you are doing what you do and I am still on simple, 6 different stitch embroidery items.
    I will say, I do not know the first thread, but the availability of perle cottons is unreal. I am always looking at them and putting them in my “dream cart” – sometimes I do purchase them. I have a small selection of #12 – That way I can use them for quilting as well. #8 works so beautiful, though – as I can see from your photo. When I tried #8, though, I needed a larger needle eye and then I had trouble pulling it through the fabric. What do you suppose I did wrong? I do use my handy gloves, but I still have “angry tendons” on my right hand from the needle/fabric opposition. Which needle do you use with the #8 thread? Blessings to you – Mary.

    1. Hi, Jane – Try a bigger needle! I know “they” say the shaft of the needle and the size of the thread should be about the same, but in fact, the needle is doubled in the eye, and it has to get through the fabric. Try a #5 crewel (aka “embroidery”) needle and see if that helps. You might get away with a 7. If you have a package of assorted sizes, just keep trying them to you find the most comfortable one. You don’t want to use a needle that’s too small, not only because it makes it much harder to stitch, but also because it wears down the thread and makes it fuzzy.

      Hope that helps!


  2. Good morning, Mary. The project is already looking like a lot of fun. I’m at the beginning of a new project and wanted to know what color number are you using in the Coton a Broder #25. Keep up the good work!

  3. Hi Mary,
    I’m also doing a sampler of different threads and stitches on wool for a needle case. Not as beautiful as your finished work will be, but it is so much fun to play with lots of threads, colors and stitches! I usually have most everything planned before I start stitching, but the “stitch as you go” method really starts my creative thoughts stirring.
    Thank you for all your wonderful advice and photos. You’re a treasure!
    Barbara in WI

  4. Mary, it may seem a silly question, but if you like coton a broder so much, why don’t you switch to a higher number., i.e. coton a broder 20 or even 16? That will give more weight to the stitches for sure.

    1. Hi, Lilian – over here, as far as reds go, coton a broder 16 only comes in “bright red” (color #666, I believe, which is a bit too orangey-bright for me), and #20 doesn’t come in colors at all – just ecru, white, and bright white. Both of those sizes would work really well, if they came in the right color! ~MC

  5. Hey Mary. Did you every consider trying Londonderry Linen. The “Wild Rose” color might be a suitable red. And it comes in the 4 sizes which might come in handy. Just something else to throw in the mix!!

    1. Heh heh…. I did, Bobbi! But it’s not “quite” the red I want, and the thread doesn’t fill the stitch the same way. Plus, I think if I had to stitch this much braid and chain stuff with linen, I might go nuts. I like Londonderry linen thread (all other linen threads are not quite worth bothering with), but not in Huge quantities! ~MC

  6. I really appreciate your “thinking out loud” approach, Mary. I think it encourages people to believe that it is OK to develop your project as you go and to change your mind. There are certainly situations when you have to have all the decisions made before you start something, but artwork is not one of them, from my point of view anyway.

    1. i agree completely!

      being able to watch your thinking out loud process, mary, has helped me immensely with building confidence and daring to try new techniques!

  7. Mary,
    Are you worried that the red might bleed when it is washed? I have had a problem with DMC reds doing that, even when only steam pressing the reverse.

    1. Hi, Lesley-Anne –

      I’ve had good luck with DMC reds, and these held up well when washed. But I will test them, just in case, before launching in all the way. Steaming might have been the problem – steam is never a good combination with threads that could bleed or with colors that are prone to bleeding. A dry iron is usually better, I’ve found.


  8. Dear Mary

    Thanks for this article, what a good idea to test before sewing, I have to say I never do but as you say it saves time and resources. I love the red colour you are using and your stitching, I’m still trying to get to grips with the Hungarian braided chain stitch which I’ve tried a few times and it’s not quite right yet. I also love Alba Maxima one of my most favourite linens. I’m eager to see your progress on the project and what thread, stitch and linen you will use, so I will watch this space.

    I hope you have a great w/e

    Regards Anita Simmance

    1. Well…not really, but you’re right, there is a confusion in the name of the threads. On the tag of regular stranded cotton embroidery floss, it does say special 25, and it is called “coton a broder” on the tag, because the literal translation of that is embroidery cotton. But here in the States, that is “embroidery floss” or “stranded cotton.” Coton a broder size 25 is actually a different thread – it’s a non-divisible embroidery cotton. It comes in a skein as well, but it can’t be separated into smaller strand. One strand is about the equivalent of 2 strands of regular floss. Coton a broder is a softer cotton than regular floss, and more loosely twisted, with more plies per strand. It’s used extensively in cutwork, whitework, smocking, and the like, but it is beautiful as a surface embroidery thread, too. There’s a link in the article above to an article on coton a broder, that explains what it is, and shows the color range.

      Hope that helps a bit – you’re right, the names can be confusing! MC

  9. Dear Mary
    Thank you for the interesting information you provided today. Like others have said I like how you give us your thinking-out-loud process.

    Here in New Orleans, one of my LNS carries the Presencia line of floss. While she is a cross stitch store, I am pretty sure Presencia makes a perle cotton floss. I mention the Presencia because I know they are waterproof. My LNS owner but a skein of it in bleach and it never ran.
    Also, why did you choose the Hungarian braided chain stitched? I know the design calls for this stitch but in other designs how would you choose?

    1. Yes, you’re right, Nick – Presencia does make perle cotton.

      Ah, that last one is a big question! It depends, really, on the look you are after… But I will try to go more in depth on that question soon!

      – MC

  10. I feel compelled to let you know that I am totally enamored with your website, newsletter, information, the whole nine yards!! I consider myself a quilter, but with your delightful and engaging tutorials, I’m converting stitch by stitch to more hand embroidery. Your instructions and directions are always comprehensive,thoughtful, and inspiring. I have subscribed to your daily messages for over a year and have been vicariously participating in your ‘special giveaways’, promotions, advisories and referrals. Your work and creativity is awesome!..Thanks for the gift of sharing your talents, humor and persona. I am a real fan.

  11. That seems to be a great idea. I keep meaning to work on a sampler using all the new stitches your website is teaching me. I did not think of trying out different threads as well. So when I get to it and design the sampler I will try to work out the threads the shades as well as the stitches to create one design. May take a while as I want to teach myself Japanese embroidery for 2013.

  12. Bueno a mi me parece precioso,ademas no tengo mas obsiones aca no tenemos mas hilos para elegir,ahora solo debemos poner manos ala obra,gracias por estas hermosas ense├▒anzas.

  13. Thanks Mary for sharing your designing adventures. I do similar things as you have done when ‘starting from scratch’ aka designing my own stuff. Thanks for the patterns you have given on your site, too. I cannot draw for nuts so am always looking for help with the basic outline for things when I want to embroider. I recently used a quilting pattern for an embroidery which I then painted as I wanted the stitches to be on the outline only.
    A test sample is the best way to go and you show folks who have not come across that idea previously how to go about it.
    I do hope that your finished runner is everything that you plan it to be.

  14. I really need some advice, if you have time. Do you have suggestions for a thread to be used for (pedal) machine embroidery of monograms on fine linen handkerchiefs for a wedding. They call it artesanal machine embroidery in Nicaragua where this is being done. I have the handkerchiefs, and have to take thread with me next week for the embroiderer to use.

    Thank you SO much,


  15. I am trying to start embroidery. I am teading the post about threads but I’m confused. I had bought DMC thread #25 and its one long piece. Is that how I use it or do I cut it? I had cut a piece and split it. When I started my first stitch, it was really thin like sewing thread. Was I not suppose to pull it apart? I am really confused. I know nothing about embroidery and I’m trying to learn. is a higher number, a thicker thread?

    1. Hi, Naheed – if you purchased the regular DMC floss (it says broder 25 special on it – not to be confused with coton a broder in size 25 – and is easily divided in 6 strands), you can choose to work with one strand separated from the six, two strands, three, four, five, or all six. The more strands you use from the six, the thicker your working thread. Normally, you would pull about an 18-20″ length from the skein and cut it, and then separate out however many strands you want to use.

      Within different thread types, the higher the number, the finer the thread. So, with pearl cotton, which is a different thread from regular floss – it has a tighter twist, comes off the skein in one thread that isn’t divisible, and you stitch with the whole thread – the size 3 pearl cotton is heavier than size 5; size 8 is still finer, and size 12 is very fine.

      But with regular floss – the 6-stranded skeins found at most sewing stores – they don’t really have different sizes, and the thread can be divided, so that each strand can be used individually if you want really fine embroidery, or you can use several strands together, if you want heavier embroidery.

      Hope that helps!


  16. I have a cross stitch cushion design that I want to make with other embroidery stitches.
    Is it just experience that tells you which stitches to use, or is there a rough guide. such as stitches for filling spaces, outlining etc.
    Yes I haven’t done this before, and I am male. I don’t want Arnie & Rambo designs, but neither do I want chintz.

    Thank you


    1. Hi, Jan! That’s a good question! It depends, I think, on the type of embroidery you’re doing, the weight of thread you want, and so forth. Many stitchers use Kreinik’s metallic threads and love them (their braids especially). DMC makes some metallic floss that is a pain in the neck to use. But DMC Diamant, which comes on a spool, is actually a pretty nice metallic thread (though quite fine). You can find Diamant through Needle in a Haystack online. One of the best metallic threads I’ve ever used is Au Ver a Soie’s Metallics Au Sextant – but they’re not widely available in the States, if at all. I have yet to find anyone here who carries the line of them. Hope that helps a little bit!

  17. Dear Mary,
    I too am in love with Hungarian embroidery. I have noticed that they use very fat lines, doubled, in many embroideries, which is part of their charm. I have done some research on what stitch it is(thank you Pinterest!) and learned that the widest lines which are doubled, are done with ‘Nagyirasos” and the thinner, medium wide, with “Kisirasos”. Both are “square chain stitch”, the first is about twice the width of the second.

  18. I am getting ready to start a new red work project and your article came at the right time. You mentioned a thread that I have never heard of before (coton a broder) and when I googled it I can only get it on ebay as none of our local craft stores carry it. I almost always use perle cotton for my redwork and that is even getting hard to find so when I do find it I purchase several skeins, can you please describe the difference between the two threads. I really enjoy all your posts and absolutely love the humming bird you just finished.

    Happy Stitching and thank you for any information you can send my way on this thread.


  19. Hi Mary,

    I am new to embroidery and LOVE your site.

    Just wanted to say thank-you for posting this.
    I was starting to think there was something wrong with me because it often takes me several attempts, before I work out which stitches look best in which areas of the pattern.

    Thanks again – love your work

  20. I am truly a beginner. I keep reading that you need to separate a thread into anywhere from 3-6 strands. Does that mean you cannot use the thread as is but always have to pull it apart? I am so confused. Thanks

    1. Hi, Lois – you can use all six strands together straight off the skein, if you want the chunky effect that it produces. But if you want a lighter weight thread, you separate the number you want and put them back together. Separating the floss gives you better and fuller coverage with the stitch.

  21. I was gifted with a collection of DMC’s Etoile threads for Christmas. Being a self confessed threadaholic, I was thrilled. Have you tried these threads yet? Do you have any words of wisdom about how to best use them? They’re softer than most threads I’ve used, but I do like the sparkle!

  22. Thank you so much for the very helpful explanations and trials of different threads. I am instructing a group of ladies at work-shops, the abandoned project for covid in 2020, taken up again – Embroideries around the world – very grateful.

More Comments