Mary Corbet

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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

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Finer Threads – Not Available


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Have you even looked at a piece of vintage embroidery – say, a gorgeous whitework monogram with its satiny smooth surface and incredibly detailed adornment – and thought, “Wow. They just don’t make ’em like they used to!”

Coton a Broder 50 Whitework Embroidery Thread

Maybe you’ve looked at just the smallest, single detail on a piece of exceptionally fine whitework and wondered, “How did someone hand embroider that tiny flower so smoothly, so perfectly, and where can I find that thread, so I can do the same thing?”

Where can you find the thread? Chances are, you can’t.

One of the reasons they don’t “make them like they used to” is the difference in available embroidery materials today.

We may enjoy an “embarrassment of riches” these days, but, when it comes to threads that were widely available less than even a century ago, in many cases, we don’t have them anymore.

Tricia over at Thistle Threads has talked about this recently, and is doing something about it when it comes to 17th century embroidery threads.

Still, we don’t have to gaze as far back as the 17th century to see the discontinuation of beloved embroidery threads. Let’s just take simple whitework threads, for example. They aren’t nearly as expensive to produce, they’re made from a relatively abundant resource (cotton), and yet, several types of “classic” cotton embroidery threads have disappeared in just the past decade or so.

Coton a Broder Size 50 Whitework Embroidery Thread

For fine whitework, for example, coton a broder used to come in a variety of finer thread sizes. It’s been just within the past 8 years that size 40 has disappeared from the market.

Coton a Broder Size 50 Whitework Embroidery Thread

Size 50 coton a broder bowed out before size 40. Size 35 is practically impossible to find now – it used to be available through Lacis, but no longer is.

I still have a little bit of coton a broder 40 and 35 in my whitework thread stash. But I never saw coton a broder 50 in my life time, because, by the time I knew enough about whitework and the threads used for it to seek it out, it was already gone.

So you can imagine the excitement – the thrill! – of receiving an amazing treasure from Italy from Stefania Bressan, author of Guida al Ricamo Hedebo or Guide to Hedebo Embroidery. Stefania came across an unsold supply of DMC coton a broder 50 in a shop in Italy, and bought up all they had. She shared several skeins of this precious hoard with me, and now, for the first time in my stitching life, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this extinct thread and actually stitching with it.

Coton a Broder Size 50 Whitework Embroidery Thread

And now I really do understand why “they don’t make them like they used to,” when it comes to fine whitework monogramming. The size 50 is so much finer than our finest size (30) available today. It is lovely, soft, delicate.

I’m not one to pine for things that aren’t. I tend to be pretty practical. “Make do with what you have” is one of those mottos I grew up with, and it stuck. But I can’t help wondering about the demise of these finer whitework threads, and wondering if they will ever come back.

There’s certainly a resurgence of interest in fine whitework these days, with all types of surface embroidery enjoying a growth in popularity. But the question ever remains: is there enough of a market to encourage a thread company to bring back extinct threads? My guess: probably not. I suppose there’s always the possibility of a smaller thread company looking for a niche market to produce these types of threads again, but I think the possibility is pretty slim.

So this brings me to the whitework threads we do have available. I find myself thinking of these threads – coton a broder 30, 25, 20, 16 (the only sizes left) – in terms of muscle atrophy: “Use it, or lose it.”

The needlework industry may seem to be a thriving industry right now. We do enjoy an embarrassment of riches! But it’s also an uncertain industry, reliant on consumer interest and trends, intrepid entrepreneurs, and a small pool of skilled laborers who create and maintain the stocks of the specialty threads that we use.

Just a little something to think about…

I’m waxing thoughtful on the subject of whitework threads because I’ve been using them lately – I’ll show you some dabblings down the road.

What about you? Any thoughts on the needlework industry? Any threads or supplies you miss, that used to be available? Any observations about the comings and goings of supplies? Any harrowing experiences trying to track down hard-to-find supplies? Or anything on the market that you’ve noticed is harder and harder to come by? It’s definitely a subject worth of discussion, so if you have any thoughts or input, leave a comment below!


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(103) Comments

  1. It may not be made for embroidery, but you can find crochet cotton DMC Special Dentelles in a size 80. Also many lacemaking threads come in fine sizes up to 120, especially in linen.
    Maybe those can be ‘misapropriated’ for fine embroidery?

    1. Yes, I think you’re right, Thomas – they can be. It’s not the same texture, but that’s ok – they creates a different look, but still beautiful!

  2. I have found different embroidery threads at yard sales and estate sales. Just happened upon them. I don’t know what kind or size, I just love threads. A few times I have run across some that were so different from the standard 6 strand DMC floss that I knew I had something good, but couldn’t find any to replace it when it was used up. I did not know where to even start looking. I love your blog and look forward to read the new posts (and the old posts) I learn so much.
    Thank you.
    Smiles to you.

  3. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not experienced the trauma of any discontinued needleworking materials. I did have a collection of vintage stamped patterns from my grandmother that I adored, but I can’t work them up because the fabrics are just too weak to hold stitches.

    That said, I must admit that I’ve never felt too spoiled for choice, because where I live the local vendors simply do not carry unique supplies. Even the most basic sets of DMC stranded cotton are severely limited. Forget trying to find decent ground fabrics. I’m still trying to find 100% Linen napkins for under 50$ anywhere!

    I love the world-wide-web, but shipping costs bite you in the end, and I have a severely limited income. Sometimes I think I’ll be doomed to craft store stamped pillowcases and dresser scarves forever.

    Sorry. I didn’t mean to rant, but sometimes I get a bit depressed by it.

    1. I have a collection of linen napkins in various colors that I have found at estate sales and thrift shops; many of them are damask. The prices, of course, we’re minimal. Perhaps you can search such with better luck.

    2. You are lucky then Kristina. I do not use anything with dye lots because I hated having to track down the same dye lot to finish something. 🙂

    3. “Severely limited income” — oh, yes, Kristina Marie — you are not alone! But we are rich because when we do encounter real linen, real silk, hand tatting, cashmere, Liberty cotton, bone china, we can recognize it! I don’t understand people who won’t shop somewhere because it’s too expensive. By studying the whole realm of wonderful things, we can recognize them when we find them in the street! Or an estate sale or closing business sale. Or a dear friend hands them on. Now I’m off to Neiman-Marcus (website) to drool on embroidered tunics by Johnny Was.

    4. Kristina Marie, I deal in vintage and antique textiles with an emphasis on embroidery including of the Arts and Crafts movement 100 yrs + ago. I have some inexpensive but nice, sound vintage stamped patterns I’d be happy to share with you (if that’s legal on Mary’s site.)
      I agree many of the cratf store designs are uninspired. The ones I think you might like are from the 20’s to 30’s and depict objects, animals, chubby kids at play. I think there are some florals.
      I agree with the other posters that you will find designs you can work at tag and estate sales…
      Regards, Susan

    5. It’s so wonderful to talk to people who understand! The pathetic thing is in my area there are two Michaels, (and if the stock of DMC threads are half full, it’s a miracle) and one quilting store where I-kid-you-not, I wheeled in and when I asked about embroidery supplies, tried to sell me a redwork kit, when I wasn’t looking for redwork at all! My mom was with me and she got so mad at how they talked down at me she swears we’ll never go there again. FYI the stock was also pathetic!

      Oh I look at silk threads online, wool, and finer cotton, and dream… Right now I’m saving for a smaller hoop from hedgehog.

      As for the offer of vintage patterns, I’D LOVE IT! I’m one of those 30 yr olds that was born in the wrong era. Thank you Ms. Susan E.

      Dye lots… I shudder to even contemplate.

    6. I will play devil’s advocate just for today since I work in a nationally known fabric shop. We could get beautiful damask fabrics and pure linens that would be great to embroider on, but our customers have to be willing to buy them. I’m not suggesting that the reader’s here are not visiting the local fabric shops, nor are you the people not willing to buy fine fabrics, but the majority of our customers are not sewing artists, by any stretch of the imagination. Many don’t even know how to sew on a button or thread a needle. They aren’t interested in fine quality, but want inexpensive fabric to make simple projects for school or local theater or to fix stuff in there home. Those who do want fine linens and silks, like us, end up being hurt by the need for businesses to keep their doors open. When we do stock ecclesiastical fabrics or fine home decorator linens–which we do periodically–it ends up on the clearance table and then it is just bought because it was cheap, not because it was appreciated. I bought $19.00/yard linen suiting for $1.97/yd. without adding my discount and $50/yd. ecclesiastical fabric is only popular at Easter unless a church is redoing or planning a festival of some sort. The same thing happens with threads. Coats and Clark boxed sets are currently on clearance for the same cost as one small spool. We could stock silk threads and more specialty threads, but rayon is more affordable and more readily available. Once again since it is more beautiful, unknowing sewists buy the rayon embroidery thread instead of all purpose or outdoor thread, if they do not ask what type of thread they need for their particular project. And hand stitching thread is available, but our crochet washcloth cotton is often left sitting in the store for so long that it becomes unsalable. Once on clearance for just pennies, it will be bought up by charitable organizations to tie quilts. No sew iron on tape is more popular than any hand stitching threads. If we don’t buy it, nobody else will.

      Having shared that, also true is that if we don’t ask for it nobody else will. I know that Sulky began making 60 wt. machine embroidery thread when customers demanded it. I don’t know why DMC couldn’t do the same for us who would like 50 weight, even if only available on their website, if not marketable locally. Sales generate sales and need. It is all about supply and demand. I think it would be worth our while to make the request for more 50 weight or candle wicking types of threads to DMC.com. The more people ask the more they will know there is a demand for it, but once it is available it will be up to us to keep it on the shelves. I’m old enough to remember shoe boxes and US Postal Packages wrapped up in paper and strings. When all of that became mechanized and the strings got caught in the conveyor belts. Our lovely embroidery threads became a thing of the past because they could no longer afford to make these things for just the home market and there was no longer any industrial use since nylon/polyester replaced parachute strings. Just because we are not the majority of consumers any longer, does not mean that there is not a need to be met. I’ll start the process by requesting 50 weight thread as a DMC Mentor. If you would like to join me just go to their website and find contact us.
      To find fine linens and silks for embroidery check your church’s supply catalog. Where do they order their fair linen or vestments? Gaspard’s and Augsburg Fortress, R.J. Toomey come to mind, but there are many others which sell fabrics. The threads are harder yet to find, as Mary mentioned,but keep searching the internet and hopefully we will create a market for what once was lost. Happy Stitching!

    7. I totally agree that shops must be economically viable, but, (and there’s always a but) I must admit that nearly every experience I’ve had in my local area trying to find the most basic and ordinary supplies have been nothing but disasters for the last six months, and even more unfortunate is having sales people tell me, “I know nothing about hand embroidery, I have to look it up. This in stores that advertise handwork supplies!

      None of that makes any sense to me. How are we supposed to ask for items that make the sales people look at you like you have six heads?

      I’m not trying to be a downer, but I can’t help but feel frustrated about my hobby right now. Trying just to get some twill tape has been a nightmare. If only shipping prices were a tad lower, or you could get it with Amazon Prime, (I tried).

    8. Hi, Kristina – I’m not sure where you live, but if you have a sewing shop nearby, you can usually find twill tape in the same display where they sell ric rac and bias tape.

    9. I live in the Shenandoah Valley in VA. I think I’ll have to go to Charlottesville to hunt, because all of the local stores have been busts. It makes no sense to me. But I’ll keep looking. I want to advance and become more creative! That’s why I love this site, and found “The left-handed embroiderers companion” so thank you so much Mrs. Corbet, and all the kind people here!

  4. I’ve certainly noticed. And if there is a thread that I like, I buy it up when I can find it. I have certain silks I really like stitching with – for instance, Silk n Colors. Fewer and fewer people are carrying it because of the inconsistency in it’s production, and because of it’s increasing expense. I also have a stash of my grandmother’s threads. I use them, but carefully, and choosing the projects with care. The mantra with stitching materials certainly is ‘buy it when you find it, because it may not be there tomorrow’.

  5. Like you, Mary, I tend to try and buy up items (needlework or other) to stimulate interest by the manufacturer in continuing to supply the product.

    I even remember buying a ridiculous amount of sugar-free chocolate pudding for my husband because it was getting scarce and I was afraid they were going to discontinue it. LOL

    I, top, am unsure of the future popularity of needlework, but hope there is indeed a resurgence and that the suppliers will continue to keep us in threads and linens.

  6. I have just started to work surface embroidery, but my mother is an avid and skilled crossstitcher. It used to be that the local fabric store would carry every color of DMC floss you needed. Now they will be out of colors and they don’t know when they’ll be restocked. Thank god for the internet.

    1. That is also the case with my local Michaels, they restock the scrapbook paper aisle weekly, but the floss (only DMC) about three times a year……. I am saved by my local Joanns who does restock the floss weekly, I have only been unable to find a color that I needed there two or three times in the past two decades. It is farther away than the Michaels (I can walk to the Michaels) but at least I am mostly likely to be able to find it.

  7. Hi Mary,

    I call this SYNCHRONICITY. Just this morning I have been drooling when I saw the fine threads Marie Suarez seems to have available on her website… I haven’t ordered anything yet, still deciding what to do next, because I also looked through her gallery… Other than that, I am still waiting for her to reply to my email when I tried to find out if I can order larger quantities of her Belgian Linen… Maybe you can ‘test’ her services, and get better results? http://www.mariesuarez.com/catalogue/ctg/7

    1. I love Maria’s work! It is exquisite – whitework at its finest. I haven’t ordered anything from her, but I might, just to see what kinds of threads she offers. -MC

    2. I emailed Marie over a week ago and have not heard back from her as well. My question to her was if her instructions were available in English. Has anyone taken her online class who could tell me if her classes would be easy to take if I dont read French?

    3. For Wendy,
      Hi Wendy
      I don’t know if she speek english, I seach for you number of telephone, because Belgium near France, but nothing.You have in his web site, list of shop within USA,you go to Points de Vente, perhaps they know. I meet your problem for language. I know she go out of Belgium next week,go again with mail.

    4. Wendy, I ordered one of her kits and some extra threads, and once it arrives I will order the class too. I’ll come and reply here as to how useful it will be. I used to live in Belgium and my kids are still there, if all else fails I’ll ask one of my daughters to find out more – I luckily have someone nearby who speaks French. When you order the class, you get a link to the class material, so I will be able to figure out quickly if it’s going to be easy or not… Especially, if it will be worthwhile…

    5. Hi Wendy,

      I haven’t received the packs I ordered yet, but here in SA it may take another week or so – she was waiting for the fine fabric I wanted for my Lady Evelyn extra fine kit. I haven’t bought that course yet.
      But I have bought the Doves course – Les Colombes. The lessons are in French, but there are quite a lot of photos to help with the explanations too.
      I am translating the course in English first, lesson by lesson. Of you convert the PDF to a Word file first you can use the Word translation and it is quite adequate but very time consuming.
      So it will be up to you if you want to try:-)
      I am quite happy with the course so far though.

  8. Dear Mary,
    That is really neat but I have to say that I have never had much trouble with finding particular threads. Most of what I use comes from JoAnn’s but I have some wool thread that I ordered online from Hedgehog Handworks. I’m curious if you’ve used a lot of differnt kinds of wool thread?
    I know you love silk you’ve done several articles on different brands but have you anything to say on wool? Would love the advice, Thanks Mary.

  9. For sometime I’ve been thinking of doing a silkwork picture, silk embroidery on silk fabric in the style popular around 1810. Having looked closely at a number of antique pieces in this style, I noticed that much of the work is silk chenille that looks to be couched with fine silk thread. I’ve been looking around for silk chenille for several years and found that it’s starting to be offered in a very limited pallet but it doesn’t appear to be the same texture and weight as what was used in the antique pieces. I’d love to see this type of silk offered in a broader color range and more like the chenille of old.

    Being someone who likes crewel work, I was disappointed some years ago to hear that the fine DMC wool thread was being discontinued. Thanks to whoever decided to bring this product back to the market.

  10. A timely post for me, as I discovered today that my local yarn and haberdashery shop is closing … in spite of the huge resurgence in popularity of knitting and crochet – and that’s not even specialised stuff she’s selling; so while it is really frustrating not to be able to get the somewhat more ‘special’ stuff, if people can’t even make a go of selling the basic stuff I can see why they aren’t producing it anymore. 🙁

  11. You always give us something interesting to think about! I live in a small village and was annoyed that the local store quit carrying DMC for a while. It wasn’t like I couldn’t drive 80 miles and buy it or order online, just that if I ran out I could not pop into the local store and buy what I needed. That experience has me buying extra for every project now “just in case” and I never hoarded before! I will look at antique pieces closer now as I had not considered that they even used different thread. Great post!

    1. One of the three craft stores within a 15 minute ride of my house quit carrying DMC a decade or so ago, they now carry a floss called Sullivans (never tried it) but since it is the farthest away from me, I really don’t miss it.

    2. My go to thread shop is the Edwardian Needle in Fairfield, NJ. Pam stocks as many wonderful threads as she can. She also has linens. I purchased my first coton a broder from her shop. It’s the local shops we need to support! They are the ones placing the orders of a size that matters to manufacturers.
      Also, thank goodness for our Australian neighbors who are not just keeping alive handwork arts but pushing the boundaries! Who doesn’t love their Gumnut wools! And their publications! This was a wonderful topic to think about.

  12. I live in Plymouth in England and can find NO coton a broder threads any more locally. Not easy even on line. Everything seems to cater for cross stitch which I don’t do. I used to belong to the West Country Embroiderers and, for a short time, the Embroiderers Guild. Wish I had bought more threads then!
    Love your website. It has helped bring me back to embroidery. Thanks.
    All good wishes

  13. Wow, you really struck a nerve today, Mary. I have only recently discovered whitework–and much of the information I have has been gleaned from YOUR newsletter. I am so passionate about it that I am even considering a trip to Eschwege, Germany where Luzine Happel has her studio, which is only about 55 miles from the Schwalm Museum. I am such a slave to color that I always blew off whitework as something that would be endlessly boring. When I started studying it, however, what a delightful surprise was in store for me. If you ever find a source for the rarer forms of embroidery flosses, I would be thrilled to support them with many orders, I have no doubt!

    1. I too have fallen in love with whitework. I have “some” coton a broder threads. Not nearly enough if i coI ntinue to do whitework. I have been tryi.g to reduce my stash and carry only what i will be using, but what if they quit making supplies…what to do.

  14. I have the best luck certain threads, like floche and Madeira and YLI brand embroidery threads, at stores selling smocking (usually high sewing machine vendors) or quilting supplies. I have also found YLI silk thread through an internet bead source. So, if a store has anything to do with textiles or yarns, it is worth exploring their stock.


  15. I hear you, Mary. The range of threads available locally for hand embroidery is very small — mostly only DMC floss. It’s also difficult to find interesting crewel kits that appeal to contemporary tastes. Knitting and quilting are incredibly popular but hand embroidery in the US, with the exception of cross stitch, is a niche interest. I’m doing my bit by going to the Royal School of Needlework day classes in San Francisco on Memorial Day weekend! Still a few spots left, if anyone is interested.

    1. I agree, I have not done a kit in nearly two decades because they are all florals or on a white tablecloth or bed-linen or whatever.

    2. Claire,

      Here in the Bay Area we’re super lucky to have an amazing shop with a giant wall of different types of threads, Needle in a Haystack in Alameda. Their hours are strange, but it’s so lovely to walk into a store and feel catered to by the availability of supplies!

      As for kits and patterns, I mostly make my own using clip art or vector art I buy from stock photography sites. There’s also always UrbanThreads, which has really interesting patterns, but not kits.

      I’ll check out the class you mentioned on Memorial Day!

  16. There is a special thread I use for lace making, that I get from Croatia that could be suitable for whitework. It’s called Ljiljan Konac, you can see the sizes here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.309725829130906.47724.297528047017351&type=1
    It’s a very smooth, finer thread. I use the size 70 to make the Paska Cipka or on English it is known as Pag Lace, you can see what type of lace it is here: http://www.paska-cipka.com/en/
    I’m thinking that this thread might work very well for a whitework project, the only thing is I will have to start a whitework project to see how it works out.
    P.S. I purchased the book you reviewed on Friday’s post, so when that comes I’m sure it will provide me with some great inspiration!

    1. Ah, yes, cordonnet works for whitework and can be found in fine sizes, but it is a different thread altogether, compared to the looser, softer-twisted coton a broder. That said, it’s a good whitework thread for certain techniques and can be found through lace suppliers fairly easily. That Pag Lace is absolutely stunning! Thanks for the link! That’s something I’ll have to spend some time really browsing through – what I saw already at a glance is absolutely beautiful!

  17. Mary,

    You just solved a mystery for me. I have a wedding hnndkerchief that my mother in law stitched for her wedding long ago. She embroidered the letter B in whitework and surrounded it with tiny flowers. It is now in my possession and I have spent lots of time gazing at it and wondering about the incredibly fine thread. Now I know. Thank you.


  18. Mary, I think the solution for your problem might come from an unexpected source. Rather than looking to thread companies, look to handspinners to make these oh so fine threads for you. Consider commissioning a spinner to spin up your embroidery threads on a regular basis OR commission a fiber arts guild that specializes in spinning or a co-op. Then you can get the threads you want, in the fibers you want.

    1. Beth, I thought of that, too. I’m a spinner and have to say spinning cotton is a specialty. Spinning cotton that fine — and consistent — pretty rare. Mr. Ghandi made it look easy!

  19. I do a lot of Hardanger embroidery, so what I’ve noticed in recent years is that #12 pearl cotton is getting harder and harder to find. DMC still makes it in a very limited range of colors, but I believe Anchor stopped producing it a couple of years ago. I’m lucky to have a good local shop and they now carry Precencia’s Finca Perle Cotton, which has a pretty wide range of colors. The good news is that Finca seems to have every color in every size – 3, 5, 8, 12, and even 16! I’ve started using that when I need finer threads, and so far so good.

    Mary in MN

  20. Dear Mary

    Some thoughts on needlework supplies here in the UK. Certain threads like Coton Floche are really hard to come by and good quality linen such as Alabastar Angel or Alba Maxima is non-existent here in the UK. You can buy numerous cross stitch Aida fabric or quilting materials and abundance of fabric, but embroidery materials in most outlets in the UK is just an after thought. Another item is needles unless you use John James which are common place, other needles such as Bohin are really difficult to buy in the UK. Thanks for the opportunity to let of steam concerning the difficulties of obtaining embroidery supplies.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  21. Mary, I know the thrill of finding a vintage treasure such as a stash of ribbon I recently came across. This old inventory had been hiding in a corner of a little shop for 50 years…until I came along and snatched it up! So I couldn’t be happier for you and the lovely gift of beautiful thread your friend has generously shared.

    What would you suggest as a good substitute for fine coton a broder? Is there any hope for the rest of us who want to do fine white work? Your post is very timely for me, because I’m interested in doing white work now.

  22. I can’t even imagine –at my stage in embroidery–using such fine threads, but I was wondering as I read your post this morning…WHERE (in the world) does the cotton come from that is used to make these threads? Just curious.

  23. Alas! The disappearance of the thread is really a symptom of something culturally deeper. You’re right in saying that we live in a time of abundant needlework…but look at the projects closely. They are for the most part they’re ‘do it in an afternoon, a day, a weekend’ type things. Few are willing to tackle the long term, delayed rewards that require those finer threads…and so the loss is a just another part of our ‘hurry up, I have no time, I gotta get it – make it now’ world. Thus the creeping degeneration of quality is a downward spiral…The only cure is to slow down and really work for the product…and that takes – time.

    1. So true! Many knitting and quilting projects, and even some embroidery kits, are touted for being something you can complete in an evening or on a weekend. Yes, people are busy, but with sewing projects, what’s the rush? I have deadlines at work but rarely agree to embroidering or sewing something with a deadline. I don’t mind if a project takes a year with an hour of work here or there. I want the soothing process, and I’m not too worried about how long it takes for there to be a product.

    2. I embroider for 2-4 hours each evening on most days. I have not done a kit since I was a teenager, and my projects take months to complete. 🙂 I do occasionally do a quick project, but only when it is necessary. For example, my last “quick” project took about three weeks. It was a photo album cover for my grandmother. She had just been diagnosed with alzheimers, AND intestinal cancer. We sent her the pocket photo album full of family photos (labeled so that the carers could tell her who they were) and she kept it under her pillow. She did not HAVE months to wait for a long term project. She passed away four months later and the photo album was returned to us.

  24. I took my sewing machine for repair recently and stood watching three women sitting dumbly in front of machines that cost more than three cars like mine. The nearest one was “stitching out” a gingerbread boy! It would have been so much more “creative” to hand draw the thing and applique or satin-stitch or just hand embroider! The shop did have a smattering of DMC floss. They had huge cones of specialized M.E. thread. I’ve been trying special sewing threads I have on hand — like the Sulky variegated or top-stitching thread — for tambour embroidery. . . . Lace is expensive, and narrow cotton lace nearly impossible. I am about to take up tatting! And would tatting thread come close? I do know about “S” and “Z” twist in spinning. There must be special conditions for producing the perfect whitework thread. It seems if the demand were known maybe a thread company somewhere like India would be happy to fill the need. Or just maybe one of the big M.E. thread producers could adjust one of their machines to produce what hand embroiderers need. It will take more education to connect modern notions of creativity and modern love for antiques. Our great-grandmothers were busier than we are, and they found time to make these fine things.

    1. That is so true about our Grandmother’s. Mine washed clothes in a creek on one of those washboards, cooked, cleaned, gathered water because they had no indoor plumbing, took care of her chickens (for eggs)and her kitchen garden. She would tat, quilt & embroider & sew (all by hand) with a kerosene lamp. I know as her 11 children got older she felt they were all Godsends because she would have help by assigning chores. Mom had to milk the cow every morning before school, help with the cleaning & learned to crochet from her Mother. I love hearing those old stories and sad I never knew any of my Grandparents. Mom said Grandma would be so happy and proud that I like to embroider by hand and now I’m practicing quilting by hand. I crochet & knit a little and hope to take a tatting class online this fall. My Grandma belonged to a quilting bee at her church and that has fallen by the wayside also. No one at my church is interested in the things I am.

  25. The reason they stopped making the finer stuff was likely due to popularity, or lack of it. If stuff that fine is not incredibly popular they will lose more money manufacturing it than they would gain by selling it at incredibly inflated prices. In the 17th century most families embroidered, so it was popular, in the 21st century, sports, beauty salons and technology (including machine embroidery) are more popular. All we can do to remedy this is to spread the popularity of embroidery. Then, when finer thread is widely wanted they will start manufacturing it again. Another aspect of this lovelier floss is availability, even if they made the finer cotton thread, unless it was readily available in many, many colors to me in my local craft stores, I would still stick with the stranded cotton. Many other people might also have that opinion or that their local craft store being their only option for other reasons. One, because I dislike giving my bank card information on-line. And two, I have epilepsy and do not drive, and our local public transit is expensive (9$, more than a few skeins of floss costs, for a daily ticket scheduled to go up again later this year) AND they cancelled numerous routes including the ones closest to my house leaves that out of the question. So arranging a ride to another town for the purpose of buying a few skeins of floss would cost more in gasoline than the thread itself costs, so I am stuck with DMC stranded cotton. Perhaps DMC could make their stranded cotton as fine as the coton a border you mentioned so there could be a middle man, but I doubt they will. Anyhow, just my two cents.

    1. I am lucky to have a Joann’s 35 miles away in Carson City, NV where one woman LOVES to keep the DMC floss nice! But I’ve been without a car and it’s amazing how even in these times and places transportation can be such a problem. If I am planning a project, I just go to a company online that has my thread colors. Most of them do take PayPal where your bank details are safe (they say), and most will take a check. Increasingly on eBay and elsewhere, shipping is free. Sometimes in placing a phone order, I mention that I should not be charged shipping based on the cost of the little bitty things I’m ordering.Sometimes the order taker can’t over-ride the stoopid computer program All in all, though, I’m more concerned with having fun actually stitching up what I have. The next project will take care of itself!

  26. Mary,

    It’s not just the availability of threads seeing a demise, it is also the number of stitchers who are decreasing. Sadly, with the popularity of electronic devices, fewer young people are learning the needlework craft.

    ‘When you have a machine do the work of a (wo)man, you take something away from the (wo)man.’ How true this is becoming.

    1. In stuff like packaging peas, machines are great. Embroidery and other arts and crafts, not so great.

  27. Mary, often the threads ARE still available, just in a different directory of their catalog.

    A good example for white threads is DMC. Their finest, in size, threads are now sold for tatting. And in between they can be sold for crochet. They also have spools of size 50 white sold for machine embroidery.

    If you are old enough to remember the old tv show Dragnet, “names have been changed to protect the innocent” aptly describes their marketing processes. If they feel that they can sell more tatting cotton than embroidery cotton, they will call it tatting cotton.

    1. Hi, PJ – thanks for the comment! Unfortunately, the tatting threads and crochet threads and sewing threads are not the same threads, though it is true that often manufacturers simply repackage and rename threads (which I think is also problematic, because yarns spun for knitting and crochet don’t perform the same way as thread spun for hand embroidery). I wish they were the same, though! Coton a broder is a softly twisted, long staple thread made of five plies. The crochet and tatting threads are usually two or three ply threads that are tightly twisted together. So the look when they are stitched is completely different. You get more texture with the tightly twisted threads, while the coton a broder is super smooth, and the stitches blend together into a smooth solid surface when satin stitched. It’s lovely stuff!

    2. In addition to what Mary said, the cotton threads created for crochet/tatting usually have much more stretch than the threads created for embroidery. This substitution will work for some purposes where the extra stretch can be accommodated, but it will not work well for surface embroidery; over time, the threads lose their tautness and distort. I have some old inherited linens with this problem. I have used crochet thread (Cordonnet and DMC Cebelia) for needle lace, Battenberg lace, and Hardanger filling stitches (not the surface embroidery). It takes a little practice to adjust the tension for the different threads.

      I, too, am buying up any fine threads I can find and am carefully treasuring those I inherited.

  28. I was able to buy some size 40 about 6 years ago at an independent needlecraft store. She had 12 skeins. I wanted to buy them all but she held back 3 skeins. It’s amazing the difference between it and 30. I can only imagine what stitching with 50 must be like…..amazing?

  29. Interesting topic, Mary. I just know I’d be sunk without the Internet because, along with the gradual loss of sources for fine threads came the loss of sources for needlework in general – designs/kits/threads, etc. We live in a small rural town in Texas. Two excellent needlepoint stores (one about 50 miles away, the other about 75) keep me supplied when I’m doing needlepoint, but virtually everything that inspires me or that I need for needlework comes from the Internet. I waited until I retired to learn more about needlework, and now the materials aren’t available locally. Will continue to gobble up blogs like this one and others.

  30. Hi Mary,
    Too true about the finer threads. As you say tatting and crochet threads are firmer than embroidery threads.
    Kristina, for ground fabrics look for dresses or blouses in thrift or charity shops. If only gently used take them apart and reuse the material. I have found silk and linen clothes, sometimes with the origional sales tags on them at these shops. I just made a mantle for an Infant of Prague statue with black cotton velvet that I repurposed from an over sized Disney Land shirt.
    A book binder at Harvard lamented the fact that even the processing of linen thread for bookbinding is not what it used to be.
    Jacque I

  31. Love white work and have stitched some myself and have some done my mother and grandmother. In my grandmothers Chinese, round, woven sewing basket with glass rings and a bell I found several skeins of coton floche, size 60 was the finest and 25 the heaviest…beautiful long cotton strands with no breaks, treasures…
    I knew when I found these 25 years ago they were rare, I had never seen this thread in my needlework shops.
    Love the history you add to my wardrobe of stitchery information.
    Thank you,

  32. Hi Mary,I adore finding old discontinued threads !
    I scour second hand shops and car boot sales !
    I once found a full box of perle threads spools while on holiday in Devon uk, they had ‘yellowed ‘ a bit but still had to buy them !
    I love the flat silks that the Japanese use for their embroidery and have on occasion untwisted strands of rayon thread to get the same ‘flat’ effect ! I managed to get a set of Cosmo variegated thread from Etsy but had to pay duty on them ! I wish that here in the UK, we could obtain more foreign makes of thread but sadly most retailers just stick to the English ones !
    Chris R

  33. Mary,

    I always lament the loss of something beautiful or the means to create something beautiful. I would like to be able to create the exquisite needlework of bygone times. I wish they would bring back these finer white threads for whitework, which is one of the most beautiful forms of embroidery. I have never used those finer threads, but I’d like for them to become available again. Also, like you, last year or the year before or so, I bought some coronation braid from Lacis, but it is not the same as what was available many years ago.

  34. Hi Mary, It won’t surprise you at all to find that I run up against this problem all the time, being a whitework specialist!

    I remember when I was first doing the research for my Mountmellick book, I was trying to find suitable threads for Mountmellick embroidery. I remember some people saying to me, “maybe they just can’t be found, Yvette”, but I was not to be deterred.

    Eventually I did find them, which was very pleasing. Because of this, I now stock them, so that others can also have the pleasure of using them for Mountmellick embroidery.

    However, they could be used for embroidery other than just Mountmellick. While Mountmellick embroidery is meant to be chunky, they do make finer threads as well, in the range. The finest one I stock is No 2 thickness, which would be equivalent to about a No 12 pearl. But there is also No 1 thickness (thinner) which I would very happily stock if people were interested in using it.

    The thread is a matt (NO shine) soft cotton, made from a number of ply, twisted together (the finer the thread, the fewer ply; the thicker the thread, the more ply). It is not as tight a twist as broder cotton, but it could be worth a try for various whitework embroidery experiments!

  35. Oh Mary, those fine threads look so soft and delicious. I attended an exhibition at the Royal School of Needlework recently, samplers of all kinds. One was a large ‘hanky’ which had many different styles of monogram. I wondered about those threads the stitching was so fine and so very soft and smooth.

    Would so love to stitch with that fine thread.
    Regards Sue

  36. Supply is driven by demand. Not enough people are doing their own embroidered linen; haven’t for quite a while. Activism is good, but it won’t replace the armies of women, and men, who once made these lovely things. So join a guild or a sewing circle today! Uncle DMC, etc. needs YOU!! That’s why I belong to EGA. If I can’t exactly replicate, at least I can learn the stitches and pass them on.

  37. I have wondered the same thing when looking at my grandmother’s incredible handwork and then attempted to duplicate her stitches, without much luck. Glad to know part of the reason…thread.
    Very interesting. Love the info.

  38. Hi Mary! Using Mr. Holm’s theory, I checked Threads for Lace Edition 5 to see if there might be a substitute. I’m pretty sure I mentioned this reference book before–no relation, just a satisfied customer! The author has lots of coton a broder listed in sizes to 90 (!!) & all are shown as 4S–4 ply, S twist. The fact is there are very few 4 ply cotton threads! She also defines size 50 as 30 wcm–her proprietary measurement. Cartier Bresson A la Croix 45 is 4S, 27 wcm–slightly larger. J&P Coats Cotton 40 is 4Z, 31 wcm–barely smaller, opposite twist. Czech sewing thread No40 is 4S, 28 wcm–again slightly larger. So it may be worth checking with a lacemaking supply source. Hope this helps.

  39. Back in the 1950`s when we gave handmade gifts at baby showers I embroidered on saque sets in the pastel colors of pink, blue, yellow and green color variations thread DMC used to have. Have no idea when it was discontinued.

  40. Marie,
    Yes, I understand what you say and all the girls. In France, we find again very fin thread for white embroidery but only “Puces-couturières”,it is market “on the road” ,web with Maria suarez:She have n°120, 60…and eBay.fr. Me TOO, I don’t understand what DMC don’t make very fine thread,because before Cartier-Bresson make..Years 30, 40,50 they have. In France, we have the luck,because it is a country very prolific for this and we need old thread again….but no news!.It’s very probleme for us.But we are pressure with shop for this and we hope…

  41. Hello,
    I want to help in USA, if you go Mariesuarez.com, you have on the top :Points de ventes and here you find shop in the USA at the list,perhaps and I hope you find kits and threads. Me, I buy with USA shop on web and I have never, never problems.And the shipping is not expansif because for embroidery it is not heavy. She have n°120 white ,of course, and pale yellow. I want DMC make again.

  42. I cannot thank you enough for being such an amazing ‘go-to’ source for many of my stitching needs. Your posts are always so very informative and practical. For that, I am so very thankful!

  43. This article hit home for me, because that is exactly why my interest started in hand monogramming!! I wanted to duplicate that look of white on white, the soft smooth look of old thread…that being said…what is an option on thread choice for creating that look?

  44. it seems that we every where of the world suffering of the material shortage that has to do with ( hand made ) is it because of suppliers or time (we are in a rush )or may be because we are not any more interesting !?

  45. Good Morning,
    I was wondering if you’ve ever heard of Tristan Threads. They sell all types of high quality threads for machine and hand embroidery. If not check them out. I noticed they have something called “Mako cotton” in a 40wt. They are at tristan.bc.ca

    1. Hi Anna! Mako 40wt is 2Z, 36 wcm. So–it’s a 2 ply thread rather than 4 ply & also finer. DMC Broder Machine 40 is the correct substitute for the Mako. Coton a broder/Broder special has a distinctive appearance because of its construction. You could try DMC Floche–it’s 5 ply but much larger at 22 wcm. Hope this helps.

  46. The little shops have to diversify! They can’t only sell les parapluis! Just because google doesn’t turn up dozens of stores with wide aisles and all the old-style stuff we want, it helps to dip into other pursuits. Stay open-minded about all the fiber arts! The spinning wheel dealer or the antique doll dressers, mini-macrame enthusiasts or seed bead-workers might have part of what you want. For many years bead artists hoarded and scrounged for tiny faceted “Charlotte” cut beads. It was a happy day when Czech Republic could once again manufacture all the colors. We did a dance at my trading post in Sunnyvale when their order arrived! I have to mention etsy, even tho I recently decided not to be a seller with etsy. Besides artist work and recently handmade items, they sell handwork supplies of all sorts and “vintage” which for them means anything pre-1985! For me that seems like last week! eBay also can give us estate sale treasures. After all, we can’t take it with us!

  47. I have been in love with whitework as long as I can remember, but it is one type of embroidery I have not tackled until just recently. I printed a beautiful letter “B” for my dog, Bailey, who had passed away and ran to a local craft store (that’s all we have in my town) to get white threads. I came home with several and the one that most closely matched my fabric was used. I had 2/3 of the design done in satin stitch and French knots, when I noticed something odd. After an evening of stitching under my Ott light, I set it down, turned off the light and saw that it GLOWED! Yep – I have used glow in the dark white thread!! It is not marked in any way that I can see, on the DMC band, and yet it is true – it glows green! I wondered why it was such a fussy fiber. It snagged the fingers and tangled so easily. I was fit to be tied, but it was a perfect match for the fabric, so I pushed on. Oh well, special effects for a special dog! I am learning so much from you – you are my embroidery hero!

  48. Yes I have been concerned about availability of needlework supplies. I have been looking for prestamped boutis kits and have only found 2 sources sofar. One is in Australia and I am waiting from them to respond to how to order using credit card and the other source is in a French and I am not sure of what I am ordering. I cannot find monogram transfers so trying to print from online sources.

  49. Dear everyone,
    This has been a fascinating subject to follow! For the last couple of years, since retiring, I’ve been trying to practise all kinds of embroidery, including whitework. We’ve been able to travel to see places in New South Wales that we haven’t seen for many years. One bonus from this has been the fun of finding interesting shops in country towns and cities, and finding lots of sources for threads and wools.
    Our latest trip has covered about 1600 km, and I’ve found lovely threads including a full range of the beautiful Cottage Garden hand-dyed stranded and pearl (8 and 12) threads. All our lives we’ve searched for rare supplies – my husband is a traditional signwriter, and I don’t want to Count the number of times we’ve searched for gold and silver, brushes, rare paints, screen printing stuff…
    But I still can’t source coton a broder! Really annoying! I really feel for people who can’t travel to find threads and fabric – I’m buying what I like so I have supplies when I can’t get around. Let’s hope the eyes hold out!

  50. Hi Alison, your travels sound wonderful! I’m in NSW and sell no 16 and 20 broder cotton, via mail order. I also feel sure that The Crewel Gobelin at Killara would stock it. I’m sure you’ll be able to get your hands on some! Yvette Stanton, Vetty Creations

  51. Hello Mary,
    I’m very interested in learning about Whitework and wanted to ask where in England would I find the threads and what is a suitably fine enough background? There doesn’t seem to be anyone advertising this kind of thing. Kind regards Mandy Currie

    1. Hi, Mandy – you might want to contact the Royal School of Needlework and ask someone there for a source for whitework threads in the UK. They teach whitework classes, so I’m sure they know where the threads can be found. For a ground fabric, you want a high count, closely woven linen. You might look for handkerchief linen or Belgian linen or Irish linen. -MC

  52. I totally agree with your observation–several years back I completed my first correspondence course in Ukrainian whitework (kit included). I quickly noted the difference in “feel” in thread moving like whipped cream through ground fabric and immediately scooped up the entire inventory at my local needlework store. Fast forward to the present–sadly, both the store and that thread are gone! Guess the old adage applies: nothing stays the same…

  53. Because my foray into working with white threads is a relatively new enterprise I can’t say that I miss any particular threads. I live in Canada and find that the availability of nicer threads here is pretty abysmal. Mail order is a definite possibility, but the shipping charges to get here are out of this world. A couple of years ago I wanted just one skein of a particular thread and could only track it down at a store in the US. The thread itself was under $5, but by the time I paid the shipping it would have cost me nearly $30. My budget won’t stretch that far! It’s amazing how I can manage to make do with plain ol’ floss, pearl cotton and crochet cotton!!

  54. You might be interested in the book “Threads for Lace” by Brenda Paternoster (http://paternoster.orpheusweb.co.uk/threads/threads.html). It lists the size, spin and wraps/cm for well over 1000 different threads. The focus is on threads used in bobbin lace, but many embroidery threads are listed. It may be useful if you want to find a similar thread to one that is no longer available.

  55. Mary,
    I love your comments about disappearing fibers-this is so so true. I have discovered however-the hard way that there are more of these fibers available across the pond than in this country. The Aussies and EU seems to be able to keep these fibers going longer than we do in this country. DMC -4 is another cotton that has also disappeared here in this country but is also available still in France.

    Thank you for you research it is always wonderful to read and take in.

  56. For all of us who lament that we cannot find the right thread on the right day, I thought I would give you this glimmer of hope. After a week of searching on the internet for 1000 yards of specialized thread made out of Ingeo(PLA)corn fibers for a corn themed quilt, I have had two complete strangers who work in yarn factories in China offer to send it to me just for the cost of postage. These yarn factories usually ship in one ton increments after spinning the yarn to specifications. How long would it take us to use one ton of 50 wt. embroidery thread?

    There is some corn yarn being created on a small scale in the US, but I haven’t used it yet. Mary, if I can get my hands on a skein or two I will share for you to try as well. It is a “green, bio-degradable” alternative to polyester, but is supposed to take dye better and is mold/mildew resistant. There is a mill in Minnesota that spins it in small quantities. Most notably the PLA fiber is used in 3-D printing and those shiny gourmet tea bags and bio-degradable plastics. I’m making a quilt out of corn fibers for a gift to my d-i-l who is finishing her PhD in crop genetics. Her research has been in corn production and usage so I decided to use only corn or corn blended fibers.

  57. Florence and Marietjie S. thank you for your responses to the Marie Suarez questions that I had about translating her courses and if I the classes would be worthwhile. I am interested in hearing what you think about her course. I want to take the Alphabet class.

  58. Wendy,
    I never studied under Marie Suarez, but I guess they must meet the standards and that you can find explanations of stitches and where to apply and advice achievements. However careful the required level, I do not remember the level for the primer.
    I hope everything will go well for you.

  59. I think I’m going to cry. I’ve been hunting for a couple of months for “Coton A Broder” sizes 30, 40, and 50. I had a wee bit in an old stash I inherited from Mama and my Grandma and had no idea it was no longer on the market. Another problem is finding the fine fabric on which to stitch.

    I just acquired some cambric from overseas that is fine enough for reproduction embroidery, but, that said, the problem now is to find thread fine enough to work on this delectable, luscious cambric.

    I’ve sent emails and snail mail to DMC in hopes they will again produce this thread. Maybe if we ALL wrote to them, they’d listen. One little squeaking wheel doesn’t get much grease, but if we all of us “squeak”, maybe DMC will listen.

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      You can find on this website, based in France “souffledantan” DMC blue label No. 30 white snow 114 meters Price 7.50 euros or DMC cotton floss No. 16 No. 30 equivalent, garnet Price 7.50 euros or label garnet label No. 18 thinner but also more expensive 8.50 euros the skein. If not, try typing ebay.fr and “coton à broder DMC” but you can find much cheaper.
      Good luck

  60. Hi, Florence

    THANKS!!! I’ll go check the site right now. I did go to Marie Suarez’s site and sent her an email asking how to order from her. However, I’ve not gotten a reply. Glad to have a other options! You’ve “saved my bacon” as the saying goes. :^) Again, THANKS.


    1. Hi Cheryl,
      It is normal to help each embroiderers, if you have difficulties to order, please feel free to ask me. I know how terrible it is to be confronted with a foreign language. Thank you for your password.

  61. I love Coton a Broder for quilting and have been unable to get it in Canada in size 16, which is what I use. I was also finding it difficult to source the colours I wanted in the UK, where I came from. However the is a shop in Derbyshire that managed to get me a couple of boxes. I have been told that the particular blue I wanted came from Turkey and was no longer made. Also Anchor took over the original company and that was why a lot of the finer sizes were discontinued. I just wish, so wish I could get it here in BC. I am thinking of trying DMC Perlé size 12 and seeing what that is like.

  62. Very enjoyable read. I have recently been looking for size 50. Low and behold, after numerous google searches, this article has finally allowed me to sit back and “use it or lose it.” Don’t think I’ll ever see size 50 in my lifetime, but I can bear with using what I have. Thanks for the excellence in writing this article.

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