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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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Thread Talk: The Debate I Don’t Want to Have

 

For many, many, many years, there’s been a subject that’s circulated in the embroidery world that I’ve never bothered to write about here on Needle ‘n Thread (on the blog), because it is a debate that I don’t want to have.

It’s not that I’m wishy-washy; it’s not that I won’t stand up for my beliefs. It’s just one of those topics that I figure isn’t worth debating over. It’s not a matter of principle; it’s not a matter of life-or-death, right-or-wrong, just-or-unjust. In life, you pick your fights. And arguments over embroidery thread, when there are much greater issues to occupy one’s mental energy with, just don’t seem that important to me.

Still, I’ve been recently barraged with the question because the topic came up on a couple embroidery websites recently, and I’ve been asked about it off and on over the years because it comes up in classes, guild groups, books and conversations now and then. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve written on the subject!

And so, this morning, once and for all, I’m going to write about the question here on Needle ‘n Thread: you’ll know exactly what I think of the subject and finally, I’ll be able to reply to inquiries about it with a direct link to this article. (Saves the fingers, you know…)

Embroidery Floss: Thread Grain - Does it really matter?

The question is: Does “thread grain” really matter?

Now, if you’ve never heard of this question before, I’m asking you – no, I’m begging you – to dismiss it from your mind right now.

If you’ve been happily chugging along with your needlework and achieving good results and really enjoying the heck out of it, please don’t let this question disrupt your current, happy stitchuation!

The Notion of Thread Grain

First of all, this is the thread grain notion: embroidery thread has a grain, kind of like wood has a grain (or cooked meat has a grain). Therefore, If you rub along embroidery thread in the wrong direction, you’ll be working against the grain, and subsequently, you will achieve inferior results with your stitching, because you’re pulling the fibers against the grain.

To remedy this, you should determine the direction of the grain of the thread before you begin stitching with it.

To ensure that you’re not stitching against the grain, thread grain advocates generally suggest several approaches:

1. Always thread your needle from the same end of the floss, which should be pulled from the right end of the skein. To make sure you do this, you pull your floss from the right end of the skein (this in itself is sometimes a major undertaking) and cut only one strand (of the six) at a time, threading the “front” of the strand into the needle (the end opposite the cut you just made), and that way, every time you thread your needle from floss from a pull skein, you’re always threading it so that the thread travels in the same direction through the fabric, and that direction is with the grain and not against it.

2. “See” the grain and thread the needle accordingly. If you have pre-cut floss, run it through your fingers in both directions. Whichever direction causes the thread to look hairier or fluffier, that’s against the grain, so thread your needle so that it passes through the fabric in the opposite direction, so that it’s passing through “with” the grain.

3. If, somehow, your eyes cannot detect the grain, try to “feel” the grain. Run the thread through your fingers in both directions. Whichever direction feels rough is against the grain. If your fingers are too insensitive to feel the grain, run the thread across your upper lip, which is apparently more sensitive than your fingertips, and whichever direction feels rougher is against the grain. Thread your needle so that the thread pulls through the fabric in the opposite direction, so that it’s going with the grain.

Why?

Thread grain advocates contend that stitching “with the grain” of the thread will result in smoother stitching, in fewer knots as you work with your thread, in embroidery thread that doesn’t wear down as quickly.

Embroidery Floss: Thread Grain - Does it really matter?

My Take

It doesn’t matter.

Personally, I’m a no-grainer. If you want to be a grain advocate, feel free.

From what I’ve noticed, whether one is a grainer or not does not make that person a better or a worse stitcher. And it is not a question of great ethical import, so when it comes down to it, just between you and me and the dog, I don’t really care.

My Reasoning

I side with the research that’s been done on the subject, even though I haven’t applied my own eyes to the microscope.

If you want to go deeper into the subject and read some research on it, here are some sources:

This article article on thread grain at The Heritage Shoppe.

NeedleArts magazine, March 1999 – you’ll find an article by Dr. Margaret Jenkel’s (she’s a research physicist) about her experiments on embroidery thread (cotton, silk, and wool). Her final conclusion is quite blunt. Her last words of the article: “Thread has no grain.”

My own reasoning, as far as it goes, on the whole question:

1. Personal experience: I’ve never seen any indication of thread grain when working with floss.

If my thread is particularly knotty, it’s normally because of the needle I’m using (maybe it’s too small? Maybe it has a burr on it?), or because the thread is worn, or because I’m allowing the thread to twist up so much… it could be lots of reasons.

If my satin stitch looks different when I change my thread, it’s not because I’m now stitching against the grain of the thread. It’s because my previous thread was beginning to wear and I’ve switched to a new thread. This is one reason for burnishing the satin stitch, once the piece is finished. It evens out these problems.

If my long and short stitch looks different when I change threads, it’s for the same reason. As the thread wears – even a tiny bit – a new thread is going to look different next to the old thread.

These points are all easily remedied: change needles, don’t stitch with worn thread, and so forth.

2. It doesn’t make sense in the marketing scheme of things. Mercerized cotton embroidery floss has been around for a long time. So has wool. So has silk. If it were so important to use the threads only from one direction in order to achieve good results (or optimum results), the manufacturers would be instructing on thread grain. They don’t. And in fact, they will tell you their embroidery floss does not have a grain.

3. Insisting on determining thread grain before stitching is often detrimental to the developing interests of new stitchers. It’s a terrific way to make matters unnecessarily complicated. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen ladies at needlework shops demonstrating how to determine the grain of thread, and I’ve seen their students sitting, completely frustrated, rubbing pieces of thread back and forth on their upper lips. It can be a real turn off.

Concerning Thread “Nap”

Sometimes, there’s a variation on the question. Instead of “grain,” substitute the word “nap” – that thread has a visible nap that travels in one direction because of the way it is spun, and that this nap is visible on heavy yarns (knitting, crochet yarns) but not visible on embroidery threads because of the difference in the size of the threads. But, the nap can be felt (by the ways mentioned above) and, therefore, you should never stitch against the nap of the thread.

I would apply the same reasons listed above to the question of thread “nap” as well.

What about you?

So, now I’ve said it. That’s my take. When it boils down to it, I don’t think it matters. It isn’t worth arguing about, that’s for sure.

If you want to chime in on the issue, feel free to leave a comment below.

 
 

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(160) Comments

  1. Dear Mary

    Concerning this stitchuation (love the new word) I’ve never heard of grain in thread before and like you I don’t think it matters. I’ve been told before to thread the needle with the right end of the thread but I kept forgetting to do that and I have to say I didn’t notice any difference to the outcome of my project. For me the reason why my thread knots is because the length of the thread is to long, but I’m learning to use a shorter lengths of thread as I go. I really couldn’t be bothered to keep licking the thread or feeling it to see if I’m using the right end, it would take a lot longer to finish my projects if I used these methods, apart from the fact that my lips would become dry. Thanks for sharing your views with us on this interesting subject, grain in thread.

    Regards Anita Simmance

    2
  2. Hello Mary,
    This question is not about grain. Hope that’s ok to use this slot. I have a lot of DMC embroidery thread that belonged to my Mother. She died several years ago and didn’t embroider for a few years before that. Does thread get old? Should I just pitch it out and buy new? I guess I’ve been sentimentally attached, so I’ve still got it. Any advice?
    (the thread is already cut into about 18″ lengths and in a book)

    3
    1. Hi, Cindy – yes, thread can get old, but it depends on how old, if they’re dry, discolored, and so forth. You can always wash them and see how they are when they dry. It doesn’t hurt to try!

  3. Have been embroidering for 65 yrs. Never encountered this discussion before.
    It is not a problem, at all, and it could discourage beginners from enjoying their needlework.

    4
  4. The first time I was instructed to determine the grain of a thread, I couldn’t. Right then and there I decided that it didn’t matter. And I thought it worse to dirty the thread with whatever oils and makeup were on my upper lip than to stitch with the thread whichever way I picked it up. Thank you for an excellent explanation. Now we can, perhaps, put this non-issue to rest.

    5
    1. How about rayon for Brazilian embroidery, to me that thread is very stressful. I started learning a little over a year ago, now I changed to cotton floss and I’m much happier.

  5. I do not give a flying needle about grain or nap or whatever. I don’t even bother trying to figure out which is “UP” on the fabric I am stitching on. Yes, I am that much of a rebel!

    For those that are worried about the grain, why not do this: pull two strands from your 6-strand floss, flip one over and thread up that way, your thread will be “coming and going”.

    I am more worried about getting my stitches down correct and smooth, I don’t have time to investigate those irrelevant details first … I’ll have 10 stitches done in the meantime πŸ™‚

    Happy weekend and happy stitching!

    6
  6. Thank you! Nap is important for wools but grain in cotton? Goodness, just something to stress about. I always caution more against nasty-eyed needles and the trauma they cause. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    7
  7. Thank you!
    I’m so glad to hear the voice of reason.
    My most basic guidelines for new stitchers are:
    No thread grain or nap;
    work with moderate length thread (reduces knotting and wear);
    and use a large enough needle to open the fabric for the thread to pass easily.
    Lynn

    8
  8. This is a hot topic in some corners of the handspinning world too. Should wool always be spun from the tip of the lock to the butt. Must you ply your yarn starting from the same end that was spun first.
    My take is pretty much the same as yours-if you can’t tell it doesn’t matter. But if people want to figure out the ‘grain’, they can feel free to do so.

    9
    1. Yes I was just thinking about it from a handspinning point of view too . the fleece is carded back and forth so the butt and the tip of the lock is mixed up (certainly when I do it )but then smoothed as it draws into the spinning wheel orifice …and on to the reel/spool. So I dont think it makes any difference .
      Not sure about silk reeled off from the cocoons though .

  9. I usually check for the nap and thread my needle accordingly but haven’t noticed a difference in the finished product. Depending on the thread and the fabric I can feel the nap as I pull the needle thru but this goes a way as the thread is pulled thru the fabric repeatedly. I do forget to check nap and when I do I move on. Not a big deal and in most cases not an issue for me. I do not teach about grain (or nap) in any of my tracing sessions.

    10
  10. I agree with you with your research on thread direction. If there were a difference the Mfg. Would of issued warning signs on there skeins or spools a long time ago. I taught Quilt Blocks in our area and I never had a problem with thread. I appreciate what you did to make it more clear for myself and the novice.

    Kind regards,
    Lee Ann

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  11. Hooray——finally someone agrees with me. I’ve never worried about grain. I’ve heard all the arguments for 50 years I’ve taken classes where they teach this. I never went with this theory. Thank you so much for this validation. If you do good stitching and are happy doing it who cares what end of the thread you use. Thanks again. Madilyn

    13
  12. My comment to this article is: Thank you!

    I only heard about this a week ago, and was really worried about it. (Yes, I am that sad).

    Thank you for the light of reason!

    14
  13. I have never considered the question of thread grain before…and I think I will continue to not consider it πŸ™‚

    One thing I have run into, though, is certain colors of dye affecting certain threads. I had a pack of linen floss in several colors, and the black would aleays get fuzzy and knotted way more than the rest. I found I had to use much shorter lengths of the black thread to get my stitches to come out right, but the other colors had no such issue. I always assumed the intensity of the black dye had altered the fibers somehow, but who knows, I may have just been stitching against the grain πŸ˜‰

    15
    1. You’re very observant πŸ™‚ Commercially-dyed black threads and yarns are often originally dyed some other color, which didn’t work out for some reason, then overdyed with black. The result is much more stress on the fiber, and sometimes that shows up in threads or yarns that are fuzzier, more brittle, or other problems.

      Also, more chemical is needed in dyeing black on any fiber, so even if the thread isn’t a bad dyelot overdyed black, that can be hard on the fiber.

  14. When I began reading I thought it must be a joke. I am glad you came down in the do not care court. Likfe is WAY to short to worry about such things.

    16
  15. I agree with you, Mary. I’m of the “whatever works for you” school, and if someone wants to play the thread grain game, go for it. I’d rather be stitching. πŸ™‚

    17
  16. I’ve not heard of this debate before so I have little to say. I will state emphatically that there is thread twist which greatly affects machine stitching. I don’t think anyone debates this.
    Regarding nap, I can imagine that with natural threads there ‘could’ be a nap but that said; if one is threading their needle and thus have a length of thread(s) folded in half then one side is with the supposed grain and the other is against.
    There is no way, save stitching with a loose end of thread to avoid this and thus why worry about it. Be more concerned with the quality of your thread and your stitching skills. Those issues keep me busy enough.
    Thanks Mary, as always informative and thought provoking. Now I have to go ‘burnish’ all my satin stitches Thanks! πŸ™‚

    18
  17. Pe-leeez! Back in the day of basketweave with Paternayan wool it might have had some relevance. But I have been working away for many years and not thinking about it AT ALL. Giving ourselves another rule to follow does not enhance our stitching experience. It should go into the basket with the question about the “right” side of linen.

    20
  18. Like you and most of the others who commented, thread grain was something I encountered many, many years ago and I gave it a serious try but couldn’t tell any difference so dismissed the whole idea–haven’t worried about the grain of the thread for probably the last 30 years.

    21
  19. Hi Mary,

    I’ve been stitching for around 30 years now and only about 3 years ago heard about the thread grain issue. Then a few months ago, I took a class through my needlework guild, with Marion Scoular, who, as I’m sure you know, was trained at the Royal School of Needlework in England many years ago. She touched on that subject, telling us that that topic was never discussed or taught at the school and to not even be concerned about it at all! That’s good enough for me!!

    Thanks, Cindy J.

    22
  20. I agree with most of what you say. The only time I do feel the ‘nap’ and work accordingly, is with crewel wool, especially used with canvas. I think it really does make a difference in this context.

    24
  21. Thank you thank you thank you. I have worked with floss, silk, wool, polyester fibers and every fiber ever made and none of them told me to go with the grain/nap. Even thinking about doing this gives me a headache. I primarily work in mixed media canvaswork and I have dozens of framed pictures that look beautiful even though I was so careless as to not stitch with the grain.

    25
  22. Dear Mary,
    Thank goodness for you. I also tried this grain stuff without much luck.I used to wind the embroidery skeins on a card bobbin starting from the “end” so that the front can be… well in the front. perhaps the first two strands is used the “correct way”, then I get distracted, try desperately do the fluff test, only to find it it fluffs evenly in both directions. Then looking at my embroidery I couldn’t for the life of me see the difference. Now I just carry on regardlessly and today’s newsletter confirmed my suspicions. What is more important, is whether the thread’s twist is left or right, but you have covered that topic in a very easy way to understand in a previous newsletter.
    Kind regards,
    Elza, Cape town xxx

    26
  23. I do it when I remember and if I don’t, meh! I only started doing it after stitching a Susan Portra design. By the way, what does “burnishing the satin stitch” mean?

    27
  24. WooHoo! One less thing to worry about! But reading your article has raised another question for me. What do you mean by “This is one reason for burnishing the satin stitch, once the piece is finished.” I am unfamiliar with this method.

    28
  25. What do you mean

    “this is one reason for burnishing the satin stitch, once the piece is finished”

    I have never heard of doing this.

    Sandra

    29
    1. I have a few Sullivan’s now, and to me the difference is that the colors appear to be a little “softer, or maybe pastel”. What I do like about it is the 30 colors of the over dyed thread.

  26. Who are these nit-picking people who have time to even think about such things. Surely life is too short. Or is this a form of embroidery snobbery?
    I would suggest that they do something better with their time. My suggestion is that they use their time and skills to help those less fortunate themselves. Perhaps they would then realise that this sort of debate is a waste of everybody’s time and energy, focussing on such trivial matters.
    Embroidery should be a pleasure, possibly an employment, and the results should be either beautiful or utilitarian, or preferably both. It should not be an aesthetic burden.

    32
  27. Hi Mary,

    I totally agree with you on the question of thread nap . I never think of it! But I am curious about burnishing satin stitch. Can you explain?

    Thanks!
    Carol

    33
  28. Thank you a million times. I see this argument (yes, argument) come up now and then. With embroidery floss I just can’t find the grain/nap. It’s way too small for me to notice. So I prefer to just stitch and relax. My eyesight is getting so wonky anyway, I’m not going to notice the difference and I’m not trying to win any awards.

    34
  29. I do not understand exactly what is “grain” or “tap” ; perhaps it is what we call “le sens du fil” in french (the way the thread goes)? When you are doing white embroidery, with ‘coton Γ  broder’or ‘floche Γ  broder’, especially very old threads, you must pay attention to “le sens du fil”. I have been teached this experience : you take your thread in your fingers, and you cut about 1 cm of each end ; then you tap on each end ; one end will bloom and not the other. The end blooming is called “la coquine” (the naughty) and the other is called “la sage” (the good). You must put “the naughty” in the needle hole, and your work will pleasant and shining; if not, the thread will wear out quickly and your work will look fuzzy. I always do that.
    But I am convinced tha it does not matter for floss.

    35
    1. I remember reading something similar, that one end of the thread would look like a rosebud. I think it was in an old dutch book on making needle lace. Also, just today I came across this: “You can avoid curling and twisting of your thread by threading the needle correctly … thread your needle before you break the thread from the spool… It really does make a great difference”. This is from a 1951 edition of McCalls complete book of dressmaking. So perhaps ‘grain’ was an issue in the past and methods of thread production have changed since then?

  30. I’ll pay attention to nap in some (but not all) wools, and I recently ran across a coarsely spun linen thread that had a mind of its own in one direction, but not the other.

    However as a rule, I don’t pay attention to grain/nap. But I’m also primarily a linear counted stitcher, and run my threads over a lump of beeswax prior to stitching with them. Any problems of kinking, friction, plies sliding past each other, or abrasion are moot with the beeswax.

    37
  31. Hi Mary:

    I do a lot of embroidery and often find one end of the floss is easier to thread than the other. If I’m having trouble threading the needle, I just try with the other end of the floss. I have no idea if that has to do with “grain” or not (and I don’t really care) It’s my way of doing it and I’m sticking to it! πŸ™‚

    39
  32. I agree that thread has no grain. And common sense (which is a rare thing) says to just stitch and enjoy it, not get hung up on something like nap or grain as it relates to thread

    40
  33. Speaking as a spinner, I can confirm that FIBRE (Canadian spelling) does have a direction that is taken into account, especially when spinning worsted wool. The individual wool fibres have scales on them that relate to the way that fibre grew, and can vary depending on sheep breed. This does indeed make a difference in the appearance of the final product, so attention is paid during spinning to keep the fibres aligned in the same direction. I also embroider using crewel yarn, which is produced in the worsted method, and it definitely does make a difference in the smoothness of the stitch and the ease of sewing. I can feel when the yarn is threaded the wrong way. But nobody looking at the finished product could tell, I’m sure.

    42
  34. So much time (and pleasure) is lost over other people’s ‘rules’. Fabric choice, color choice, thread choice – go with the grain choice. The most beautiful embroidered examples I can think of were made by those who had more on their mind than being “controlled” by the rule mavens.
    Consider the “rules” as guides – but if you don’t go by those rules, your work is NOT inferior or less beautiful. The best part, it is YOUR achievement ! One last note – I follow Mary’s suggestions and ideas that she freely shares with us as she is giving us choices not rules. Love you Mary

    44
    1. But he also wrote “The Taming Of The Shrew”…so he meant thread! Obviously! πŸ˜‰

      Never heard of this discussion before. IΒ΄m not a great stitcher, but IΒ΄m pretty confident in saying: Thread-grain-neglect ainΒ΄t the reason for it!

      All the best wishes,

      Marion

  35. Thanks for your input. I have wondered about the “nap” and now I won’t considered it anymore. One less thing to have to do “right”. Thanks

    46
  36. I agree – well said. I have never had a problem with “grain”. Nor had threads that continued to knot up or twist. If it twists, I just dangle the needle on the thread periodically and it unwinds.
    Great article and great pictures. Thank you.

    47
  37. I laughed so hard when I got down to the actual topic of this one that my husband came to see what was so funny. Thanks, Mary. It was a great laugh.

    When I was learning to smock about 18 years back, my instructor insisted that thread had a grain. I’d never heard of it. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t see any grain on the thread.

    I was on the web in those days, so I contacted DMC to ask about the grain in embroidery floss. The DMC representative informed me, unequivocally, that there is NO grain in any of their threads. She said that what some people “think” they are feeling is just that the machinery either breaks off or flattens some of the individual fibers as the thread is processed. It might “appear” that one direction is smoother than another, but it is an illusion because the fibers actually stick out in both directions. Anyone who has ever spun yarn or thread will understand this. I figured they make the thread so they ought to know, and that was good enough for me.

    When I told my smocking instructor, she said the DMC rep was wrong.

    I thought she was nuts for imagining that she knew more about thread than the folks who had been making it for over 100 years.

    48
  38. I knew what the topic would be from the first sentence! I worried for a long time that one of my very particular and perfect EGA sisters would see me not testing for correct grain direction. One day she was asked and lo and behold she said, “It really doesn’t matter.” Ah freedom! I have never looked back.

    Elaine in New Mexico

    50
  39. I completely agree. So many other things to talk about that are more educational, entertaining, instructional and make a much bigger difference to needlework in general and specific pieces too.

    I say – if someone wants to worry about this, please do. Just not me.

    51
  40. I’ve been stitching for 64 years and have never even heard of thread grain. I used to weave, and the weavers are all hot and bothered about ‘twist’, but I’ve never been able to see that even that made any difference. Life’s too short to worry about things like thread grain.

    52
  41. Thanks for a wonderful article. And for those still not convinced, be sure to read my (and my husband’s) research.

    The twist of thread has more to do with stitching than anything else. Brazilian (rayon) threads are Z twist, which is why they recommend the outline stitch rather than the stem stitch. Most silks and all cottons are S twist.

    I work with longer lengths than many. The most important thing to do is “watch it.” If it’s not in good shape, end and start with a new length.

    Wishing you all success in your embroidery adventures!

    53
  42. Sometimes I have a thread that seems to tangle often and changing the direction the thread is knotted seems to help, but I think this has more to do with a twist in the thread from the way I stitch than any inherent grain of the thread. I’ve heard this same argument about thread for machine sewing and it never made sense because the bobbin is always wound in the opposite direction of the spool.

    54
  43. Mary, Thank you for sharing this information. Just last night on Pinterest, I came across a pin talking about how to thread a needle the correct way with the grain. My husband is just learning cross stitch and so we began discussing it. In all of my years of stitching the grain of a thread had never crossed my mind, nor either of my Grandmothers (they taught me and never said a word). I told hubby that it was something I was going to pay attention to; he said that he did not care he was going to go on the way he is now. We both laughed and had a very nice evening. I will pat attention, because I just want to see for myself if there is a difference. But sure am not going to debate about it. LOL. Again, Thank you for sharing and I hope that you have a very wonderful creative day!

    56
  44. Heard about it years ago as well. It may have had some merit way back with wool threads, but I never could tell the difference and, like you, ignore the whole debate. I use the loop method with even numbers of strands to start stitching and just recently heard that judges can tell if you do that. Really?

    58
  45. Thanks for the article and the viewpoint. I have felt this way for years when I have been confronted with S and Z twist arguments. I agree!!!!!! I would rather worry about thread length causing wear, and that doesn’t seem to bother as many people.

    59
  46. I am a spinner and have had the same type of fanatical debate with many. I spin, weave, knit, crochet and embroider and each craft has its own theologians.

    Nap would be referred to as twist direction in spinning. There is z and s twist – because the shape looks like one or the other. When you spin your yarns you are told z for some applications and s for others.

    The only issue I foresee at all with twist is what movement your hand makes. If your movement make the strand turn left and it’s already twisted to the left you will need to uncurl the strand more often. With knitting and crochet the strand is long so if it matters it would matter more in these applications. But most commercial yarn has the same twist – so millions of people haven’t noticed. I notice because I’m left handed. My hand motions unwind the ply not make it tighter. And since I spin I notice it more andI have only noticed a problem when I crochet.

    So in the end someone would have to let the thread unwind a little. Most people don’t even notice.

    61
  47. Too funny. I BELIEVE I can feel the smooth direction of yarn, thread, floss or perle and I always thread up accordingly. Half a century habit. I also BELIEVE in the pragmatic approach–do what works. Works for me? OK.
    Doesn’t matter to YOU? OK.

    The infamous “Quilt Police” try to inflict inflexible rules on quilters. Are there “Stitch B—-h” squads, too?

    62
    1. Yes, yes there are, sadly I can say this from experience which is why I have never joined a Guild (up until recently I found an online guild).

      I have witnessed first hand a newcomer being ripped to shreds for the apparent incorrect way of making a quilt or the incorrect stitch used on an embroidery. In our town will call them the ‘Stitch and B…h’ groups, sad really.

  48. I’d never come across this. Smacks of people having too much time on their hands and too little stitching to interest them, perhaps? Life is too short as it is. Life is definitely too short for the modern equivalent of counting angels dancing on pin heads! Thanks for being the voice of reason here, Mary. (And now, as you suggest, I’m dismissing it completely from my mind.)

    63
  49. I’ve sat through many a class that spent too much of my stitching/learning time going over and over and over this. All I can say is

    Let’s Stitch!

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  50. Thank you so much for this opinion! I encountered a few fanatical grain-ies over the years whilst teaching. As someone mentioned in a comment, the Royal School of Needlework doesn’t teach grain either. However, me bringing that fact to my defence when telling students I don’t care about grain, wasn’t always authority enough… I have high hopes you are :).

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  51. Hi Mary, I’m going to give my 2cents worth from a different perspective. I’m both a spinner and an embroiderer and my goal in spinning is to be able to spin embroidery fine thread. (I’m not there yet, but getting close). What I have been learning from spinning is that all fiber indeed does have a grain. Especially if its wool which has scales that will catch on one another. But if it is a short staple like cotton, its harder to tell, and silk or linen are even harder to tell, but its still there. There is one end of the fiber that will draft (extrude) more easily than another (if you are using a mill prepared “top”) to spin from especially. What makes fiber yarn is the twist and specifically the amount and density of twist. And once 2 threads are twisted together that makes a “ply” which may obscure the grain so that it is hard to determine, but its still there and it will effect the nap. As an embroiderer and spinner I agree with you that it isn’t worth debating, but thanks for presenting this discussion anyway.

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  52. I find that ‘grain’ or ‘nap’ only matters when you want to be sure of the final effect of the area you are working on. Light has a curious effect on areas of stitching depending on how it is reflected off the area. It can have either a glossy or shiny appearance or a matt or dull finish. In general, the most important aspect of this discussion is to be consistent in what end of the thread that you put in the needle. One way to make sure you are consistent is to knot the end of the skein. This also helps in dealing with varigated threads.

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    1. I once stitched a needlepoit piece called “Play of Light”. The instructions for cotton thread were to use the thread as pulled from the skein in order for the light striking that part would be consistent so perhaps light has a bearing on stitching in some cases and actually has a bit of grain. The wool used in the piece definitely had grain.

  53. Hi Mary,

    I started doing crewel work to use the leftovers of hand-spun embroidery wool I made for customers. Honestly? Crewel wool is spun and plied so fine, that I see no difference in its performance, regardless of threading direction. I think embroidering with a needle that makes a hole compatible with the size of the yarn, through a fabric of smooth linen, nullifies the effect of “fuzzing”.

    The only way it could become an issue, is, if either the piece itself was continually “roughed up”, or the yarn highlighted a characteristic of its breed – the “halo” of angora, for instance. Manufacturers understanding this, select fleeces for crewel that are low on the scale for pilling. The directional texture has no direct bearing on the yarn.

    Quality cotton thread should not be grainy, due the long staple length used in spinning and the process of mercerization. It would have to be of very poor quality to have a fuzzy and napped look, or, as you stated, an issue with the needle.

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  54. Oh, lovely story, Mary! I have a theory that people all want to be “special” and don’t realize they already are. I have a neighbor who is bright and well-traveled, but she is so “pippy-poo” on any subject that I can’t enjoy her company. She always has a Higher Truth! Now here you are saying thread nap doesn’t matter and don’t even look for it! And in the embroidery business, you know all about “pippy-poo” when it’s important for Excellence! Thank you for this!

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  55. Thank you for your comments relative to thread grain. I had no idea there was such a concept floating around out there! Soooo, you will not be surprised to know that I also fall into the “I don’t care” camp!

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  56. Hi Mary,
    What does burnishing mean. I have never heard of this before, (not that I know all the terms).
    Thanks
    Joy

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  57. I don’t seem to have any issues with embroidery flosses but I do find with sewing thread that if I am having trouble threading the needle I can sometimes thread it from the other end of the thread easier, I think that might be because of the twist in the thread… thank you for your article, I find that I have the most satisfying results when I don’t use a thread longer then 18 inches and I did a project with rayon thread that I used 12 inch threads because it twisted and frayed if I used longer pieces.

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  58. Bless you, my child, for cutting straight to the heart of this issue. I cannot for the life of me see the difference and agree with you that if there’s a problem with how the thread is laying, its usually a “user” issue than a material issue. Burred needle or worn needle eye really seems to be a big factor but I’d say my biggest transgression especially with the silks, is that I use too long a piece of thread. I keep forgetting your advice about burnishing the floss. I’ve got to remember to do this! I was so amazed at the results you showed in a newsletter from a while ago. To try to figure this all out is setting yourself up for wasted time when you could be enjoying and making progress with your stitching!

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  59. Well, I am enlightened. Lo these many years ago, my grandmother (who did some needlepoint) gave me a bunch of her cotton DMC thread and mentioned this grain thing. I totally believed her and have always expended some small amount of effort to get the thread going the right way, though I usually didn’t notice any difference. So I am happy to find that there is more than one opinion on this and that I shouldn’t really worry about it.

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  60. Oh my, I’d never even heard that thread might have a grain! I am going to leave this article now and not read other comments lest I become corrupted!

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  61. I have enough trouble getting projects done to waste time worrying about nap or grain on my floss.These picky people have more time for trivialities than most of us.

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  62. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mary. I’ve never been able to identify the “correct grain” of my fibers and decided I was just grain deficient. It’s nice to know that I’ve been looking for something that wasn’t there rather than not finding something that should have been obvious. Phew.

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  63. When I am stitching with 2 strands of embroidery floss (separated of course) I just thread 3 needles at the same time. Each with the required 2 strands. That insures all thread are going in the same direction. It also seems to “speed up” my stitching since I do not have to stop and thread needles. At least I feel I am stitching faster when all I do is change to a pre-threaded needle.
    All of my students liked this suggestion and most of them adopted the idea.
    I am a professor emeritus of Needle and Fiber Arts, designer, published author etc.

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  64. Thank you for taking a position on what I did not know was a topic of much discussion & division. You are a brave woman & I respect your opinion. As for me, I have none.
    Catherine

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  65. The only thread I’ve ever used that might be directional is the rayon Brazilian embroidery thread. That is because the twist is maintained better by threading from the end that “blossoms” more when it is unraveled. As far as needlepoint yarn and cotton or silk floss, I’ve never found any difference.

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  66. I took an embroidery workshop last summer in which the instructor taught us to look for the grain & stitch with it. I never could tell the difference between “with the grain” & “against the grain” so it is a relief to hear this! I figured that if it was that hard for me to detect, it wouldn’t be that easy for anyone else either!

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  67. OK. So maybe it is using a new thread. But, if I pull the DMC floss through my fingers, the smoother way stitches with less tangling than the way that feels rougher. I’m using the same skein of floss, striped singlely and paired up to stitch, same length. If I get a tanglely thread, I can unthread, put the other end in the needle, and not have a problem. I’ll always feel my thread before stitching! It makes my stitching look smoother. I never could tell the front from the back end of a skein.

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    1. I forgot to add :-} at the end of the above email. I don’t care what anyone else does, but I’m going to continue doing it my way. πŸ˜‰

  68. Well I’ll be darned, I’ve been stitching for years and never knew this question existed. Quite honestly I’m rather glad to have been ‘in the dark’ all this time ;)Seems to me to be a waste of valuable stitching time, haha

    I’m with you Mary “I don’t really care” but I did find this interesting, thank you. Have a great day everyone =)

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  69. Thanks again for your wonderfully informative site! I believe that in most situations it doesn’t matter which end of the thread you put in the needle however I have developed the habit when doing sections of counted thread satin stitch of using a new skein (as opposed to what has been left over on a bobbin)and always pulling from the same(recommended)end and cutting and threading the same way, placing the “old” cut end in the needle. I honestly believe you can see the difference in the results and when done well it surprising what can be achieved with plain old cotton thread. Another tip to success here is railroading the stitches, something you might like to talk about one day. It is something I have been asked about several times recently.
    Christine

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  70. I confess! I am a nappy grainer! I am so anal about it. I have found it makes a difference……for me. I would never lay this on anyone. Our craft should be fun and pleasing to the eye. Thank you for sharing this information. Sometimes, I, too, cannot tell a difference.

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  71. Mary
    I have never heard of such a lot of bunk in all my days. Where on earth do you find these people. In all my days if the thread is fluffy and usually because it can be old and dry it soon can be brought up nearly as good as new by a bit of light steaming and a very gentle, light waxing and stroking. I certainly don’t think about the GRAIN. It is bad enough picking colours and fabric let alone if the thread has a grain.
    My answer to this is some people don’t have enough to think about or do. Nit picking nuts.
    You can bet that as day follows night I won’t be worrying about grain. Get a life people.

    Thanks Mary

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  72. Thank you for making a statement.
    I make quilts and have a very difficult time convincing others that “it is only fabric.”
    Choose your battles.
    Life is short.
    Enjoy your passion.

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  73. I enjoy many threads. And I have experiences this discussion before. I feel some of the wools do have a different appearance and difference feel while working if you are not careful about nap/grain. That said I consider one cocker spaniel smooth and the other terrier springy. I try to take advantage of each attribute as needed.
    I have not noticed a major difference in other thread types.

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  74. Thank you Mary. There are far too many “rules” in embroidery that only frustrate new stitchers but make no sense to anyone but the rule makers. My secret feeling is the rules get made because those who make them aren’t all that good at embroidery. They should use the time spent rule-making to practice those stitches!

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  75. Hi Mary
    Go girl! You tell them.
    I used to worry about the “grain”, then I noticed a lot of books and other sources were saying instead of e.g. using 2 strands of thread use 1 double the length this enables an easy start without knots and I thought if it is good enough for them it is good enough for me. Just stitch and enjoy it I say.
    By the way love the “stitchuation”
    Sandy

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  76. I never bothered with the grain either. But I am not such a good satin stitcher & would like to know more about burnishing- how to do it, what tools are used etc. Barb

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  77. I send you(with a sigh of relief)a huge “Thank you.”
    Needlework is my fun.I have enough familial-induced obsessive-compulsive moments without turning my fun into stress from thread debates.

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  78. Dear Mary,

    Loved the article. Your embroidery is beautiful and I’m sure if thread had a grain you would show us the proper way to identify it and give us clear examples in your many lessons of the difference.
    Thanks for all you do.

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  79. I don’t think it matters about the thread grain. So I’m with you. If my thread starts to mess up it’s because I have let it get twisted. But I do have a question: why would a needle that’s too small make the thread become knotted?

    Thanks for all the good information, but I worry more about my stitches than I do about the grain of the thread.

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  80. I do not bother with the grain of the thread and when in a class I too got confused so gave it up. The only thing that concerns me inlave whether the thread is a Z cross or S and even then I get a bit confused.
    Linda

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  81. i am so glad you posted this. there are so many things in the textile world which are presented by obsessive people as facts, when they are simply opinion and really very trivial. I also find it annoying to have these so called “rules” told to beginners, who really need it to be simple. Good on you!

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  82. Well, I have never heard about thread grain and
    it doesn’t seem to have effected my work. I must agree with you if it mattered the thread companies would be making a big deal of it. Only my opinion, happy stitching everyone.
    Dianne

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  83. Hi Mary,, I was told about the grain many years ago but I havent time for that ,, There’s to much stitching to have fun with without worrying about grains,, as long as you are happy with what you do who cares
    cheers Lyn

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  84. thanks MARY like you I have do not understand the donot and do about tread I have been embrodering from the age of 10 (now 70) male by the way learned from my mother and grandmother both dressmakers and tailors my mother and hers started off by doing name embrodery for a tailor in Durban South Africa,
    Thanks for the years of reading your emails

    Dennis King

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  85. Wow! A stitching friend just sent me this article and I was reading about S- and Z-twisted threads JUST TODAY!! I’ve heard for years about the grain or nap of embroidery floss and I’m totally on the side of…it doesn’t matter. I stitched the Paula Vaughan project “Summer Breeze” and often when I look at it, I smile at how much I anguished over the partial stitches in the yellow and purple irises. If it’s a 3/4 stitch…do you put the darker or the lighter color floss on the half cross? Who cares?? I can barely make out the irises now!!

    I’ve heard of tapping the just-cut thread on the table; supposedly the more “nappy” end will splay out more. Baloney.

    I figure I have the problem beat: when I need to use 2 strands of floss, I take an extra long single strand, fold it in two and thread both ends through the eye of the needle. I come up for my first stitch from the back and when I go down, I make the needle go through the resulting loop to anchor it. I have exactly 1/2 the amount of buried threads on the back than I used to. Necessarily, one of halves of the strand is going with the grain and the other is against. Believe me: I have made 1,000,000 half cross stitches and as I’ve buried the end in the back, I sure would have noticed by now if one of the strands was more fuzzy or worn or shiny than the other. Pish posh.

    What this is all about is if the fibers are starting to imperceptibly lose their shine. But come on…it’s more whimsy than anything else. I’ve never seen anyone but a raw beginner use such a long thread or pull so tightly that the fibers looked fuzzy.

    You know what? Even if it made a difference…it wouldn’t make any difference! tee hee

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  86. My Godmother, who worked in a sewing room, always insisted that I thread a needle straight from the reel, so that I was using it correctly. Maybe there is something in it. Or maybe it also depends on the quality of the thread.

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  87. Your writing sounds feisty today!
    As for teh subject of discussion, I try to pay attention to the grain when I remember; else I don’t bother much.
    Natasha

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  88. It doesnot matter.I agree but…..wool treads it is another story.It is better to have the wool hairs? flat because then it will work better througth the fabric.
    Loes

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  89. Hi Mary,
    I thread my needle with one thread from the section that I have pulled from the hank and always put this end in the needle.
    Keep up the good work, enjoy your emails
    Ros

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  90. I usually run the thread through my fingers to find the smoothest direction. When I remember. It seems my thread knots less when I do, but it could all be an illusion. I don’t stress about it, and often forget to do it anyway…

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  91. Never heard of it and my work is always looking really nice.
    So the subject will not cross my mind it’s gone forever,
    thanks
    Diane

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  92. I have heard about this controversy before and tried to pay attention to the “grain” of the thread, but it never seemed to make a difference to me either, so I stopped worrying about it.

    It is not nearly as important IMHO as threading a needle from the “right” side. I think it was you who pointed out that, if a needle doesn’t thread easily, turn the needle around. I had never realized that before and it is SO true. I guess needles really do have a grain! πŸ™‚

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  93. Thank you for saying that thread has NO grain. I asked one of the ‘grande dames’ of embroidery who knows the owner of DMC personally and she said he laughed when she asked him. The fibers are folded and twisted so many times that there is no way DMC has a grain. From then on, I stopped even trying to figure it out.

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  94. Isn’t this just trying to make stitching complicated, highbrow and elitist? For goodness sake! Few of us get as much time to devote to our embroidery as we would like, we certainly don’t need nonsense like this to make things worse, and suck the pleasure out of it too. Thank you Mary – and the many followers here who have commented – for your common sense. Don’t fuss over the floss, just thread it in the needle and get going with your project!

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  95. Oh wow! I’ve not been aware of thread grain in my 65+ years of embroidering and I too will not think twice about it again. Now out of curiosity, I will try and see if I can detect the grain on my thread. The only inkling I may have had was that you thread your needle from the thread as it comes off the spool to prevent tangling,which was a helpful sewing hint, so maybe that’s where grain applies.

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  96. I’m an eighty-year-0ld beginning embroidery lover. I’m not good yet.

    1) I can’t tell how many strands of floss you are using in your excellent demos. Is there a rule of thumb or suggestion about number of strands for different stitches?

    2) Do you double the strands on even numbered total strands like 2 strands doubled and knotted for a 4 stranded stitch; or so you thread the four strands?
    Thank you for the excellent tutorials. I am having so much fun.

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    1. Hi, Elmily – for most of the video tutorials and many of the stitch fun tutorials here on Needle ‘n Thread, I use pearl cotton because it’s easier to see in the videos or the photos. It doesn’t break down into different strands like floss does.

      If I’m using stranded cotton, I strip the floss (separate each strand) and put back together the number of strands I want to use. So if I’m using two strands, I don’t normally double the thread in the needle, but I thread two strands into the needle.

      Glad you’re having fun with it!

  97. Hello Mary and everyone …..
    I totally agree …
    However in sewing ( as in fabrics ) grain is of great importance …. to me.
    I will not argue the matter either ….
    Have a wonderful weekend !
    No I have not submitted this before …..

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  98. Thank you for your explanation about the thread grain. I have never heard of those before until I read the above Thread talk. Like I said, I am new to embroidery and other needle & thread works, I don’t think it matters to me.
    Thank you Mary!

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  99. Oh thank you. Although I admit to sometimes “feeling” my thread , I am a “No Grainer” too (love the term). I even asked the quality control person in charge of a major floss company and they said it doesn’t matter. Still, as a teacher I somehow felt lacking that I stitched whatever old way, when other well know teachers were so adamant about grain. All I can say is You’ve got guts, girl.

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  100. I realize this discussion is about embroidery threads, but this might be useful when sewing embroidered pieces into finished objects. The only time I consider which end to use to thread my needle is when using sewing thread. Using the end which comes off the spool first makes a difference for me in how easy it is to thread my needle, no matter how small the eye, and minimizing those annoying loopy knots (except when your thread’s too long). Almost always takes only one try. I don’t know why, because technically both ends are cut. But after many, many years of threading from both ends, the first end works like a charm every time, as long as the tip is snipped cleanly. If I have to rethread with the same piece, clipping off the frayed end is automatic for me now. Any other thread/yarn, no difference for me.

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  101. I would like to hear from a thread manufacturer on this. I think thread is made like rope – you twist and twist and eventually it folds back on itself and makes a thread or rope twice as thick. You can continue and make more twists and more folds.

    Threads with two strands, made like this, have one component strand going in each direction, so there is no ‘grain’. Perhaps if you picked the DMC floss apart, separating the two strands in a length of floss, each strand would have a grain, but the floss has both grain directions.

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  102. I have never heard of thread “grain” or “nap”, but I certainly know I have trouble with the “twist” of the thread. I assume it is because I am left handed and I truly believe it’s not my imagination. So I thread my needle from the forward end and make my knot at the tail end. Maybe that is what these people are referring to??
    There is a reference to this “twist” issue in someone’s comment. I’ll have to look into that. There is always more I can learn!

    That this is a controversial issue is humorous to me. I save my emotions for life and death issues – and politics. Oh don’t get me started! πŸ™‚

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  103. The only semi-plausible explanation of how thread behaves with any kind of “grain” or “nap” is using it while knitting vs embroidery. As a spinner, I often see mention about spinning “for knitting”, meaning the yarn is spun and plyed in a particular direction. When spinning, the direction you twist the fiber in is generally called S and Z twist, with S twist having fiber twisted in the same direction as the center part of the letter S or \ and Z in the direction of the middle of the Z or /. An S-twist single would be plyed, no matter how many plys, Z-twist and vice versa. There are exceptions, of course, for various specialty plying styles, but your plain old everyday yarn or thread would follow the S and Z method.

    The theory seems to be that the direction in which the yarn or thread is spun and plyed makes a difference as to whether a knitter or stitcher adds or removes twist while knitting or stitching.

    For example, yarn that has been spun S and plyed Z will/will not have more twist added as you knit. The other direction will/will not have twist removed as you knit, all based on a person’s opinion on the matter. Are you with me so far? Bless you if you are, its very convoluted logic in *my* opinion.

    Since every single person on the planet has their own way of holding yarn or thread while manipulating it, I have done no research of, or experimentation with, this theory. I just spin to achieve (hopefully) the result I want. I’m not sure how certain things would be taken into consideration while applying this theory, such as whether a knitter is right- or left-handed, whether they knit Continental or English (or other, less common knitting methods) and so many other variables I can’t begin to wrap my brain around it.

    That said, there are no Fiber Police, and people are free to do whatever it is that gets them the result they want. There is no One True Way – for anything.

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  104. I’m with you – I’m a “no-napper” gal. πŸ™‚ I’m no expert, but I’ve been happy with my projects without concerning myself about nap.

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  105. Dear Mary,
    Amen!!
    I have been needlepointing most of my adult life, am an old lady now, and considered an advanced stitcher for classes at seminars and nationals.

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  106. Can I be a semi-grainer? I have definitely noticed a difference when using Brazilian rayon thread. I think the thing about the Brazilian is that it’s a combination of the content (rayon), the twist, and the type of stitches you are doing.

    When I am doing stem/outline, lazy daisy or other flat stitches I don’t care about which end to use but when doing the more dimensional ones like bullions, cast-on, sometimes even french knots, I like to figure out first which pull of the thread through my fingers causes the least twisting and thread that end. I absolutely feel that my embroidery is better when I do that.

    I’ve never noticed any difference in cotton or wool threads.

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  107. Years ago, at a fancy (expensive) needlework shop, we were told to separate the six strands of floss, and rearrange each one going the opposite direction to the other, to make it easier, run a damp cotton ball as they meet.
    So…your input please.

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    1. Hi, Velia – I really don’t see how it would make any difference – or what kind of difference it would make. No matter what direction the threads are going in, they are always s-twisted, so it can’t be to balance twist. If it’s a grain thing, well, the manufacturers are even against that notion. So what would the purpose be? I think it’s probably just one of those self-inflicted little nuances…

  108. Huckweaving was the first needlework shared with me by Grandma. She taught me to start in the center of the huck cloth and work to either side. No mention of grain or nap. She was my expert then…
    Now…I am thrilled to read your no-nonsense approach to this unnecessary notion of one-way thread πŸ™‚

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  109. Hi Mary, I just had to chip in and say I agree completely with you…everyone is different and there are some subjects that are better not to discuss…I love my embroidery, I love the process of stitching, deciding on colours and the feeling of it:) I have a friend who also loves embroidery, but on top of that she is like you, loving the research and history of embroidery and threads and so on. I am not that interested in that side of it, but that does not mean I judge you and her for it…it is the same as religion and politics…if you want to have friends, then do not discuss these subjects, as they are bound to cause friction…just allow people to be different:) (that’s me off the soapbox…lol) x Ylva in Scottish Highlands

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  110. Does grain really matter? I don’t know, but what I do know is when my floss tends to knot, bunch up, and just be generally difficult, I cut it off… and put the knot at the other end. It works better. But, does grain really matter? Read second sentence again.

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  111. Okay then! Took a class from a designer once a number of years ago and she explained about thread grain/nap and taught us the “run it across your upper lip (underside of your nose)” test. Yes, sometimes I can tell a difference but other times not so I’m glad not only to read this post but to note, specifically, that the manufacturers say there’s no grain to threads. Guess they should know!

    Thanks so much for this. I shall try not to worry about grain in the future, though I will still try to be consistent about stitching in the same direction with a given skein of thread since I notice a difference in how the light reflects. Or … is that something that would be taken care of with the burnisher you mentioned? Headed off to learn about burnishers….

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  112. Great article, and I’m glad it doesn’t matter. I wonder if starting with the loop method makes my work look messy, but I’ve never done it the other way, so I can’t compare.

    Glad you say it doesn’t matter. Besides, once the work is washed, pressed and framed, all the stitches look uniform anyway.

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  113. I am a “grainer” and a “napper.” I am able to feel the difference and I do notice that my threads wear less if I follow the grain (nap). But there is one other consideration. There can be an ever so slight to significant color difference if the threads are not used in the same direction all the time, because light hits a grain and reflects differently with as opposed to against that grain. So, whichever camp one falls into, following the same thread grain – either with or against – is truly important, especially with wools and silks, but even to a lesser degree with mercerized cotton threads.

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  114. You have a reference to a Needle Arts article in March 1999. I looked at the Needle Arts Index that is currently online, and it says the article is in the March 1996 issue of Needle Arts.

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