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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Hand Embroidery Tips: Thread Taming & Organizing


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Whether you’re new to embroidery or you’ve been stitching a while, you either have, or will – inevitably – run into certain frustrations with thread!

Now, if you’re a thread junkie, chances are, you’ll try a lot of different threads in your needlework explorations. Your experience, good or bad, will determine whether or not you ever use that thread again.

Unfortunately, a bad experience can often turn us off a good thread.

Over the years, I’ve written many articles about hand embroidery threads, with heaps of tips that can improve your experience with them, especially with those that are troublesome in one way or another.

Funny thing is, even the most basic hand embroidery threads have their annoying aspects. Hopefully, these tips will help you avoid the annoyances and just revel in the pleasure of threads!

Hand Embroidery Tips - Thread Taming & Organizing

The reason I’ve lumped together organizing and taming into one list of tips is that, sometimes, it’s the organization of your threads that can lead to the necessity of taming them!

If you’re experiencing difficulties with threads, here are some tips that will help you overcome thread grief, irritation, and heartache!

Cotton Floss & The Pull Skein

Cotton floss – the six-stranded stuff (think: DMC, Anchor, and a wide variety of hand died cottons) – is fairly user-friendly stuff.

However, occasionally, you’re bound to run into a snag with the pull skein, which is the way most cotton embroidery floss is put up.

You can learn how to conquer the pull skein once and for all here.

Stripping Floss

Stripping or separating strands of embroidery floss make it not only more manageable, but also more effective. Floss that’s been separated strand by strand and then put back together will create fuller stitches, will lie better on the fabric, and will tangle less frequently.

This tip is for whenever you use more than one strand of regular cotton floss in the needle. It’s called stripping your floss. You can read about it – why to do it and how to do it – here.

Removing One Strand at a Time

When you set up embroidery floss for a project, there are many ways you can go about doing so.

You can keep all your floss in their original skeins, you can set up numbered baggies for each color, you can pre-cut your floss and loop it around something. There are lots of options!

For specific projects, before I start stitching, I like pre-cutting my floss and looping it through a hole, either in a card or some similar solution.

When the floss is looped through a hole, you can then remove one strand at a time very easily.

In this article (featuring a floss system called Annie’s Keepers), I demonstrate how to easily remove one strand at a time from a bunch of floss.

You can also easily make your own thread organizing cards that will serve in almost the same way. Here’s an article that tells you how.

You can also purchase pre-punched, stiff, magnetized cards with an area for writing the thread number on them, that will serve the same purpose.

Or, if you like a more compact set-up, these thread drops work the same way.

I even used key tabs once upon a time as thread organizers, and if you happen upon them in bulk for a cheap price, they work ok!

Taming Large Hanks of Floche – and Other Similar Put-Ups

Some threads are not available in pull skeins. Instead, they come in large loops, and once you cut the thread from the loop, you can end up with a lot of thread falling out of its loopiness.

Floche is a good example of this. It comes in huge hanks, that are more or less a large loop, twisted and folded once. Once you cut the thread loop open, you end up with a massive amount of loose thread!

But if you follow these instructions on taming a huge hank of floche, you’ll be just fine!

Incidentally, any skein of embroidery thread put up in loops – whether the loops are twisted or not – can be tamed the same way.

Many smaller thread companies will put up their threads in twists that dangle from a card. Once you untwist that thread, you’ll see that it’s really just a large loop that’s been twisted around on itself.

Open up the loop and tame the threads the same way as you would a large hank of floche!

Do you have troubles with skeins of perle cotton? Remove the sleeve, untwist the skein, and it’s just one big loop. You can treat it just like the floche in the article above.

And if you’re working with coton a broder and it’s not in a pull skein, here’s an article on handling it – which is much the same as handling a large hank of floche.

Taming Twisted Silks & Other Threads

Lots of threads come in a twist put-up, including some silks and synthetics. When you open the twist, the threads can be very kinky and hard to work with.

This article addresses a simple way to calm down threads in these types of put-ups.

Some folks also like to iron their threads, on an iron set for the type of fiber the thread is made from. Both solutions work.

That being said, it doesn’t hurt to test your method first on a smaller bit of thread rather than the whole skein, no matter what you’re doing to straighten it, just in case!

Any Thread-Readying Tips you Live By?

What about you? Do you live by any particular method of readying your threads for stitching? Especially with problematic threads? If you do, I’d love to hear them and so would everyone else, I’m sure. Feel free to join in the conversation below!


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(29) Comments

  1. Do you have any tips for organising Madeira threads? They come in Cellophane packs with a tiny slit at the end. That is all very well but when you strip threads there is nowhere to store the unused threads unless you wind them onto a seperate card which is not always very convenient.

    1. Susan, I have a few of those Maderia ‘packets’ of thread. I just fold the top over a bit and put the packet along with my unused cut thread into a zip top snack sized baggie.

    2. Hello Susan

      With regard to what to do with unused strands of Madeira threads, you could put them through the hanging hole at the top of the cellophane wrapper. I sometimes use them, and do this. Otherwise, unwind the whole skein, and wind it onto a paper/plastic bobbin, remembering to mark the shade on it.

      I hope that this helps.

      Best wishes

      Hazel (Sunderland, England)

  2. I started embroidering – or at least collecting floss! – before fancy methods of storing it were available. I figured out my own system. I fold a 3 x 5 index card in half, lengthwise, and tape it to secure. I use a self-sticking address label on the left side, folded in half and adhered so half the resulting length sticks above the index card, while half is stuck to the card directly. I cut 4 notches along the top edge of the index card to the right of the label. I write the number of the floss color on the label (also on the card as eventually the labels sometimes drop off). I wind the skein onto the card, with both ends secured in the notches. The remaining 2 notches are in the last inch or so of card on the right, and hold bits of thread long enough to still be usable.

    I have nearly a full set of DMC floss stored this way, in a 4-drawer cardboard box from IKEA years ago – the drawers are about 2 1/2 ” deep, which is perfect – the address labels stick up and are easy to see. And they’re about 9″ wide, allowing 2 floss cards to be stored side-by-side, with a slight overlap in the center. Backup floss control – flosses not yet needed – are in quart canning jars on a shelf.

    The beauty of this system isn’t just that it’s inexpensive and easy and long-lasting (been doing this since the early 80s), but that I can see the numbers and colors at a glance, pull those I want to use, and drop them into a basket or bag with the project. And the box holding the drawers is small enough I can easily move it from room to room, could even take it with me to a meeting if desired.

    The sole disadvantage is my daughter sometimes walks off with the colors she likes for months on end – but that’s why I have backup skeins in those quart jars! šŸ™‚


    1. Hi Holly – I used to do something similar but I found that the cut edges of the card were damaging the thread. Do you fold the card edges inwards to avoid that? Also, take care with your adhesives and tape – many adhesives discolour with age and they can mark thread that’s in contact with them.

    2. Hi, Elaine šŸ™‚ There are no cut edges on my cards except the slots in which the very ends of the floss are secured. And while the tape can discolor, and lose its adhesiveness, I’ve not had either the notches or the tape affect the thread. The worst that happens is the address labels fall off and I have to guess what color I have (which is why I started writing the number on the card as well as the label) and of course the thread gets a little fold where it wraps around the cards. That will be a problem in most storage systems. I don’t find it affects my stitching, even when using thread that’s been stored that way for over 30 years šŸ™‚

  3. Hi Mary. I eagerly await your emails and have gained much inspiration and learned many tips that make my embroidery journey exciting. However, I was surprized to note that ironing a bent thread was one way to straighten the floss. Would that not flatten and destroy the shine and texture of the thread?

  4. For hanks of thread (not pul skeins) I really like to cut the whole thing into lengths and loop them on something. I found similar key tabs to what you used, and found that they worked great for my Silk Mill threads. At first I had them all on a ring, but that got a bit cumbersome and tangly with 10+ tabs of thread on it. Eventually I had the idea to put them in a kind of book I’d made from cardboard. I covered the cardboard in fabric in three sections so it folds like a brochure, and sewed a length of ric rac along the top loosely so the the zig zag makes a series of little loops. Now I can hang the key tabs from those loops and keep all the thread neat and untangled, and because it folds up it’s still pretty small and portable.

    Thanks for all your great info, you always inspire some good ideas.

  5. Mary, you are a treasure! Thank you so much for rounding up these articles, they were exactly what I needed to read prior to working with all the silk threads used in the Home Sweet Home project. I was feeling rather daunted having previously ended up in the tangled mess you very eloquently described, with both a Caron silk thread and a Coton a Broder thread. I didn’t want to have the destruction of any more beautiful threads on my conscience! I now feel much more confident about coping and will set about braiding my threads pronto! Thank you again for your help and expertise, it is very much appreciated. šŸ™‚

    1. Kathryn J., Oh, do give us progress reports on Home, Sweet Home, I just bought it and haven’t started collecting things for it. How exciting! Best, Charlotte

    2. Thank you Charlotte for your encouragement! It is an exciting project to get to work on, although when I first looked at the enormous materials list, I did find myself having a bit of a dizzy spell! šŸ™‚ However, I decided to just gradually amass all the bits and bobs and it was less difficult than I initially thought. In fact it’s been rather a fun challenge tracking everything down. I’ve almost got everything together and I’m considering blogging about my progress with the box, so I’ll let you know if I do. I’ll be fascinated to hear about your progress once you decide to start on yours. I can imagine we’ll all be glad of encouragement once we start stitching and constructing. Wishing you all the best with your box. šŸ™‚

  6. I am sure that you have covered the question of non-colorfast thread before, but I have just had a bad experience with some rayon thread in a Brazilian embroidery kit. Having completed a fairly large, and complex for me, project, I washed the piece as directed to remove the pattern marks. The fuchsia thread ran, badly. So, remembering those Color Catchers I use for my quilting fabrics, I soaked the piece again in cold water with a Color Catcher. Voila! All the unwanted color was gone. Then I laid it out to dry, and the color bled out from the fuchsia onto the base fabric once again. So, another soak with a Color Catcher, after which I cut up another Color Catcher into fine bits, wet them and placed them in a sort of a mush over and under the offending threads. It dried without any color on the fabric. A very nice save!

  7. Dear Mary

    This is a very useful interesting article. I tend to keep my threads that I am using for a project on thread holders similar to those that you showed above. They help keep the threads separate and I write the number on the card so that when I run out I know which colour thread to order. When I have finished with a project I store my threads in my DMC organiser which I find really useful for storing theads. Thanks for sharing you tips and techniques on thread taming and organising and for all the links on the various articles that you have written on how to store/tame thread this is really helpful.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  8. Hi Mary
    With threads on a spool – silks for one – I take the printed tab from around the thread
    and stuff it into the centre of the spool. That way you can fish it out to see what it is
    some time later.


  9. I have been gifted with lots of rayon thread that is always acting like it is full of static, twisting and clinging. I will try the ironing suggestion, but would there be a better way?

  10. Hi Mary,

    Thank you for the wonderful tips! Is there a way to manage twisted skeins without cutting and braiding them? I often make temari with perle cotton or silks from the Silk Mill, and I have not discovered a good way to handle the threads without cutting them into lengths. Pull skeins have spoiled me!


    1. I use the twist ties like come with the garbage bags. I cut them in halves or thirds and wrap them around the skein in two places opposite each other. I don’t twist the ties, just wind them into a spiral with the thread inside. Then I twist the loop into a loose skein and put one end with the tie through the other end of the twist.

      I use multiple strands of metallic and rayon sewing thread in needlepoint. The twist ties tame them also, one through the loop at the top (if it is a particularly slinky thread I use two twist ties in the loop) and another about 1 inch down around all the strands. Then when I cut them at the bottom, I can pull out the number of strands I need. I can either loose twist them or slip knot them for storage.

  11. Do you have an article about braiding a skein of floss? I have seen it done, but don’t know the particulars.
    Thank you for all your instruction and hints.

  12. What a timely “thread”. I was looking at my wool thread and was trying to come up with a way to organize it.
    It’s still in it’s lovely little skeins from Renaissance Dyeing, but I know when I go to class, this is not very efficient.

    I’m trying to finish off my 6 ply Anchor/DMC. It’s all on plastic bobbins, but I confess I don’t like 6 ply thread.

    I love Finca Perle Cotton. First of all in comes in size 16! I mostly use size 12 & 16. It’s in a ball. I love balls of thread, no tangles, no separating. Hurray! I especially love it because it never pills and washes like a dream. Lots of my embroidery is on clothes and every day items that see lots of laundering. Why shouldn’t everything I own be embellished? And it’s easy to organize, I have a plastic tub with 4 dividers. I can see all the colors, and separate them by weight. Once I pick the colors for a project, I put them in my bag in a smaller tub, or a plastic bag. I was working on a historical Assisi project and couldn’t find the green, red, or brown I needed in DMC. I buy my Assisi linen from Sotema in Milan. They told me about Finca cotton. I’ve been buying it from Colonial Needle ever since.

    Now, I have to go find your dew drops! I especially love one of your reader’s comments about attaching them to rick rack, in a nice fold and go solution. I love going back and reading your old posts. Always something there to help me move the needle forward.

  13. Little “price tags” have the color number, and material. Learned to deal with longer hanks by tying a tag around it . I use twist, twist and twist until it folds on itself into a shorter strand. Second alternative — with a slip-knot, I use my hands and chain about 10 inches, then make a circle and continue chaining around the previous chain… around and around and around. Learned this from rock climbers whose life depends on keeping their hundreds of feet of rope tamed and ready for use. If you throw the chained “wreath” off a cliff it will pull out from its own weight.

  14. I place a 4×6″ index card inside a sandwich baggie with the floss number noted on the card. I use the type of baggie with the crease top closure as it takes up less space than those with a slider. I place the skein of floss behind the card. Any threads that have been pulled are placed in front of the card. The top of the baggie is folded over. The baggies are filed in numerical order inside shoe boxes or the decorated photo boxes sold at most craft stores. I pull whatever colors I need for a project and usually keep them in a make-up bag of approximately the same width.

    It also works when using threads from a kit. I generally already have threads of the same colors so can incorporate them into existing baggies.

    I learned this system from a woman in an embroidery store over 30 years ago. I have never seen it mentioned elsewhere but it has worked for me. The only problem I have encountered is if I have set a project aside and forgotten to put the floss back in storage. This has accounted for me buying duplicates on more than one occasion.

    Incidentally, I only discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and am having a grand time reading your articles as time permits.

    1. Thank you, Donna, I have a large stash because I keep buying floss rather than looking for it. I have been promising myself I will organize ‘someday’ which has just arrived. And you are right, this is the best blog on the web. Cheers, Charlotte

  15. Hi Mary,
    Thank you so much for this article, as usual, you are bang on the money with your timing and analysis. šŸ™‚ I have bookmarked all of the links you mentioned, so I can tackle anything with ease in the future.
    It gives me yet more confidence in referring others to your website, if that is even possible! Who knows what we would all do without your easy-to-access wisdom!
    Happy stitching,
    Melissa šŸ™‚

  16. Hi, Mary. I have a question about “taming” as one stitches. Please tell us what you think of using “Thread Heaven” (I think that’s the name of the stuff in the tiny blue cube) or beeswax. Do they really help? Do they have to be washed out (which would limit their use to colorfast threads)? Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience with us!

  17. Thank you so much for this Mary, very timely as I have a few silk threads ( not labelled ) gifted to me on cardboard bobbins and when I came to use them the thread was “kinked” quite badly. I’ve used these bobbins for my DMC Cotton Floss for years without problems. My first skeins from the Silk Mill have just arrived – beautiful threads, so I think the braiding method is the way to go with these treasures.

  18. I have an unusual situation. When I will be stitching at a reenactment I can not have out any items which would not exist in the late 1700s (1775 to be exact, but the general range is allowable). That means that I cannot have any modern packaging, cardboard bobbins etc. I can hide anything which cannot be seen, but I cannot have it out.

    I have a small round period-looking wooden box that I keep what I anticipate needing for the day. My ground fabric gets a bit abused as I will fold it down to fit this box, as opposed to how it is kept between events at home. I try to set up the box a day or two in advance. I look at the piece and anticipate which area I will work on and how much I will do. I start off doing the border as it was easy to keep the set up for same from event to event and I generally do not have to consult the instructions after the first few repeats (and I like to do the border first and not have to do it after all the fun work is done).

    I will pull out the threads which I anticipate needing and wrap them onto small wooden bobbins which are reproductions from the period. I have about 10 of them to use. (One of these bobbins is more or less permanently holding some handmade linen thread which I bought at a folk life event, just to show people handmade linen thread.) Since I need to label the colors in some way (I am working from a kit) I write the color letter or number on a tiny piece of paper and pin it to the thread it is for with a reproduction pin (okay, they are round headed silver color pins taken when husband gets new shirts – the cheapest and easiest look alike pins, although a bit short). I will also make a reduced size photocopy of the area I intend to work on. It can then be easily hidden in my round box to be surreptitiously referred to.

    If I find that I can do more than I anticipated the other threads and the complete instructions are in the large box/bench we bring to events for storage and sitting and I will take what I need and hide it under my apron while I go some place relatively private to set those items up.

  19. Dear Mary
    Thank you so much for the most excellent website ever! I came back to my embroidery when I became unemployed and your clear guidance and knowledge have opened up my learning wonderfully. I greatly enjoy all content your website.

    I only wish it was possible to become one of your monthly patrons, so much hard work deserves recompense, but my budget would be at one dollar a month and Iā€™d pay more in currency exchange than you would get! Could I send you a years worth in one transaction ? Hoping that others are proving some income to help cover your cost also.
    Thank you again for all the hard work that we benefit so much from.
    Most kind regards
    Samantha L Bramich

    1. Thanks, Samantha! I completely understand the dilemma – please don’t worry about it! If you have every purchased an e-book from me or anything like that, you’ve done your bit! šŸ™‚

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