Choice of Thread

This article was originally written for 'News and Views', the newsletter of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Lace Guild.

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For more than three hundred years after the emergence of lace at the end of the 15th Century linen was the thread most used by lacemakers for both needle and bobbin lace. Some silk was used, and metallic threads, but never cotton*.  Linen wears well and keeps its shape and crispness through repeated launderings. The fact that lace collections the world over contain specimens that are now nearly four hundred years old is testament to linen's durability.

From early in the 19th Century linen lost its general popularity for lacemaking, in the first instance because it became cheaper than linen, then later because it could be more evenly spun and finished.  Linen was difficult to spin on the machines which were taking over from hand spinners, and lacemaking linen in particular continued to be hand-spun and therefore much more expensive than the machine spun cotton. Nevertheless linen continued to be used for laces sold at the 'top of the market'.

Today much the same situation prevails. Although linen lacemaking thread is now all machine spun and no longer available in the very fine sizes, it is still used by professional bobbin lacemakers, particularly in Eastern Europe and Russia.  Most other lacemakers prefer to work with cotton because it is a more even thread, and does not break as easily as a fine linen thread of similar size, especially in our hot dry climate (Australia). As many people know my own preference is for linen thread, whatever the project, so I guess whatever I have to say on the matter could be said to lack objectivity! In fact I do not dismiss all cotton yarns, only those whose characteristics make them unsuitable for technical reasons.

Of course if you are making lace for a purely decorative purpose then you should choose whatever thread is controllable in the lacemaking process and gives you the effect you want.  If you are making lace to wear or for household use the following paragraphs might help you to choose the best thread for the purpose, at least in relation to cotton and linen.  (Silk, wool, metallic and synthetic threads need separate discussion.)

The Twist of the Thread

Apart from the size of the thread you choose, its most important attribute is the twist used when the thread was transformed from a bundle of raw fibres.  Both the direction and the amount of twist are important.  Unless we make our lace entirely of cloth stitch with no extra twists anywhere,  the stitches we use interfere with the twist on the thread, because there are always more twist movements than cross movements.  Continuous laces with a mesh ground, especially tulle laces, are affected greatly in this regard, whereas part laces like Honiton and Withof, or guipure laces like Bedfordshire, are less obviously affected.

Linen thread for bobbin lacemaking is traditionally composed of two or three single yarns spun with a Z twist and twisted together with a tight S twist to make the finished thread.   Lacemaking thread needs this tight finishing twist because the twist movement rolls in the opposite direction from the twist on the thread and partially undoes that twist in the process. (It is this quality which enables the thread to blend into the stitches. The looser S twist weaving and embroidery linens can also be used as long as you stop every so often  and give each bobbin a few turns to the right to restore its twist and prevent it pulling apart.)

On the other hand thread finished with a Z twist has its twist increased during the lacemaking process because the twist movement rolls in the same direction as the twist on the thread. The accumulated result of too many twists in lace made with Z twisted thread causes the lace to lose its shape once the pins are removed, or when it is washed. The effect is rather like that of over twisting a thread to make a cord, and as I remarked before is most pronounced in the ground of tulle laces where the ratio of twists to crosses is high twists to crosses is high.

S-twisted thread and Z twisted thread

Unfortunately the only readily available cotton thread with an S twist is perle cotton.  The rest is all Z twisted and includes crochet and tatting cottons, and the different machine embroidery threads.One can purchase these at almost any fabric or embroidery store. The ultra fine lacemaking cottons available from the specialistlacemakers' suppliers also now mostly have a Z twist.

With the exception of crochet and tatting thread these threads are acceptable because they are comparatively loosely spun, and providing you try to minimise the number of twists you use in your stitches, your lace should launder successfully. For example, if it is possible to work ground stitches with one twist or two, choose one.

Overtwisting is very much more pronounced if the Z-twisted thread you are using is crochet thread or DMC fil a dentelles (which is actually produced for fine tatting).  These threads are, in spinning terms, cabled yarns which are composed of three 2-ply threads further spun together to make a single Z-twisted thread.  In other words, three lots of spinning make a very heavily twisted thread which needs to be used with great caution for bobbin lace.

In my opinion the look of bobbin lace made from crochet thread is unpleasant, even without the technical problems, because it does not blend into the stiches one makes; every thread seems to stand out. The trouble is it often comes in just the colour one wants so it's very tempting to use it, particularly the fil a dentelles.

The other disadvantage of using cotton thread with a Z twist is that the lace becomes limp when the finishing solution is washed out of it. It is then difficult restore its shape without re-pinning its edges.

Comparing Thread Sizes

The numbering of sizes in commercial yarn can be very confusing to anyone who has not previously been involved in a textile craft.   In general the lower the number the thicker the thread because the number refers to the number of hanks of a certain length in 1 pound (454 grams) of a single ply of the yarn.   Unfortunately it is not possible at present to equate threads of different fibre composition as the length measures are different.   For example, the measure for linen is the number of 300 yard (270 metre) hanks per pound (454 grams) of single ply yarn and for cotton it is the number of 840 yard (757 metre) hanks to the pound.   For wool and silk it is different again. 

Because of the confusion this causes, in industry as well as to the consumer, some years ago there was an international industry agreement to standardise yarn counts (and yarn labelling) for all fibres, including synthetics.   Unfortunately this only seems to work in industry.   The old system seems to continue for the domestic market and in a rather confused way.   To lacemakers this means that we cannot substitute say, no. 80 crochet cotton for no. 80 linen, or no. 8  cotton perle for no. 8 knitting cotton, without altering the scale of our patterns.

© Rosemary Shepherd; 2000

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