How do I know if my embroidery thread is bad?

Determining if your embroidery thread has gone bad can be tricky. Some signs of bad thread are obvious, like mold or fraying. But other times, the degradation is more subtle. This article will walk you through the telltale signs of bad embroidery thread and help you decide if it’s time to replace your supplies.

What are the signs of bad embroidery thread?

Here are the most common signs that your thread has expired or gone bad:

  • Fraying – Thread starts to unravel, with fine wispy fibers coming loose from the main strand.
  • Breaking – Thread snaps easily when pulled taut or stitched through fabric.
  • Tangling – Thread knots up easily into major tangles.
  • Color bleeding – Dyed colors run when washed or become muddy.
  • Weakened fibers – Thread loses its sheen and feels limp or brittle.
  • Odor – Thread smells musty, sour, or stale.
  • Mildew – Grayish-white mold spots appear on the thread.

Many of these issues arise when thread expires past its shelf life or is stored improperly in heat, humidity, or direct sunlight. But even high-quality threads that are well cared for can degrade over time.

Does the age of the thread matter?

Yes, the age of your threads can definitely be a factor in determining if they are no longer usable. Here are some general guidelines on embroidery thread expiration:

  • Polyester thread lasts 1-5 years
  • Cotton thread lasts 1-2 years
  • Rayon or viscose thread lasts 1-2 years
  • Metallic thread lasts 1-2 years
  • Silk thread lasts 1-2 years

These time frames assume the threads have been stored properly in a cool, dry place out of direct light. Heat, humidity, and light will accelerate the expiration process. The dye and fabric treatment also impact lifespan—vividly dyed and coated threads tend to expire faster.

Should I toss old thread?

If your thread is past its prime according to the guidelines above, it’s best to let it go. Trying to stitch with expired thread will likely result in a lot of aggravation. The thread will keep breaking, tangling, and fraying as you work. No amount of delicate handling can reverse the chemical breakdown of bad fibers.

However, in most cases, old thread is only unsafe in that it leads to frustration and wasted time. Unless the thread shows actual mold growth, it won’t make you sick and can simply be tossed out with the regular household trash.

How to do a quick test for bad thread

If you’re unsure about a particular spool of thread, there’s a quick test you can do:

  1. Cut off an arm’s length of thread and stretch it tightly between your hands.
  2. Run the thread through your fingers and look for any areas that feel weak, limp, brittle, or frayed.
  3. Pull hard on the ends of the thread to see if it breaks easily.
  4. Check for any color bleeding where you handled the thread.
  5. Rub the thread against a white cloth to test for excess dye.
  6. Sniff the thread for any mildew, sour, or strange odors.

If you notice any fraying, breakage, bleeding, discoloration or bad smells in this quick test, it’s time to toss the thread.

Can bad thread damage my embroidery machine?

Old weak thread can sometimes damage embroidery machines. As the thread breaks over and over, it can get stuck in the mechanisms of the needle and hook. The constant breaking also leads to tangles and jams.

Lint and bits of fraying thread can gum up mechanisms. Fragile thread can get pulled into crevices, slowly clogging moving joints. This buildup strains the machine’s timing and synchronization.

In a worst case scenario, a major tangle could damage the hook assembly or other critical parts of the machine. The repairs and downtime from such an incident far outweigh the cost of new quality thread.

How to store thread properly

To help your embroidery thread last as long as possible:

  • Store threads in a cool, dry place away from windows and heat vents.
  • Keep thread off concrete floors or anywhere else prone to moisture.
  • Avoid direct light which can fade colors over time.
  • Keep dust and dirt away from threads which can trap moisture.
  • Store vertically, in clearly labeled plastic bins or embroidery thread racks
  • Avoid yanking threads which can stretch and distort the fibers.
  • Don’t expose threads to chemicals like bleach, perfume, or laundry products.

With ideal storage methods, high-quality threads could last 5+ years. Take time to wind bobbins carefully, keeping tension even. This helps threads stay smooth and orderly on the spool.

Common signs your threads need replacing

While testing your older threads, be on the lookout for these sure signs it’s time for replacement:

  • Multiple breaks, snarls, and tangles during projects
  • Need to manually help threads through needle eye
  • Noticeable fading, bleeding, or muddying of colors
  • Increased lint and fraying threads under foot and in bobbin area
  • Thread feels limp, stiff, or powdery
  • Musty odors coming from storage boxes or machines
  • Difficulty getting smooth stitch appearance
  • Thread feels sticky, coated, or gummed up

Don’t waste time trying to salvage bad thread. Investing in high-quality replacements will save you hours of hassle and produce gorgeous finishes.

What threads should I avoid?

With so many thread brands and varieties on the market, quality can vary drastically. Here are some red flags that indicate cheap thread to avoid:

  • No brand information or origin on spool
  • “Made in China” with no other specifics
  • Sold in bulk packs with poor or loose winding
  • Feels coarse, stiff, or extremely thin and fragile
  • No dye lot number on spool
  • Sold at deep discounts or bargain bin
  • Faded, smelly, or dirty when purchased new

Reputable brands like Mettler, Gutermann, Sulky, Robison-Anton, and DMC are known for quality and consistency. Seek these out for important projects. Unique artisan threads can cause headaches too if too fragile.

Can I reuse old thread for practice or non-critical projects?

While old thread is too unstable for fine finished work, you can use it up practicing your stitches or making practice projects, samples, or quick gifts. Just ensure anyone receiving a recycled thread gift understands its imperfection.

Some clever ways to use up old thread:

  • Stitch practice alphabet samplers
  • Make small freehand embroidery sketches
  • Test out new stitch patterns
  • Play with machine tension settings
  • Make pincushions, coasters, or ornaments
  • Weave thread scraps through burlap
  • Shape it into tassels and fringe

But be vigilant to avoid embroidery machine damage. Don’t allow old thread to tangle and clog inner mechanisms. And steer clear of thread that is moldy or rotting—toss that immediately.

What’s the best way to start fresh with new thread?

When you’ve determined your current thread is causing frustration, follow this process for a fresh start:

  1. Discard all expired thread: Clear out every scrap of old, expired thread from your stash. Examine skeins and bobbins carefully before throwing them away.
  2. Clean your machine thoroughly: Remove lint, stray threads, and built up debris. Wipe down and air dust the moving parts. Oil if needed.
  3. Wind all new bobbins: Don’t mix old and new thread on bobbins. Wind each one fresh.
  4. Stitch test swatches: Make some test squares with new threads in a notebook before starting projects.
  5. Clean accessories too: Replace old warped or bent needles. Clean out thread gunk from tension discs, guides, grabber, and puller.
  6. Evaluate storage: Are your thread storage methods resulting in premature expiration? Make any needed upgrades.

Taking these steps will result in smooth sailing with your gorgeous new threads! No more wrestling with premature breakage and tangles.

How can I make thread last longer next time?

For maximum thread lifespan, implement these storage guidelines:

  • Store thread vertically in cool room around 60-72°F
  • Keep in darkness away from windows and direct light
  • Low humidity around 35-55% humidity is ideal
  • Avoid concrete floors or walls which seep moisture
  • Use breathable plastic bins, not airtight
  • Never keep near heat vents, stoves, appliances
  • Prevent dust and dirt from contaminating threads
  • Limit handling and keep tension smooth on spools
  • Consider vacuuming sealed mylar bags for ultra long-term storage

With excellent care, many threads can last 5+ years and maintain vibrant colors. Be mindful of dye lots and always record them for future matching. Date your purchases and aim to use up similar dye lots together in a project.

What thread brands have the longest shelf life?

Look for these brands known for longevity and colorfastness:

  • Gutermann: German threads with tight precision winding. Lots of bold color choices.
  • Mettler: Swiss brand, silk-like sheen. Fun variegated options.
  • Robison-Anton: U.S. company with rayon embroidery thread that resists fading.
  • Sulky: Strong cotton threads in tons of shades.
  • DMC: Egyptian cotton threads famous for color and washfastness.

Polyester offers the longest shelf life, 5+ years stored properly. Cotton 2-3 years max. Avoid cheap mystery threads without dye lot numbers.

Should I refrigerate or freeze embroidery thread?

Refrigerating and freezing are sometimes suggested for extra long thread storage. However this can create problems:

  • Temperature fluctuations cause condensation
  • Cotton thread becomes brittle when frozen
  • Dyes can bleed from freeze/thaw cycles
  • Metal needles and pins can corrode in fridge humidity
  • Odor transfer occurs from food proximity

You’re better off focusing on proper room temperature storage. Use up refrigerated thread quickly if you do chill it. Defrost frozen thread slowly. For long term archival storage, vacuum seal thread with desiccant packs in mylar bags.

Do I need to dispose of bad thread a certain way?

Regular household disposal is fine for bad threads with no mold growth. Definitely send any moldy threads directly to the trash—don’t try to salvage! Very frayed thread can go into a vacuum bag first to contain loose fibers.

If you want to be extra eco-friendly, look for textile recycling centers in your area that take fabrics, yarns, thread, etc. Or reuse intact threads for craft purposes like weaving or fringing.

With dangerous mold eliminated and dust controlled, embroidery threads pose no environmental hazard. No special handling is required. Just toss with all your routine household rubbish.


Emptying your thread stash of expired, damaged goods feels wasteful. But attempting to salvage bad thread will nearly always result in headaches, wasted time, and disappointing projects.

Learning the telltale signs like fraying, weak fibers, and bleeding dye can help you confidently determine when it’s time to start fresh. Proper storage and handling makes the investment in quality threads last and retain their gorgeous colors.

By periodically evaluating expiration dates and doing a quick manual test, you can keep your embroidery threads in peak condition. Don’t get discouraged by the cost of replacing depleted stocks. Beautiful stitches and frustration-free embroidering are worth it!

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