Embroidery Floss – How many strands do I use?

Embroidery Floss... How many strands do I use? - France Nadeau

My Attitude About Embroidery - France Nadeau

Embroidery floss is different from thread in that it may be separated. In fact, six strands are intertwined to form the floss. And those six strands give you choices. You can use as many strands as you like. I personally use either one, two, three or six strands. I really cannot recall ever using four or five strands. According to the type of embroidery you make – cross stitching or regular embroidery – the effects will vary. (I know there are other forms of embroidery, like Brazilian embroidery or Japanese embroidery, but they are yet unknown to me.)

Cross Stitching

For cross stitching, your choice makes a big difference. I use one, two or six strands. If you look at the pictures below, you can see how the number of strands affects the appearance. You can click on the pictures to enlarge them and have an even better look. (The rose on the right is the one I used to make the birthday card I told you about a few weeks ago.)

Embroidery Floss... How many strands do I use? - France NadeauCross-stitched rose - France Nadeau

Cross-stitched heart - France NadeauCross-stitched heart - France Nadeau

In the left cross stitches, I used the whole floss (six strands). I love the tapestry look created by the six strands. The colors are intense. We do not see the Aida cloth or fabric that is under the floss. The texture is agreeable to the eyes and the hands. The cross stitch is dense and thick. On the other hand, it is harder to do and definitely requires more energy. You have to push your needle through the hole, even more when the needle is going through a hole for the fourth time. Also, the fabric or the Aida cloth you are working on tend to distort a little.

On the right cross stitches, I used two strands. The needle goes smoothly through the cloth or fabric. You can make a pattern very quickly, even more when the Xs stand alone (as for the heart). The Xs are clearly visible and give the work a more naive look that is quite charming. On the other hand, the cross stitch being less dense, we can see the Aida cloth or fabric that is under the floss. Because of that, the colors are less intense, less “true”. A white or beige background will tone down the colors. A red or black background will darken the colors. Also, as we clearly see a X, the edges of a motif is not smooth. And the curves… are not really curves.

Which brings me to the occasions where I use only one strand. Firstly, to create or accentuate a contrast between two or more colors. Secondly, to smooth a curve or an edge. It is done after all the Xs of a motif have been stitched. For this, I can use a very small needle that will glide smoothly between the already made stitches (it is quite hard, if not downright impossible, to pass more than one strand through the opening of the smaller needles). The two following pictures, from my Mid-Summer Abecedary, demonstrate such a use. Please note that the butterfly and the flower are bigger in the pictures than in reality. Therefore, it looks like I used more than one strand. But it really is one strand… that is itself made of a few twisted threads.

Mid-Summer Abecedary - France NadeauMid-Summer Abecedary - France Nadeau

The following bird, from my Blue Bird Abecedary, is an other good example.

Blue Bird Abecedary - France Nadeau

On a side note, below are two pictures demonstrating how different a cross stitch may look according to the fabric. The first was made on an Aida cloth while the second was made on burlap. Both projects were made with 2 strands.

Mid-Summer Abecedary on Aida - France Nadeaumid-summer-abecedary-cross-stitch-7

Regular Embroidery

For regular embroidery, I use two, three or six strands. I use six strands when I feel a need for emphasis, like for the veins on the maple leaf below, from my Fallen Leaves quilt (the blanket stitch around the leaf was made with two strands). But I use the whole floss sparingly. I have to use a bigger needle that usually leaves relatively big holes in the fabric. And passing a big needle through a tightly woven fabric (compared to Aida cloth and burlap) is straining. Doing a few stitches is quite fine, but doing a whole project in this fashion is hard on the hands, particularly the fingers.

Fallen Leaves quilt (appliqués and embroidery) - France Nadeau

I mostly use two strands. Sometimes, three strands for thicker details. Here are a few examples from my Downtown Houses, which were made exclusively with two strands:

Downtown Houses block - France NadeauDowntown Houses block - France Nadeau

Downtown Houses block - France Nadeau

With two strands, I can use a relatively small needle that goes through the fabric easily, with no hardship. This ensures that embroidery remains enjoyable and relaxing. When the background is made of cotton, two strands is definitely my choice. If the fabric is thicker, like wool, three strands is more suitable. But using a small needle means that the blunt tip of the needle does not feel so blunt after some minutes. Even if your fingertips are not baby smooth, and mines are not, a small hole take form on the fingertip you use repeatedly. Hence the need to invest in a good thimble. You can see the thimble I use in the following picture. This thimble is my good friend, let me tell you. I can stitch for hours with it and without any pain, whether it is embroidery, appliqués or general hand sewing.

Earbud Pouch - France Nadeau

I hope you liked reading my text about embroidery floss. If you have an opinion different than the ones I stated, please do not hesitate to let me know. I would like reading about it. If you agree, you can also let me know. I would read you with as much pleasure.

I have few embroidery tutorials on my web site. Maybe my post made your fingers itching for a needle…  They are free and in pdf. In English and in French. The tutorials can give you, I hope, a good start. And making a few lazy daisies on a piece of fabric is, in my opinion, a good way to enjoy life.


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4 thoughts on “Embroidery Floss – How many strands do I use?

  1. This is very helpful France. I have never read a better explanation of the effects created when using different numbers of strands. Your photos illustrate it perfectly too. Thank you for writing this!
    I still have not found a thimble that I like to use and often I use two bandaids, one wrapped over the other.

    • I’m happy to read your words, Lara. I know that embroidery appears complex and daunting. Learning a few basics and starting with a small project can, I believe, overcome the fear that embroidery tend to inspire.
      As for thimbles, finding the right one can take some time. I discovered the one I use during a class on hand quilting. The lady who gave the class was using the same. I love it because it doesn’t go all around the fingertip, so it doesn’t feel tight. My nail is totally free and doesn’t scrap against the metal, which I hate. There are two “bands” that can be squeezed one toward the other in order to make the thimble fit just right for the size of your finger. I could wear it all day without noticing it.
      You’re not the only one to use bandaids. I’ve read it a few times. lol I laugh, but if it works for you, that’s fine!

  2. It was quite a while after I had started trying to embroider that I discovered that people separate the strands. Before this I was just using the complete 6, which as you say does look nice however it was good to find out this information (certainly save money on practice).

    Your compared projects are a real eye opener as to the different effect which can be achieved so I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this information.

    • I’m really happy that my text was helpful to you. I don’t believe in following strict rules when it comes to creating, but knowing how other people proceed gives one more options. Which is why I myself love reading about other crafters’ methods and creation process. Reading that my comparisons were a eye opener to you is my reward for the time I spent working on this post. 🙂
      When I began embroidering, I also used the whole floss… Learning that the floss can be separated gave me more options. And you are right, using less strands save money. Good embroidery floss is not cheap.

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