Cross wound thread - Left to Right Back Row: Serger Thread, Superior's So Fine, Superior's King Tut, Connecting Threads Essential.  
Middle Row: Robison Anton, Aurifil Poly, Paradise Dreamz, Aurifil Cotton.  
Front Row: Wonderfil Cotton.

Standing at a Crossroads – Thread: Cross Wound vs Stack Wound

I received an email from Roger about a month or so ago that asked for clarification about one of the posts I made last year. The post in question is Common Thread – Evaluating the Real cost of thread

Did I mention that I love hearing from readers?  Even if it’s questioning what I’ve written, I enjoy the conversation. :)  Feel free to comment below or drop me a line. I always answer, even if it’s not right away because I’m perpetually behind on email.

The question Roger asked made me realize that I might have been guilty of a little thread “geek speak”. He emailed me to ask what I meant by “cross wound” or “stack wound” thread.  The two other questions I also inferred from that question were “what’s the difference and what does it mean to me?” :)

Sometimes you will hear people say that cross wound thread belongs on a horizontal spool or “obviously” cross wound thread should be used vertically only if it’s a cone.

Neither of these statements is strictly wrong, but both are perhaps unclear or incomplete statements.

Because thread has largely been available as cross wound only – with the exception of specialty threads like metallics, silks and heavier quilting threads – and horizontal pins have been the norm on most machines made in the last few decades, it’s possibly correct in most cases but certainly not all – at least not the way it’s stated above.

First, let’s discuss what the terms “Cross Wound” and “Stack Wound” mean.

Stack wound – also known as parallel wound or straight wound

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Stack Wound thread – Left to Right – Superior’s King Tut, Coats and Clark, Sulky, and Clover Silk “Tire” thread.
  • It’s a nice neat looking spool, everything wound in the same direction, right on top of itself.  The neat freak in me likes the look of this. ;)
  • Specialty threads like silk and metallic threads usually come wound like this and some of the quilting threads – like the Coats and Clark or the King Tut that I have on the Common Thread post.
  •  The other place you’d see this is on the old wood spools.
  •  With the exception of the specialty threads, it’s not very common at all to find stack wound thread in most stores anymore.

Cross wound is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Guttermann Cotton and Mettler Poly.
Guttermann Cotton and Mettler Poly.
Cross wound thread - Left to Right Back Row: Serger Thread
Cross wound thread – Left to Right Back Row: Serger Thread, Superior’s So Fine, Superior’s King Tut, Connecting Threads Essential, Middle Row: Robison Anton, Aurifil Poly, Paradise Dreamz, and Aurifil Mako Ne Cotton. Front Row: Wonderfil Cotton
  • The thread is crossed over back and forth along the length of the spool.  The thread on the spools make a series of “V”s all over it.
  • This is the majority of the threads you’ll find on the market.  Glide, Robison Anton and other “mini cones” are usually cross wound, as are Aurifil, Connecting Threads Essentials, Gutermann and Mettler – even the smaller 100m (110 yd) spools.

If you watch the Thread Therapy series from Superior threads they will say that a cone is cross wound and a spool is stack wound. That’s true for their thread but not for most other manufacturers.

Superior’s Dr. Bob talks about it on this video about thread delivery.  

OK, so I get WHAT it is, now WHY should I care?

Here’s why it’s important to notice the difference:  Both types of thread winds are designed to deliver thread a particular way.  If you do it “the other” way, you may experience tension issues, or other weird problems.  It doesn’t matter here if we’re talking about a serger, sewing machine or even a longarm quilting machine.  All are equally affected by this.

  • Stack wound thread spools are meant to turn as the spool empties.  If the thread comes off the top (or for a horizontal spool pin – comes off the side), there’s extra twist introduced, and it can cause tension issues.   For most machines, a stack wound spool will do best on a vertical pin.
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Ronnie modeling a spool of Sulky stack wound thread
  • Cross wound thread is meant to come off the top (or the side if the pin is horizontal), and if the spool turns with it, it causes tension issues, because the thread wasn’t expected to have the extra resistance.  Look at the image of the sergers below.  You will notice that a great deal of design decision has gone into thread delivery.  Do you think they’d have that ugly telescoping piece and the huge thread apparatus if they didn’t have to?  They do this because sergers are very tension sensitive and thread delivery is very important.  Notice how the thread has to come off the top of the cones the way the serger is designed?  So too your sewing machine.

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  • If your spool pin is horizontal, it’s designed to take cross wound thread by default.

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The other thing that I’ve noticed is that the older machines, especially the shorter armed ones (3/4 sized machines like the 99s or the featherweights) with the vertical spool pins will sometimes launch the cross wound spools right off the pin if you get sewing fast enough.

I believe the reason for this to be a combination of factors:

  1. Cross-wound thread on a vertical pin herks and jerks about as it pulls thread off the spool.  This is a LOT of motion that sometimes changes from sideways movement to an up/down movement.
  2. Polyester thread especially has a tiny bit of stretch to it.  Think of it as “elasticity”.
  3. The short distance between the tension and the spool pin seems to magnify all thread behavior because there’s less distance to spread the energy out over.

As you sew, you’re grabbing and letting go of the thread.  It’s bouncing up and down and experiencing the “snap” of the elastic thread at the same time.  Eventually, it just jumps off the pin and stalks away.

That really messes up your tension!

One night, earlier this year, I was sewing on Ronnie – my little featherweight – at our weekly sewing circle.  While I was using a thread stand for the actual sewing, I was winding a bobbin using the vertical spool pin and a 1/3 of a spool of Aurifil.  The spool climbed up and down the pin a bunch of times before it finally jumped off, even at fairly low speed.  A couple of ladies in our sewing circle were amused. ;)

I can hear some of you saying: “But what if I only have a vertical spool pin?” 

This is common on vintage sewing machines but I’ve also seen a couple of reasonably recent machines with only a vertical pin. Three Options. :)

  • If you have a machine that has a pin down on the bed – like a Singer 201 does for instance – and a cross wound spool will fit there, you can use that.  Just thread up and around behind the regular spool pin and continue threading normally.  Note: I like to use a binder clip to keep the thread a little further off the machine so that the thread doesn’t tangle around that screw next to the stitch length lever.  Thanks to Vridar on the quilting board for this idea. :)  In fact, I may put a second binder clip on the stitch length lever to make sure the thread only goes where I want it to.

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  • Drop a cross wound spool or cone into a tea or coffee cup behind or even in front your machine then thread around the spool pin and normally from there  The purpose here is to just stop the spool/cone from falling down.  I’ve also placed the cup to the side if there’s not enough room for the cup in front or behind the machine ( behind like in the case of the 201-2 or a 15-91 where the potted motor seems to get in the way.  One word of warning here – route your thread carefully!  It can tangle in the belt and make one heck of a mess.

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  • Use a thread stand – If you go this route, as Dr. Bob says in the Thread Therapy video above – don’t bother with the flimsy $5 stands, go with a good quality weighted one.  Alternatively, if you do get one of the lightweight ones – make sure you screw it to your sewing desk so it doesn’t travel.  I have an acrylic one, similar to the one that Superior Threads sells and I do like it.  It stands or lays down and with the modifications I’ve made to it, can deliver stack wound or cross wound thread equally well and it has a good weight to it so it doesn’t travel.  As with the cup, route your thread carefully so it doesn’t tangle in any part of the sewing machine.

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With modifications, the thread stand can deliver stack wound thread which makes it useful on machines with only a horizontal spool pin as well.

There’s one other benefit of sewing with your cross wound thread off the machine instead of on the vertical pin:  It’s quieter.  No plastic spool stopping and starting and jerking about while you sew.

I’d MUCH rather listen to the relaxing sound of something bluesy sounding or to Ronnie or Eliza than the sound of a plastic spool crashing around, wouldn’t you?

Today’s post brought to you by Sammy Hagar – Standing at the same old Crossroads

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