Using Embroidery floss - the basics

Embroidery floss comes in all the colors of the rainbow, and more besides, but there are certain basic techniques we need to master when using it, such as...

You likely have many more questions about embroidery floss and other fibres. At the end of this page is a form you can use to ask those questions. Either myself, or other visitors to the site, will try to answer them for you. But let's start with the most important facts about using these threads.

Is it worth economizing?

When you consider the hours that will be spent on a needlework project then you will see that it is important to use good quality hand embroidery thread. Economizing here is not a good idea.

There are many reputable floss manufacturers such as DMC, Anchor, Maderia and Susan Bates. Each company will use its own numbering system and most counted cross stitch patterns will list the colors needed using one, or perhaps more, of these.

You can use an embroidery thread conversion chart to find the nearest equivalent in another manufacturers shade card, but it is generally best not to mix different brands in one project, unless it has been designed that way.

Separating one strand of floss

Six stranded cotton embroidery floss needs to be separated before use. It is rare to use all 6 strands together in the needle at once.

So to start with I would like to share an easy technique for taking one strand out of the skein without getting in a tangle. This one technique can save you loads of frustration.

At my classes I have seen people use their hands, teeth, elbows and other body parts to try to do this, and they can't believe how easy it can be when you know how. The following video shows a simple way that can save time and frustration. If you need to use two strands just repeat!

How many strands of embroidery floss to use

This will depend on what fabric count you are stitching on, or the effect you are trying to achieve. The following table will help when cross stitching on Aida or evenweave fabrics.

Fabric count





28 (over 2 threads)

32 (over 2 threads)

36 (over 2 threads)

Number of strands


2 or 3


1 or 2


1 or 2


If you are working on finer fabrics, such as 40 count silk gauze, then you may want to use just one strand and only stitch the first leg of the cross stitch, in effect working in petit point.

If you are embroidering the seams on a crazy quilt block you may wish to use more strands to make the stitches more prominent.

How to secure your embroidery floss when starting

One of the most common questions I am asked at classes is "Can I start with a knot?".

Although there are methods where this can be used, which I will go into later, it is best to avoid knots if possible. Firstly they can cause an unsightly bump on the back of your work, and secondly knots can come undone!

So how can we secure that loose end?

There is an easy, neat way of starting a piece of floss if you need to use 2 strands, called the loop method.

However, there is a drawback to it.

Be sure you can count accurately before you use it! It makes a secure starting point but one that is difficult to undo.

I always suggest to a new student that they leave the loose ends free for a while until they are sure their stitches have been placed in the correct position. If they make a mistake, and the error is near the beginning of the piece of floss (as my mistakes usually are), it may be easier to unpick a few stitches from the start rather than taking the yarn all the way back from the current position.

Start by stripping one strand from the six stranded cotton. Cut it twice the length you would normally use to stitch with. I find around 28-30" is a good length.

Take both ends and place them together, so that the length is folded in half. Thread these through your needle leaving a loop at the other end.

Push the needle through the fabric from the back leaving the loop hanging loose. Take the needle to the back of the fabric and pass it though the loop before pulling tight. There you are, a neat, secure starting point. The photo shows the reverse side of the work.

The second method of starting is again to cut 2 lengths of embroidery floss twice the normal length you would sew with. Do not fold them in half this time.

Pick your starting point and pull only half of the thread through the fabric. Leave the other half for later.

I find it helps to pop this end into a spare needle and bring it through the fabric at the edge of the work and "park" it there for the time being. This keeps it out of the way so it doesn't get tangled on the back.

With your first needle, work your stitches until you run out of cotton. Then return to the other needle and continue stitching. This method reduces the number of fastening ons you need to do, which in turn keeps the reverse of the work neater.

Starting with a waste Knot

As I mentioned before, on occasions it is OK to start with a knot.

After knotting the end, push the needle through the fabric from the FRONT of the work, leaving the knot sitting on the surface a few inches away in the direction that you will be stitching.

Bring the needle back through to the front in the correct position to start stitching and work over the first few stitches over the end of the thread.

After a few stitches you will be able to snip off the knot, leaving the end neatly secured.

Starting with an away waste knot

Similar to the method above, for an away waste knot you bring the needle to the front of the work away from the direction of stitching.

When the knot is later cut off you will need to thread the needle with this end, and fasten it into the back of the stitches.

This technique is often used in hardanger or pulled work where you don't want to run the risk of the end showing underneath open areas of the design.

Fastening off your embroidery floss

The neatest way of fastening off is to weave the loose end under half a dozen stitches on the back of the work and then cut it off close to the stitching.

- - Embroidery Floss

Ask a question about threads and fibres

There is a vast array of threads available to stitch with nowadays. If you have any questions on how to use them, please use the form below.

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What Other Visitors Have Asked

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Thread for embroidery on denim 
HI. I am working out a denim project that I plan to do with perle cotton--but which one? I am about to order a bunch of #3 perle floss. I'd like to …

Vintage Anchor embroidery floss 
I'm looking for a conversion chart that will convert the old Anchor floss numbers (pre-1960) to the current sytem. I have been unable to find any …

Knotting and restarting thread 
How do I knot my thread and then restart with a new thread?

Embroidery Floss Strands 
I have had a kit for years of a pre-stamped dreamland baby quilt kit for embroidery and I have a few questions before I begin. I don't know if it is …

Anchor silks - Old numbers to current ones 
I have a lot of old Anchor silks which I want to be able to convert to DMC silk numbers. Is there any way of finding a conversion chart for this. I understand …

putting floss onto LR cards 
I feel silly, but in order to get started, I must ask. I bought my floss (for cross stitch), bought a pack of cards, and I have had a nightmare with the …

Carrying thread across the back 
I am beginner and wonder if it is possible/good practice to carry the yarn behind your work if there are small gaps between two areas to be worked with …

How do I separate my strands? 
I have just begun cross-stitching again and the directions are not very clear. All the directions say are "separate the strands." Does that mean separate …

Twisting Thread 
Is there an easy way to keep threads from twisting while stitching? It is the reason that I can actually see an "x" on my projects and they don't look …

threading the needle and satin stitch 
Is there an easy way to thread the needle? I use the "needle threaders" with the wire but after several uses the wire breaks. I also have trouble with …

Securing thread ends in stitched items that will be laundered regularly Not rated yet
After spending money (which when finished will actually cost more than store printed sets) and several months, possibly a year, to make a kitchen set (towels, …

how many strands Not rated yet
I have only done cross stitch on 14 and 26 count. I would like to try something on 18 count but am not sure how many threads I would have to use. Is …

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