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What to Do When Your Hand-Sewing Thread Knots Up
Luckily, though, there are some ways you can do magical counter-physics and either prevent or solve those knots. And that's what this post is all about.
It's all in the twist…
The number one reason your thread ends up in knots is that you're twisting it. You're not doing this consciously or anything – it happens in tiny little increments during those moments you let go of your needle and pick it back up again.
Most of us, in those moments, turn the needle just a little. And those tiny turns add up, over a lot of stitches, into twisted thread. This is especially true with stitches like whipstitch, where you're moving the needle the same direction over and over.
How do you know your thread is twisting? Try this: Hold your work in one hand and your needle in the other. Let the thread hang between them. Now, bring your hands slowly together. Does that hanging thread immediately begin twisting up on itself? Then you're twisting it while sewing, my friend!
If your thread is twisting upon itself like this, imagine what happens when you try to pull all that twisty mess through your fabric. Twisted-up thread has no choice but to get wadded-up and knotted-up.
Preventing that twist
…So, the easiest way to keep your thread from knotting in the first place? Counteract that twist. Cultivate a habit of spinning your needle in the opposite direction until your thread smooths out. And do this any time you see that twisting start to form.
How do you know which direction is opposite? Easy: if the twisting gets worse as you twirl your needle, you're twirling in the wrong direction, Twirl in the opposite direction, and you'll see all that twisting fall out of your thread. Then, proceed with stitching.
What if the danged thread knots up anyway?
Don't worry – luckily, the knots that form from twisted thread are almost always one of two kinds, and both are quite fixable.
The first and most common knot looks like a mess of thread, as you see above. Often, this thing isn't really a knot at all – it's just a tangle. But I've seen many sewists turn it into a knot when they yank on the thread and try to force it to pull through the fabric. Don't do that!
…Instead, the minute you see that messy tangle forming and the thread starts resisting your pull, stop! Set down your needle and gently take the tangly stuff in your fingers. Then pull it gently toward you, and away from the fabric, This usually untangles the tangle and prevents the knot from solidifying. Then you can ease the stitch through and then un-twist your thread as we discussed above.
The other common knot looks like a little loop of thread with a knot in it. It's also easy to fix.
Again, the minute you see this knot happen, stop what you're doing! Take a deep breath and relax. The more gently you handle the thread at this point, the better chance you have of fixing this knot. If you get all angsty and try to force that thread through the fabric, you'll end up tightening the knot and making it irreparable.
So, insert your needle in that loop. (If your thread is very twisted, it may take a little doing to locate the loop. If you have some reading glasses or a magnifier, grab 'em – they really help.)
With your needle through that loop, gently pull the needle away from the fabric, You should see the knot begin to slide toward that needle. When the knot reaches the needle, stop pulling and remove the needle.
What remains now looks like a knot, but is really just a tiny clump of twisted thread. Take it gently in your fingers and continue tugging it toward the bend in the thread. You should feel that knot untangle itself under your fingers. Neat, huh?
If the knot won't come out…
Hey, it happens. The best thing to do in these cases is figure out how to move forward. Sometimes you can cut the thread so that you have two fairly long strands – one hanging from each side of the work. Then you can tie those in a double-knot with your fingers, cut the ends, and start sewing again with a freshly-threaded needle.
Sometimes your knot can't be cut. You're stuck with a tangle of thread on the back of your work. If you still have a length of usable thread on your needle, you can always lay the tangly stuff flat against your seam line, and continue your seam right over the top of it as shown above. That's not a pretty fix, but it secures the seam and saves you from having to rip the whole thing out and start over.
Other little tricks to try
Use shorter strands of thread! It's very normal to want to use the longest strand of thread possible, so you won't have to stop and re-thread your needle anytime soon. The problem is, the longer your thread, the more room there is for twisting – and also, the more beat-up your thread can get over time. Think of it this way: your thread is getting repeatedly dragged through itty bitty spaces, and being abraded by the fabric (and paper templates, if you're EPP-ing) all along the way. That abuse adds up, and thread that's beat-up is much more likely to tangle.
So, learn to love re-threading a little more. Get yourself one of these dandy needle threaders. And work with strands of thread that are no more than about 18" in length. It makes a huge difference.
Get some thread conditioner. I adore my Thread Heaven, which is a mix of wax and oils. You pass your strand of thread over its surface, and then rub the thread a few times to work the stuff in. This gives your thread extra smoothness and resiliency and really cuts down on tangles. With this stuff and the needle-counter-twirling technique above, I almost never have to deal with knots.
OK, holy crap – when I sat down to write this post, I had no intention of writing a doctoral dissertation, but I see I have. Is there some kind of award for Nerdiest Blog Post About Thread Knotting EVER? Because I want one.