Cross stitch thread on an embroidery hoop

The type of cross stitch thread you choose can really bring your design to life, or make it a tangled, knotted nightmare. We want you to succeed so you’ll love cross stitching. So here’s our guide to  the most common threads used in cross-stitch.

Note: cross stitch thread is also often referred to as floss. They’re interchangeable terms, so while we’ve tried to use ‘thread’ in this post, if we’ve slipped in ‘floss’, you know what we mean 🙂

1. Stranded Cotton

This is the go-to thread for most cross-stitch projects.

It usually comes in a skein of about 8m long, made up of six individual strands of 100% cotton.

Depending on the fabric count and the effect you want to achieve, you can use all six strands or separate them to use fewer. Most designs use 2 strands at a time, with one strand for back stitch. If you’re stitching on 11 count Aida you might prefer the greater coverage of 3 strands.

2. Pearl Cotton

This is a bit different from stranded cotton – it’s a non-divisible thread, meaning you use it as is. It’s slightly thicker and gives a more pronounced texture to your work. This type of thread is great for adding a bit of depth to your design. There’s also not as many colors so it’s not always the best choice.

3. Specialty Threads

For those looking to add some pizzazz to their projects, specialty threads like variegated (which change color along their length), metallic, or over-dyed threads can add interesting effects.

While they can be a bit trickier to work with (metallics, looking at you!), they are perfect for adding unique touches to your project.

Peacock tail design stitched with dmc metallic threads
our peacock tail design, stitched in dmc light works metallics by my 84 yo mum. Never heard such cursing in my life :d but it is beautiful!

Understanding these basic thread types is the first step in selecting the perfect threads for your cross-stitch project. Each type brings its own qualities and can help you achieve different effects in your stitching.

Understanding Color Charts and Keys

When starting a cross-stitch project, you’ll usually have a pattern complete with a color chart and key. This guide is your roadmap to selecting thread colors.

Following the Designer’s Palette

The color chart will also have a legend that helps you understand the pattern. It will usually have:

  • a list of the specific colors that the pattern designer chose
  • a corresponding symbol or number on the chart
  • how much of each color you need
  • how many strands of each color to use
  • how many stitches of each color are in the design
  • the expected finished design size in various sizes of Aida.
Example of a thread legend
the threads legend from our peacock heart design.

Most digital patterns have a handy page that you can take with you to the store to buy your missing cross stitch threads. Or you can check your stash.

When Sandy first started cross stitching, she would buy a few skeins every time she got paid so her stash built up over time. Many of those early threads are still in her stash (though getting sparse!)

Sandys thread stash
sandy’s thread stash, built up over many years. Note how sparse some of the threads are getting!

Customizing Colors

While it’s easiest to stick to the recommended colors, feel free to experiment with shades if you’re feeling adventurous or if you’re substituting unavailable colors. DMC does discontinue colors from time to time and replace them with similar ones.

Cross Stitch Thread Quality and Brand Recommendations

Choosing the right thread goes beyond color; quality also matters.

Opt for Trusted Brands

The brand you’re most likely to find in your local crafts store is DMC. This French textile company has been around since the 1700s and their product is great – stable dyes, high quality long-strand cotton and robust threads that will stand the test of time in your designs. And over 500 colors at time of writing.

Another brand you may find is called Anchor. However DMC bought them in 2023 and there’s no word yet on what will happen to the brand.

Color Fastness

You may find offers of no-name cross stitch threads. In our opinion you use them at your own risk. We always do a gentle hand wash of our finished work, to remove any body oils on the fabric – otherwise your work can develop weird dark spots over time.

We’ve never experienced DMC threads losing or running color. That’s not to say your experience would be the same. But we wouldn’t risk a no-name thread, especially for items that you’ll be washing more often, like cushions or decorations on clothing.

Preparing and Handling Cross Stitch Threads

Properly preparing and handling your threads can make your stitching process more efficient. This is such a huge topic that it’s often discussed at great length and will considerable passion in online groups.

Measuring and Cutting Threads

Cut your thread to a manageable length (around 40cm/16 inches) to avoid tangling and knotting as you sew.

Organizing Threads

There are literally dozens of ways of storing your thread stash – we’ll do some posts on this later and link here. (If you’ve just read this sentence, we haven’t written them yet).

Popular ways are using bobbins or thread organizers. Label them with their color numbers for easy reference.

That Ties Things Up

If you follow the designer’s color chart and use great quality floss, you’ll set yourself up for a great stitching experience.

In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about hoops and frames – what they are, why you need them, how to choose the right one for your project. If there’s no link to the next article in this paragraph, it means we’re still writing it, week by week. Please consider joining our mailing list (below) so we can tell you when the new post is up (we give you a handy dandy printable cross stitch ruler as a thank you).


Our Free Printable Cross Stitch Ruler

Our Free Printable Cross Stitch Ruler

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