Machine Embroidery: Polyester vs. Rayon Thread

Machine Embroidery: Polyester vs. Rayon Thread

Published On: 12-31-2011 03:13am

Comments: 9 - Hits: 9380

Category: Techniques

If you walk into any embroidery studio on planet earth, you'll typically see them using one of two types of thread: polyester or rayon.

What is the difference between these two thread types?

Known as viscose in Europe, rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber made from cellulose that has been treated with alkali and carbon disulfide.  As a fabric, rayon is somewhat breathable and does not trap body heat. It can simulate a variety of fabric textures, including linen and silk, and is often blended with more expensive fibers, such as cotton or silk, to reduce cost.

In embroidery, rayon thread has a high luster, giving the embroidery a nice, shiny quality. The glossy appearance alone is enough to convince many embroiderers, both commercial and hobbyist alike, to use rayon thread. High quality rayon thread is also relatively easy to find. For example, national fabric chains such as JoAnn's and Hancock's carry small spools of Sulky brand rayon thread. 

Whale Embroidered Using Polyester Thread


Polyester is a synthetic fiber made from polymers. As a fabric, polyester cloth is noted for being relatively uncomfortable. This is because the fiber is not porous: it doesn’t absorb water well and therefore doesn’t wick moisture well either. Garments made of polyester feel far warmer than other, natural fibers. However, polyester also resists wear, tear, wrinkles, shrinking, and fading better than natural fibers.  It is often blended with other fibers to combine comfort with durability.

For embroidery, you’re only embellishing the garment, so there’s generally not enough polyester thread to significantly reduce comfort – assuming the garment is made from a breathable fabric to begin with.  High quality polyester embroidery thread also has a much higher sheen to it than you normally see in either fabric or general sewing thread. It’s not as shiny as rayon embroidery thread, but it’s still got enough luster that I’ve had an experienced quilter mistake it for rayon.

Which one do I use?

I possess both rayon and polyester embroidery thread, but I generally work with just polyester. Why? Because although rayon thread is very pretty, I think the following three practical factors outweigh its cosmetic appeal:

(1) Rayon is not as color-fast as polyester. It’s a porous fiber, so it will both absorb and bleed color relatively easily. Rayon can be dry cleaned, but it should not be bleached or subjected to whitening agents.  Polyester is non-porous. It’s difficult to dye, but once the dye is there, it generally stays put. A good quality polyester thread, such as Isacord brand, can be boiled! 

(2) Rayon burns, while polyester melts. Neither is totally ideal, but if you brush by them with an iron on the hottest setting, the polyester may fuse, but the rayon will singe. I'd, personally, rather see the texture change than have the color char to brown or black. (Always iron embroidery from the back of the garment.) Also, polyester can be microwaved without melting, so it takes quite a bit of heat before it can get damaged.  

(3) Rayon fibers are weaker than polyester fibers. This means that the thread is more likely to break on the machine – particularly if your machine is capable of running at high speeds (industrial machines can get up to 1000 stitches per minute). Most combination sewing/embroidery machines can only go a maximum of 500 stitches per minute, so this is less of a problem for the hobbyist.* Rayon’s weaker fibers also mean that it is not as resistant to abrasion as polyester thread. If the embroidery is on something that will be washed and dried multiple times, it’s going to look better longer if it is stitched with polyester thread.

As a general rule, once I embroider something, it is out of my hands. I want what I produce to look as good as possible for as long as possible, so I that’s why I use high quality polyester thread. To be exact, I use a combination of Isacord brand thread, which is made in Germany, and Robinson-Anton, which is made here in the USA.**  

*If you’re working with rayon thread and find that the thread is shredding during application, consider loosening the tension, using a needle with a larger eye, cleaning the tension disks, running the machine at a lower speed, and/or applying a small amount of sewer’s aid (a silicon-based product) to both the needle and the thread. Or, you could switch to polyester – it’s literally twice as strong as rayon, and some brands (like Isacord) are even stronger. 

**There are a lot of good brands out there. These are just the ones that I use. Sticking to just one or two manufacturers makes it easier to acquire a broad pallet of colors without any accidental duplication. 

I will also note that thread manufacturers have made significant progress in thread technology over the past few years. In the 1990s, all embroiderers used rayon thread because the polyester thread would stretch, making it difficult to run through the machines. Thread producers now twist the fibers differently, eliminating this problem. 

Reader's Comments

By PolkadotOrchid on 12/16/2014 @ 02:56pm

In response to the question posted in the comment below: First, I'm not sure what type of machine you have or what your level of experience is, so take what I say with a grain of salt. However, if your machine was running happily with rayon thread before you stitched to polyester, I would consider l looking at the tension. Rayon likes lower tension than polyester, so increasing the tension a bit might help. Before you adjust anything, I always do the following when trouble-shooting: 1) Check the bobbin case area. It may have stray threads or may need to be cleaned and oiled. If you have a sewing/embroidery combo machine, cleaning the machine may do the trick. 2) Replace the needle with a fresh, sharp one. It's possible that even if you have the right size, the old needle may be dull or bent. Unless the polyester thread is a different weight/thickness, a different size needle probably won't change anything. Go a head and try it though - if it fixes it then that's great. (Unless the thread you're using is intended for general sewing rather than embroidery - if you're really in a pinch and need to use it, slow down the machine to the slowest setting and consider using a needle designed for metallics, which has a larger eye.) 3) Re-thread the machine. Sometimes, I also clean the tension disk area - using a corner of a business card may do the trick to get bits of lint out. Also check to make sure the thread isn't catching on anything and that the bobbin is threaded properly. Beyond that, the only thing I can tell you is that sometimes some machines really like a particular brand or type of thread. It seems crazy, but I've encountered people who have two of the same machine from the same manufacturer where each one seems to do better with a particular type of thread.

By Guest on 12/16/2014 @ 04:17am

I've been working on a project of jackets. One the first batch, I was using white rayon. When I ran out of the white I got another spool but the machine kept jamming, not cutting the threads between letters. The only thing I found was the second spool was poly. Could this have been the problem? Do I need to use a different size needle?

By Guest on 12/01/2014 @ 11:57pm

Thank you so very much! This has always been a mystery to me. I have used both, but just like the way poly runs better on my home machine. I have used mostly Madeira, but am going now to look at the AR because I like the fact that is made in the USA.

By Guest on 05/24/2014 @ 11:39pm

Great information and well described it has answered my questions. Thank you much.

By Guest on 03/27/2014 @ 07:05am

Very well-written & extremely helpful! Thank you!

By Guest on 09/05/2013 @ 10:55am

this has helped sort out breakage problems

By PolkadotOrchid on 06/12/2013 @ 07:33pm

Since you asked about cotton thread, here's a bit of additional info: Embroiderers generally use either polyester or rayon thread because they have a nice, shiny sheen and because the thread produces relatively little lint. In comparison, cotton thread is matte, which can work nicely for heirloom projects or for historical projects. However, the thread produces more lint, so you need to clean your machine more regularly when you use it. (Especially the bobbin case and tension disks.) As a general rule, the lower the quality of the cotton thread, the more lint it's going to produce. Cotton thread is not as strong as polyester and doesn't handle abrasion and wear as well. Like rayon, it is not colorfast, so it may absorb and bleed dyes. It's a bit more durable than rayon; rayon and cotton thread can be similar in strength. Overall, cotton is pretty easy to care for. Sometimes cotton thread is treated to change it's properties. 'Mercerized' cotton thread has been treated to make it shinier and stronger (by swelling the cotton fibers). 'Silk finish' or 'polished' cotton thread has been treated with heat to reduce lint (a process called gassing). Glazed thread has been coated in wax to make it stiffer - which is great for hand stitching but not recommended if you're running it through a machine because it'll gum things up and it's tough to clean out. Rayon and polyester embroidery thread is generally 40 wt. thread. Cotton thread is usually sold as 50 wt. thread, which is a bit finer. If you choose to embroider anything but a running stitch (redwork, blackwork, or quilting patterns) using 50 wt. cotton, you'll need to make some adjustments. One option is to make the embroidery design smaller at the machine (maintaining the same number of stitches). Another is to use embroidery software to increase the design's density for satin stitches and fill stitches. For any sewing project, you can test whether the threads are cotton with a burn test. 100% cotton catches fire as the flame draws near, burns readily, has a light-colored smoke that smells like burning paper, has soft ashes that easily turn to dust when touched, and produces an afterglow. In comparison, linen burns more slowly, but is similar to cotton while rayon does not produce an afterglow once the fire is out. Silk and wool smell like burning hair or feathers. You can perform a burn test on almost any thread or fabric if you aren't sure of the composition.

By Guest on 06/01/2013 @ 01:59am

need cotton thread info

By Guest on 02/09/2013 @ 05:15am

Very helpful.

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