Thread Conversions Part 2 | Colours

28th January 2022

In Thread Conversions Part 1, we discussed how to switch threads if you don’t have a particular colour required for a pattern or if you want to use up your stash rather than buying new stranded cotton each time you start a new project.

This week, we’re going to discuss options for obscure threads, or those that are no longer manufactured or available in your region.

This is often a challenge as, while patterns can last forever, specific threads may not.

It can be very disappointing to discover the perfect project, published several decades ago, only to realise that the materials it calls for are no longer available.

Internet search

It almost goes without saying but your very first port of call should be the internet. If you find a thread that you have never heard of, do a search to discover what it is. The information you are looking includes:

  1. Type of thread – Perlé, Stranded cotton, Metallic, Something else?
  2. What material is it made from?
  3. Is the manufacturer still in business?
  4. Are there any shops online that still stock it? 

You may, of course, already have this information. Many of you will already know if a thread is available in your region or if it is still being made but being armed with all this information will help when looking for substitutes.

L – Finca Perlé Colour Card (source), R – Appletons’ Crewel & Tapestry Colour Chart (source)

As well as finding general information about the thread, also see if you can discover exactly what colour it is. There may be colour charts online or you may be able to find photographs. In some old patterns, you may have both a number and a colour name listed, but what is ‘antique olive’ in one type of thread may look totally different to ‘antique olive’ in another type. It is worth finding an image to help you make a close match.

Fibre type

For some projects, it is the fibre type that is most important. For instance, if the missing threads are metallics, to ensure your finished project looks the same, you’ll need to replace it with a different type of metallic thread. However, this is not always a hard and fast rule.

Some projects call for stranded silks, often hand-dyed. If the particular silk is no longer available, it may be possible to substitute with a stranded cotton instead. Although it won’t have the same sheen or the same colour gradation, you can still produce a beautiful effect with your finished project.

In fact, sometimes financial restrictions mean that the silk/cotton substitute is essential if you want to be able to make the project within your budget. This is why knowing the colour is important and following the steps discussed last week will also help.

Type of thread

For each type of thread – stranded cotton, stranded silk, perlé etc. – there will be multiple brands available. What is important is that you substitute within the type. So, if you’ve discovered that the obscure thread is a perlé, then you should replace it with a different brand of perlé. However, there is a caveat to that, as sometimes you can use multiple strands of stranded cotton or silk to emulate the thickness of a perlé, depending on the project.

It is easier if you replace like for like, however with a bit of careful judgement in terms of thickness and finished result, you can use other threads. If you are going to do so, we recommend stitching a small sampler so you can see what it is going to look like. This way you can add or subtract strands where needed or try something different if it doesn’t give you the effect you hoped.

Second-hand threads

Sometimes, you just really want to use the exact threads that have been called for in the project. If you are willing to spend the time (and sometimes the money), you can try to find discontinued threads on second-hand sites such as eBay or Etsy. 

Make sure you read descriptions carefully and don’t be afraid to ask the seller questions to ensure it’s exactly what you need. There is no doubt that this process can sometimes be like looking for a needle in a haystack, especially if you are after a particular colour, but for some people there is a thrill in the chase. When you get lucky, it is like hitting the jackpot!

If all else fails

If you have done your searches, hunted for second-hand threads, looked for substitutes and still not come up with anything, there are still options.

Many regions will have small, artisan manufacturers who produce their own threads. They will often be very open to having a chat and may be able to help you with creating something bespoke to suit your needs. Or you may discover that they already have something that works perfectly, but you’d never considered using their threads before. 

This has the added benefit of supporting your small, local producers who are usually working for the love of the craft.

Alternatively, if you are crafty yourself, you could always try dying your own threads. By starting with a plain white skein of the fibre and thread type you need, you could see what you can come up with. Although you know you won’t get an exact match, you may surprise yourself with the effect you are able to achieve.

A last thought…

Although it may seem like the most important thing in the world to get the exact thread that a project asks for, sometimes doing so is simply impossible. If so, it is worth remembering this…

Designers gain huge pleasure in creating their pieces of art. However, when they let it out into the world, as part of that process, they accept they no longer control what happens from there. For any designer there is a real joy in seeing a project worked, adjusted and reworked.

It is like watching a child grow into its own person. If you change a thread, switch a colour or leave something out, most designers will see this as part of the growth of their creation. They are not going to get upset simply because you were unable to use the exact thread or the exact colour.

When you work a design, the fact that you are placing the stitches into the fabric means that it is always going to be completely and uniquely your own.

Most designers appreciate when this happens as it shows that people still love their work and even as years pass, it helps the design to remain relevant and current. Plus, it’s much better than the alternative of their design being ignored or never stitched again simply because a brand of thread used or a particular colour chosen when it was first created is no longer available. 

Like all forms of art, embroidery is one that constantly grows and changes. This is what makes it so wonderful for both designers and stitchers alike. We should never be afraid to embrace it.

If you have any thoughts about substituting or switching threads or have any experiences with old designs calling for materials that are no longer available, we would love to hear from you! Email us at

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