How much thread?

One thing that can worry lacemakers is how much thread to wind onto bobbins. Either you run out, or there's far too much left when the piece is finished, and you have to throw it away. Here is my approach to the problem.

First, quite frankly, thread is usually cheap, so I'm reconciled to throwing the excess away. I have heard of lacemakers who don't necessarily start a new piece of lace with freshly wound bobbins, but store them with thread still on. Presumably they wind a tremendous amount of thread on, and gradually work through it with piece after piece of lace, rewinding only when they run out. I admit I couldn't do that, as I like the neat loops at the start of lace. I did try it once, trying to make a fringe at the start of the lace as well as the end, but it wasn't a success - the knots moved round and the fringe wasn't neat. I guess there could be other ways of starting with a knot - driving the starting pin through it, for example. But then you have to store bobbins with thread on, and they'd unwind, and get tangled... Well, I mention it in case you're interested!

Throwing away the excess only helps if you have too much. If you run out, then it's very easy to knot on another piece of thread. Yes, it makes a knot, but in fact you don't notice it. Careful when trimming the ends, though - if you trim too much, the knot comes undone, which is an 'Oops!'

Is there a way to estimate the amount of thread more accurately, though? Obviously the longer a piece of lace, the more thread. Wideness affects it as well, but not too much. But the pattern inside the lace makes a difference as well. Simple Torchon ground takes each pair in a diagonal line across the lace, and back again, so there is not a lot of thread required. Solid areas in cloth stitch, such as fans, diamonds, hearts, etc, use a LOT of thread for the worker pair. If these solid areas are scattered throughout the lace, then hopefully you are using a different pair of workers each time, and so one pair is not using up too much thread. But if the solid areas are touching, such as cloth fan headsides, you may end up using the same workers throughout, and that means that pair will use a lot more thread than the other pairs. So wind more thread on them to start with. The passives use the normal amount (or even less, a bit). Now, for some patterns, you may be using the same workers throughout. If you have fan headsides, or a line of touching diamonds or other closely worked areas, then this might be true. Or you might be swapping the workers for alternate fans, but this still means that those two pairs are getting more of a hammering than the rest. If this is so, then make sure that the worker pairs get a lot more thread wound on at the start.

The twisted fan headside also has worker bobbins, and the fans touch, so they may stay the same throughout the lace, which means they need more thread wound on at the start.

Half stitch solid areas can have their own problems. Although you work a line of half stitch for these areas, they don't have a simple worker pair the way that a cloth area does. But there is a single bobbin which works its way across the line. What happens next depends on how many twists you give the last pair at the end of the line. It is possible to have this same single bobbin working its way back again, and if so, and if these half stitch areas touch, this single bobbin will use far more than its fair share of thread. This is sometimes useful (see top pattern on Torchon flowers), but it does mean that bobbin will neeed a lot more thread. Being careful with the twists at the end of the row means that you change the bobbin at the end of each row, and so use more equal amounts of thread for them.

This does mean that you need to 'read' the pattern. Are there cloth stitch areas at all? Are they touching? If they aren't, then there are likely to be different worker pairs for each shape, and so (hopefully) there will be roughly the same amount of thread for each pair. Will the half stitch areas cause a problem? Twisted fans? There may be other pairs which use very little thread, for example, passives in the footside - they just run straight down the length of the lace. You need to run your eye down the pattern, imagining where the thread goes, and see whether a pair stays just in simple ground, or as passives inside cloth stitch. Then they won't use much thread. Or are they workers for a lot of the time, or even all the time, when they will need a lot more thread.

Mats have their own problems. The edge of a mat is a lot longer than the middle. However, you do need to look at where the threads go. Perhaps one pair might be at the centre for one quarter, and then work their way out to the edge for the next. Or perhaps not. I have sometimes wound on a lot of thread for a centre pair, and done four stitches with it in total!

All this is only true for certain types of pattern, though. If you are doing Torchon patterns, with no half stitch, then pairs at the start stay together all the way through, and end up together. You can predict, with a bit of thought, exactly where each pair goes, and so how much thread it will use. But half stitch messes things up, and Bucks Point, with its net made of half stitch, is very difficult to predict. Generally speaking, this makes things easier, as the use of thread gets smeared out over all bobbins - roughly speaking, they each take their fair share of the use. There may be uneven use, but it is hard to predict which bobbins are involved. Check the headside, though, as bobbins here may never enter the net.

There is one technique to help you if you seem to be running out of thread. There are usually places when making lace, where you have to make a choice of which pair to use how. When starting a diamond, for example, it doesn't really matter which of the top two pairs become the worker pair. The worker pair will use more thread, so as you work down the lace, chose the pair with more thread on. If you are doing a fan headside (twisted or not) or cloth stitch areas which touch, there will be two pairs of bobbins at one point, between the shapes, and you can change which pair are the workers. Both pairs will use more thread than the rest, but at least you share the thread use between both pairs rather than expecting one pair to do the lot.

If necessary, you can do even more cheating. You can sneakily do an extra stitch, or one stitch less, round a pin, and swing a pair with lots of thread into action, while carefully steering a nearly empty pair into a more neutral role. You need to know what you're doing to get this to work, but the only way to know what you're doing is to do it, and see if it works!

When I measure thread, I do it in a very casual way. I hold the cotton reel in one hand, and the end of the thread in the other, and pull tight. End of arm to nose is a short thread, both arms out-stretched is a long thread. That is just for a single bobbin of course, and I measure the same for the second bobbin of the pair. I do most of my pieces using those two lengths as I'm often doing shortish samples. I have done twice the 'both arms out-stretched' for specific pieces which needed to be long (such as a wedding garter). Then I look at the amount of lace I want to work. If it's short, and there isn't too much cloth stitch or other awkward parts to the pattern, then short lengths. Otherwise long lengths, unless the pattern is very long, or I spot certain pairs get too much work in it, then I would need extra long length of thread.

It might be worth noting before starting a pattern how much thread you wound on, and how much was left over (or if you needed more!) I suspect that if you built up a record in this way, you would soon spot how much you needed. For expensive thread and a long piece, it might be worth working a short piece (good idea anyway if it's something special!) and figuring out from that how much you'll need, to avoid waste.

Return to Index

© Jo Edkins 2014