Should Thread Be Lighter or Darker Than Fabric?

I have heard it said that thread should be darker than fabric. This is my experience, and I encourage you to experiment to see what works best for you!

I design quilts, so I often find myself in the position of needing to pick matching thread colors for my quilts. When I started making quilts, I used whatever thread color was on sale. If it matched well, great! If not, oh well – close enough.

As time went on and I learned more about fabric dying, though, I decided that many times too-light or too-dark thread ruined the overall look of a quilt (although there are exceptions…).

That means that over time I’ve refined my process of choosing appropriate thread colours for my projects. Now when picking thread colours I consider the following:

Ask This While Choosing A Thread For Fabric

What type of fabric am I stitching?

How much light does the fabric let in?

Is there a light source behind me?

What color is the floor beneath me?  (This might seem odd, but I always try to take into account what color my surroundings are. This includes the floor.)

Those questions may sound confusing, so allow me to explain myself with some examples:

One of my go-to projects is perle beading. In this case, the thread color shouldn’t clash with the fabric or its embellishment because all of those pieces will stay exactly as they are.

Also, since it is normal for one’s hands and sewing machine presser foot never to precisely match the room’s light levels and lighting conditions (a quilter hand-sewing some beading on a hand-quilted quilt can tell you this), I try to make the thread colour as bold and bright as possible.

This way, if light levels aren’t perfect or my work isn’t up to par, nobody will notice because everything is so brightly coloured! One of the main reasons I use Vervaco fabrics for perle bead quilts is that their fabric lets in relatively little light.

If I had wanted a very colorful quilt but had used fabric from another source, it would have been necessary to pick darker thread colors lest they bleed onto nearby fabrics.

In most cases with machine embroidery there’s not much reason to go lighter than a medium gray! The only place where using a really light gray might be appropriate is on something like a yellow, white, or very pale blue background. On these types of projects you can get away with using one shade lighter than the thread color called for in the design because there’s so much other stuff going on:

With free-motion quilting, I tend to use less dark thread colors and more medium and light colors (provided that they’re not still too dark compared to the fabric) because it gives me a bit more flexibility while moving my arm around. I don’t always stitch directly into the same spot over and over like an embroidery machine would; instead, I move my hand all around and up and down!

The following video should give you an idea of how I work, but realize that I use much thicker thread than one would normally use with an embroidery machine. Compare the difference in thread size to how often the quilters hand moves!

These are all different cotton fabrics from my stash!

In both of these examples from a dresser scarf project, though, most people would agree that it is best to go with something darker because there’s no light source behind the stitcher and it’s a lot easier for mistakes or tension issues to show up on lighter shades.

In addition, fabric scraps may be thrown around during the making of a dresser scarf which means there could be more chance of accidentally stitching onto something you don’t want to with a very light-coloured thread.

How will I use this project?

If you are making a finished piece to hang on the wall, it is very rarely appropriate to choose light or medium-light thread colours because of where your work might be displayed!

Remember that light comes from above and the floor beneath you may often be darker than whatever your fabric is. If you want to make sure that people can see what you’ve stitched no matter where they’re standing, go with something darker.

Also, if there’s a lot of background space that isn’t covered by stitching yet, it will probably look better with some sort of “anchor” in the form of either more stitching or a darker colour so as not to draw attention away from the main piece.

If you don’t think it will matter and your project is an everyday type of thing, go with whatever colour strikes your fancy! Just keep in mind that some colours may be more visible than others depending on which background you use and whether or not light can get to it.

Considering heathered fabrics? After having stitched on heathered fabrics for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that they look best with stitches that are a little bit darker than normal because otherwise all of the texture seems like part of the design (unless you’re going for “pukey” grey thread and mottled everything).

Having said that, if you do want to make something out of these types of fabrics, try using the same colour as the heathered thread. It may not always work but it’s worth a shot!


When it comes to choosing thread colours for machine embroidery, you have much more leeway when working on darker fabrics. That being said, unless you’re making a finished piece to hang on the wall I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to choose a light or medium-light colour because of where your work might be displayed!

For free-motion quilting, I tend to use less dark thread colours and more medium and light colours (provided that they aren’t still too dark compared to the fabric) because it gives me a bit more flexibility while moving my hand around.

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