How did the notion of thread grain get started?   No one knows for sure.   But one of the major problems of early sewing machines was the thread itself.   Inventors discovered that by twisting strands in a Z formation, the thread fed properly.   Consequently, all sewing machine thread is Z- twist to this very day.  At the time, this may have contributed to the confusion when the general public misconstrued the subsequent twist to mean a “grain”.

Why do we use the end that comes off the spool?   Well, do you want to unwind the spool to find the other end?   It wouldn’t make any difference to your sewing machine.  Floss manufacturers have pull skeins as convenience for the stitcher – not a recommendation that you use any particular end first.  Think about it.  When you wind a bobbin, the end from your thread spool is hidden at the bottom of the wound bobbin thread. What comes out of your bobbin is the OPPOSITE end of the thread.  I’ve sewn with a bobbin-ful of thread in place of a spool many times. If there was a difference in the orientation of the thread, it would jam. It doesn’t.

Embroidery floss is normally S-Twist.   One exception is
rayon threads, which are Z-twist.

Manufacturers such as DMC (Dollfus-Mieg and Company) and Kreinik Manufacturing both state in their literature that threads DO NOT HAVE GRAIN.  If you are visiting a web site which shows line drawings of threads with grain (small fuzzies all going in one direction), or purchase a book with similar artwork, don’t believe it.  Microscopes, scientific studies and manufacturers all tell us this is absolutely not true.  The remainder of the anecdotes written or heard are well-meaning, but incorrect.

Since I originally researched this subject, I have made some personal observations: the size of the eye of the needle can have negative impact on your floss.  I did four experiments in the course of several weeks, with different sizes of threads and different sizes of needles.   The more comfortably the thread fit in the eye, the longer the thread lasted and the less it seemed to tangle.  In addition, the leading end of the thread often gets very worn and fuzzy.  Static electricity can make it cling to the main thread.  This also causes tangles.  Snip it off occasionally if it looks very worn.

A stitching friend also mentioned that needles sometimes get distorted (possibly by the heat of your hand) or can have burrs.  If you have trouble threading a needle, sometimes turning the needle around will quickly solve the problem.

The following article appeared in the June 1997 issue of (EGA) Needlearts Magazine.   For further reading, you might wish to research two articles by Margaret Jenkel-White, which also appeared in Needlearts – March 1996 and June 1997.   Mrs. Jenkel-White has her PhD, and is a research physicist.  Her study into this issue of grain concludes with experiments you can try for yourself.

THE ARTICLE

The notion of grain or direction is intimidating to many stitchers. It is also filling the heads of novice, inexperienced stitchers with mythology. Thread or yarn deteriorates and separates due to twisting by the stitcher, going in and out of fabric, and the fact that some stitches naturally untwist the yarns. If stitchers are not watchful, they soon discover a frayed piece of thread and imperfect stitches.

Needleworkers need only try bullions with both cotton (S-twist) and synthetic (Z-twist) to see for themselves that the thread unwinds and creates a less than desirable bullion if the thread isn’t wrapped around the needle correctly, depending upon the particular twist of the thread used. I went through this natural discovery process myself when introduced to Brazilian embroidery. I also offer the suggestion that occasionally we get an imperfect skein of yarn or thread. No manufacturer (just as no human being) can be 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time.

After reading several posts on the Internet usenet group rec.crafts.textiles.needlework (RCTN) relating to novice stitchers and how one must carefully thread needles with thread or yarn in the right direction, I decided it was time to determine if this notion was indeed correct. Many novice stitchers had posted that they felt hopeless in “seeing” or “feeling” this grain, and felt their stitches were inadequate. Many were giving up on stitching altogether.

My husband, a clinical laboratory scientist who manages a local hospital laboratory, has ready access to microscopes. Surely if grain or direction was inherent in thread or yarn, it could be seen. Pictures I had seen on the World Wide Web and in teaching pamphlets show lengths of thread with small fibers all heading in one direction. Claims accompanying these illustrations alluded to “right and wrong ends of thread” and how threading it incorrectly would result in undesirable needlework – not worth the time it takes to stitch. Student of embroidery read these statements, or attend classes where it is impressed upon them by teachers, and go home

feeling terribly inadequate when they cannot perceive this “grain” or “direction.” Many never pick up the needle again. Further statements by other stitchers had included “feeling the grain.” When touch discernment was questioned, some would say it must be felt on the upper lip, or under the nose. Some profess to be able to feel the “scales” of animal fibers in wool yarns. Claiming “touch sensitivity” is anecdotal at best.

My husband’s response has been that the human touch is nowhere near that acute and could not detect these tiny fibers or the animal scales on hair. After four years of medical school, two spent in anatomy, and 15 years of examining tissues, I believe he is qualified to answer that question.

THE SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT

I handed my husband 18 different lengths of thread a minimum of 12 inches long. These comprised the following: DMC stranded cotton; Au ver a Soie’s Soie d’Alger stranded silk; DMC tapestry cotton size 4; Rainbow Gallery cotton Bravo; DMC Cotton Broder size 12; DMC Cebelia size 10; DMC tatting cotton size 80; Belding Cortecelli silk twist; DMC Floche; DMC pearl cotton size 5; DMC Brilliant knitting cotton; Rainbow Gallery rayon Fiesta; Phildar acrylic/cotton/rayon blend; Classic Elite silk/rayon blend; Paternayan wool tapestry; Elite La Gran wool mohair; 100% wool brand unknown; and Mettler sewing thread size 80. These threads were in a variety of colors from light to dark.

My husband and two colleagues viewed all threads under a stereo microscope. 100X was too powerful, but 40X proved the optimum magnification, showing clear details of individual fibers. 10X was also tried, and filled the ocular with the thread, which allowed viewing to detect grain or direction of the strand itself. This is rather like looking at a large diameter hemp rope with the naked eye.

None of the threads exhibited any grain, pattern or direction. The tiny fibers which protruded from the strands lacked any coherency. When the threads were smoothed, most popped back to their original position. This was true no matter which way the threads were smoothed. The only exception in overall appearance was the mohair. This strand had several knobby protrusions made of balled fibers. These were sporadic along the length, and remained perpendicular to the ply itself.

In all of the wool threads, scales could be clearly seen along the individual animal fibers, and they went in all directions, again with no coherency.

At the behest of several nonbelievers, we continued our observations. I took a normal length of DMC stranded cotton and separated the strands. I set aside two to be threaded at the end that came from the skein, and two threaded in reverse. Using a #10 crewel needle – one strand at a time – I pulled each thread 10 times through very course, tightly woven “church” linen. I then sewed 20 half cross stitches. I gave a good tug to each stitch, but generally treated the thread as I normally would. After sewing, I removed the stitches with the eye of the needle. My husband handed me the thread, so I had no idea which was which.

My husband took these four strands and again he and two colleagues viewed their full length under the microscope. The leading ends (those ends attached to the needle) of all four strands were worn similarly. A few of the tiny fibers were missing along the length of the strands and the threads were slightly unwound. No appreciable difference between any of the strands was noted: not in wear, color, sheen, or anything else that can be interpreted as definitive proof of “direction.”

When the argument for having or feeling grain because of tiny fibers seemed no longer responsible, the theory became that what they were feeling was the direction of the twist (or “hand” as a spinner referred to it). The twist of yarns (threads), whether it is S or Z, is a helix. In other words, a mirror image – one end is the same as the other.

I sat down one evening in the heat of the RCTN debate and, with the four strands from which I had sewn, began to run them back and forth on my upper lip. For a moment I could feel something akin to a sawtooth – but only in one direction. I kept playing with these strands, wondering if I had misled myself, and that there was a grain. Sometimes I could feel it, sometimes not; sometimes only in one direction, sometimes both. Back and forth between the strands I went, getting more nervous. I looked at my husband and said “I think I have goofed. You CAN feel it.” Then I looked down and saw I had mixed up the two groups of threads. We both chuckled at that one. Imagination is a tricky thing.

Because of these observations, I can faithfully conclude that there is absolutely no direction or grain to thread or yarn. I further offer that a person might be able to feel something, but it is not applicable that what one is feeling is any indication of which direction should be used in threading the needle.

Further, all of this is easily duplicated. Your local high school science teacher would welcome this very real-life experiment, and they have microscopes and plenty of students to study these threads.