Pearl Cotton & Floss

Let’s start with one of the basic components: cotton.

"Cotton is a soft, staple fiber that grows around the seeds of the cotton plant (Gossypium sp.), a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, India and Africa. The English name which began to be used circa 1400, derives from the Arabic (al) qutn , meaning cotton.

Cotton fiber, once it has been processed to remove seeds (ginning) and other impurities, consists of nearly pure cellulose, a natural polymer. Cotton production is very efficient, in the sense that only ten percent or less of the weight is lost in subsequent processing to convert the raw cotton bolls (seed coat) into pure fiber. The cellulose is arranged in a way that gives cotton fibers a high degree of strength, durability, and absorbency. Each fiber is made up of twenty to thirty layers of cellulose coiled in a neat series of natural springs. When the cotton boll is opened, the fibers dry into flat, twisted, ribbon-like shapes and become kinked together and interlocked. "

There are several steps the fiber undergoes from the cleaning to the spinning. Threads either have a Z-twist or S-twist according to the direction of spinning (see diagram). Tightness of twist is measured in TPI (twists per inch or turns per inch) Two or more spun threads may be twisted together or plied to form a thicker thread. Generally, handspun single plies are spun with a Z-twist, and plying is done with an S-twist.

The threads then undergo a series of processes depending on their future usage.


Cotton (or fabric) goes through a series of processes to increase luster. John Mercer was granted a patent in 1851 that entailed subjecting fibers (like cotton and linen) to certain chemicals which changed the character of the fibers. For example when fibers are treated with caustic soda they swell, become round, and straighten out (but didn’t change the luster). The industry did not pay much attention until the early 1890’s when Horace Lowe used the technique under pressure, which did produce a high luster. The cotton industry loved the resulting threads.


Dyeing is the process of imparting color to a textile material in loose fiber, yarn, cloth or garment form by treatment with a dye.

Without the ability to dye the thread we would not have the beautiful range of colors we enjoy today. People throughout history also wanted something more than the natural color of the particular fiber. The earliest written record of the use of dyes dates clear back to 2600BC in China. Many things have been used to create dyes including plants, mollusks, kelp, minerals, lichens, and even inserts. In 1856 William Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye which he called "Mauve". He wasn’t trying to create a dye, he was searching for a cure for malaria. However, the result started a new industry. The textile industry continues to evolve with the creation of synthetic fibers and dyes.

There are several things that impact the dyeing process, one is mercerization which increased the water absorption of the fiber. Different types of fibers require different types of dye. The types of chemical dyes include Fiber Reactive, Direct, Disperse, and Acid just to name a few.

The two forms stitchers are most familiar with are Embroidery Floss and Pearl Cotton. Anchor and DMC are the industry leaders in production of the fibers. There are many companies that use these products for their hand-dyed and over-dyed thread lines. This article will focus on floss and pearl cotton.

Embroidery Floss

Embroidery floss, a thread composed of six loosely-twisted strands, has long been available in cotton, silk, linen, and rayon, the last of which has the most sheen. Embroidery floss is available in a wide range of solid colors, and some fibers are available in variegated colors as well.

Embroidery floss can be used for free-style and crewel embroidery, cross stitch and counted thread embroidery, needlepoint, huck embroidery, punchneedle, and canvaswork techniques. Some people do use embroidery floss in Hardanger embroidery when a particular color is not available in the size they are needing.

Anchor thread is produced in Germany from 100% long-staple Egyptian Giza cotton. Their mercerized cotton floss is available in over 460 colors, including 444 solids and 16 variegated colors. It is sold in skeins which are 8.7 yards or 8 meters. Their thread is considered to be colorfast and not dye-lot sensitive.

DMC thread is produced in France from 100% long staple cotton. It goes through a double mercerization process making then washable and fade resistant. They have 454 solid colors and 18 variegated colors.

  • Color Variations is a blend of soft colors that flow seamlessly. The color changes reveal themselves every few stitches. Available in an 8.7 yard skein. DMC guarantees color consistency from one skein to another.

DMC has a couple of good references for flosses:

Weeks Dye Works started out in a bathtub. This hand over-dyed floss was their initial product line. She says the dyes are "space dyed" which means sections of the thread have been dyed a different color which repeats throughout the thread length. The color change is noticeable, but blends naturally. Miranda Weeks McGahey is the president of Weeks Dye Works reports " We have come a long way from our "bathtub" days in 1994. We now employ 10 full time people and 9 part time. The dyeing process has moved from plastic containers in an apartment bathtub to proprietary equipment in a 6,000 square foot facility. The baths which create the thread colors have grown from a few 50 yard baths a week to several 13,000 yard baths a day. With 587 color/fiber combinations, we have to use our "recipe" book to keep the colors consistent from one dye bath to the next. Of course there are no guarantees because everything from the temperature of the water to the humidity in the air plays a factor."

They have 211 colors in their line as of February 2008, 11 solid colors, 154 variegated colors, and 26 special holiday color combinations. Comes in 5 yard skeins with a tag.

Classic Colorworks (formerly Crescent Colours) is an Arizona company offers hand-dyed 100% cotton floss in over 180 colors. They do not use a numbering system, but color names. When filling an order of Classic Colorworks you may get hungry because of such names as Blueberry Tart, Black Coffee, and Chocolate Cream Pie. They strive for dye lot consistency; however their hang tag warns they are not colorfast. The skeins are 5 yards.

Simply Shaker, Sampler Threads from The Gentle Art

The Gentle Art is located in Ohio. Here is a bit of their philosophy: "Ours is a hand made craft which looks to the heritage of the past and beautifully passes that along to the future through an aged palette inspired by our natural world. Because these threads are hand-dyed in small amounts, there may be color and shade variations from dye lot to dye lot. We want our threads to evoke a “mood” rather than a static, assembly line look. We have named our threads with “moods” in mind – Evergreen, for example, can be like a blue spruce or Cape Cod scrub pine – each has different shading but are still an evergreen. Part of the excitement of working with Sampler Threads™ and Simply Shaker™ is that no two stitched pieces will look the same." They have over 150 colors, identified by number and/or name. Some of the names immediately evoke memories such as School House Red and Wood Smoke. These are dye-lot sensitive so buy as many as you think you’ll need all at one time. The hang tag advises they are colorfast, but gives rinsing instructions. They are on a hang tag in five 1-yd lengths.

According to their website, Dinky-Dyes is a play on the word Dinky-Die which means genuine or the real thing. You can tell from some of the color names (like Bushfire, Outback, and Sydney Harbour) that Dinky – Dyes was established in Perth, Western Australia. While they still have a presence in Australia they have re-located to Houston, Texas. Their floss collection uses a base of %100 cotton DMC floss and are sold in skeins approximately. 8.75 yards or 8 meters. Dinky-Dyes are hand-dyed and dye lots will vary. Most Dinky-Dye colors appear to be colorfast, however, the darker colors may bleed.

Threadworx is an independent producer of hand over-dyed embroidery floss and pearl cottons. Their production and distribution center is in Orange County, California. Their threads can be substituted for Needle Necessities threads. They have over 180 colors available in their floss line. Each skein contains 20 yards.

Pearl Cotton

Pearl cotton is also known as perle cotton, cotton perle (German-Anchor) Coton A Broder (France-DMC). This is a mercerized, 100% cotton, S-twisted, 2-ply thread with high luster, sold in 4 weights 3, 5, 8, and 12). This is a non-divisible thread which creates a slight raised effect.

Here are some suggested uses for each size:

  • Size 3 (the heaviest) is good for crewel embroidery, cross stitch and counted thread embroidery, needlepoint, huck weaving (Monk’s cloth)canvaswork, and crochet.
  • Size 5 is great to crewel embroidery, free-style embroidery, needlepoint, canvaswork, crochet, Hardanger, Blackwork, huck weaving, red work, pulled and counted thread, smocking, and appliqué It can also be used in the upper looper of a serger for special edge finishes.
  • Size 8 can be used cross stitch, needlepoint, canvaswork, counted and pulled thread, Blackwork, Hardanger, Huck weaving, quilting, crochet, lace making, and tatting. It can be used in the bobbin of a conventional sewing machine as well as in the upper looper of a serger.
  • Size 12 (the finest) can be used for counted and pulled thread, embroidery and cross stitch, smocking, tatting, and Hardanger. It can be used in both loopers of a serger as well as the need


  • Size 3 is available in 15 yard (5 gram) skein in 194 solid colors.
  • Size 5 is available in 23 yard (5 gram) skeins in 284 solid colors, 22 shaded colors, and 6 multi-colors.
  • Size 8 is available in 85 yard balls (10 grams) in 212 solids and 16 shaded colors.
  • Size 12 is available in 68 yard balls (5 grams) and is available in 47 colors.


Substantial changes were made in the availability of colors by size in 1995. Please verify your materials lists against current DMC charts when choosing colors. Click here to check the list in our 2008 Mail Order Catalog, pages 51-53.

The CARON Collection has quite a thread range including hand-dyed variegated threads in cotton, silk and wool-silk. Click here and here to check out some of their free patterns!

  • Watercolours is a three-ply hand-dyed pima cotton in variegated colors. It has a silky sheen, especially when used with long, flat stitches. One ply is about the same weight as a #5 pearl cotton or six plies of cotton floss or one ply of Persian wool. There are 121 variegated colors and they are dye-lot sensitive.
  • Wildflowers is a single strand hand-dyed cotton in variegated colors. It has more of a matte finish when stitched. One strand is approximately the same weight as flower thread or Medicis wool. It is between a #8 and #12 pearl cotton in weight. It is available in all the same colors as Watercolours and the two threads can be used very successfully together for hardanger embroidery

Leah’s Overdyed (discontinued) carries all four sizes of pearl cotton, size 3 (16 yards), 5 (27 yards), 8 (47 yards), 12 (69 yards)

Dinky-Dyes carries sizes 5, 8, and 12 and there are approximately 15 meters (16.4 yards) per skein.

Weeks Dye Works carries sizes 3, 5, and 8 with approximately 10 yards per skein.

Classic Colorworks (formerly Crescent Colours) carries size 5 and 8 with approximately 10 yards per skein.

ThreadworX carries sizes 3 (10 yards), 5 (20 yards), and 8 (20 yards).

Valdani carries sizes 5 (46 yard balls), 8 (73 yard balls), and 12 (109 yard balls).

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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