How to use metallic threads to cross stitch
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Are you a fan of sparkle? I love a little bit of glitz and glamour for my cross stitching.
But you are probably thinking 'metallic threads...ugh.' Right?
Well, there are ways to make metallic threads not a total nightmare to work with, and there are even metallic threads that will add that all important sparkle to your cross stitch without driving you crazy...yes, really!
Before we dive in let's just clear one thing up because I'm going to be saying it a lot; thread = floss but I'm English so I'm going to be using thread ;-P
Now, this is going to be quite a long and involved post so if you want to jump straight to a particular section here's what I'm going to be covering;
- Thread testing: I look at some of the available options and share stitched samples
- Things to consider when using metallic threads
This is not a fully comprehensive list but covers quite a few of the available options.
I stitched all my test samples on 16 count white Aida.
The text below includes stitched examples but I also have a video showing the different threads, including Anchor metallic thread which is not in the stitched examples below...
1. DMC Light Effects
This is the most well known metallic thread and possibly the reason a lot of people don't like metallic thread! It's a 6 strand thread that you separate out into individual strands and then usually stitch with 2 strands, exactly as you would regular cotton thread.
It looks beautiful and does give a proper metallic finish but oh my word, the tangling and knotting is soooo bad with this thread. Oh yes, and it frays like crazy as you stitch with it. That said, it can be made easier if you use the tips below, especially the one about thread conditioner.
The verdict: the least fun to stitch with but it is commonly used in patterns so use ALL the tips below to make it easier to use, or switch it out for one of the other options below.
2. DMC Etoile
This is also a 6 strand thread that you separate into individual strands and again, you would usually use 2 strands to stitch with. It is not at all difficult to stitch with, although the fluffy nature of the thread means that the stitches can end up looking a little untidy and the sparkle isn't as obvious as other options. It can also fray a little bit at the ends as you stitch but it's soooo much softer than Light Effects thread which means it doesn't need thread conditioner.
The verdict: the easiest to work with of all the options I tried; in fact I would say it is virtually no harder to stitch with than regular thread, but since it also has the most subtle sparkle it may not give quite the wow factor of the other options.
3. DMC Diamant
This is a thread that is not entirely dissimilar to Light Effects but it's nowhere near as unruly to stitch with. You stitch with 1 strand of this, which is equivalent to 2 strands of DMC cotton thread. It is more 'wiry' feeling than regular thread and the braids I tested and it does fray pretty badly as you use it but is not too hard to stitch with and tangled very little even without using thread conditioner.
The verdict: good if you want a strong metallic look and although it's not too hard to stitch with it's also not the easiest. It would be an easy swap from Light Effects to this as the shade numbers are the same.
4. Blending Filament
This is a very fine strand that you combine with 2 strands of regular thread to add a little sparkle. The downside is that the filament is so fine that it is often lost in the regular thread and not very visible. One suggestion is to twist it slightly into the regular thread but this risks getting twisted and untidy looking stitches so isn't something I do if using it.
I tried Kreinik blending filament and Au Ver a Soie blending filament combined with 2 strands of regular thread, and they are both easy to stitch with and didn't knot or tangle much. The effect is not dissimilar to using DMC Etoile thread but is more fiddly to use because of combining the filament with the regular thread.
The verdict: not too hard to stitch with and gives a similar effect to DMC Etoile but is a little fiddlier to use. However, you can get a LOT more colour options with the blending filaments.
5. Metallic Braid
I was really interested to try this as an alternative to metallic thread. The braid is used exactly as it comes and not separated into strands before using. There are several brands available and I have tried out Treasure Braid, Petite Treasure Braid and Nordic Gold by Rainbow Gallery, Kreinik braid, and Tresse braid by Au Ver a Soie.
Braids come in different thicknesses from very fine #4 braid to a chunky #32 braid. A #8 braid is twice the thickness of a #4 braid, and a #12 braid is three times the thickness of a #4 braid, and so on.
Since you use the single braid as it comes if you need a little more coverage you can simply go up to the next size braid rather than using 2 braids. A #4 braid is ideal for higher count fabrics such as 16 or 18 count Aida, but I was still happy with the coverage on 14 count Aida. If you wanted a little more coverage on 14 count Aida then use a #8 braid.
Treasure Braid (equivalent to #8) - I found the stitches a little bulky looking on 16 count Aida but it was easy to stitch with and didn't knot or tangle even without thread conditioner so I was able to use my standard thread length. I did use a bigger size needle than usual because the thickness of the braid made it hard to thread on my usual size 26 needle. It also does fray somewhat at the ends so be prepared to trim off a fair bit at the end.
Petite Treasure Braid (equivalent to #4) - The stitches of this on 16 count Aida looked the most similar in size/bulk against the standard thread crosses and was really easy to use. It actually didn't fray as much as the Treasure Braid even when using longer lengths and I was able to use my preferred size 26 needle.
Kreinik Braid #4 - This gave a very similar appearance to the Petite Treasure Braid but it was a teeny bit more scratchy in texture and although it didn't tangle when I was stitching the sample I felt that it could be more prone to tangling than the Petite Treasure Braid.
Tresse Braid #8 - Similar to the Treasure Braid, I found the stitches were too bulky on 16 count, although it was surprisingly easy to use despite this.
Nordic Gold - This was another option that I found rather bulky to use on 16 count but also a bit scratchier than the other braid options and the stitches didn't lie quite as neatly as the other braids.
The verdict: Braid can be an excellent choice to add sparkle and all were fairly easy to stitch with. I preferred the thinner #4 braids (Petite Treasure Braid and Kreinik #4) on the 16 count fabric and they even gave good coverage on 14 count Aida. The #8 braids would be fine on 14 count Aida but I didn't like the bulkiness of the stitches on higher count fabrics. The Petite Treasure Braid (closely followed by the Treasure Braid) was definitely my favourite here as it was so easy to stitch with and looks gorgeous.
Things to consider
Colour matching and available colours
Some of the options I have mentioned have a very limited range of available colours (yes DMC I am looking at you here!) while others seem to have ALL the colours, such as Kreinik and the ones manufactured by Rainbow Gallery.
If a pattern calls for a specific brand of metallic thread then it might be difficult to swap it out for something else unless you are sure it's a good alternative.
One good thing about the DMC options is that the shade numbers are consistent (well, as consistent as they can be given that they are different types of thread) across the different types of thread so E415 (Light Effects), C415 (Etoile), and D415 (Diamant) are all essentially the same colour so you could easily swap between them.
All the options I have used can also be used for backstitch but the thicker braids may be too bulky for this. If you are using a thread or braid where you use 2 strands for cross stitch then you can use 1 strand for backstitch. Or, if you use a #8 braid for the cross stitch you could use the same colour in a #4 braid for backstitch.
Fractionals and French knots
I managed to make French knots and do fractional stitches with all of the above options, but unsurprisingly the ones I have highlighted as generally easier to work with were also easier to use for French knots and fractional stitches.
Tips for using metallic thread
For this part you can also watch my video to see the tips in action...
- Knot your thread onto your needle. Ok, what?! No really, this is the most useful tip I have found for eliminating frayed ends. BUT it does only work if you are using 2 strands and for a lot of the braids you would only use 1 strand.
To do this fold your thread in half, push the LOOP through the eye of the needle then push the tip of the needle through the loop and pull tight to form a knot. This does mean you can't then loop start as you need to run the two loose ends under some stitches to start but it's totally worth it because now your thread won't slip or unravel as you stitch.
One downside to knotting your thread onto the needle is that unpicking stitches is nigh on impossible as you can't simply unthread your needle, unpick and then re-thread it.
- Use a slightly bigger needle than you usually would. This has two benefits; firstly it's easier to thread and secondly it widens the hole slightly as it passes through so the thread will also pass through more easily and won't become ragged as easily.
- Use shorter lengths of thread. This reduces the risk of knotting and tangling and reduces 'wear and tear' on the thread while it is in use which stops it getting raggedy. This is something I have always done with metallic threads, although I found I didn't need to with some of the braids such as the Treasure Braids.
As an example, my standard thread length is 50cm of working thread (100cm folded in half) but for some metallics such as Light Effects I would shorten this to about 30cm of working thread (60cm folded in half). Experiment and see what lengths work best for you.
- Use thread conditioner. I found this an absolute game changer when stitching with DMC Light Effects but it can also be useful for the other options mentioned above if you find that knotting and tangling is a problem.
Thread conditioner is a wax that you use to coat the thread to make it glide through the fabric more easily. I am currently using Thread Heaven which I believe is now discontinued but any thread conditioner will help; it is often sold as beeswax thread conditioner.
To use it, pull the thread through the wax once or twice and run your fingers along the length of the thread to distribute it evenly.
- Let the thread untwist every now and then. This goes for all threads but can be especially helpful for metallic threads and I do it more often than with regular thread.
- Take your time. Patience really is a virtue when cross stitching with metallic thread. It can be a little trickier to get the strands to lie nice and flat. Take care not to split the strands of stitches you have already done and pull each stitch through slowly (REALLY slowly!) to reduce the friction on the thread which causes it to go raggedy.
- Leave slightly longer tails when starting/finishing. The springy nature of the thread or braid means the ends can slip free so much more easily than with regular thread. This has absolutely happened to me when I suddenly noticed that some of my metallic stitches were loose and it was because the ends had come free at the back. I usually only run my ends under 3 or 4 stitches when starting or finishing a thread, but for metallic threads I run under 5 or 6 stitches at the back and don't snip the ends quite as close as I usually do.
- Leave metallic elements until the end of a pattern. This may not always be possible but metallic threads can easily become snagged while you work, or ends can slip free (as above!) so you can reduce the risk of this happening by not stitching them until the very last minute!
And one last thought if you REALLY don't want to use any of the metallic threads then how about adding some glitz and glamour by using sparkle fabric? I really love using the iridescent pearl/opal flecked white Aida or silver flecked Belfast linen especially for Christmas designs.
This Whimsical Tree Trio pattern was stitched on silver flecked Belfast linen (if stitching on linen scares you then let me show you how easy it is) and I also used Petite Treasure Braid for the silver backstitch detail on 2 of the trees.
Of course, which of the options you use depends on a lot of factors, not least what you can actually get your hands on easily, but I hope I have at least given you some alternatives to struggling with DMC Light Effects.
Until next time...happy sparkly stitching!