The History Of Cotton Sewing Thread

Sewing thread has gone through many changes over time, as a result of technological advances – including the invention of sewing machines, cotton mercerization and the introduction of synthetic fibers. By being aware of the changes in the manufacture of sewing threads the curator can often find clues to the dates of sewn textiles – such as quilts for instance.

Grace Rogers Cooper noted that three-ply manufactured thread became available to the seamstress about 1800. Six-ply thread was developed about 1840 and six-cord thread was available about 1860 – however, later research has shown that moves this date back to about 1850.

Thread is made up of a series of plies – or cords, twisted together. The plying and twisting creates a stronger unit than the original strands alone. A ply is two or more strands of cotton twisted together. A cord is two or more plies twisted together. The earliest form was three-ply thread – three single strands of fiber twisted together.

It was not until about 1800 that manufactured cotton thread was available to the hand sewers in the United States and Europe. Before that, textiles were sewn with silk or linen thread, and rarely homespun cotton or wool thread. At first, they were sold in hanks as some yarns still are. Thread came on wooden spools beginning about 1820. Like our beverage bottles, the spools could be returned for a deposit, to be refilled. In the mid-19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, textile manufacturing processes were some of the first to be modernized including the manufacture of cotton sewing thread.

Laying the groundwork for manufactured cotton thread, James Hargreaves invented the spinning Jenny in 1764 which greatly increased the speed at which yarn could be spun. In 1769 Richard Arkwright designed a water-spinning frame which had a continuous operation from carding to spinning unlike the spinning Jenny.

Ten years later, in 1779, Samuel Compton combined aspects of both into the spinning “mule.” With both Compton and Arkwright’s inventions cotton could now be spun into a fine, smooth cotton yarn suitable for weaving fabric, but still not suitable for sewing thread. Sewing thread was developed in the first part of the nineteenth century by several entrepreneurs. Patrick and James Clark were among the most prominent. Their first thread factory was in Paisley, Scotland, in 1812. At this time most thread sold in the United States was imported from European manufacturers. A textile mill was begun by Michael Schenck in 1813 near Lincolnton, N.C., which eventually developed the Lily brand sewing threads.

James Clark’s sons, John and James Jr., took over the business in Scotland under the name J & J Clark Company. In 1864, however, George Aitkin Clark and William Clark Grandsons of James opened a cotton thread mill in New Jersey.

James Coats, another prominent sewing thread manufacturer began making thread in Ferguslin, Scotland, around 1815. James’ sons, James and Peter formed J & P Coats, Co. and introduced thread to the United States around 1818 1820. By 1869, the coats began manufacturing sewing thread in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In 1896, J & P Coats merged with J & J Clark, but each continued to produce thread under their own names.

Changes in sewing thread are directly tied to the development of the sewing machine in the 1840s and 1850s. When the machines had widespread distribution the most common options for thread were three-ply or six-ply cotton thread or silk or linen thread. All proved to be inadequate. Three-ply was too wiry and uneven, and six-ply was too thick. Silk and linen threads were either too thick or too weak for use with the machine. It needed a high quality thread, strong and fine. Three-ply silk known as machine twist was available by 1852, but was too expensive for most people. Improved cotton seemed the only option.

George Aitkin Clark perfected six-cord thread (three two-ply cords, spun together) for use on sewing machines. He called it “O.N.T.” for “Our New Thread.” It proved to be the best for sewing machines, combining fineness with strength, as well as being inexpensive. This type of thread quickly became the industry standard.

At the beginning of the 20th century, mercerization was developed to make a stronger, smoother cotton thread. It is a process of immersing cotton thread, under tension, in a solution of caustic soda. It results in a stronger and more lustrous thread that also accepts dye more readily. Since six-cord thread is tightly spun to obtain the desired fineness it can’t be mercerized because the soda solution cannot penetrate the strands. Three-ply is less tightly wound to achieve the same thread thickness. Thus three-ply can be mercerized when six-cord cannot.

Polyester thread became available about 1952 and cotton-wrapped polyester in the late 1960s. J & P Coats named it Dual Duty Plus. The newest iteration is Dual Duty XP which is polyester wrapped polyester, and is quite fine and strong.

Cotton thread has evolved over the last 250 years and has been supplanted by other fibers, such as rayon, nylon and polyester. New threads are developed to accommodate machine embroidery, quilting and other functions as well. Knowing some of the history of thread can help in dating textiles in the museum.

Much of the information in this article was found in “Uncoverings 1998” the journal of the American Quilt Study Group, in an article entitled “Stitches in Time: the Development of Sewing Thread in the Nineteenth Century and Beyond” by Jenny Yearous.


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