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This section covers cotton floss used to stitch the majority of designs and Variegated Cotton Floss. Other types of threads such as Metallics and Rayons are covered elsewhere.

The most commonly used brands of cotton floss are DMC, Anchor and JP Coats. Anchor and JP Coats are both manufactured by Coats and Clark. Floss is available in literally every colour in the rainbow and all the shades in between. These cotton flosses consist of six strands and are generally colourfast, but not guaranteed to be.

Buying Floss

If you are anything like me, you have an ample supply of floss on hand, but once in awhile you will no doubt purchase a pattern which uses colours you don't have. Oh the horror-a trip to the local needlework shop where the shopkeeper knows every project you've ever stitched and your design preferences. Or is that just me? Always check the floss numbers as you choose each colour. Don't take for granted that just because a skein is in the 762 compartment it really is 762. Been there done that. Another excuse to go to the needlework shop. Also, if you are going to need more than one skein of a colour to complete a design, be sure to check the dye lots on each skein so they match.

Perhaps you are of the type who likes to change colours in commercial patterns, maybe to match the décor of a room. I do it often, along with add sparkly threads or other personal touches. Should you do this, make sure you change all the necessary shades, otherwise you might have a mismatched design. There are also times when you've purchased a design kit, and the reason it was such a good price is because they've included less than satisfactory quality floss. Hopefully the manufacturer of the kit has used a colour numbering system that either is the same as DMC or Anchor, or can be easily converted. If you don't have a colour sample chart at home, take all the floss to your needlework shop and choose the colours that way. Remember that some lighting changes the true colour of the floss. A good needlework shop will have a natural light available, and many also carry OTT lamps. Make sure you write in the new colour numbers beside the chart symbols as you go along.


Before you start stitching a design, it is best to rinse your floss, especially the dark colours. The easiest method is to remove the labels-don't throw the labels away-and loosely fasten each end of the loops with a plastic coated twist tie. You can either hold the floss under cold running water or soak in a bowl of water until the water runs clear. Then lay the floss on a towel, checking to see if any dye runs on to the toweling. If there is, then rinse the skein again. Replace on the paper towel, again checking for dye runs; if there aren't any, pat dry and then leave to air dry. Lay the label with the colour code beside the drying floss. I use plastic floss bobbins, so as I rinse each colour; I cut out the colour number and affix it to the bobbin edge using clear tape, then put the bobbin beside the drying floss. Some people use a vinegar bath of one part vinegar and three parts cold water, but even after doing this, you must thoroughly rinse your floss under running water, and this just seems to add a step to me. Do not use the water rinse method for any fibres that require dry cleaning.


As you cut each length for stitching, separate all six of the threads, then put them back together. Run each set through a folded damp sponge before stitching. Let the floss dry before threading your needle. This will make your stitches lay flat and decrease twisting. There is also a product called ThreadHeaven which will do the same thing. It will not stain your work, nor will it clog your needle eye. Prepare all six strands at the same time. When you thread your last prepared set, strip and dampen the next six, so that they are dry when you need them.

Different gauges of fabric require different numbers of floss strands. Generally, 11 count and under use three to four strands of floss, 14 to 22 or 24 use two, and anything higher is typically one strand. You can always sew a few test stitches to check before you stitch your design. Some stitchers prefer a bit of fabric to show through the stitches, while others prefer a fuller stitched look.

Nap vs. Non-Nap

There are, as with most subjects, a pro and a no side to the nap question. The pro side says that there is a right end and a wrong end to floss. They say this is evident in the tangling or non-tangling of your floss as you stitch. Personally, I tend to believe there is a wrong end and a right end. I have found that sometimes when I stitch, I get through the whole length without a single tangle, yet at others the floss keeps twisting and tangling. Floss manufacturers claim that their flosses do not have a nap.

So how to find the right end? Generally, the end on the outer side of the skein is the right end. To test this, take the ends of your cut floss and form a 'u' with the ends sticking up between your thumb and finger. Lightly tap at the ends of the floss. The end that fans out easier is the right end of your thread. Lay your floss with the right end facing a certain direction, so you remember which end is which. Remember to keep your ends the right way after you've stripped your threads.

Dealing With Knots

If you strip your floss and then dampen it before stitching, you shouldn't have many problems with tangling or knots. Let your needle dangle often so the floss will untwist. If you are stitching and your floss suddenly feels like it's shorter than it was on the last stitch, check the back and make sure a loop knot hasn't formed. These are similar to slip knots, and usually come out easily with a gentle pull along the knot.

Using thread twelve to eighteen inches in length also helps to cut down on knots, and you can generally finish the length before your thread starts to get fuzzy. Keeping the tension on your thread even also prevents knots, so relax and enjoy your stitching time. Your stitches will be fuller and more even if you pay attention to both your tension and that of your threads. Cross-stitching is almost like therapy for me; I find that even if I am upset when I pick up my project, I feel much better by the time I put it down again. I mull over many questions and problems while cross-stitching, although sometimes the only conclusion I come to is that someone has moved the clock way ahead of where it was the last time I looked!

A stitch technique called Railroading also helps eliminate tangling problems. This involves running your needle between the floss strands on your top stitches before completing a stitch.

Laying tools are also useful, but only if you are stitching with a scroll stand as you will need both of your hands. To use a Laying Tool, pull your needle up through your fabric and away from where it will complete your stitch. Use the Laying Tool to gently lay the strands next to each other where they come out of the fabric. Complete your stitch, holding the Laying Tool against the thread to maintain a light tension, then remove the Laying Tool once your thread is laying flat.

I use plastic bobbins, so after rinsing and drying, I unravel the skein to wrap it on a bobbin. I've found the easiest way to do this is to place the loop around my hand. I then gently start unwinding the skein as it revolves around my hand into my lap. The skein spins around my hand as it unwinds, and tangles are generally avoided. I then find the right end and start winding my bobbin from the opposite end, meaning the right end is at the outside of the bobbin when I finish the winding. I tried to use one of those plastic bobbin winders that sit on the edge of your thread case, but found it less frustrating to wind them by hand. With a little practice, it's very easy to keep the tension even from start to end. If your skein does get tangled while you are unraveling it, don't pull harder, this will just tighten the knot. Look carefully at the knot, and it is usually easy to see how the tangle occurred. If necessary, use a needle to loosen the tangle, unravel it and then start again.

Variegated Floss

Variegated floss can add some very interesting effects to a design. The variegations of shade in a skein are generally three feet in length, with three or four variances of shade from very light to very dark. There are two ways you can prepare your variegated threads.

The first is to wrap your floss lengthwise around a yardstick (metre sticks are too long, so you may have to cut about 7.5 centimetres off of it) and then cut your floss at both ends of the yardstick. You will then have two sets of variegated threads, one with the lighter shades, and one with the darker. The second method is to use your variegated floss like normal floss, straight off the bobbin (or skein).

The way you stitch with variegated floss will determine the end effect you get. If you stitch a row of bottom stitches, then go backstitching the top row; you will get a different effect than if you had made each stitch individually. If you stitch the bottom row then the top row, you will have a stitch with a lighter or darker background than the top stitch. If you complete each stitch as you go, you will have a 'flowing' effect from shade to shade. I have even achieved a third and fourth effect, by either using one lighter strand with a darker strand, or to use two strands that are the same, but switching one end around. Yes, this means that I have one thread going the wrong way, but I like the effect it gives. It is very important to pay attention to stitching direction when using variegated threads. If you are doing water, you want the water to look like it's flowing, so pay attention to where the darker parts should be versus the lighter parts. This is also true when you are doing leaves or trees with variegated threads-watch the shading to keep the realism. I used variegated threads on Nimue's sleeves and on her staff. As her sleeves hang down, I stitched up and down instead of back and forth. This maintained the shaded look of fabric folds in loose sleeves. On her staff, I sometimes grouped the darker shade to give the effect of a knot, at other times I used the lighter shades to show wear or bleaching. It's true that you are only limited in your stitching by your imagination.