A Tale That Hangs By A Thread

Somehow I went from looking for basting thread to a trip down memory lane the other day. I decided to hand baste a silk project because it would be easier than machine basting or fusing and thought I could use some old (and I mean more than 50 years old so it counts as antique) thread. I chose this vivid green.


My mother and grandmother both sewed, so I inherited bits of their sewing supplies. (I still have a tin of darning eggs and thread.) I’m sure I’ve thrown out lots over the years as the elastic lost its snap and seam tape turned odd colors. Spools of thread don’t take up much space so I hung onto them. Besides, I’m fond of wooden spools.

As I rummaged through my boxes of thread (beautiful Shaker boxes that were gifts) I pulled some out of the wooden spools to test thread strength. The thread almost cut my fingers before it broke so I used it for my basting, and then pulled out all the old spools I could find.


The oldest seemed to be the Belding Corticelli wooden spools of cotton marked size 50, 19 cents (15 cents in one case.) I surmised that the spools made of some composition material were next oldest, followed by the plastic spools. The last were the dread cotton covered poly threads. Over the roughly 20 years represented by my sample the price of 150 yards of cotton sewing thread climbed from 15 cents to 50 cents.

I did the thread strength test on all I found.  The oldest threads turned out to be the strongest. One, by American, a manufacturer I never heard of, was almost impossible to snap. Once Belding Corticelli became other companies (Belding, Belding Lily) thread quality went down, judging by how easily the thread broke. The old Coats & Clark’s cotton thread fared about the same. The cotton poly thread proved to be tough. I recall using it during the sixties for my make in one hour outfits.

So, as long as a thread seems strong I’ll continue to use it whatever its age. I’ll pitch the threads that break easily and make more room in my thread boxes. Besides, I see that entrepreneurs on Etsy and eBay are asking at least $3 for old wooden spools.

Footnote: I’ve tried to research the history of the Belding Corticelli Co. and found this on the Belding component. It seems that mergers in the 1920s and 1930s resulted in Belding Corticelli. For those interested in the history of the U.S. silk industry, here’s a link to “American Silk, 1830-1930.” A very personal take on the changes in thread manufacturers can be found on an undated blog post by Harry, Coats Plant Maintenance, Hendersonville, NC.


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9 responses to “A Tale That Hangs By A Thread

  1. My mom’s threads were probably thrown out, and I haven’t asked what happened to her machine, as I don’t really want to know. Thanks for the tour through your vintage thread collection. I hope to check your links later — very busy week for me!

    • Just be glad I didn’t haul out all the old bias tape and cards of snaps and hooks and eyes. I know all too well that what wasn’t important to me at the age of 22 is now important to me. I’m amazed I have as much of the sewing stuff as I do.

  2. I had a box of old thread, many wooden spools some with silk thread. A while ago I did some research and found, as you have said, people want to buy wooden spools. Then I thought of my grandmother and my own mother and close the lid and put the box back on the shelf. I like how you wrote in one comment…”Sewing boxes seem to collect the detritus of women’s lives.” Now the spools are in glass jars on top of my fabric cabinets. I don’t think I will ever be able to get rid of them (sorry to my adult kids). You found more info than I did during my search so thanks for the links.

    • A sewing box would make a wonderful 3D art piece, though I’m sure someone has done it already. I was amazed to learn about the U.S. silk industry, another victim of the whole off-shoring of the cloth and garment industry.

  3. Charlotte Mullen

    I have probably 1000 spools of thread in my sewing room. Each year thread manufacturers get together with the fabric people and decide what colors to make. If you need a certain shade of something you can always find it in old thread. Before throwing out old thread that breaks put it in a ziplock bag and put it in the fridge. Sometimes it is dried out and can be rehydrated in the fridge.

  4. I look for boxes and tins of sewing stuff at garage sales–just love sorting thru it. And, yes, people will buy wooden spools on Etsy!

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