Does thread have a shelf life?

As many of you may know, I love using vintage fabrics, and vintage threads.  I inherited hundreds of threads from Grandma and Nana, and buy old thread at op-shops whenever I see it.

I estimate that 90% of my sewing is done with vintage thread, and I’ve never had a problem with it. No breakages in the machine, no breakages in clothes I wear (including ones I made over a decade ago, and still wear), no funny pulls or tension issues.

Yet over, and over on the internet I hear ‘never use old thread’, ‘thread has a shelf life’, ‘vintage thread just isn’t strong enough and doesn’t work right’, ‘old threads are thicker’.

I use new thread for commissions and when sewing with students, so I’ve been able to compare new with old on the same machines, and even on different projects in the same fabrics.  I’ve tested and tested, and just can’t find any substantial evidence that using old thread gives a substandard result compared to new thread.

I do match thread to fabric – I use my vintage cotton threads for vintage cotton and rayon fabrics, my slightly less old cotton thread for slightly less old cotton and rayon fabrics, and only use new poly/polymix thread for synthetic fabrics and knits and the occasional silk chiffon.  Polyester thread is certainly stronger for its width compared to cotton thread, but my new cottons are no stronger or thinner than my old ones.

It can’t be that it’s just that my vintage threads were stored properly, as they come from so many different sources.  I’ve got Grandma’s 20-60 year old threads, which spent their life in San Diego, Great-Aunt’s 20-35 year old threads, from Idaho and Hawaii, Nana’s 20-60 year old threads, from New Zealand, plus all the ones I pick up in op-shops around New Zealand.

I keep my thread sorted by colour, not source, so except for knowing the brands that are definitely NZ and not US threads, and the general age of different brands and spools, I have no record of where they came from after the fact.  Still, my thread fail rate is less than 1/100 spools.

“But wait”, says the anti-vintage thread brigade, “vintage thread can’t possible be good – I’ve had so many vintage garments that were coming apart at the seams!”

Guys.  C’mon!  Thread that has been sewn into a garment that has been worn/washed/drycleaned is NOT the same as old-but-unused thread on a spool.

You can’t say 30 year old thread on a spool is going to break because 30 year old thread sewn into a dress 30 years ago and worn and washed 60 times, and left dirty for 20 years before it was drycleaned and worn and washed again, broke.  In 60 years time the seams of the garments I’ve been sewing with vintage thread, and have been wearing and sweating in and washing, may be falling apart.  But I suspect the stuff I’m sewing with brand-new Gutterman may be as well.  For now, even the stuff I sewed with 30-year-old-at-the-time thread 20 years ago, that has been worn and washed 80+ times since, is still going strong.  And for me that’s pretty good evidence that vintage thread is fine to sew with!

Whenever I’ve had problems with thread breaking it’s happened as it ran through the machine: in hundreds of garments sewn with vintage thread I’ve never had one that started breaking after a couple/dozen wears.

The final reason given for not using vintage thread is that it creates more lint than modern thread.

First, this not entirely true  – some vintage threads may create more lint than modern threads, but a good quality vintage thread still creates less lint than a cheap modern thread.

To really check, I did a test where I cleaned my machine completely, and sewed only with vintage thread for a month, cleaned, and checked the lint accumulation, and then sewed only with brand new Mettler or Gutterman, and cleaned and checked the lint accumulation, and the difference was negligible.  Did it again – same result.  If anything, there was less lint from the vintage thread month.  (I know.  I am such a mad sewentist!  I can’t ever accept the things that sewing books say without testing).  I’d have to do thing a couple hundred more times to really get a totally accurate answer, but for now I’m comfortable that the difference isn’t a problem – especially for modern sewing machines, with fairly limited expected lifespans.

Second, even if your vintage thread is creating more lint, it’s not an issue.  Simply clean your machine regularly, which you should be doing anyway.

Have I missed something?  Is the rule about not using old threads based on a few people who inherited entire thread collections that were stored in damp places and had terrible experiences with those (because thread that gets damp does need to be thrown out)? Or do I just have the miracle vintage thread collection?

Have you heard the ‘don’t use vintage thread’ rule?  Do you use vintage thread?  Have you ever experienced a problem with it?


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