The process of buying thread has long been a source of frustration for me. The most efficient course of action is to buy thread for a project when I'm buying the materials for it, but whenever it came time to pick out thread from the rainbow-like array of spools in Fabricland or whatever other sewing supply store I am shopping in, I was always tormented by the thought that I might be buying thread I already had on hand. Good thread is not cheap, and some stores won't allow returns on thread. It wasn't so bad when I had a Fabricland a fifteen-minute walk from me (oh, those halcyon days!): I would buy fabric, check at home to see what thread and other notions I had on hand, and then make a second trip to buy whatever items I was lacking. But now the closest Fabricland is 7.6 km from my house, and getting there and back requires two hours (it's a long walk and a slooooow bus ride each way) and two bus fares, which means a second trip is not viable. Because I always plan my projects in advance and have a pattern picked out for them, I know what notions I need and can check my supplies to see what I have that might be suitable before I go fabric shopping, but when it comes to thread I have to buy what I think I need and hope I'm not wasting money on something I already have at home.
Recently, instead of just getting frustrated by this, I decided to take a hard look at this problem, and to think about what I could do to address it. It isn't possible for me to remember precisely what thread I have on hand, so what memory aid could I use? My first thought was that maybe I could take a photo of my spools of thread and then compare the fabric I bought to the photo, but as everyone knows, photos aren't always colour accurate, and that wouldn't ensure a good colour match.
Then it dawned on me: if I created a thread catalogue in Excel, and took that spreadsheet with me whenever I went fabric shopping, I would know exactly what threads I had and what I needed to buy.
I sat down yesterday morning with my entire collection of 47 spools and 8 cones of thread on the surface of the desk before me, and set up that Excel spreadsheet, a portion of which is screencapped above. I made a list of my thread cones first, and then one of the few specialty threads I have on hand, such as the one spool of elastic thread and one spool of upholstery thread, and then I made a list of all my general purpose thread spools. For each spool I had, I came up with a description of the colour, recorded the brand name and shade number, and then did my best to estimate how much thread remained on the spool. In a few cases the sticker was gone from the spool and I didn't know what the shade number was and had to put a question mark in its place, but happily that was only a few spools.
While I was at it, I arranged my spool rack by colour, and with the shade number sticker up, as that will make it easier for me to select the thread I want.
(You may notice that entries 22 and 23, which are for a "dark forest green" and a "medium forest green" respectively, have the same shade number. That is not a mistake. The spools so described really are two distinctly different shades of forest green. I'm theorizing that either the fact that the darker one is general use sewing thread while the lighter one is glacé finish cotton has affected the appearance of the colour, or, less likely, the darker thread being a very recent purchase while the lighter one was bought long ago, that the shade has been changed over the years.)
It didn't take so very long to set up the spreadsheet, and now I'll just have to take a minute to update my thread catalogue every time I buy new thread or finish a project, and remember to take a print out of it with me every time I'm going fabric shopping. I don't have a cell phone, or I could just load the list onto my phone and refer to it on there. With that updated spreadsheet in hand, I can make a very informed decision as to what thread I need. I was so pleased with this idea that I decided to write a post about it in case the idea might be useful to anyone else.
I have a few more thread inventory management tips to share. One, if you do a lot of sewing, it may be worth buying cones in a few basic colours, or in colours you like a lot and tend to work with often. Cones are less expensive than spools, you can rest secure that you won't run out mid-project, and thread keeps indefinitely. I like to keep cones on hand in black, white, brown, ivory, red, and navy. I've been through at least a few cones in each colour in my more than two decades of regular sewing. I also have cones in charcoal and bright pink that I bought nearly 20 years ago when I had one project to do in each colour and I happened to see the cones on sale, and buying those wasn't a good idea. I don't wear gray or pink at all, and am unlikely to ever use them up.
Which leads me to my next tip: if you have a very small amount left on a spool, or a colour of thread you used for just one project and are probably not going to ever need or want again, use that thread for basting. Basting with a contrasting colour of thread you will never otherwise use will make your "good" thread go farther, and it will also make it easier for you to see, and remove, your basting threads.
Besides my 32-spool rack pictured at the top of this post, I have a small cardboard box where I keep most of the rest of my spools, which have been designated as basting thread. I've been using my designated basting threads system for a year or two, and I'm gradually whittling my spool collection down in size. Eventually I hope to have all my spools fit on the rack. A collection of 47 spools and 8 cones does take up more room than I would like.
And my final pro-tip regarding your thread collection management: don't let your cat have unsupervised access to your sewing area. My Trilby loves to play with spools of thread. And they must have thread on them -- I have tried to give him empty spools to play with, and he had no interest. No, his spool play has to involve inconveniencing or exasperating me in some way.
One time Trilby managed to get a spool so wound around every item in the attic that it must have taken me 10 minutes to wind it back up again. On one other occasion, I spent 25 maddening minutes looking for a spool of taupe thread that I knew I had on my sewing table and just couldn't seem to find though I'd looked in every conceivable place that I could have possibly put it. Finally I gave up and bought a new spool of thread in that colour, only to find the first one under the plant stand I had in the kitchen when I was vacuuming a few days later. Trilby had chased that spool of thread down the attic steps, along the second floor hallway, down the main staircase, along the first floor hallway, and into the kitchen, before ultimately getting the spool stuck under the plant stand. This is why I now have two spools of taupe thread in my basting thread box, and why Trilby is not allowed to be in the attic by himself.
Don't even get me started on Trilby's fetish for pearl-headed pins, as that is beyond the scope of this post.