Anyone backpacking long enough will eventually need to repair their gear or feel a need to modify/upgrade/reinforce something. Although you may be able to find a good luggage repair shop or shoe repair shop to do the work for you, you may opt or be forced to to do these repairs and modifications yourself.
A small sewing kit should be included in your gear for any trip greater than a day. This kit should at a minimum include a stainless steel heavy duty needle and thread. Better stocked kits should include an assortment of needles, threads and possibly a needle threader, sewing scissors, repair parts (cloth, buttons, hardware), needle drivers, etc.
Needles used for repairing backpacking gear should be designed for heavy duty use, larger gauge and made of stainlesssteel. These should last long enough for several repairs and store well without rusting. Needles intended for leather work, upholstery and use on sail repair may be suitable.
Surgical needles may be useful and are generally excellent in quality. If you are using these, it is important to recognize that most are curved and they come with either a cutting or tapered point. The cutting type tip is made to cut through though human/animal tissue and will damage backpacking gear. Tapered tip needles are better suited for most field repairs.
Even if you are getting a local tailor or shoe maker to do your repairs, you may need to provide good quality thread (if abroad) if you want the repair to last. Your thread material, construction, treatments and size will affect how strong your repair will be, how easy it is to sew, what need size you need and how long your repair will last in humid or sunny areas. You can read more about thread sizes on our Backpack Sewing Thread Size page.
Upholstery thread can be found in most craft shops with a reasonable selection of threads. And of the easy to find treads in craft shops, upholstery tread is very strong and easy to work with. It is generally made of nylon, which makes it more UV sensitive than polyester.
Heavy Duty Bonded Thread
Heavy duty bonded polyester or nylon thread can be found at specialty stores and allows for simple field repairs without too much fear of thread failure. Nylon is stronger than polyester but lacks UV resistance.
There is some debate over whether polyester or nylon is better for backpack and outdoor gear construction but many high end backpack manufactures seem to like heavy duty UV treated nylon. This types of thread can be purchased at special outdoors fabric supply stores.
As to the question of size, this also varies per manufactures. Many manufactures use #69 "boot weight" 10-12 lb. thread since this is the largest size thread you can continually use in a clothing weight sewing machine. McHale and Co use # 92/16 lb. U.V. treated nylon for their high end packs. More about comparisons of sizes can be found on our Backpack Sewing Thread Size page.
Gütermann 100% Polyester Thread
Gütermann is a very popular line of thread, especially in the US market. It isn't the best, but is certainly better than the lower quality cotton/polyester blends found most fabric stores. Its availability and superiority over cotton treads is probably why is it so popular amongst so many of the backpacking gear Do-It-Yourselfers. Gütermann 100% polyester spools come in a variety of colors and have nice little spools with a fancy thread locking feature that doesn't fray the thread.
If you are looking for outdoor gear appropriate thread, Gütermann does have heavier duty polyester threads. Gütermann Tera is a great thread for backpacks and other outdoors gear. It has good abrasion resistance and won't break the bank. Gütermann Extra Strong Thread (M 782) is another polyester favorite for outdoors gear.
Other specialty threads include:
m-Aramid - high temperature applications - such as fire fighting gear
polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE) - very good temperature-, ultra-violet light and chemical resistance
Solbond - 100 % polyester - durable, extreme breaking strength and resistance to UV and salt water - marine applications
Calora UV - 100 % polyester - similar to Solbond, but marketed for land use.
Mara WA - 100 % polyester - moisture resistant for waterproof seams
Tera - 100 % polyester - good abrasion resistance and high breaking strength - shoes, purses and packs
Mara - 100 % polyester - “sew all” thread
Extra Strong Thread (M 782) - 100 % polyester - Elastic and soft - Jeans, leather and canvas
Zwilon - Polyamide (Nylon) - Upholstery
Other Quality Threads
If you are looking for quality threads for sewing together a special project, you have options.
Rasant (Amann) is a poly cotton blend recommended by Roger Caffin in Australia. This would not be my first choice for non-clothing repairs but Roger Caffin's opinion is pretty well respected for a reason.
Mettler Metrosene Plus is a 100% polyester thread used by many "Do It Yourselfers".
Coats (UK) Dabond T-90 Polyester is a good economy thread.
Dental Floss as a Thread
Waxed Dental Floss
Most waxed dental floss is made from nylon with a Teflon (PTFE) treated wax coating, flavors and a few other additives. Oral-B Glide is made with polytetrafluoroethylene (aka PTFE and Teflon), making for a very silky thread. Floss is pretty strong and has multiple uses. You can use it to sew/repair backpacks, tents and clothing as well as use it for fishing line, in snares, small lanyards, tying up mosquito nets and for any task that needs string or small cord. Floss is also easy to find in most places in the world and its plastic dispenser is compact and eliminates tangles.
Nylon vs Polyester Thread
100% Nylon or Polyester are the two types of fabric most commonly selected for backpack construction by "Do It Yourselfers" and commercial manufactures. Of the two, polyester has superior UV resistance and is better suited for gear which will be left out in the sun for prolonged periods. UV treated nylon or polyester will outlast both untreated polyester or untreated nylon.
Nylon is stronger than polyester per size and stretches better than polyester. Nylon's elasticity makes it superior for use in upholstery use and for use in gear which will need to flex a lot. That said, untreated nylon should not be used to sewn items together which will encounter continuous UV radiation.
Note that Spun Polyester uses a thin filament of polyester thread wrapped in a cotton outer layer. This makes for an inexpensive thread with a soft and colorful outer layer. This in not an ideal thread for use with heavy duty outdoors gear.
Polytetrafluoroethylene aka PTFE and Teflon Thread
PTFE is far more UV resistant than either Nylon or Polyester and is guarantied to last longer than the fabric it is sewn on. It is best used in outdoor applications intended for continuous exposure to sun and the elements. SolarFix, Tenara (Gore) and Helios (Coats) are popular PTFE threads. Of note, some dental floss is made of 100% PTFE and can be purchased in small amounts or large spools.
Waxed Linen Thread
Waxed linen is a specialty thread often used in leather goods, book binding and reenactment folks. Linen comes in 3 cords and larger strings, making use in a regular sewing machine difficult, especially when waxed. These larger waxed stings slide well and tie well when sewing up thick leather, such as in sandals. When sewing thick leather, linen is often used with a double needle technique instead of a a lock stitch. This makes for a nice looking stitch which will continue to work, even if multiple sections of the stitch are broken. Larger cords of linen will also pad fabric more than thin synthetic tread. This means that linen is less likely to cut your fabric or leather if you feel the need to pull extremely hard on your stitches. Linen will also often break before cutting leather when you pull on it. This is a good thing when working on leather.
Linen is sometimes waxed by the leathersmith or purchased prewaxed. The wax soaks into the cord and allows it to last longer and slide through holes. Waxed linen stitching will often outlast the material it is holding together.
Of backpacking use, linen cord isn't a great choice, unless you are making a heavy duty leather pack and are looking for a nice "look".
Polypropylene is resistant to acids, alkali and solvents. It is often used in filters and bulk bags. Applications include food, chemical and medical.
Some Artificial Sinew is made from Polypropylene and is often used in leather products for that "Native", "Aborigine" or primitive look.
Spectra and Dyneema Thread
Spectra and Dyneema are both Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (aka UHMWPE, UHMW, high-modulus polyethylene, HMPE, or high-performance polyethylene, HPPE). It is extremely durable and has the highest impact strength of any thermoplastic presently made. This generally too strong for use as thread as it can damage some fabrics over time as it lacks "give", slides and will not allow for tread failure prior to tearing of the fabric it is sewn to. UHMWPE is also doesn't soak up water and has a low melting point, which makes it easy to cut with a hot knife.
If you feel the need to use Spectra or Dyneema, suitable thread options can be found in a sporting goods store as fishing line. It can be used to sew together items intended for heavy duty applications, including metal, plastics, leather and thick layered fabric. If you are doing a lot of sewing, you may find that UHMWPE fishing line is more affordable than specialty polyester thread.
Purpose made Spectra sewing thread is available, but difficult to find. SPECTRA thread is made by Honeywell and DYNEEMA is made by DSM.
Kevlar (and generic equivalent Para-Aramids) Thread
Kevlar is a very strong thread with excellent heat resistance. It doesn't stretch like polyester or nylon and degrades with exposure to UV light and when wet. It is best suited for ballistic applications and fire resistant material.
KEVLAR is made by DuPont and TWARON is made by Teijin Twaron.
Nomex and other meta-aramide Thread
Nomex is almost as heat resistant as Kevlar, but is much weaker and even weaker than nylon or polyester. This is only recommended for special fire retardant applications, such as for airline seats or flight suits.
Nomex thread is made by Du Pont and Teijinconex tread is made by Teijin.
Cotton and Cotton/Polyester Blends Thread
These are easy to find and generally very inexpensive. They are great for simple fabric fixes, such as button repairs on a shirt. Cotton isn't very strong and does decay over time. Cotton should not be used for backpack repairs unless this is all you can find or if color is more important than longevity. Polyester/cotton blends vary in thread strength and longevity. Some DIYers prefer some of the higher quality polyester/cotton threads, but they don't compare to quality 100% nylon or 100% polyester threads for durability.
Properly selected surgical suture works well for repairs and often come with a needle already attached and in a nice compact little package. If you have a source, you can get free expired suture packets bound for the trash. These make for fun little mini sewing kits. Otherwise, surgical suture is not worth the cost, unless you are packing them in an advanced medical kit.
Of note, suture is either manufactured as absorbable or nonabsorbable. The absorbable suture is designed to be used to hold tissue together until the body heals and absorbs the suture altogether. Absorbable suture is not suitable for gear or clothing repairs. Nonabsorbable sutures generally are either monofilament and braided.
Monofilament suture is similar to monofilament fishing line and is a bit more difficult to use and less flexible than braided suture. Braided suture made from nylon, polyester or silk (which will slowly rot over time) can be pretty hardy and easy to sew with.
Suture size can be difficult to translate, but as the smaller the number of the size the smaller the diameter of the suture. Once the suture size gets to 0 smaller sizes start at 1-0 then, 2-0 and so on with the size number before the -0 increasing as the suture diameter decreases. Braided suture size 0 and larger can be used as robust repair thread.
Heavy duty course waxed sewing cord/twine (hemp, polyester, etc) is often too large for gear repair, is difficult to use and the size of needles used for them can often damage your gear significantly. This type of thread is great for makeshift repairs on heavy duty vinyl tops and such but are not recommended for backpacking gear use.
Stainless Steel Thread
Thin Stainless Steel wire can be used for repair. It is strong, doesn't stretch, and has unsurpassed is heat and UV resistance. It can be difficult to work with and it if breaks, will create pointy ends which can poke your fingers or back. Metal does have it's special applications, but threads such as Spectra fishing line are likely to work better for everything expect high heat and conductive applications.
Depending on what you are sewing and how much you are sewing, you may wish to have some special tools available besides good needles, thread and something to cut them with.
When sewing up your gear, a sewing machine will generally do a better repair job than one done by hand since it does a good job of distributing the force between the stitches. If you are doing big repair or fabrication jobs, a sewing machine is a must for quality work and to finish jobs in a reasonable amount of time.
If you are in the market for one, check out Penny's FAQ about buying a machine (site now archived). Unfortunately, a sewing machine can't always be used for a repair without unstitching other parts of your gear and isn't always available.
A thimble allows you to push needles through fabric and offer a way to "grab" the eye of the needle without stabbing yourself in the process.
These can be painful to use, but may be necessary for heavy duty jobs where you are little to injure yourself when pushing a needle. Experienced DIYers may wish to use the back of an unprotected fingernail to drive needles. This requires strong and healthy fingernails and a bit of finesse, otherwise, you are likely to stab yourself through through your finger a the edge of your fingernail or even through your fingernail.
Hand Held Sewing Awls
Where use of a sewing machine isn't feasible, sewing awls can be used to create sewing machine like stitches. These allow you to sew through very thick material in awkward tight spaces where a sewing machine just can't get into. As needles are replaceable, you can use the heavy duty commercial sewing needle of your choice instead of the giant cutting needles awls often come with.
Leatherman used as Needle Driver
If you don't have a sewing machine or awl, a needle driver (such as Leatherman Tool) can make is a lot easier to sew through thick material. Of note, if you don't use something to protect the "teeth" on your drivers, the can bit into your needles and create nasty little burrs. Burrs will damages the fabric you are sewing and you should replace chewed up needles when you can.
If you are sewing through very thick layers, use a heavy duty needle and appropriate thread. If is is particularly difficult to get the needle through the fabric, try grabbing the needle close to the point of the needle. This make is less likely to bend or brake when forcing the needle through.
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