needlework and waxed thread


SGF, Supreme Grumble Framer
Mar 23, 2001
Wilmington, DE
This item, which comes from the Conservation
Distribution List, does have information that
should be useful to those involved with needlework
items, but it is also a useful example of how
opinions can differ on the hazards that something
might present (wax on thread) and how one can go
about assessing such potential dangers. During times when the wax might support the growth of microbes, the relative humidity would be high enough to allow mold to grow; thus, the conservator opted for allowing the use of waxed thread, even though there was a potential danger.


From: Soren Ibsen <>
Subject: Beeswax and needlework

Rachel Kennedy <>, in a message posted by Emily Jacobson <> writes

> I am a member of Embroiderer's Guild of America and I'm doing
> research involving needlework conservation. I know that
> beeswax is frequently used to wax sewing threads for various
> reasons and I'm wondering what affect, if any, this has on the
> condition of the piece in later years. Also, if beeswax were
> softened (by melting it and adding a small amount of oil before
> re-hardening) is there a particular oil that would be safe for
> this purpose from a conservation standpoint?

Linen thread used for bookbinding or restoration of books have been waxed with beeswax. It makes the thread more flexible during the sewing operation. I also used beeswax until a chemist told me not to use it, because it is food for microorganisms. So I stop it, until a textile conservator told me that it is safe to use. That is probably true, because microorganisms first start to work when the relative humidity goes over 70%. I also think that clean unbleached beeswax without any additives is the best choice for waxing the tread.

Soren Ibsen
University Library of Trondheim
This made me wonder... is beeswax alkaline sensitive like silk?
Thanks Hugh - that's interesting.

I suppose chemical purists might consider substituting microcrystyline wax (like paraffin)as is doesn't have the impurities that give beeswax its nice color and smell. Although I have read that honey was used as an antiseptic dressing for wounds in the past....

The only problems I've seen with waxed threads is that dirt can stick to them.

Kittyfaces, beeswax isn't alkaline sensitive like silk (totally different molecular structure)but it can undergo the chemical reaction called saponification when mixed with a lye/water solution. This is how soap is made, and beeswax can be added to oils/fats to make a harder soap.

Hmmmmm. I always wax thread for bookbinding, especially if I'm using some weird fiberous thing that might be hard to control otherwise.

But I don't expect any of my books to end up in a framing package.

Since honey is acidic, I often wondered if beeswax is, too.

From the Joy of Cooking: "Usually because of its acid content, too great browning results if honey is substituted for more than 1/3 of the sugar..." Then they talk about how you can mix a little baking soda in the honey. Funny this topic should come up. I just did that last night when I made a carrot cake. Haven't done that in years. Do you think the cake is acid free? ;)

There's this cool product called Thread Heaven - Thread Conditioner & Protectant ("acid free, leaves no residue"). I use it when I sew at home. I wonder what's in it.
Honey is the only food in the world, that has not an 'expiration date'...yes, it will get hard, but never spoils. Beeswax is made by the bees, to build chambers for the honey to be stored in.

Bookbinding by hand is still done like it was done over 300 years ago. Beeswax was/ is still used on all threads.(I grow up in the family frame business, but learned bookbinding by trade).
I restored a bible, that was 200 years old with woodcovers wraped in leather and metall closers.
I didn't find any mold around the tread, but large holes in the paper, where starch glue was used and 'bookworms' had a feast.
I also restored old cookbooks, with ingrients still stuck to the pages. Most damage with mold happends when water is involded.....water is needed for all lifeforms to start.I hope that helped.