Thread Control In Fly Tying

blog thread kussGuest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss

In essence, fly tying is the art of decorating a hook in such a way that a fish will be enticed to put said hook into its mouth and thus be caught. Traditionally this involves attaching feathers and other materials to the hook, usually by means of a “working thread” that serves to capture and bind these materials to the hook.

Your ability to control the working thread is essential to tying durable, attractive flies. The critical skills involve placing the thread and the materials on the hook at desired locations, and binding the materials to the hook securely so that they do not twist around the hook shank or work loose in use. Here are the key issues.

1) Direction of wraps – The usual method involves wrapping the thread around the hook in a clockwise direction (as viewed from the front) for a right-handed tyer, and counter-clockwise for a left-handed tyer. In other words, in the normal direction of wraps the thread is carried over the top of the hook and away from the tyer.

2) Always keep the thread under tension – Sometimes the tension will be light and at other times heavy, but never let the thread go slack and buckle. If you do so, the thread will jump out of position and, unless you’ve already bound it down very securely, the last material you tied in will loosen on the hook.

3) Soft or positioning wraps – When placing a material on the hook, you will usually capture it with a low-tension or “soft” thread turn and position it at the desired location on the hook shank.

4) Firm or binding wraps – Once the material is at the desired spot on the hook, you will secure it well with firm or “binding” wraps. It’s important that your binding wraps be tight enough that the material can not slip and rotate around the hook shank. Binding wraps are usually made “in place,” right on top of one another. If your binding wraps are sufficiently tight, it should take no more than three wraps to securely anchor most materials on the hook.

In many cases you will want to position and bind the material on top of the hook. As you tighten the thread, the tendency is for the material to follow the thread and rotate around the hook until the wrap comes tight. You can correct for this by positioning the material more on your side of the hook and allowing the torque of the thread to pull the material up on top of the hook so that when the rotation stops the material is in the desired position.

Another important concept is that if you take some tension off the thread as you bring it over the top of the hook, then pull firmly as you come back under the hook toward yourself, there will be less of a tendency for the material you’re securing to roll around the hook. Note that during this process you should not take so much tension off that the thread goes completely slack. See item #2, above.

Your binding wraps should be near, but obviously not exceeding, the breaking strength of the working thread. Most novice tyers do not tie tightly enough. You won’t ever get a feel for how hard you can safely pull on your thread unless you break it a few times. It’s actually a good exercise to take your thread to a point near the rear of the hook and intentionally pull toward yourself until the thread breaks. Your thread is probably stronger than you think.

5) Use your bobbin – You should use the bobbin tube, not your fingers, to guide the thread onto the hook. This will place the thread much more accurately, and you won’t fray and weaken the thread with any rough spots you may have on your fingers.

Make sure that your bobbin is properly adjusted so that you can feed thread out easily without breaking it. You want the bobbin tight enough, however, that thread doesn’t feed out when you don’t want it to. Virtually all new bobbins are too tight as they come out of the package and will have to be adjusted. Ask an experienced tyer or fly shop clerk to help you with this process.

When tying, hold the bobbin so that the spool of thread rests in the palm of your dominant hand. Grasp the bobbin near the base of the tube with thumb and forefinger. Bobbins come in different styles, but most have an obvious place where you will want to place your fingers. Relax your grip on the thread spool when you want thread to feed out and allow the spool to rotate. Hold the spool firmly enough to prevent rotation when you don’t want to feed thread. You’ll have the best control if you keep the distance between the tip of the bobbin tube and the hook at about one-half to three-quarters of an inch.

Sometimes you will need to “reel in” excess thread back up onto the spool. You can simply rotate the thread spool within the bobbin frame, but as you do so, again, do not let the thread go slack. Rather, rotate the spool against mild tension as you bring the bobbin tube back up toward the hook.

6) Cheat a little – The use of fly tying cement will do a lot to make your flies more durable. There’s nothing wrong with coating your thread base with a thin film of cement before you start adding materials to the hook, and adding a tiny drop of cement to each tie-down as you go. Be sure your cement is thinned to a good consistency so that it will soak in and do its job. Of course the use of cement can be overdone—you don’t want cement wicking into your materials and ruining them.

If something twists out of position on the hook, twist it back. Use your fingers to block materials that seem to insist on wandering out of position. If you break your thread, just re-start it on the hook and go on from there. This is sometimes referred to as a “rescue.”

Modern threads are thin and strong, and if necessary you can take quite a few turns without building up problematic bulk. This is not a good habit to form, however. Fewer, tighter turns of thread will give better results overall than many loose turns. It’s always best to be as sparing as possible with thread turns.

There are numerous other fine points concerning the effective use of your bobbin and working thread beyond what we’ve covered here. These concepts, however, will form a solid foundation for your future development as a tyer. Good luck and tight threads!

NOTE FROM J STOCKARD: You carry hundreds of different styles and color of fly tying thread and plenty of bobbins to keep that thread under control!

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