Published Mar 3. 2020 - 4 months ago
Updated or edited Mar 3. 2020

Durable flies: Wrapping thread

The basic technique of wrapping thread over - and under - materials is a key to getting flies that will hold well

The absolutely most common way of holding materials to the hook is by wrapping thread over them. Sure, some flies are "tied" without thread (and some are only thread), but most flies are basically kept together by a thin thread. Because of that, the way you apply this thread has an immense effect on the appearance and durability of the finished fly.

Selecting a thread

As already mentioned, the strength of the tying thread will of course have an influence on the durability of your finished fly, but not as much as much as you might think. You can select the strongest thread you can find, and tie a sloppy fly that will come apart in a few casts. In the opposite end of the scale, you can use the thinnest and weakest thread to tie a fly that will endure several turns on the tippet and last for many years.
Selecting a thread can be turned into a science... but don't necessarily do that. Simply select a thread, which is suitable for your needs, mainly the size of the hook - smaller flies call for thinner thread - but also governed by your need to build up bulk using the thread. If you fly needs a tapered underbody, or if its body is made purely from tying thread - like on many midges and soft hackles - you do not want the finest and thinnest thread, which will only mean that you will eat through a spool very quickly and have to lay down many wraps.
If two threads are equal, it makes sense to select the strongest, but the strength in most modern tying threads is much better than you might imagine. Weak thread is not a problem in the finished fly as much as in the tying process. Since I recommend below that you tie on the brink of the breaking strength of the thread, weak thread will mean less thread tension, and as we will learn, less tension leads to a less durable fly. Personally I use quite thin thread, which gives me much better control over the result, but on the other hand I tie my flies very tightly, always having full tension on the thread as described below.
And just for the record: Kevlar thread does NOT make your flies "bullet proof". It's terrible to tie with, and has no place in fly tying if you ask me.
You can read much more about thread types and thread selection in these articles.

Thread base
Thread base
Martin Joergensen

The Base wraps

One way of making sure a fly will be more durable, is by covering the hook shank with thread wraps before tying on the first material. This isn't always possible or desirable, like if you want to avoid bulk or you have material that should have direct contact with the shank, like wire or foil added for weight. In many flies an extra basic layer of thread will have no other effect on the end result than increased durability.
What you get from these wraps is that materials such as a dubbed body, sits on the rough surface of the thread rather than the smooth surface of the hook shank. This keeps it from turning and sliding, particularly when the fly gets wet, which will lead to some materials swelling and getting a bit more soggy.
Depending on the length of the fly, you may want to varnish or glue these first turns of thread. Really short-bodied flies on short shank hooks will only have a small area to grab onto the shank, and a little superglue or varnish can help the materials stay where you put them. On flies that cover the whole shank, glue shouldn't be necessary, but many tyers add some glue or varnish to the base wraps on all flies to get even better grip.

Loose thread
Loose thread
Martin Joergensen

Tight turns

On the subject of thread, we also need to address the importance of the tightness of the thread wraps.
By keeping all your wraps as tight as possible, some just on the boundary of the breaking strength of the thread, you create a tight fly, and secure the materials much better. The same obviously goes for other materials such as ribs, hackles, yarn or tinsel bodies and basically anything that's wrapped on the hook - directly or on top of other materials.
A loosely applied material can slip and turn and will create a loose foundation for the next material, leaving gaps under the layers. Materials tied tightly on top of a loose foundation will never sit as well as material tied on a tight and firm base.
Tight materials usually also add to the general appearance of the fly, and oftentimes the better looking fly with no gaps and with even wraps, will also be the most durable one.
Test the strength of your tying thread to get a feeling for its strength. It's probably stronger than you think, and tying just on the boundary of its breaking strength will give you a stronger fly. When you tie with high tension, the hook will most likely bend or wobble, and that's actually desirable. It will not bend permanently - unless it's a very small and fragile hook - so don't worry about that.
The added bonus of tying tightly is that the slack that sometimes is the result of the materials being soaked in water can be canceled by the materials and thread being tight.

Keep the thread short

When wrapping the thread, keep the distance between the fly and the tip of your bobbin holder short. Less than an inch or even half an inch is way better than several inches. Having a short distance gives better control over thread placement, and also drastically reduces the risk of slack.
You do NOT want a slack thread at any time!
Slack between the bobbin holder and the fly will immediately lead to wraps loosening, and not only the last wrap laid down, but several wraps. Tightening the thread after that might save the last couple of wraps, but will not tighten the previous ones, leading to loose thread and a loose foundation or materials slipping. If the threads loosens, remove enough wraps to get to the last really tight one, and rewrap the ones that became loose. The short thread will help avoid this altogether.
Many beginning tyers will feel that they "run out of thread" too fast, quickly using up the short thread out of the bobbin holder. The trick here is to constantly feed out new thread while you wrap. Simply pull a little thread off the bobbin for every couple of turns, and you will never run out.

You do NOT want a slack thread at any time!

Testing the thread tension
Testing the thread tension
Martin Joergensen

For this to work best, it's advisable to keep the tension on the bobbin quite high. Most bobbin holders can be adjusted - some with a screwing mechanism, like in the Rite bobbin holders, the SMHAEN or the Stonfo ones. These allow you to quite precisely control the tension. Set it to be tight - tighter than you'd think was good. For the more traditional Y-shaped bobbin holders with springy legs, simply bend the legs close together before mounting the bobbin. I often cross the legs of the bobbin holder to get them to really press on the thread spool. When pulling off thread, the bobbin holder should give a good and steady resistance, and too tight is much better than too loose.
For extra tightness in some tying situations, like when compressing material, spinning deer hair and such, simply brake the bobbin with the palm of your hand or your fingers, to allow for extra tension while pulling really hard on the thread.

SMHAEN bobbin holders


Rite bobbin holders


Stonfo bobbin holders


Martin Joergensen

Flat thread or not

One factor that can influence the strength of your flies is whether you tie with your thread flat or not. Not all threads can become flat, but with those that can, you want to pay attention to this. Flattening the thread is done by spinning it till its strands are untwisted and parallel rather than spun. This has several effects. First of all it does flatten the thread, meaning that it adds less bulk to the fly. Bulk is always unwelcome unless it's your intention to add volume.
Flat thread also grabs the material over a broader area and usually gives a better hold with less tendency to cut or flare softer materials such as deer hair.
The flat thread will, on the other hand, cut less into harder materials, maybe allowing them to twist or slip. Here it might be desirable to twist the thread into a thin rope to get a good grip.
Too much twist will weaken the thread, and if you keep on wrapping the thread without untwisting it for most parts of your fly, it will start curling on you, and will eventually become so twisted that it can break when you pull hard on it.
So for the most robust flies, untwist your thread now and then while tying.

Half hitches

If you tie a fly with several materials or steps, it can be a good idea to tie some half hitches underway.
The half hitches themselves won't hold much, but their purpose is indirectly to make the finished fly more durable. The half hitch will secure the materials you just tied in and the wraps you just made, while your are tying. Thread that loosens while you are tying will lead to materials coming slightly loose, and even though you tie the next step as tight as you can, the previous loose steps will stay loose.
So throwing a half hitch after each major step in a fly, can help making the finished fly more durable. Using wax on the thread can to some extent give the same effect. More on wax in a later article in this series.

Partridge and Orange
Martin Joergensen

The rule of three

A good rule of thumb is that three wraps will hold any material. Yes three – like in 3! Sometimes even even one will do, as noted in the next chapter. Adding significantly more wraps will not necessarily give you better hold, but as a paradox often add bulk under the next material, which will make that sit more loosely and weaken the fly.
Three wraps can do it: one wrap to position the material, one really tight wrap to secure it and one more to really hold. Lay these three wraps next to each other using a flat thread. That will let them all three help holding the material, and by not crossing the thread, you get a smoother and less bulky base for the next step.
Using the method covered in the next section, you can also wrap more than three wraps, and then unwrap again until you have three or even fewer wraps holding the material. More wraps will come on top anyway, and in the end all materials will be covered by many more than three wraps.

...three wraps will hold any material. Yes three – like in 3!

Compressing
Compressing
Martin Joergensen

Wrap – unwrap – wrap again

When you add subsequent wraps over the first ones, you will typically compress the material even more as the pressure builds and effectively loosen the first wraps you just laid down. You can utilize this in a smart manner when tying in a material:

  1. Place the material and secure with a tight wrap.
  2. Make sure the material is positioned as you want it.
  3. Add more tight wraps next to this first wrap. More than you need...
  4. Unwrap these last wraps, only leaving one or two on the material.
  5. Make sure the material doesn't shift or move.
  6. Tighten the thread and wrap two times, bringing the number of wraps up to three, maybe four.
     

This is smart in several ways: the material compresses in two steps: under the first wraps, and then even more with the second round of final wraps, and compressed materials equals a stronger fly. This works very well for certain types of soft and fluffy hair like rabbit, hare, muskrat, raccoon and fox, and even works well for bucktail. Finishing off other soft materials like chenille, yarn, dubbing or foam can also benefit from this method.
When you wrap over previous wraps you compress everything underneath even more – also the thread already laid down, which becomes a little looser. By unwrapping the top wraps down to the lower ones, you get a chance to tighten the lower wraps even more. You utilize the fact that the materials are now less bulky, and in this way avoid loose wraps even in the deeper layers of thread.
So simply tie as you always do. Once the material sits where you want it, unwrap a number of thread wraps, leaving one or two that holds the material. Tighten these, and then wrap the remaining wraps again.
You will often see that fewer wraps are needed to hold the material, and that the wraps you laid down the second time can become better, tighter and flatter than they were before you unwrapped them.

Small salmon double
Small salmon double
Martin Joergensen

Wrap – unwrap – tie in next material

A variation of the above scheme is to use it when layering materials. Let's say you are building a wing: an underwing of hair, a small bunch of flash, another color hair, a zonker strip for the main wing and finally maybe some peacock herl as a topping. This is five materials, which ideally should be tied in in the same spot. They might be the last materials.on the fly, followed by a head, and keeping the base of the wing compact is not only good for durability, but also for the final look of the fly.
The trick will be to tie in each material as you always would, Position it, take a tight wrap, check that it sits, and then lay down a couple of extra, tight wraps. The natural next step would be to repeat this for the next material, but as you can see, each new material will need three, four or maybe even more wraps to sit, easily adding up to a more than a dozen wraps for five materials. This might not sound much, but on a small fly, that will become quite bulky.
In stead, consider leaving the last few wraps holding the previous materials for a few seconds while you prepare the next material, then simply unwrap them, leaving just one or two to hold what's already on the hook. Place the new material in its spot, and wrap over it in the same manner, adding 3-5 new, tight turns of thread. Leave these turns while going on, and once again unwrap most of them before tying the next step. The final result will not only be much less bulk, but also a more durable wing construction, where all materials sit close to the previous one. Once all is in place, you can place a number of really tight turns on top of it all to really "fuse" it. Next step could be a head, which can become more compact and well controlled, or maybe something like a hackle, in which case you could again remove some of the last wraps, leaving the magic two or three, tie in and wrap the hackle and then move on.
In spite of this resulting in fewer wraps, all materials sit better because of the tight connection with no layers of thread between them.

Pulling up
Pulling up
Martin Joergensen

The pull

When I refer to "the pull", I'm talking about that extra yank you can give the thread perpendicularly to the hook shank once the thread has grabbed the materials. Materials that compress a lot, which includes most natural hair, skin, foam and most dubbing – natural and synthetic – will get squeezed together by your hard pull. Giving the softest materials an extra hard thread pull will compress them to the max, and by pressing them down on the hook or on the previous material, you get a better connection, less bulk and a more durable fly.
Sometimes this extra pull can lead to the material "rolling", meaning that it moves with the thread. This isn't desirable for materials that need to sit where you put them, like wings, cheeks or tails.
You can avoid this rolling by pulling towards the material. This means that if you need something to sit on top of the hook, you wrap over the material, under the hook and in stead of pulling down, which would probably feel most natural, you wrap up again and pull upwards. This may still induce some rolling, but not pulling directly on thread that touches the material reduces the risk of the material moving.
You can also counter the rolling by laying in the material slightly on the side of the hook, letting the first wraps pull in in place as you tighten them, and you can of course always guide the material with your fingers while tightening the thread. The "pinch and pull" is the ultimate way of doing this.

Pinch and pull

The schematics

Step 1: Pinch material


Step 2: Bring thread up


Step 3: Form a loop


Martin Joergensen

Step 4: Up again


Step 5: Pull up


Martin Joergensen

People tying feather wing flies like classic salmon flies or wet flies know and use this technique. Its purpose is to get the wing to stay exactly where it is, still allowing the tyer to add pressure to the thread and securing and compressing the wing properly. It can essentially be used for any material, but comes in particularly handy when tying in something that needs to be compressed vertically without shifting on the hook shank - like a feather wing.
Place the material and pinch it with your thumb and index finger. Lay a fairly loose turn over the material, sometimes even an open loop, while keeping thread and material in place with with your fingers. Then come up with the thread on your own side of the fly, and while holding and tightly pinching the material, pull the thread firmly upwards. This method allows you to pull quite hard and still have the material fixed in the desired position and not rolling.
After the first wrap, you keep the thread very tight, let go with your fingers and inspect the material. If it sits where you want it to, you add two extra, tight wraps in front of the first one. A half hitch can make sure things stay where you put them while you commence. Above you see a schematic drawing of the method and below a series of photos, showing it on a real fly - purposely made very simple for clarity.
In photos

Position the material


Shift hands


Pinch it tightly


Bring the thread up on your side


Bring the thread down on the far side


Come back up on the near side


Pull tight while pinching and then let go


Add further wraps in front of the tie-in spot


Martin Joergensen

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Awesome article!...

Such a great combination of basic principles and advanced tips and tricks! I really love this site. Thank you!

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