Sewing Machine Needle Primer

When I began sewing it was easy to choose needles for the sewing machine because there really wasn't a choice to make. Needles came in a variety package of sizes, and they were all sharp needles. Go to the notions wall of any fabric store now, and you'll be faced with dozens of needle types and sizes. While I love the choices, it can make the beginners head spin. Hopefully, this will make it a little bit easier to choose the right needle for your project. Click "Read more" to continue...

The most frequently asked questions I hear about needles is "will this needle fit my machine?" and "what type of needle do I need for my (insert machine brand here)?" All sewing and embroidery machines made for the home market take the same kind of needle -- the top has a flat back with a rounded front. The only caveat here is that Singer brand needles seem to be a little bit longer, and may not work as well in your machine unless of course, you have a Singer machine.

The brands that you'll most often find in the retail store are Schmetz, Klasse, and Organ. All are well known, and of good quality.

Note: Commercial embroidery machines take a different typ of needle altogether -- the top is round, and I've never seen those on the notions wall of any fabric store. You'll need to purchase these on-line, or at your local sewing machine dealer.

Needle Types:
When we talk about needle type, we're not referring to the brand of needle but rather, the tip of the needle. As a beginner, you will likely be working on projects, and fabrics that use either a Universal, Ball Point, or Sharp needle. If you're going to buy just one package of needles to start with, then Universal is your best bet.

Sharp Needles: The tip of the needle is sharp. If you're using a woven fabric such as a quilters cotton, you can use a sharp needle. I've noticed that the trend in labeling needles is to leave off any description of the type when it's a sharp needle. So if the package doesn't indicate the needle type, it's most likely a sharp needle.

Ball Point Needles: Use these for knit fabrics, and here is why. When a sharp needle passes through the fabric it breaks the threads in the weave -- this is a good thing on woven fabrics, but a bad thing on knits because the needle will leave little holes at each point where it goes through the fabric, and ultimately weaken the fabric there. A ball point needle moves between the threads of the fabric in the weave, eliminating any little holes in the fabric. So, if you've tried sewing knits, and became frustrated at the result, try a ball point needle -- you'll see a marked difference in the stitch quality.

Universal Needles: This is a hybrid of sorts -- the tip of the needle is not sharp, but not quite ball point. You can use this needle on woven fabrics, heavier knits, and loose weaves.

As I said, there are more needle types than you can shake a stick at. If you're just beginning to sew, I suggest you limit yourself to the three types I just described. As you begin to move into more challenging fabrics, you can choose a needle specifically for the project.

Needle Sizes:
Now that you know what type of needle you need, the next job is to choose the size. The three types I just talked about are usually available in packages that contain a variety of sizes. The most common variety you'll see is 70/10, 80/12, and 90/14 (or numbers very close to that.)

Note on needle sizing: the two numbers indicate both American and European size. There was a time when you purchased either a 70 or a 10 for example. In order to simplify, the needle manufacturers combined these numbers.

As you might have guessed, the smaller the number of the needle size, the smaller the needle. You'll choose the size based on the fabric weight you're sewing. An 80/12 is a pretty good all purpose needle. If you're sewing a lightweight fabric, choose the 70/10. If you're sewing a heavy weight fabric such as denim, or twill then you'll use a 90/14.

If you're using a specialty thread, you need to take that into consideration. The larger the needle size, the larger the eye of the needle. So when I'm hemming jeans, I need that 90/14 needle not just because I'm sewing through a heavy fabric, but because I'm using a heavier thread that requires a larger needle eye.

Embroidery Needles vs Sewing Needles:
The difference between embroidery and sewing needles is that embroidery needles have a slightly larger eye. Most standard embroidery threads are not heavier than all purpose sewing thread, the purpose of the larger eye is to accomodate that constant, fast up and down motion of the needle while embroidering.

So if you're looking for a specific size or type of needle for sewing, and the store has only embroidery needles in that size/type, go ahead and use the embroidery needle. I have used embroidery needles for sewing, and vice versa when I'm in the middle of a project, and can't get to the fabric store.

Serger Needles:
Serger needles are sharp tip, and are ever so slightly shorter than the regular sewing machine needles. I do not interchange these with sewing or embroidery needles.

In my next article, I'll talk about thread choices...there's a ton of 'em!

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