When you don’t do much machine sewing you may not notice – or care – what kind of needle is in the machine. If you have a special project, though, that needle can make the difference between success and failure. The wrong needle can cause your thread to catch in the fabric (or even break) and your stitches – and seams – to be uneven. It may even damage parts of the bobbin. The right needle, on the other hand, can make the sewing process easier and faster. Here’s a brief review of sewing machine needles and their most common uses.
Choosing the right needle
There are three factors to consider when you’re trying to decide what needle to use:
– the fabric – is it sheer or heavy, stiff or stretchy, or just a “plain” quilting cotton?
– the thread – what’s it made from (cotton, rayon, metallic, etc.) and how thick is it?
– the machine stitch or stitches you’ll be using (for example, seams, hems, or embroidery)
Each of these can influence which needle will work best for your project.
There are many different kinds of sewing machine needles available. Here are the most common.
– Ball point needles are great for stretchy fabrics. The rounded end of the needle will go through fabric more easily, with less chance of snagging.
– Denim needles are great for heavier fabrics like canvas, duck, vinyl – and of course denim. Heavy fabric can be stiff, and these needles are designed to keep from pushing the fabric through the hole in the needle plate.
– Embroidery needles are designed for machine embroidery. They’ll keep the more fragile rayon thread from breaking in the machine.
– Hemstitch needles make a small hole as they move along. They’re good for use with linen or batiste fabric, but they have a tendency to push the fabric into the plate hole.
– Leather needles have a slightly elongated point that can create a tiny slit rather than a hole. They’re a better choice for natural (not synthetic) leather.
– Metallic needles are designed to be used with metallic threads, which because of their content (which is sometimes plastic and aluminum) don’t always flow smoothly through the machine. Metallic needles help eliminate that problem and keep stitches smooth and even.
– Quilting needles are designed for sewing multiple layers – one of the last steps in the quilting process.
– Self-threading needles are really helpful for people who have trouble threading needles. They’re usually a universal needle (see below) and therefore not the best choice for sewing knits.
– Sharps are designed to be used with fabrics made with very fine thread, like silk or microfiber, and synthetic leathers. They’ll pierce the fabric without damaging it.
– Topstitching needles are bigger, so they can be used with heavy thread (like upholstery thread). But that larger size can punch a too-big hole in your fabric, so try to use the smallest one you can fit the thread through.
– Twins are actually two needles mounted on one shaft; they produce two parallel rows of stitches at the same time. This can save time if you’re doing topstitching, and it’s great for decorative stitches. Twin needles may be available with different points – for example, universal, stretch, embroidery, and denim.
– Universal needles are the classic “all-purpose” choice. They’re best used on medium-weight woven fabrics (not knits, which usually do better with a ball point needle).
What about sizes?
Machine needle sizes are classified two ways – European and American. European sizes range from 60 to 120 and American sizes from 8 to 19. Generally these two kinds of sizes are put together, separated by a “/”, so they can be used around the world. As an example, size 70/10 means the needle is a European size 70 and an American size 10.
Unlike thread, the number is directly proportional to the size – the larger the number the bigger the needle. Choose your needle size based on the weight (heavy or light) of your fabrics. Lighter fabrics need smaller needles that won’t poke a big hole in the fabric as they’re making stitches. Medium weight fabrics take mid-range sizes. And heavyweight fabrics, like denim, upholstery fabric, and vinyl, are best sewn with the largest size needles.
Most of the needles described above are for use with regular sewing and machine embroidery. But what if you have a serger? Most – but not all – sergers use regular sewing machine needles. If you’re not sure just check your serger’s manual for recommended needles and sizes.
It’s a good idea to change to a new needle at the beginning of a project. This will give your project the most consistent stitches.
Machine needle packages do come in assorted sizes if you’re not sure what you need, or if you have a variety of projects planned. When in doubt the best plan is to do a “test” on a scrap of similar fabric. Keep changing needles until you get the effect you want.
There’s a lot more information available than I’ve presented here. If you need more details check out the Resources section of this article. Otherwise, consult the list above so you can make an informed choice – and enjoy your sewing more.