Sewing Machine Needles---An Illustrated Guide to the many Types of Sewing Machine Needles
The 'ALL' about Sewing Machine needles!
A few years ago one of my students asked "How important can it really be to know what needle to use in the sewing machine? Aren't they all basically the same?"
I had a hard time convincing him that using the proper needle can make an enormous difference in both the quality of your finished sewing project and also in the quality of your time spent sewing. There is nothing more frustrating then having to re-thread continually because the needle cuts, frays or shears the thread, breaks on stitch impact, or damages the cloth being sewn. Well, all of these can be avoided by using the right type and size needle in the sewing machine.
A sewing machine needle should be selected to suit the thread being used to sew what cloth. With other words fine fabrics need to be sewn with fine needles and a fine thread (silk needs a fine silk thread along with a fine size 60/8 silk sewing machine needle) and heavier fabrics with heavy thread and heavier sewing machine needles (canvas needs a heavy upholstery thread and possibly a size 120/20 thick universal type needle)
Remember to replace the needle:
- when it becomes dull (hitting a pin can dull the point of the needle)
- when it becomes even slightly bent (hitting 'too' many layers of fabric with the wrong sized needle can bend a needle)
- when the tip or point of the needle gets a nick or a snag (again easy to do if the needle was not the right size for the fabric being sewn)
- after every eight hours of running the machine, sewing needle companies suggest that a needle when used properly, without running into any 'non-desirables' in a machine has about 8 hours of life in it's tip. (that might sound like a short time but if you consider the friction and the many miles/kilometers a needle travels by going through fabric up and down at an average setting of 10 -12 stitches per inch or 4 - 5stitches per centimeter approximately... that is quite a bit of time)
- it's a good rule of thumb to change the needle after the completion of two garments
Body parts of the sewing machine needle!
Unlike the simplicity of a hand sewing needle the machine needle has more 'parts' to it. The sewing machine needles function is to carry the top thread through the fabric down into the underparts of the machine where the top thread loops over the bottom/bobbin thread and then bring the top thread up to the top again which forms a stitch.
The part that we, the sewers, have to be most concerned with is the point of the needle the rest of the parts are really just the build of the needle that make it function within the machine. The different parts of the needle are sections of sewing theory that everyone should read though once mainly for part-name identification.
The Point: The point of the needle is the very tip. Depending on the type of needle, the tip of the needle changes not only in size and shape but also in its sharpness. For example: the sharp tip, ballpoint tip, wedge tip etc (more on these later)
The Eye: The eye of the needle is where the top thread passes through in order to complete the top of the stitch. The eye of the needle changes in size depending mainly on the size and the type of the needle. For example: size 9 microfiber needle, size 16 denim sewing needle etc. (more on these later)
The Shank: At the opposite end of the point of the needle you have the shank. This is the part of the needle that goes up into the shaft of your machine. For domestic sewing machines the shank is flat on one side and is rounded on the other. This helps to position the needle in correctly. On straight stitch only machines (older styles) the flat part of the needle went to the side of the machine shaft. On the more modern ones the flat side always fits in towards the back of the machine. This helps tell if you're putting the needle in correctly. For industrial types of sewing machines the needle shank is totally round and must be inserted into the machine shaft just so to make the machine sew right. Also the size of the needle is usually etched into the shank.
The Shaft: The shaft of the needle is also called the blade of the needle is the part between the base of the shank and the point of the needle. The shaft of the needle is is the section of that really determines the size of the needle and is the part that goes up and down through the cloth with each stroke of the machine.
The Groove: The groove of the needle is located on the side of the shaft or blade of the needle and starts right at the base of the shank and runs to the eye of the needle. The thread sits along this indentation.
The Scarf: On the opposite side of the groove is the scarf of the needle. This is the
shorter indentation on the shaft or blade of the needle. This indent allows the
bobbin-case hook to connect with the top thread which then forms a stitch.
The range for sewing machine needles (for domestic sewing machines) is from the very fine 60/8 to a heavy duty needle 120/20.
Needle companies use the two number measuring system. For example 80/12: the first number '80' relates to the metric system that is used in Europe, Canada etc. It defines the needle shaft diameter just above the scarf/short groove measured to the hundredth of a millimeter. The second number '12' relates to the U.S numbering system and again gives the thickness or diameter of the needle down to the fraction of accuracy. With other words the 80 is European/Canadian sizing and the 12 is American.
Unlike a lot of different measures being used worldwide there is logic to this
numbering system: the smaller the number, the smaller the needle size. For a lightweight fabric such as silk, rayon, batiste etc choose a 60/8, for medium weight
fabrics such as chambray, sheeting, gingham, quilting cotton etc a 75/11- 80/12 - 90/14 will do just right, and for the heavier weight fabrics like canvas, denim, upholstery, etc use a
100/16, 110/18 or 120/20. (Caution: the 120/20 sized needle will not work in all domestic machines (especially the featherweight ones) and should be tried with care as it is thick enough to do some major damage to the 'under-works')
The size of each individual needle is engraved on the rounded side of the needle shaft. (a magnifying glass can help to read the size on a needle once it's been removed from it's packaging)
TIP: the following chart of needle types is just a guideline and as always I point to my favorite saying... every job has it's tool... and yes it is possible to use other than the described sewing machine needles but (there is that little word as always) BUT (in my opinion) if you're doing a job you might as well do it right and the easiest way possible. Seriously, you're investing money into the fabric, all the necessary notions and most of all your precious time why cheap out on a packet of specialty needles just right for your fabric.
For example: a size 16 sharp/universal needle will work fine on heavy
denim, but if you were to try the size 16 needle made specifically for jeans you will notice a significant difference.
Here are the categories of needle types, most of these come in all the different sizes from very fine to very thick.
Sharps or Universal needle: as their name describes, have a very sharp point so that they can penetrate the fiber of the cloth being sewn and an elongated scarf which lets the needle and the bobbin hook work together perfectly. These are most commonly available from sizes 75/11 to 110/18 and are the needles that are the safest to use for regular/ everyday sewing on most fabrics.
Ball Points: again as their name describe, these
needles have a rounded point or tip. These are made so that rather than
pierce the fibers of the fabric easily slip in between the threads of
the cloth being sewn. These are the needles used with specialty
fabrics such as knits, mesh fabrics, interlock knits and other fabrics
that tend to run if snagged. (most fabrics with lycra and or spandex sew better with a stretch needle)
Denim Needle: this needle has a strong shaft, is
made with an acute point, and an eye that can accommodate heavier
thread. Perfect to use when sewing tough, heavyweight fabrics such as
denim, canvas and ducking. The stronger shaft is needed as dense and
thick fabrics can cause the regular shaft needle to bend and cause
damage inside the machine and/or cause crooked or skipped stitches.
Wedge Points or Leather needles: these needles are made with a very sharp knife-like tip or point that will cut slits instead of round holes. These needles are used for sewing leather and vinyl. (also helpful when thick or heavy canvas needs to be mended with a not too strong domestic sewing machine)
Metallic or Embroidery needles: these needles are a more recent addition to the domestic sewing machine needle family and have been created especially for metallic threads. To allow the metallic threads to flow smoothly through the needle, the eye is larger and shaped wider and has a special scarf (groove above the eye) thus causing less friction.This protects the threads from shredding or breaking. Used mainly with decorative metallic, rayon and acrylic threads.
Quilting Needles: these needles have tapered points which were designed to stitch through many layers of fabric. These needles can slip in-between the fabric warps so as not to cause pulls or damage sensitive, expensive quilting fabrics, even when the quilting pattern calls for very narrow strips or points of fabric. These will easily stitch across intersecting seams and prevent skipped stitches when continuously sewing over different thicknesses (from the thicker multi layers to the thin just two thicknesses)
Top-stitching Needles: have extra-large eyes and deeper grooves which will accommodate the heavier top-stitching thread such as buttonhole twist or when using double thread through the needle for more showy or pronounced stitching.
Twin and Triple Needles: these are combo needles, the
single shank is fitted with a crossbar that can accommodate two or
three needle tips (shafts and points). These are used to create
perfectly parallel, multiple rows of top-stitching in one pass, for pin-tucking and decorative stitching. These
come with a variety of spacing between the needle tips which range from
1/8th"--3mm, 1/4"--5mm to 3/8th"-8mm apart and are available in denim,
stretch or embroidery type and size needle tips. Remember that these
needles can only be used in machines with an oblong throat-plate
opening (found on zig zag machines) and where the needle is threaded
from front to back. The two or three top threads are fed in together
around the tension knob from the top and separated into the eyes of the
needle tips, but only a single bobbin thread is used. Great as a deco
- Tip #1: the finer the fabric the more closely spaced the needle tips should be.
- Tip #2: these needles are quite costly so remember to have your machine setting on straight stitches only. (these will not work with a zig zag stitch, as a matter of fact one tip will break off on the zig side and then the other on the zag side)
- Tip#3: you can't sew around corner with these needles, you will need to manually turn or feed the fabric through at corners.
- Tip#4: sew slowly especially if sewing over multi layers of fabric and intersections of seams
- Tip#5: because only one bobbin thread is being used you can only use the twin, triple... needles on right side of garment applications.
Stretch Needles: have rounded tips and a specially shaped shafts. These needles were designed to accommodate the elasticized fabrics such as spandex, active-wear knits, five way stretch swimwear or gymnastic knits, the newer combo stretch fabrics or when sewing through elastic. With other words if it's stretchy try a stretch needle and 99% of the time you will be pleasantly surprised of how much better the stitches look and skipped stitches are a thing of the past. Good sewing supply stores carry the twin or triple tipped needles also in stretch needle type. (very handy when shortening Tshirts etc)
Micro Point Needles: these needles are also a newer addition (well, 18-20 years or so) to the sewing machine needle family and have come to be with the invention of microfiber fabrics. These are built with sharper points and more slender shafts. Perfect to use with the even weave of fine washer wool fabrics, wool and synthetic blends, Terlenka, Tergal, Ultra-suede and other such synthetic microfibers etc. Will also work well on polished cottons, as a matter of fact will create nice even stitches on any fine but densely woven fabric.
Wing Needles: also called Hemstitch needles. These needles have wings or fins on two sides of their shafts which will cut long slits rather than round holes into tightly woven fabrics etc. It is used for decorative hemstitching and heirloom embroidery techniques such as eyelet etc. Wing needles are more commonly used in embroidery machines rather than the domestic machine. Wing needles are not only available as singles but also as twins where the one needle tip is winged and the other a standard on a single crossbar similar to the twin needles.
Self-threading Needles: as the name describes, these needles come with slotted eyes. Perfect for the sewers with limited dexterity and/or vision.
The trick with these needles is to sew slowly so that it will not 'unthread'.
Spring needle: was created especially for free-motion sewing with dropped feeder dogs. This needle has a built on wire spring on the shaft just above the eye. This is to prevent the fabric from riding up onto the needle as there is no presser foot and feeder dog contact. The spring compresses when the needle goes down and then when expanding pushes the fabrics down. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of free-motion type of sewing and can get frustrating if the fabric keeps hanging on the needle. This is when you realize that specialty needles such as the spring needle are an important sewing tool.
Without going into the deepest nitty gritty of the functions of your sewing machine however, it might be important to mention that even though the needle seems a very small part of the machine, a lot can ride on the needle. The tension of your machine for one... well better said, several factors affect the tension of the machine and using the right needle for the fabric with the right thread is just one of them.
Let me back track a little. Most of us know the basics of what the perfect stitch should look like.... the top thread should show none of the loops that 'wrap' around the bobbin thread on the underside side, nor should the bottom thread show in between the stitches of the top thread etc. (TIP: always test your stitch tension with two colored thread... much easier to see if there are problems) This is definitely easier to say than to achieve consistently as there are so many variables-- different density of fabric, different thickness of fabric, different amount of layers etc.
More reasons why its important to use the right needle for the fabric with the right thread:
- a dull needle may not be picking up the bobbin thread exactly the way it should. Why? you ask ... a worn off (dull) needle is that fraction of a hair thickness shorter than it needs to be, which then results in the bobbin thread and top thread not meeting, resulting in skipped stitches.
- remember to use the smallest size needle you can use for your fabric. A too heavy needle will make larger holes than necessary and will damage fine fabric.
- if the eye of the needle compared to the thread being used is too big the machine will have no control over it and the thread will slide up and down. It will seem as if the timing is off and again result in skipped stitches.
- if the eye of the needle compared to the thread being used is too small the friction on the thread will make it fray and break
- sewing too fast can also have a bad effect on the quality of the stitches. It all comes down to how the needle can loop the top thread and bobbin thread to form the stitches.
There are over 3000 types and styles of different sewing machine needles, all made with a specific chore or application in mind. The previous list is just the tip of the 'iceberg'. Over the many years that I've been teaching sewing I kept telling my students that they should slow by slow build up a good supply of the different specialty needles to have on hand whenever they are sewing. This is easier to do if you remember to buy a packet of needles every time you buy fabric for that new outfit.
TIP: Invest in a pincushion or make yourself one that is just for sewing machine needles. With a permanent marker divide it into 10-12 sections and name them. Believe me you might think that you will remember which needle is which, but after a while... Mark the top row U12, U14, U16, etc. for universal needle size12,14,16 and.... The next row W14, W16 etc or L14 L16 for wedge tip or leather needles etc. D14, D18.... for Denim size14, Denim size18 and so forth.... When you replace the needle with a different type poke your size U12 or... into its right spot and next time when you need it, it will be right there at your finger tip. Saves a lot of hunting and also makes it easier to remember which needle is new and which has been used already.
TIP: every sewing machine manufacturer will tell you to use the name brand of needle that the machine came with originally. Although the measurements for needles are universal some might just be a smallest bit too short or too long... this is a true story but I have only come across it once... Years ago after my Mom passed away I added her machine (a Singer) to my tailor shop 'fleet', set it up to only make buttonholes (it made the most fabulous ones ever...) After breaking at least a dozen needles I was ready to give up on the machine until my 'sewing-machine-fixer-dude' pointed out to me that the needles I was using (Organ) were half a fraction of a hair thickness longer than the Singer needles. Looking at the two needles they had looked identical. The minute the machine got Singer needles it never caused me another moment of grief.
As I said earlier this has only happened to me once, but it's a good thing to remember if per chance you notice that you have issues with your machine breaking needles when there is no reason for it to...
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