Thread Ed: What You Needles to Know

Okay, you’ve got your top thread picked and you’ve chosen the proper bobbin thread.  You are ready to sew now, right?  Wrong.  You need to consider your needle selection first.

This 3rd part in the series on thread education is about needles.

First I want to share a fantastic article by Superior Threads (shared with permission) regarding Needle Facts.  Be sure to scroll all the way down, below the article I share my current needle preferences and thoughts.

Needles — Using the right needle.

© 2008 Superior Threads. All Rights Reserved. This article is being used with permission for thread education purposes.
If you wish to use this article, please contact Superior Threads directly at

One of the most significant parts of today’s home machines is often the least appreciated and most obscure – the needle.

A sewing machine needle is a slender strand of metal, shaped to precision, which delivers thread to the machine to create a stitch.  We spend thousands of dollars on the most advanced machines, acquire the best digitized designs, use the most lustrous thread, and the most beautiful fabric to produce our projects. But all too often this is all for naught because we either use an old, worn, damaged needle or we use the wrong needle for the fabric. Needles can be damaged by normal use.

You don’t have to hit a pin while sewing to damage your needle. They can become dull, bent, damaged or get misshapen eyes through normal sewing. All these contribute to frustrating thread breaks and a frayed look on your finished projects. The best advice we can give is this: When you start a new project,
start with a new needle. It’s the least expensive part of a superior finished project. Overall, a clean, well functioning needle will result in sharp, well-shaped stitches. Needles are inexpensive and easy to change. Keeping a good needle in your sewing machine is one of the easiest, least expensive ways to improve your embroidery and sewing projects.

Sharp vs. Ball Point

Needles fall into three primary categories — ball point, sharp, and rounded-sharp.

It is important to use the correct needle.

Ball point needles are designed to alleviate making holes in knit or loosely woven materials. The cross fibers which constitute the knit or loosely woven materials are relatively far apart as compared to those in tightly woven materials. If a knit strand of thread is cut with a sharp needle, it produces a hole that will enlarge when the loose fibers pull back from the cut. To prevent this, the ball point needle is designed to push aside the individual strands of the knit. This assumes that the ball point needle point is in good condition. If you notice rough edges on your embroidery or other developing irregularities, it is time to change to a new needle.

Sharp needles are designed for woven fabrics. Because of the tightness of the weave, individual cut fibers will not pull away and make holes. For this exact reason it is important not to use ball point needles on wovens. The blunt force of a ball point will tear through the fibers and actually pull them in the process, resulting in uneven, irregular embroidery and damage to the fabric. Sharp needles can be used on all wovens as well as dense fabrics such as leather, vinyl, canvas, etc.

Needle Sizes

Needles range in size from very fine 60/8 to a heavy duty needle 120/19. Most needles use the two-number measuring system. The higher number relates to the metric system and defines the
needle shaft diameter in hundredths of a millimeter. The lower number relates to the system in the U.S. and is an arbitrary number also used to indicate needle shaft diameter.

Needle Parts

  • Shank – The shank is the part of the needle that is inserted into the sewing machine. The shank is the heaviest part of the needle and is designed so to minimize needle movement by attaching it firmly to the needle bar.
  • Shaft – The shaft is the narrow portion of the needle that supports the functional parts of the needle. Needle sizes refer to the diameter of the shaft.
  • Groove – The groove protects the thread by hiding it as it passes through the fabric on its way to join with the bobbin thread. Some needles have exaggerated groves to protect the thread when sewing on particularly dense fabric. A needle that is too fine for the size of thread used will result in inconsistent stitches and broken threads.
  • Eye – The eye of the needle is the hole through which the thread passes. As the size of the eye increases, the size of the shaft increases to support it.
  • Point – The point of the needle is a primary distinguishing feature in needles. Points can be sharp or ball, or a hybrid of both. The angle of the point can be slender or acute. The point can be centered or eccentric. All are designed for a specific purpose and all give the operator
    unique applications.
  • Scarf – The scarf is the cut away portion on the back of the needle just above the eye. This area accommodates the hook mechanism as it rotates past the needle to engage the thread loop formed by the lifting needle. The shape and position of the scarf increases the consistency of stitching with various threads and fabrics.

Types of Needles

  • Ballpoint – The ballpoint needle has a rounded point of varying degrees. Its primary application is to sew on knit type fabrics. The rounded tip slips between yarns rather than cutting them. This
    prevents broken fibers and the attendant unraveling.
  • Denim – The denim (jeans) needle has a very sharp, acute point with a slender eye and a strong shaft. The sharp point is necessary to penetrate heavy fabrics like denim and canvass. The slender eye holds the thread in place for proper loop formation. The strong shaft prevents
    deflection of the needle and insures accurate needle placement for stitch
  • Embroidery – The embroidery needle has a sharp point, a large eye and a special scarf to protect specialized decorative threads in embroidery. It also has a shorter point-to-eye length to enhance embroidery applications by ensuring extra clearance between the needle point and the
    embroidered article as it moves for succeeding stitches.
  • Leather – The leather needle has a wedge shaped point which gives it the piercing strength it needs to penetrate heavy fabrics like leather and vinyl. The needle makes a very clean hole in the fabric, so mistakes are costly.
  • Metallic – The Metallic needle is specifically designed for metallic threads. It has a large, elongated Teflon coated eye, larger scarf and a larger groove to protect the more fragile metallic threads during stitch formation.
  • Quilting – The quilting needle has a tapered point for stitching through multiple layers and across seams. The shape of the point minimizes damage to the quilting fabric.
  • Microtex – This needle is sharper than the universal point with a more slender shaft. It is used primarily on fine wovens and for heirloom sewing on very fine fabrics and for synthetic suede.
  • Topstitch – The topstitch needle has an extra large eye and a much deeper groove for use with either heavier fabrics and/or heavier threads. It can even accommodate doubling of threads for more pronounced stitching.

When I choose my needle, I consider my project and what sort of stitching I am going to do (piecing, garment sewing, bag making, freemotion embroidery, or quilting, etc.), the fabrics and other materials (batting, interfacing, etc.) being used and the threads I have selected.

All these things are essential considerations in selecting the correct needle type and even more important, the correct SIZE needle, to do the job.  As a general rule, select a smaller size needle when working with fine (light weight) fabrics and threads.  The heavier the fabrics and/or the thread selected, the larger the needle required.

For many years I used an “all purpose” needle for general sewing and either quilting or embroidery needles for quilting. That worked OK but sometimes I would have problems to “adjust” for.

Now, I almost always use topstitch needles–size is selected according to the thread and the project–for everything EXCEPT for sewing on knits.  I still recommend a ball point for stitching knits. Why does a topstitch needle reduce the thread problems so significantly?  Because the larger eye and deeper groove significantly relieves the amount of friction placed upon the thread as the needle pierces the fabric and continues traveling on the stitching path.

OBSERVATION: Some people complain about needle holes left by larger size topstitch needles (especially when quilting).  In most all cases this is fixed by gently spritzing your fabric with plain water or gently rubbing over the area after stitching.

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