Needles are one of those things that you don’t really pay much attention to when you start sewing, I mean, a needle is a needle, right? However, using the right needle can make all the difference between having a fulfilling or frustrating day at your sewing machine.
Today we are going to go through a few of the types of needles you may want to keep in your sewing kit, and discuss how they can help you achieve the best results with your work. I will be breaking them down into two main sections, machine and hand sewing needles. We’ll start with machine needles.
There are many different manufacturers of sewing machine needles, and each sewist tends to have their own favourite. I prefer Organ or Schmetz needles and tend to stick with these if I can, but you may have a different brand that you prefer. Most modern sewing machines can take a generic sewing machine needle, but some older or specialist machines need to have a specific type or brand of needle. The best way to check is to take a look in your manual to confirm. If you don’t have a hard copy manual any longer then most manufacturers will have an online directory where you will be able to download it, or failing this you can email the manufacturer directly to ask.
When you first collect a new sewing machine it will come with a needle already in place, and a couple of spares in a packet. Usually this is a Universal needle. As its name implies, a Universal needle can be used to sew most things fairly happily, from a pair of pyjama bottoms, to a pillowcase to hemming a pair of trousers. For a lot of people this will work perfectly well for most of their needs, but some fabrics will be much happier with a different type of needle.
This type of needle is used for sewing knit/jersey fabrics. It has a rounded tip to the needle, which rather than slicing through the fibres of the fabric will slide between the fibres instead. This helps to prevent holes from forming which can otherwise happen if you use a sharp Universal needle.
These needles have a ballpoint tip, but they also have an enlarged scarf (the little groove carved out of the back of the needle just above the tip). This helps the hook on the bobbin catch the top thread on the needle and therefore reduces the chance of a skipped stitch. Skipped stitches can more easily happen on a stretch fabric due to the movement of the fabric fibres and thickness of the fabric. Too many skipped stitches not only look unsightly but also run the risk of a seamline popping with wear, so you want to avoid them whenever possible.
These needles have a reinforced blade and are designed to work with extra thick woven fabrics that can be otherwise difficult to reliably sew through. The thicker a fabric, the more work your machine’s motor has to do. Giving your machine the correct needle will help keep it working away happily.
A Microtex needle is a particularly sharp needle, with a slim tip and it is used for sewing very fine fabrics like silks and chiffons, or very densely woven fabrics like microfibre or pleather.
Designed for sewing through multiple layers of fabric, including batting/wadding without skipping stitches. The point is slightly rounded and the shaft tapers so that fabrics are not damaged when sewn.
These needles can take a little getting used to but they give a great professional finish with two perfectly parallel rows of stitches. Not all machines can use them, so be sure to check your manual, which will also give you a guide for setting your machine up to use them if appropriate.
HAND SEWING NEEDLES
There are a variety of hand sewing needles available, with different lengths, weights and even curvatures available. It is a good idea to have some hand sewing needles available, even if the majority of your stitching will be on your sewing machine. They can be useful for hand basting things together, using a running stitch for gathering, sewing on buttons or decorative bows etc.
Darning needles, unlike Sharps sewing needles, have a rounded, ballpoint tip. They are designed for darning clothing, but we often use them for finishing off serger/overlocker stitches as they are great for weaving the ends back in to the stitches. They have a very large eye which makes threading all those serger tails nice and easy.
There are many other types of hand sewing needles available, such as Crewel, Milliners and Curved Mattress needles but I am talking from the point of view of making clothing, so I have only covered the types of needles I use in the general run of things.
As well as different types of machine needles, you can also choose between different ‘weights’ of needle. This is the differentiation between their width, and therefore how big a hole they will punch in your fabric. Needles are generally available between 70/10 and 110/18 sizes. The number on the left is the European size, and the number on the right is the US size. You can find lighter and heavier weights than these, but they’re not so readily available.
The smaller the number the thinner the needle, and the general rule of thumb is that light weight fabrics use a thinner needle with a smaller size, and heavy weight fabrics use a thicker needle with a larger size.
To give you an idea, if you are sewing a silk or chiffon blouse you would want a 70/10 Microtex needle. A cotton poplin pyjama would want a 80/12 Universal needle. A 220gsm cotton/lycra t-shirt would work best with a 90/14 Ballpoint needle. If you were sewing a thick quilted bag in a cotton duck you might want to choose a 100/16 Quilting needle. A very heavy pair of upholstery weight velvet curtains with a blackout lining would work best with a 110/18 Universal or Microtex needle.
The idea is to match the right weight with the right type of needle to ensure you get the best results for your project.
Needles will occasionally need to be replaced. The general rule of thumb is after every 8 hours of sewing a needle will need to be changed for a new one. It really is as simple as holding the needle with your left hand between finger and thumb, and then slightly loosening the screw just to the right of the needle above the presser foot. Gently remove the old needle and swap it for a new one, making sure the flat part of the shank is facing towards the back of your machine (some vintage machines differ, so do confirm with your manual), push the needle right up as far as it will go, and then re-tighten the needle. It is something that many new sewists will be concerned about doing, but it honestly couldn’t be easier.
It is very important that you regularly change your needle not only if it breaks or blunts, but also if it bends. Continuing to sew with a bent needle can cause damage to your foot plate and bobbin housing, so if you are unsure just take the needle out and lay it flat against your table to check if it is still straight. If you’re not sure, change it. Needles are much cheaper than a sewing machine service by an engineer!
STORAGE AND DESTRUCTION
If you ever have children or pets in your sewing space, it is essential to make sure that needles are stored securely where they can’t reach them, both before and after use. New needles should be kept in their packets out of reach of curious hands. Old needles should be kept together, along with old rotary cutter blades, in a secure container until they can be safely disposed of at your local household waste recycling centre. If you are unsure how to dispose of old needles, please contact your local waste services provider who will be able to direct you further.
There we go! Hopefully that has given you a good round up of the different types of needles you may want to use, and why you would want to choose them. They really do make all the difference in the results you can achieve, and for such a small price I think it is well worth making sure you are using the correct needle for the job!
Dana is a Sewing teacher and fabric fancier based in Suffolk, UK. She specializes is plus size womenswear and mad kids clothes. You can find her at The Slippy Chicken Company