Let’s talk a little bit about sewing machine needles. It just seems like there’s too much to know! Sometimes it’s hard to explain why using different needles for each project is a good idea, so here’s the best analogy: some of you may not cook, but probably at some point in your life you’ve had some experience in a kitchen. Would you use the same knife to butter your bread, slice your bread, chop carrots, slice a tomato? Knives have different kinds of blades, and they come in different sizes. Needles are the same way.
There’s so many different types and some of them are named in such a way that it’s pretty obvious what they’re good for, others, not so much. Jeans, Leather, Stretch needles – even Topstitching and Quilting needles give you a little hint. But Sharp (Microtex) needles? Seriously, aren’t all needles sharp? Here are the major points for some of the needles:
- Yes, it sounds silly, but Sharp needles are the needles that most of us who work on woven natural fiber fabrics (like quilt weight cottons) should be using most of the time. They are designed to cleanly pierce the fabric. They are your basic “piecing” needles, also for sewing garments or anything else out of cotton, rayon, or silk fabrics. They are also called Microtex needles.
- Universal needles are the kind of needles that many of us learned to use “back in the day”; that’s because they were designed to used with polyesters and blends (which were way more popular back then), and because they were jacks of all trades (and masters of none), but they really aren’t the best choice for most of the work we’re doing today. Kind of like using your bread knife to slice a tomato.
- Quilting needles are designed a little bit differently because you’re stitching through more layers; they protect the thread more as it goes up and down through layers of fabric and batting, preventing fraying and breakage.
- Topstitching needles are similar to Quilting needles in that they are designed to go through layers, but topstitching is often done through several layers of fabric, without batting. They’re also designed to be better with specialty threads.
- Embroidery needles were the first needles designed especially to move in all different directions (think free motion), not just the normal path of routine machine stitches.
- Jeans needles are meant to go through thick fabric, or several heavy layers at once. Think about sewing the waistband on a pair of jeans.
The point is, each needle is specially designed for its own special task. You don’t need to know what the differences are, you just need to know that there ARE differences, and that your machine will know the difference and will be grateful if you give it the right tool for the job. Sometimes when your machine is behaving badly, all it’s really trying to do is tell you that you’re not giving it the right tools to work with! Last time I was working on one of my bags (which are seriously heavy duty) I used the needle that was already in my machine to sew all the pieces together. Since the needle was a Microtex Sharp needle, it worked okay. However, once I needed to put all the layers together (think 2 layers of fusible fleece, 2 layers of woven fusible interfacing, 4 layers of fabric, and 2 layers of canvas), the machine was skipping stitches. Like, every stitch. I switched over to a Jeans needle, which is meant to handle all that weight, and my machine was much happier.
Different sizes: machine needle numbers are backwards from hand needles, and are therefore logical – the bigger the number, the bigger the needle. There are two numbering systems (American & European), and any nice brand of needles should show both numbers on the package. Needles are referred to as 70/10 or 75/11 or 80/12. A 90 is always a 14, 100 is 16, etc. When you pick your needle size, you need to consider both your fabric AND your thread. If you’re sewing heavy fabric with a fine thread, you probably can’t use a 70 needle (the needle won’t stand up to going through the thick fabric); and lightweight fabric with a heavy thread, same thing – if you can’t thread the eye, it won’t work. For all my piecing, I use a size 70 (Microtex) Sharp. I ALWAYS use the smallest needle I can get away with, because I don’t like leaving big holes in my fabric. For quilting, I usually use a 75 Quilting needle (for King Tut or Tutti thread) or sometimes a 90 Quilting (for a heavier thread such as a 12 or 30 weight). For free motion quilting, I sometimes switch over to an Embroidery needle.
We have some cool little FREE books from Schmetz that list all the different kinds of needles, what sizes they come in, what they do, when to use them, etc. Ask for a copy next time you’re in the store. And yes, there are good brands of needles, and there are cheap needles, and like everything else, you get what you pay for. In the grand scheme of things, needles are one of the least expensive parts of our hobby, so please invest in the good ones. I recommend Schmetz, and we have a pretty good selection of them here at QA. If there’s a kind you think we should carry but don’t please let us know.
Last, but not least - how often to change them? If you can’t remember the last time you changed your needle, it’s time. If your machine is skipping stitches, making bad noises, just making not pretty stitches, acting unhappy in any way at all, try a different needle; you can always hang on to the old one if it turns out that wasn’t the problem. Figure about four hours sewing time per needle. Again, needles are pretty cheap and often a very easy fix.
Click here to browse our Needles department on the webstore!
Joyce & Phoebe