close up of assorted sewing machine needle packets on a woven background

How to choose the right sewing needle

If you’re new to machine sewing, you may be surprised to learn just how many different types of sewing machine needles there are.

 

Using the wrong type of needle for a project is one of the most common mistakes beginners make. It can cause difficulty when sewing, poor stitch quality, fabric damage and needle breakage.

Size matters

Like with other crafts, such as knitting, sewing machine needles come in different sizes. The sizes are universal, so any needle from any manufacturer will fit any modern sewing machines.

The needle size you need for your project will be determined by the fabric and threads that you’ll be working with. You’ll need the finest sized needles for very light fabrics such as silk or sheer fabrics. You’ll need a much thicker needle for very heavy fabrics like denim.

On every sewing machine needle packet there are a series of numbers, which are also repeated on the top of each needle.

There are always two numbers – a European number which will be between 60 and 110, and an American number, which will be between 8 and 18. The higher the number, the thicker the needle.

Some patterns will come with a recommended needle size or type printed on them, so it’s worth checking what your pattern suggests.

However, it’s always worth practising with your needle on a scrap piece of the material you’ll be using for your project, and changing it as needed.

What type needle for which project?

There is more to needle choice than size. An 80/12 universal needle is the most used needle and will usually come as standard with your sewing machine.

While a universal needle will work on standard weight woven fabrics, there are certain needles that work better on specific fabrics, or with threads:

  • Sharps – sharper and stronger, so good for working with several layers of fabric or wadding. Commonly used by quilters. Useful for tightly woven fabrics like silk or microfibre.

  • Quilting – sharp and strong like a sharps, but shorter in length. Good for quick and even stitching through multiple layers.

  • Ballpoint – used for knitted fabrics and fleece. Blunt, so won't cut or unravel the fabric.

  • Leather – for real leather or suede fabrics. They have a triangular point that looks like a chisel, which is used to pierce the leather. Not for imitation leather, ultra-suede or synthetic suede.

  • Jeans (or denim) – stronger in the shaft with a sharper point. Jeans needles are also recommended for canvas, tweeds and heavy linens.
     
  • Embroidery – have a much longer eye, which helps embroidery threads to pass easily through the needle during rapid embroidery stitching.

  • Metafill – for metallic thread. Has an extra-large eye so good for sewing on woven or knitted fabrics. If you ever struggle to thread you needles, a metafil can be used for general sewing.

  • Topstitch – with an extra sharp point and large eye a topstitch needle easily penetrates lots of different materials and allows thick topstitching thread to be used.

  • Stretch – prevents skipped stitches on stretchy or less stable fabrics such as jersey or Lycra.

  • Microtex – have a sharper point and are great for sewing silks and other very fine fabrics. The finer tip means that they’re great for sewing coated fabrics too.

  • Twin and triple needles – have two or three needles in one. They are used for creating decorative stitches. They’re not compatible with every machine, so check before using.

close up of Brother J sewing foot on green pattern fabric

Changing a needle

You’ll come across conflicting advice on how often you ‘must’ change your needle. The truth is that there is no strict rule.

If you’re only sewing very small items, you’ll probably change your needle less often than a quilter or an embroiderer. The general rule is to change your needle for every 6-8 hours of sewing. The better the quality of the needle the longer it will last.

Needles get blunter with use, which makes it harder for your needle to push through the fabric and can cause damage to threads and material. If you feel that your machine is struggling, jumping or making a thumping sound and changing things like stitch tension and length doesn’t work, then it’s time for a needle change.  

When changing a needle, pop a piece of paper or fabric under the presser foot. When you loosen the needle screw this prevents the needle dropping into the machine causing expensive repair bills!

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