Hand-Sewing Needles — More than Meets the Eye

There are three kinds of quilters:

  1.  Those who embrace hand sewing.
  2. Those who hate hand sewing and avoid it at all costs.
  3. And those who vacillate between the two.

I quilt with a couple of die-hard hand piecers and quilters.  I also quilt with quite a few folks who are hard-core second category machine quilters.  Me – I’m in the third category.  I love to machine piece and machine quilt.  However, a part of me also loves the process of hand piecing and hand quilting.  Handwork – whether it’s piecing, quilting, or applique – slows me down, allows me to take a deep breath, and find peace.  It’s the steady pull of the needle and thread which allows me to sort through the trouble of my day and put things (mentally) in order.

That said, I want to talk about hand sewing needles today.  No matter how much of a die-hard machine quilter and piecer you are, there will come a point where you must put a stitch or two by hand into something.  The job is easier and more enjoyable when you have the right needle.  There’s a lot of information in this blog, so sit back, get a cup of something warm and caffeinated, and make some notes.

Let me also put this disclaimer in right here:  Much of this blog is my opinion about hand sewing needles I’ve used.  What works for me may not work for you.

The popular opinion among die-hard sewing machine enthusiasts who would rather do anything other than hand stitch is this — the needles don’t really matter if you’re only occasionally sewing a corner closed or stitching on a label.  I beg to differ.  The right kind of hand sewing needle is just as important as the right kind of machine needle.  It makes your job easier and it vastly improves the quality of your work.  I’ve employed some kind of hand sewing for 35 years – both in garment making and quilting.  Just as there are different sizes and types of needles for machine work, there are different sizes and types of hand sewing needles.  We’re discussing this, but first some general information about all hand sewing needles.  And for future reference with this blog, when the term “needle” is used, it refers to hand sewing needles only.

Needles are packaged in cardboard envelopes or these really cool clear containers.

With either type of packaging, somewhere on it there’s information about the needles  and it’s important to know what the information means.  First, there’s usually the type of needle – sharps, tweens, milliners, etc.  If you know exactly what type of needle you need, this is where you start.  However, after the name, there’s usually a number (or several numbers), and this is where it can get confusing if you don’t know how to interpret the numbers.  The larger the number, the smaller the needle.  The smaller the number, the larger the needle.    I know that sounds completely counter intuitive, but this is the way hand sewing needles work.  For example, a size 12 needle will be finer and shorter than an 8 – which will be thicker and longer.  It’s the eye and tip sizes of these needles which determine what kind of thread can be used and what fabric they work best with.  Eyes can be small and rounded or long and open.  Points can be sharp, blunt, or be classed as “ballpoint.”  All of these facts should be taken into consideration when pairing a needle with both thread and fabric.

Below are some general categories of needles, what they’re used for, and their characteristics.  If you Google hand sewing needles, you can get a lot more information.  I painted this blog with kind of broad strokes.

Sharps

These are general purpose, medium-length needles.  They’re used for garment making and other types of general sewing.  These come in all different sizes and it’s a good idea to have a pack which has several sizes in it for all your sewing needs.  If you focus in on a size you consistently use, you can also purchase a pack of sharps in just one size.  These are medium-length, have a sharp tip, and a small eye. 

Sizes:  2 – 12

Ballpoints

Ballpoints have a slightly rounded tip, which makes them ideal to use with knits – the needle will pass through the fibers rather than pierce them. 

Sizes:  5 – 10

Chenille

Chenilles are used for embroidery and thicker yarns.  They have a sharp point and an elongated eye.  Most commonly used for cross stitch and needle point, they can be used on any tightly woven fabric due to their sharp tip.  These are used a great deal with wool applique.

Sizes: 13 -26

Tapestry

These are also used for embroidery, but unlike the chenille needle, they have a blunt point.  Tapestry needles are used on loosely woven fabrics so the needle will pass cleanly through the fibers.  Some cross-stitch fans and needlepoint aficionados prefer this needle over a chenille.  They have an elongated eye. 

Sizes:  13 – 28

Crewels

These are also called embroidery needles and have a medium eye and a sharp tip. 

Sizes:  1 – 16

Upholstery

Unlike most other needles, these can be curved, which make them idea for upholstery and furniture work, as well as some doll making.  They’re perfect for sewing areas where you can only access the outside of the object.  They have a very sharp tip.

Sizes: 3-inches – 18-inches

Betweens, Tweens, or Quilting

I’ve heard this particular needle called all three names.  These are for sewing through thick quilts and have very sharp points.  They are short and fine and have a round eye.  The shorter length is designed to produce nice, small, even stitches on quilts.  They can also be used for fine and precise stitches in tailoring.  These are thin, short, and have a sharp tip.

Sizes: 1 – 12

Beading

Beading needles are used for the obvious – sewing on beads.  I’ve also used them to sew on sequins.  They generally are very fine and thin, as they have to go through the eye of small beads (like seed beads).  They are longer than most other types of needles and have a sharp tip. 

Sizes:  10 – 15

Bodkins

These “needles” are large and blunt.  And I put needles in quotations marks because these can be made of plastic.  I’ve never really thought of them as needles, although I suppose  those made of metal could be.  They are large, flat needles used to thread elastic through casings.  When my daughter was young and I made all of her clothes, I would use a safety pin to do this.  Then I found Bodkins and they worked one hundred percent better than a safety pin.  I also used them to run ribbons through the smocked dresses I made her.  These have a very rounded point, so the tip does not pierce the fabric, which makes it super-efficient threading anything.  However, if you’re making baby or doll clothes with tiny casings, a small safety pin will work better.  Most Bodkins are too long to work efficiently in small areas.  They are on the long-ish end of the needle family. 

No sizes

Darners

Darning needles are used for mending.  They have an elongated eye for thicker thread and a semi-blunt point.  If you knit, you probably use one of these needles for sewing seams together. 

Sizes: 1 – 9, 5/0 – 9, and 14 – 18

There are also what I call “specialty” needles which don’t fit into these categories:

Leather – Sizes 3/0 – 10 used for leather and faux leather.

Milliners  — Sizes 5/0 – 10 used for hat making and crafts.

Milliners

Sailmakers – Various sizes and used for canvas.

Self-Threading – Sizes 4 – 8.  These needles typically thread from the top of the eye instead of from the side.  Instead of inserting the thread through the eye, you simply push it through the top of the needle.  I like to use these needles when I’m tying a quilt or using really thick thread or yarn. 

Self-Threading Needles

It’s worth mentioning  some hand applique enthusiasts like using Milliners for needle turn.  They just always seemed too big for my hand – I have trouble controlling them.  However, I have small hands and fingers, so that may be the issue. 

Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.  Let’s talk about needle brands.  I’ve listed my favorite brands below in the order I prefer them:

  1.  Tulip
  2. Roxanne
  3. Primitive Gatherings
  4. John James (those only made in England)
  5. Clover Black Gold
Tulip Needles

We’re going to begin with Tulip and why I like them so much.  It all has to do with the way they’re manufactured.  Most needles are made in small, circular motions, with the steel either rotating clockwise or counterclockwise. 

Tulip needles are made like this:

They roll off with the rotation spun lengthwise, the length of the needle.  While this seems like a minor manufacturing change, it actually allows the needle’s length-wise grain to work with the motion of hand sewing.  The clockwise or counterclockwise manufacturing works against the motion of hand sewing.  So, Tulip needles makes the hand sewing process less of a strain on your wrist and fingers.  If you’re only putting in a few stitches here and there, this isn’t a huge issue.  However, if you’re pushing a needle through fabric for hours at a time, this one manufacturing change takes so much pressure off of your hands.  And if you’re like me and have a bit of carpal tunnel, it’s a huge benefit. 

Roxanne needles are a little longer and a little finer than standard needles.  The eye is also a bit bigger.  So, if you struggle to thread your needles, this brand may be just what you’re looking for.  They are also evenly tapered and has great plating – making them stronger than a lot of needles.

Many of you may be acquainted with Primitive Gatherings for their wool, fabric, and patterns.  And they’ve always carried needles.  But in the last several years they have come up with their own line of needles.  I have not used their chenille or embellishing needles, but I have used their binding needles and I love them – and not just for binding.  They are long, thin, strong, and have a large eye.  I love them for binding, but they are a great all-around, general sewing needle. 

Even if you haven’t quilted but a short while, you’ve probably heard of the John James brand of needles.  This is one of the standard needle brands requested by sewing teachers everywhere.  It’s one of the oldest needle manufacturers, formed in the United Kingdom in 1840.  Any needle size, any specific needle you needed, John James has it.  And up until most of the needles started being made in China, these were an excellent needle choice.

Clover is a familiar brand name among most sewing and crafting enthusiasts.  This company produces many, many great sewing notions, including a range of needles.  However, a few years ago they came out with the Clover Black Gold Needles.  I came across them entirely by accident.  I arrived for a hand applique class at my LQS and realized I had left my needles at home on my sewing table.  When I asked the store owner if she had any John James (since this is the brand most quilt stores have in stock), she told me “No – try these.  They’re way better.”  And she sold me pack of Clover Black Gold Applique Sharps.

It was love at first stitch. 

These needles are ultra-fine, extremely sharp, and produce 30 percent less friction than other needles (with the exception of perhaps the Tulip brand).  They’re coated with a black plating to resist rust, and it’s a good idea to wipe the needle with a fabric scrap before using just to make sure there is no black residue.  The only drawback to this needle is the eye is extremely small – but then again, it has to be because the needle is very fine.  There are ways to deal with a small eye, and we’ll discuss them later.  However, it’s the fineness that makes this needle a stellar one to use in applique.  It’s so thin, it easily slips between fabric and freezer paper.  It’s also one of the best needles (in my opinion) to use with silk thread. 

However, as much as I love the Clover Black Gold Applique Sharps, I’m not crazy about their hand quilting needles.  The needles are very thin and seem to break easily when passing through the bulk of a quilt sandwich. 

Now that you know what my favorite needle brands are, let me ask a question – do you know what they all have in common?  I’ll wait while you ponder this question (cue Jeopardy music).

If you guessed they’re manufactured in either Japan or England, you’re correct.  The exception to this maybe Primitive Gatherings needles – I couldn’t find where they were made.  So, let’s talk about why this is important.  The simple fact is these countries have produced needles for a long, long time and they know what they’re doing.  They don’t cut corners, rush production, or use poor quality steel.  My beef with John James is that they have shipped most of their manufacturing to China.  If you’re a John James fan, make sure the pack states “Made in England.” Yes, labor and goods are cheaper in China, but it shows in the product.  Take a look at this:

If you look closely at the eyes of some of these needles, you can see they’re incorrectly manufactured.  Look at the crud in the eyes.  This would certainly make threading the needle difficult.  And more than likely, these burrs would cut your thread, making the entire hand sewing experience a nightmare.  When purchasing any hand sewing needle, you want to make sure the eye is clear, and the shank of the needle is smooth.  Tips should be sharp (unless they’re ballpoint, bodkin, or tapestry).  And generally, cheaply produced needles don’t hold up to these standards.  As a matter of fact, in my opinion, if you have needles that come in these types of packages:

Toss them.  Overall, they’re poor quality.  Most of these are found in the “Begin to Sew” or “Begin to Quilt” kind of packaging. 

I can hear some of my all-machine-quilting-all-the-time folks from here – “But we’re only taking a stitch or two.  The type of needle we use doesn’t matter that much.”  And in all honesty, if you’re that solid of a machine piecer and quilter, it doesn’t.  However, needles – even the top-of-the-line ones – aren’t expensive.  Treat yourself.

Finally, let’s talk about some needle notions which make your hand piecing life easier.  The first one is this timeless little gadget:

A thimble.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I quilted over 30 years before I learned to use a thimble.  I blamed it A) I was never taught how and B) I now had fake nails and I couldn’t get any thimble to fit correctly.  And my dilemma wasn’t for lack of trying.  I had a handful of thimbles I had purchased and just couldn’t seem to work with any of them.  It wasn’t until I had my finger fitted and purchase the right size of thimble with an open top (to accommodate my nail), that I learned the joy of using a thimble.  It helps you get and maintain a rhythm as well as protects your fingers.  I promise a blog is coming on this soon.

The next is this notion:

A table-top needle threader.  I know there are lots of needle threaders which look like this:

However, I’ve found that they break easily and  I had trouble maneuvering the wire through a small, round eye.  The table-top needle threader accommodates all types of needles and all sizes of eyes (even the very small ones).  Plus, this is an inexpensive gadget.  If the eye of the needle is so small it still is difficult to thread even with a threader, first make sure the eye is free of any burrs.  After that, if you’re still struggling, check your thread.  If it’s a three-lobe thread, it may be too thick for the eye.  Try switching to a two-lobe thread – it will be just as strong as the three-lobed, but it will be finer. 

Some quilters like these:

Needlebooks.  They allow you to keep all your needles in one place, arranged by size.  And they are handy.  I don’t use one – I simply keep my needles in the package they come in.  I’ve sewn long enough that I even prefer one brand over another for specific tasks.  If I put all my needles in a book, I wouldn’t be able to tell the brands apart.  However, I do use this little jewel a lot:

It’s a Quilter’s Dome and it allows you to keep threaded needles in one spot.  I find this really handy with applique.  Most of the time, I used fine cotton thread in a color which matches my fabric with my hand applique.  I may have as many as a half-a-dozen needles threaded at one time for a project.  I can keep them all in here.  The needles remain threaded and the threads (for the most part), don’t get tangled. 

There are also these two thread conditioners:

When you run your thread through either of these, they leave a residue on your thread which keeps it from tangling and knotting as you hand stitch.  My preference is the beeswax.  I’ve used beeswax since I began sewing and to me, it just seems to work better. 

Lastly, when do you know it’s time to throw a hand sewing needle away?  With sewing machine needles, we know those have about an 8-hour shelf life.  Are hand sewing needles any different? 

Sort of.

The amount of time they can be used before tossing them varies with the brand and how much you’re using them.  If you only take a stitch or two now and then, the needles could last you a pretty long time.  If you’re using them consistently for hand sewing or hand applique, their lifespan is shorter. Rule of thumb for me is this:  When the needle becomes difficult to push through the fabric, it’s time for a new one.

What about a bent needle?  Should you toss it immediately?  That depends entirely on you.  One of the best hand quilting needles I ever had was slightly bent.  I almost cried when it did finally break.  If a bent needle is still sharp and you like it, the quilt police aren’t going to force you to toss it.  However, if it slows you down or makes the process difficult, don’t be afraid to throw it in the circular file. 

This is probably information than you ever wanted to know about needles.  In summary, here’s probably what you need to remember:

  1.  Needles made in Japan and England are the best.
  2. Use the right needle for the right job.
  3. Inspect your needle to make sure the eye is clear, the shank doesn’t have burrs, and the tip is sharp (for those needles that need a sharp tip).
  4. Needles aren’t expensive – even the best ones.  They’re an affordable quilting luxury.  Treat yourself.  Replace as needed.

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

PS – Standard disclaimer:  I don’t work for any of the companies listed in today’s blog, nor do I receive any free merchandise for recommending them.  I mention them because I use them, love them, and recommend them to my friends.

Categories: Uncategorized

4 Comments on “Hand-Sewing Needles — More than Meets the Eye”

  1. Carmen N
    October 28, 2020 at 9:07 am #

    I love your opinion as I am of the same opinion. The right needle for the job with a little trial and error for size makes all the difference. I learn so much from your posts! Thanks for taking the time to blog.

    • October 28, 2020 at 9:11 am #

      I am so glad you enjoy my blog and learn from it! I do agree the right needle for the right job makes your hand sewing life so much easier.

  2. October 29, 2020 at 11:02 am #

    Great blog. I’ve been struggling with hand sewing needles for some time now and didn’t know why. Next I need to find out where to buy thread conditioner and leather thimble.

  3. October 30, 2020 at 11:50 am #

    For whatever reason, maybe because our honeybees are struggling for survival, beeswax is getting harder to find. Try Nancy’s Notions or Joann Fabrics. If push comes to shove, a beeswax candle works equally as well. Thread conditioner is available at most on-line quilt shops.

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