(Most of ) What You Need to Know About Sewing Machine Needles

Sooo…. The topic this week is needles.  I realize we’ve talked about needles in one very specific capacity (hand sewing needles), and in a very general way when we have talked about sewing machines.  This week I want to really highlight how important it is to use the correct sewing machine needle for the fabric under it.  For the purpose of this blog, when I use the term “needle,” it refers to a standard, domestic sewing machine needle, and not needles used in embroidery machines or long arms. 

Just as there are some generalities and specifics about hand sewing needles, the same holds true for machine needles.  Let’s talk generalities first, and then we’ll talk specifics.  To begin with, a machine needle is very different from a hand sewing needle.  A hand sewing needle looks like this:

And a machine needle looks like this:

It’s easy to see some characteristics are the same and some are different.  We’ll start with the eye and work upwards. 

Eye – The hole in which the thread slides through.  Remember when we discussed the eyes of hand sewing needles, and I told you cheap needles can have “gunk” in the eyes – areas where the needle had not been properly and thoroughly polished so there are rough edges in the eye which can cut your thread and generally make your sewing life a nightmare?  The same holds true for a machine needle.  A needle should have a smoothly machined eye to prevent thread shedding – so beware of the cheap ones.    The size of the eye depends on the intended thread type (more on this later).

Point – Like hand sewing needles, the shape of the point varies widely between different needle types.  Some needles, such as ball points, have a slightly rounded end because it’s not made to actually puncture the fabric’s threads.  It’s made to slide in between the fibers, which makes it an ideal needle for synthetics.  Other needles, such as those intended for leather or leather-like fabrics, have an almost chiseled point. 

Shaft – The shaft varies in thickness according to the intended fabric.  Thicker fabric requires a thicker shaft. 

Scarf – This is a groove on the back of the needle which enables the hook on the bobbin case to get close to the eye of the needle in order to avoid skipped stitches.

It’s easy to see the only characteristics different from a hand sewing needle are the scarf and the groove.  But what about sizes?  With hand sewing needles, the larger the number, the finer the needle.  Do sewing machine needles work this way? 

Nope.

Generally, with sewing machine needles, the larger number means the thicker the needle is and you can sew bulky fabrics without fear of the needle breaking.  But there’s a lot more information to work with than just a number on a pack of sewing machine needles.  To begin with, like hand sewing needles, machine needles are given a title.  With hand sewing needles, we worked with terms such as “sharp,” “tween,” “milliner,” etc.  Machine needles carry names such as “jeans,” “leather,” and “universal.”  Let’s break the titles down and then well deal with sizes. 

Universal – These are the most commonly used type of machine needle.  They can tackle nearly any type of woven and stable material – but not the stretchy knits.  Universals can handle natural and synthetic fibers, as their tips are slightly rounded (but not as rounded as ball points).  I think it’s always a good idea to have a pack or two of these tucked away somewhere in your studio.  If you have them in sizes 70/10  to 90/14, there won’t be too many sewing jobs you can’t handle. 

Ball Point – Ball point needles can be used for tightly woven fabrics, but they are really made for synthetic fibers and stretchy knits.  The point is rounded, so the needle slides through the link in the threads instead of piercing them (which would cause many of the knit fabrics to tear). 

Jersey – These are specifically made for knit fabrics with a medium stretch factor.  This needle also has a rounded tip designed to slip between fibers and not cause laddering or holes. 

Stretch — These are designed for fabrics with the maximum amount of stretch, such as dance lycra and swimwear fabric. 

Leather – These are used for sewing leather and vinyl.  As a matter of fact, you’d find it very difficult to sew either fiber without this needle.  The end of this needle is ultra-sharp so it cleanly pierces through leather or vinyl.  Always remember to lengthen your stitch when sewing with this needle, otherwise your fabric will become perforated. 

Quilting – These needles are strengthened to pierce through numerous layers of fabrics and batting.  The special treatment on their surface means the needles won’t break or bend.  They’re also great to use in bag making, an activity where you’ll be sewing through multiple layers of fabric, foam, interfacing, etc.

Topstitching – Topstitching needles have large eyes to accommodate thick thread.  Usually when you top stitch, you’re sewing through multiple layers of fabric.  Like the quilting needles, these are designed to go through this thickness.  And since some topstitching uses specialty threads, the larger eye easily accommodates this. 

Sharps – Like quilting needles, sharps are strengthened to deal with multiple fabric layers.  These can be used to sew lots of different fabrics – even thin vinyl.  They also handle silks, applique, and tightly woven material.  They are finer and sharper than universal needles. 

Jeans/Denim – These needles are specifically made for sewing denim.  Denim is thick and dense, so jeans needles are especially strong and are only available in the larger sewing machine needle sizes.

Double/Twin – This is kind of a specialty needle.  I used this needle a lot when I taught Heirloom Sewing.  They’re great for making pintucks.  It literally is two needles joined at the top.  They’re also great for putting hems in stretch garments. 

These are the ten most common needles.  There are some variations on these, such as winged needles (used for producing a kind of lacy effect in woven fabrics – I used this type of needle a great deal in Heirloom sewing) and a few other deviations.  However, for the most part, these ten are the ones you see in the sewing machine needle section.  Since we’re now familiar with the titles, let’s look at the numbers and what they mean.

Just like hand sewing needles, machine needles have numbers on them.  Usually it’s two numbers, separated by a slanted line – such as 80/12.  The smaller number – in this case, 12 – relates to the American system and this number can range from 8 to 20.  And if you remember the larger the number, the thicker the needle shaft, so an 8 needle is thinner than a 20.  The first number is for the European system and it can range from 60 to 120.  However, it works the same as the American system – the larger the number, the thicker the needle.  The most common sewing machine needle sizes are 60/8, 70/10, 75/11, 80/12, 90/14, and 100/16.

These combination of numbers are important because they tell you what needle works best with what kind of fabric.  Generally, the range works like this:

60/10, 65/9, and 70/10 are used with very fine weight fabrics, such as fine silk, chiffon, organza, voile, and fine lace.

75/11, 80/12 are used with light weight fabrics such as cotton voile, silk, synthetics, spandex, and lycra.

90/14 is used on medium-weight fabrics such as quilting fabrics, cotton, velvet, fine corduroy, linen, muslin, jersey, tricot, knits, light wool, sweatshirt knit, and fleece.

100/16 is used on heavy weight material such as denim, corduroy, canvas, duck, suiting, and leather.

110/18 is used on very heavy weight fabric such as heavy denim, heavy canvas, upholstery, and faux fur.

120/20 is used on the heaviest of fabric, such as extra thick canvas or upholstery. 

At this point, I know you’re wondering where all of this information fits into our quilting world.  The needle sizes are good to know for anyone who does any type of sewing.  However, as quilters, we can zero in on the types and sizes we know we will use regularly.  This is enables us to purchase in bulk (if we quilt a lot) and know what to buy when we find a good sale.  The quilting needles in size 90/14 are good to have on hand at all times.  Every quilter needs several packs of these tucked away in our sewing room.  The 90/14’s are the primary piecing needles for quilting cottons. 

However, if you’re also an avid machine appliquer, you want a thinner needle.  A 90/14 will leave visible holes on the applique pieces.  If you work with raw-edge machine applique, you will also want to keep 75/11 or 80/12 sharp needles on hand.  Generally, the machine applique thread is thinner than standard piecing thread and these sizes work great with fine thread.  If you plan on using finished edge machine applique with monofilament thread, 60/8 and 70/10 sharps should also be in your needle arsenal. 

If you plan on quilting your quilts on your domestic machine, the type of needle used depends on the type of quilting thread utilized.  When I machine quilt on Big Red (my Janome 7700), I like to use a topstitching needle if possible.  This needle can easily handle the bulk of a three-layer quilt sandwich without breaking and will cleanly pierce all the layers without a hitch.  I usually stick to a 90/14 for this.  When I do quilt on my domestic machine, I use a thin batt, such as a 100% cotton, silk, or thin polyester batt to keep the sandwich bulk to a minimum.  If I’m using a thicker batting, I will quilt it on the long arm which handles the bulk much better.  I also find a 90/14 handles most of my quilting thread – which varies from a 40 to 50-weight thread.  If I want my quilting stitches to shine, I have been known to drop as low to a size 12-weight thread, which is a thick thread.  Sometimes the eye of a 90/14 can handle it and sometimes it can’t (this honestly depends on the thread manufacturer).  If the eye is too small, I will switch to a larger-sized topstitching needle. I also really love Superior Threads Micro Quilting thread.  It’s 100-weight, so it’s super thin, but still really strong.  I switch to a 70/10 topstitching needle or a 60/8 Microtex when I use this thread.  In case you’re wondering, a  Microtex needle is a type of sharp, designed for use with micro-fibers.  They also work really, really well with Batiks.  If I’m feeling all art-quiltsy and plan to use metallic thread, I will switch to Schmetz Metallic needles.  I start with an 80/12 but have moved to a 75/11 if the 80/12 causes fabric damage.  Any metallic needle has an elongated, specially coated eye which easily accommodates metallic thread flow at all stitch speeds. It also has a specialized scarf which prevents skipped stitches and thread breaks. 

In this blog about sewing machines, (https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/11/11/if-you-need-a-new-sewing-machine/) one of the items you want your machine to have is the ability to change the needle without a lot of trouble.  Changing the needle can vary slightly between machines, but usually it goes a little like this:

  1.  First, you will need to remove your old needle.  Before I start this process, I insert a piece of paper between the presser foot and feed dogs.  If the needle slips out of your fingers and falls into the bobbin area, it can wedge itself into areas you can’t get to and you’ll have to take the machine to tech to get it removed.  If there’s a piece of paper covering the feed dogs, the needle can’t drop into the area.  It’s also a good idea to turn the power off to your machine.
  2. At the top of the needle mount, to the right, there’s a screw.  This will need to be loosened a little in order to remove the old needle and insert the new one. 
  3. Before inserting the new needle, make sure the flat side of the top of the needle is facing away from you and the round side is facing toward you.  Insert the needle into the needle mount.
  4. Tighten the screw around the new needle.  It’s a really good idea to use a screwdriver to make sure the needle is secured well and there’s no fear of it falling out and into the bobbin area of the machine. 

Always consult your sewing machine manual before undertaking any general maintenance on your machine.  There may be specifics details to follow for your brand.

We know how to change the needle, so how often should you change it?  Generally, after eight hours of sewing, the needle should be changed.  If you’re using titanium needles (my favorite), you can double the time.  Now I know what you’re thinking – something along the lines of “I don’t punch a time clock when I sit down to sew, so how do I keep up with the hours?”  I don’t either, so let me share with you how I kind of keep up with things.

  1.  I treat Big Red differently from the machines I only use occasionally.  For my Janome 7700, I change the needle after I’m through piecing a quilt top.  If I’m working on multiple tops, I change it every two weeks. If I’m using titanium needles, I may go as long as three weeks before changing.
  2. For the Featherweight, which I may use once a week, I change her needle the first of every month.
  3. If I’m paper piecing on either machine, I change the needle as soon as I am through with the project.  Paper piecing dulls your needle quickly.
  4. After I’m through quilting a top on Big Red, the needle is changed (unless it’s a really small quilt). 
  5. I change it anytime I experience skipped stitches or hear a distinct “pop” when I sew.  The longer you sew/quilt on a machine, the more you understand its nuances – like the sound a dull needle makes or the appearance of stitches when the machine needs a new needle. 

Finally, I offer you two pieces of advice.  First, don’t purchase cheap sewing machine needles.  Buy brand names such as Organ or Schmetz or the brand your sewing machine company produces (such as Singer).  Cheap needles of any type should be the bane of your quilting existence.  Like quality hand sewing needles, good machine needles aren’t expensive.  Do yourself a favor and keep your studio stocked with quality needles in the sizes you use most. 

Second, if you’re perplexed with what size needle to use with a fabric or thread, please go here:

https://www.superiorthreads.com/

Superior Threads offers abundant information on all things thread, needle, and fabric.  They’re my go-to source for any needle and thread questions I have.  I also love their products and their customer service is stellar.

I hope this helps answer any questions you have concerning sewing machine needles.  The sizes work opposite of hand sewing needles.  The type you need depends on both the kind of fabric you’re working with and the thread you’re using.  Change them regularly and keep a supply on hand.  Honestly, a clean machine and a new needle make your quilting life so much easier.

Until next week, Keep Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

Once again, let me reiterate that I do not work for any quilt-related company.  My recommendations (such as Superior Threads mentioned above), come from years of personal experience ordering products from their company.  I also do not receive free merchandise from this company for recommending them. 

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