How to Choose the Right Sewing Machine Needle?


Sewing is an important skill to have. That said, most of it involves knowing what to use on your projects. This includes everything from your fabrics, to your thread, to your needle.

So how do you choose the right needle for the job? Well, it will depend on several factors, including the fabric type, the fabric weight, and the thread type. While it may seem overwhelming at first, it’ll become second nature to you with time, and you will always get those perfect results every time you sew.

If you don’t want to ruin your bobbin hook, mess with the machine’s timing or even destroy your fabric, you want to make sure that you always choose the right sewing machine needle. Here is how to do that.

Understanding the parts of a needle

The needle is made up of several different parts that all work together to give the work the needle produces a distinct character:

  • Shank: This is the top part that is inserted into the machine. When fitting it in the machine, ensure the flat side faces the back of your machine while the round part faces front.
  • Shaft: This is also referred to as the body of the needle and is what determines the size, based on its thickness.
  • Groove: This runs the entire length of the shaft and holds the needle thread. It should always be large enough to hold in place the thread for a smooth stitch. You should ensure this by using thread that is less than half of the groove.
  • Point: This is also referred to as the tip. It provides the point of contact between thread and fabric, joining the needle’s thread to the bobbin’s thread to form a stitch. The point or tip varies for various types of needle.
  • Scarf: These are the notches on the backside of the needle. These allow the bobbin hook to grab the thread smoothly under the sewing machine to create a proper stitch. Get a longer scarf as opposed to a shorter one. Shorts scarfs may require a perfectly timed machine, which can be quite hard to pull off.
  • Blade: This part also determines the size of a needle. For instance, a needle that has a size .75mm diameter can be identified by number 75 on the needle packaging.
  • Eye: this is the hole at the end of the point and above the blade where the thread passes. Its shape is determined by the needle size as well as the type

What to consider when choosing a needle

Before picking a needle and starting your project, there are a number of things you first need to consider:

  • Type of fabric: This determines the type of needle you will use. It plays a central role especially if you are doing regular sewing and not decorative sewing. The more delicate or light a fabric is, the smaller the needle size needs to be and vice versa.
  • Choice of the thread: Depending on what you choose to do with your project, the thread you work with will help you determine the needle type to use as well. For instance, if you are embroidering with thick thread, then you will also need a thick needle for the job. Always match your thread size with the correct needle size.
  • Type of stitch: This determines both the shape of the blades to use and the needle size to use. For instance, if are doing a running stitch, this will require a different needle as compared to a topstitch.

Identifying a needle

You can identify a needle using three perimeters;

  • Needle system of your machine: For commercial machines, different needle systems may be used. However, for homemade machines, this is customized and is usually 130/705H. When choosing a needle, refer to this number, which can be found on the needle casing between its name and size. Refer also to your machine’s manual for proper use.
  • Point: This can either be a round point or cutting point. Cutting points typically have sharp blades and are used to pierce. They are preferable for non-fabric materials to minimize damage
  • Size of the needle: Before choosing a needle, you also need to consider the size of the needle. The numbers on the packaging of the needle denote the size. These are given in both the American and the European system.

European needle sizing ranges from 60 to 120 with 120 being the largest size. The American arbitrary numbering system for needle sizes, on the other hand, ranges from 8 to 19. On the packaging, these numbers will be placed side by side, for example 60/8. The 60 means that the blade size is .60mm in diameter in the European measuring system.

A lower number on the package indicates a smaller needle. These are suitable for lightweight fabrics. The larger the number, the larger the needle size.        

Types of needles and their uses

Sewing machine needles are generally divided into two categories; general purpose needles and specialty needles.

General-purpose needles

  • Universal needle: It is characterized by a slightly rounded point. It is the safest needle choice for most fabrics. They are also available in the widest possible ranges with an elongated scarf making them convenient. The elongated scarf also ensures a tight fit for the meeting of the needle and bobbin hook. You can use these needles for stitching synthetic or natural woven and knits.
  • Ball-point needle: These are mostly found in sizes ranging from 70/10 to 100/16. The needle has a more rounded point than a universal needle. This makes it pass between the fabrics rather than pierce them. You can use this needle mostly on knits. Before settling on it, carry out a test-stitch. If you notice it skipping stitches try a stretch needle instead.
  • Sharp/Microtext: This is found in smaller sizes ranging from 60/8 to 90/14. They are characterized by a narrow shaft and sharper point to pierce thread of woven fabrics. You can use it to stitch smooth, finely woven fabrics such as silk, chintz, or other lightweight fabrics. They’re also ideal for heirloom stitching, topstitching, and pin-tucks. This is because the needle enables perfect stitching.

Specialty Needles

  • Denim (jeans) needle: These are medium needles with sizes ranging from 70/10 to 110/18. They are thick with strong shafts and a very sharp point. You can use this needle on heavy woven fabrics such as canvas and even upholstery and types of denim

If while sewing you notice stitches skipping, you can try a larger needle size and sew more slowly.

  • Leather needle: These are also medium-sized needles ranging from 80/12 to 110/18. They have a wedge-shaped point that can penetrate fabrics made from leather. You can use it on leather, suede, vinyl, as well as other nonwoven fabric.

While using it, ensure to stitch accurately as the needle leave large and permanent holes that may damage the fabric. At the end of a stitch, tie the threads instead of backstitching. As it has a slight cutting point, do not use on woven or knit fabrics. If you are using synthetic leather, use a microtext needle instead.

  • Machine Embroidery needle: This is also medium-sized ranging from 70/10 to 90/14. It has a light point that is neither sharp nor round. It also has a larger eye and specially designed scarf to keep decorative threads from shredding hence prevent skipped stitches.

You can use for machine embroidery but make sure to use rayon, acrylic, or specialty threads.

  • Metallic: This has a specific size of 80/12. This is because it is designed specifically to be used with metallic thread.The needle’s eye is larger than that of an embroidery needle. It also has a fine shaft and sharp point preventing breakage or shredding of thread.

Remember to always use a metallic thread when using this needle.

  • Overlock needle: You can use these needles in sergers to sew over pieces of cloth so as to hem or seam. They have a sharp point that is suitable for all types of fabric. Always follow the instructions of your serger manufacturer when choosing the size system of the overlock needle.
  • Quilting needle: This is a medium-sized needle with sizes 75/11 and 90/14 only. It has a sharp special tapered point designed to prevent damaging fabrics when you stitch through thick layers and intersecting seams. You can use it when quilting, piercing, or even stippling.
  • Self-threading: This is also known as a handicap needle. It is mostly used by sewers with vision problems as it enables easier sewing. This is because it has a slot on one side of the eye so you can slide the thread easily. You can use this needle if you have problems with threading a needle as it is also a general-purpose needle.  It is only found in sizes 80/12 and 90/14.

Before cutting the thread at the end of sewing, ensure that you pull the sewn piece of fabric back away from the needle. This is so as to prevent the needle from unthreading.

  • Spring needle: This needle is available in specific sizes which are universal sizes 70/10 to 90/14, stretch sizes 75/11 and 90/14, and quilting sizes 75/11 and 90/14. It is designed with a wire spring above the point surrounding the shaft. This acts as a presser foot by preventing fabrics from riding up onto the needle while releasing the fabric when the needle rises.

You can use this needle on free-motion embroidery or quilting. You should, however, practice free-motion stitching with a heavy regular needle before you embark on your project. Always remember to put on safety glasses when working with this needle as they tend to break easily.

  • Stretch needle: This needle comes in sizes of 75/11 and 90/14. This has a deep scarf that prevents skipped stitching as it ensures the bobbin hook gets ever closer to the needle eye. You can use this needle if you are getting skipped stitches from using a ballpoint needle. You can also use it on lightweight knit.
  • Topstitch needle: It comes in three sizes namely 80/12, 90/14, and 100/16. It is characterized by an extra-large eye, an acute point, and large grooves that accommodate heavy threads or two strands of all-purpose thread. The extra acute point ensures accurate stitching. As the name suggests, you can use it when topstitching.

You should, however, use the smallest size of this needle when possible so as to avoid punching holes on the fabric you are working with.

  • Twin needle: These are unique needles that are basically two needles attached together to a single shaft. Their size measurement is also different from that used for other needles. The reading on the packaging of these needles is read and interpreted differently. The first number signifies the distance in millimeters between the two needles while the second number is the European measuring system of the needle size e.g. 1.6/70.

You can use this needle for double stitching but only on machines with zigzag capabilities. The throat plate should also have a hole that is wide enough for your needle.  You also need more than one thread spool holder as each needle will have its own thread source.

You can use them for heirloom or decorative stitching. This is because the needle can stitch parallel rows to each other in a single pass. The needles are available in different types such as metallic, stretch, denim, or embroidery. Twin hemstitch needles can also have one wing and one universal needle. Ensure you follow the manufacturer’s manual to the latter when operating a machine with two or more needles.

  • Triple-needle: These feature three needles attached to a single shaft. Their sizes are interpreted the same as those of a twin needle with the first number highlighting the distance among the three needles in millimeters. They are only available in 2.5/80 and 3.0/80 sizes. You can use this needle for triple topstitching.
  • Wing/ Hemstitch: It is only available in a medium and large size. These two sizes are 100/16 and 120/19 respectively.It is characterized by a shaft that is flared resembling a wing. This shape creates a decorative hole in a fabric that is tightly woven. You can use the needle for heirloom stitching as well as other heirloom embroideries like batiste or linen.

To ensure the stitching is effective, put a stabilizer under the fabric. This is to ensure the needle returns to the same needle hole more than once.

Tips to maintain your needle

If you notice a clunking sound on your machine during sewing, it may mean that your needle is either bent or dull. A bent needle can damage other parts of your machine such as the bobbin hook. You should, therefore, be alert to these first signs and replace the needle.

Having known the type of needle to use on the sewing machine, you will need to insert and replace the needle every so often. The periods are usually short and depend on the length of your project. It is however advised to change the needle after 8 to 12 hours of use.

Using a dull needle will affect the quality of your stitch and ultimately your final product. Before inserting a new needle, ensure it is a compatible needle system with your machine. The needle eye should also fit the thread you are using.

To prevent the needle from falling into the machine during replacement, place a piece of paper over the presser or foot area. Always push the shank all the way to the needle holder. This will ensure injuries are prevented from happening or needle breakage. 

The angle of the needle should also be correct. Turn the machine hand-wheel to make sure the needle is not in contact with any of the machine parts to prevent needle breakage.

If you have a dull needle and no replacements on hand, you can try to sharpen it. Because it is made of metal, the emery board found on nail clippers should allow you to sharpen it. Just be sure to apply a little oil as you sharpen the needle to reduce friction.

Final thoughts

Using the right needle for your fabric is the secret sauce for sewing beautiful things. With these tips, finding the right sewing machine needle for your project shouldn’t be a problem.

Melanie Asiba

Melanie is an author. She enjoys traveling, reading and trying out new things. In addition to writing for Apartment ABC. Connect with her at [email protected]

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