What Do The Numbers on a Sewing Machine Needle Mean?


If you enjoy sewing, you’ve probably noticed that your sewing machine needles have numbers on them. What do these numbers mean?

The numbers on sewing machine needles represent the different needle sizes available. There are two main sizing systems for sewing machine needles: The European and American sizing systems. The American sizing system is numbered from 8 to 18 while the European sizing system is numbered from 60 to 110. On both sizing systems, the lower the number, the finer the needle, and the higher the number, the larger the needle.

On needle packaging, these numbers are usually prominently displayed and divided by a slash (/). For example, 90/14. This article will dive deeper into everything you need to know about needle sizes. It will also guide you on the best sewing machine needle sizes to use and how to identify them.

What do the numbers on a sewing machine needle mean?

The numbers on a sewing machine needle denote its size. Every sewing machine needle has two numbers divided by a slash, for example, 90/14. The larger the number, the thicker the needle.

The larger number to the left is for the European sizing system, which ranges from 60 to 120. The numbers on the right represent the American sizing system, which ranges from 8 to 20.

Common sewing machine needle sizes are 60/8, 70/10, 75/11, 80/12, 90/14 and 100/16.

What Are The Best Sewing Machine Needle Sizes To Use?

The numbers on sewing machine needle package correspond to the thickness of the fabric you can sew with the needles. The larger needle size numbers mean that you can use the needle to sew thicker fabric.

For instance, needle sizes of 60/8, 65/9 and 70/10 are used for very fine fabric like fine lace, organza and voile. On the other hand, 110/18 is best for very heavy fabrics like heavy denim, heavy canvas and upholstery fabric.

Here are some more specific examples:

  • 60/8 – used for very fine fabric like lingerie, silk and fine lace.
  • 70/10 – Net, Chiffon Lingerie, silk and cotton
  • 75/11 – Voile, Chiffon, Organza, Denim, Satin, Sweater, Silk, Dress Shirt, Lycra, Spandex etc.
  • 80/12 – Tricot, Silks, Canvas
  • 90/14 – Syn Velvets, Poplin, Linen, Light Wool, Jersey, Muslin etc.
  • 100/16 – Cord, Denim, Heavy Suiting, Corduroy etc.
  • 110/18 – Heavy Denim, Leather, Upholstery Fabric, Faux Fur etc.
  • 120/20 – Super heavy fabrics: Cord, Denim, Heavy Suiting

For convenience, buy packets of sewing needles with assorted sizes so that you can quickly and easily switch to a suitable-sized needle as needed.

Choosing the Right Sewing Machine Needles For Your Project

Picking the correct needles for your project is just as important as choosing the fabric, thread and stabilizers you are going to need. Using the right sewing machine needles can mean the difference between skipped stitches, broken threads and the perfect professional-looking seam.

What to consider when choosing a sewing machine needle

  • Thickness – Different needle sizes vary by thickness. Thicker needles sew through thicker, heavier fabrics while thinner needles are, of course, suited for fine fabrics like your silk and chiffon.
  • Purpose – Also, different needle types have different shaped tips to best penetrate different types of fabric. For instance, leather-specialized needles are sharper than most other types.
  • Thread – when using a fine, delicate thread, using a smaller needle size is recommended.

The Parts of the Needles

Sewing machine needles consist of several parts:

  • The Shank (the flat and rounded part): This is the part you use to mount the needle on to the machine. It is the flat and round part you see on the needle.
  • The Shaft: This is the length that spans from the end of the shank to the tip of the needle. It includes the Groove, the eye and the tip of the needle.
  • The Groove: This is the rest of the needle that spans from the shaft down to the pointy tip, including the eye and the tip.
  • The Eye: This is the part where the sewing thread passes through. The eye must work with the thread. For example, a topstitch needle has a bigger eye to accommodate a thicker thread.
  • The Point: Depending on the needle’s use, the point can be sharp or rounded. Standard needles are sharp while ballpoint needles have a rounded point like a ball.

The Colors of  The Needles

Some needles are color coded. Manufacturers typically use colors to indicate the type of needle. However, when you are buying machine needles, don’t trust the color alone. Always make sure that you are picking the needle you want by looking at the text on the package.

This is because different manufacturers do not use color codes consistently. But if you stick to one brand, you should find similar needle types packaged with the same color on the package.

Sewing Machine Needle Types

In addition to looking at the different needle sizes, you also need to use the right type. Here is a list of the most common types of needles and their uses:

  • Universal Needles: This is the most common needle type. They have a slightly rounded tip and can sew through all kinds of fabrics including stable and woven knits. They are suitable for both natural and synthetic fibers.  Just a couple of packets of assorted sewing machine needle sizes will have multiple fabrics covered.
  • Ball Point Needles: They have rounded tips enabling them to slip through fibers without cutting through them. These can be used for knit fabrics and tightly woven fabrics with low stretchability. They can be used for cotton, polyester, and polyester cotton. This type is especially suited for stretch fabrics which are prone to forming needle holes.
  • Jersey Needles: These are made specifically for knit fabrics having a medium stretch factor. They have rounded tips designed to slip through fabric fibers without causing laddering or holes.
  • Leather Needles: These are a must for sewing leather and vinyl.  They have a sharp point for piercing through the fabric. Just make sure that you lengthen your stitches in addition to using the leather needle so you don’t perforate the fabric.
  • Quilting Needles: These are strengthened to pierce through numerous layers of fabrics and batting. Doing this helps to prevent the needles from breaking or bending. These needles are also great to use in bag making which requires you to sew through thicker & interfacing layers.
  • Stretch Needles: These are specially designed for needles with a very high stretch factor such as dance lycra and swimwear fabric. It is also often used to sew elastics as well.
  • Topstitching Needles: These are strengthened needles that have large eyes for passing a thick thread. They can easily sew through several layers, making them a special type of needle.
  • Sharps/Microtex: Sharps are not only finer and sharper than your normal universal needles, but they are also strengthened. This means that they can easily sew through thin vinyl, silks, applique and also tightly woven fabrics.
  • Denim Needles: Suitable for sewing thick and dense denim. Thicker sewing machine needle sizes are also available. These are strong enough to sew you a pair of jeans or overalls.
  • Twin Needles: This is a special type of needle that has twin needles joined at the top. They are suitable for sewing hems in stretch garments.

How Long Do Sewing Needles Last?

Needles are not made to last that long. It is common practice to replace sewing machine needles after about 6 – 8 hours of usage. This might seem like a short lifespan but since needles are cheap and easy to replace, why not do it frequently. When you do this, you will get good and consistent results whenever you sit down at your sewing machine to sew.

Also, if you accidentally hit a pin while sewing, then you should stop and immediately change the needle since you will have a damaged needlepoint.

How To Replace A Sewing Machine Needle?

Make sure that the sewing machine is powered off. You’ll then need to remove the old needle if it is still in place. On most sewing machines, there is a screw that will need to be loosened at the top right. Doing this will allow you to safely, and quickly remove the spent needle.

Slotting in the new needle should be easy. Just make sure you insert the needle the right side up. To do this, check the needle’s shank. As long as it is intact, insert it into the groove. Then, tighten the screw to fasten the needle in place. Just make sure that you’ve got the correct needle size and type. 

What if you use the wrong sized needle? What Happens Then?

Different things can happen depending on the wrong needle size that you use. Here are some of the things you can expect: 

  • When the needle is  too thin – When you use a needle that is too thin, it means that you have chosen a lower number than recommended for your fabric. The needle will snap easily. It might also bend a little, which is much worse. For example, if you use a fine needle on denim, it will surely bend, snap or skip stitches.

You might also get a bird nesting on the back of your fabric, which often happens when you make an ugly knot.

  • When the needle is too thick – This means that you have chosen too high a number. When the needle is too thick, you’ll end up with wrinkles on the fabric. The needle will also leave holes in the fabric, or cause drags and snags on the fabric. This won’t look good at all, even though the needle will not be broken or damaged.

In either case, the result will be less than optimal, so you should make sure that you are using the right needle size. Therefore, before you start sewing, always check the needle.

What type of needles are the best?

The best needle for you will depend on your sewing style and the machine you use. There are many different sewing machine needle brands to choose from. If you are just starting out, you are going to have to experiment with a few different needle choices to find the best fit for you and your sewing machine.

Some needles will not work well at all on your machine. Others will work extremely well. Different brands and different needle types will give you different results. If you are having problems with your needle, try another brand or the next size up or down.

Generally speaking, though, you are most likely to get the best results from using needles made by your sewing machine brand. For instance, if you are using a Singer, consider using Singer needles. If you have a Janome machine, try their needles first.

Also, if you change machines, you’ll find that the machine you are currently using will probably need slightly different needles than the machine you first learned to sew on.

Final Thoughts

Universal needles are the kind of needles that are most used on sewing machines. Not all needles are universal, however. There are seven other types of needles for special sewing purposes and for different types of fabric.  

The strongest needles for sewing machines currently are the 120/20 needles. This is the largest size and only need to be used for the heaviest fabrics like denim and leather. This number refers to the thickness of the needles.

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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