There is no more important part of sewing, quilting, and embroidery that you need to know than about needle usage. You may have sewn for years without realizing the importance of specific attributes of a sewing machine needle, and my goal is to show you how to choose the right needle for your next project. I will also discuss how often you should change your needle, and a few other tips, so please read on and enjoy.
Anatomy of a Sewing Machine Needle
The key features of a standard sewing machine needle are its shank, shaft, front groove, scarf, point, and eye.
The needle’s shank (#1 in fig. 1) is the thicker top portion of a needle that is inserted into a sewing machine’s needle clamp, and most often has a rounded front and flat back. The flat back of a needle shank seats the needle in its correct position. This is something to consider when purchasing a machine, as machines that require completely round shank needles are still in production. These machines, in general, may be more difficult to insert needles into, especially for those who have poor eyesight. I have had literally dozens of customers come in with their machines asking for repair, and the reason why their machine wasn’t sewing was due to the needle being in backwards. It’s really not easy to put a needle in backwards, but somehow they manage to do it. In nearly all sewing machines, the flat back surface of the needle shank faces the rear of the machine. There are some exceptions, examples are Singer’s popular Model 221 Featherweight, and Janome’s 1600P, on which the needle is inserted sideways. Always check your owner’s manual if you forget how to insert your needle.
The needle’s shaft (#2 in fig. 1) is the body of the needle below the shank. The shaft thickness determines the needle size, and this size is represented by numbers or a set or numbers. The smaller the number the thinner the needle, and the larger the number the thicker the needle. 70/10, 80/12, and 90/14 are number sets of the three most popular sewing needle sizes. These numbers represent (European size/American Size). The European size is in one hundredths of a millimeter, so a size 80 is eighty one hundredths of a millimeter, or .8mm thick. The American size comes from the old Singer needle sizing standard. Some people refer to the needle size by either the European size or the American size; for example “size 80” or “size 12”, instead of the full number set of “80/12”. These numbers themselves aren’t that important. What is important is to get the right size needle for the thread thickness and fabric type you are sewing on.
The needle’s front groove (#3 in fig. 1) is the slit above the needle eye, on the front side of the needle shaft, and should be large enough that the thread you are using will lay into it. The front groove is directly proportional to the needle size, so this means when you use a thicker thread you should be using a thicker needle so that your thread will lay into its front groove. When properly matched, your sewing machine will be able to form its best stitch. By laying into the front groove, the thread on the front side of the needle will not form a loop on the bottom of the fabric as the needle ascends. In contrast, the thread that is on the back side of the needle does not lay in a groove, and when the needle ascends it forms a loop at the needle eye. This loop is essential for the formation of a stitch.
The needle’s scarf (#4 in fig. 1) is an indentation on the back of the needle, specifically designed to facilitate the stitch formation by allowing the hook to pass closer to the center of the needle. It is important to know if your machine takes a scarf-less needle like the 130/705 B needles used by an old Bernina 830. It is important to understand that the scarf, or lack of a scarf, affects one of the most important adjustments of a sewing machine: the hook-to-needle clearance. On most modern sewing machines, the distance between the hook and the needle, when the hook is directly behind the needle, is less that the width of a hair. If a particular sewing machine is meant to use a needle with a scarf, and a scarf-less needle is inserted into the machine, the needle would hit the hook on every stitch, and possibly cause needle and/or thread breakage. If a needle with a scarf is inserted into a machine that calls for a scarf-less needle, the larger than normal hook-to-needle clearance may cause stitches to be skipped.
The needle’s point (#5 in fig. 1) is the sharp tip that penetrates your sewing project, and its shape varies among needle types. Most people would think that needle tips are of only one sharp and pointy type, but the truth is that some needle points are rounded, or slightly rounded. These rounded needle points are meant to deflect off a fabric’s woven fibers. Until the advent of synthetic knits in the 1950s and 1960s, needles generally had a sharp point. When home sewers began sewing on knit and double-knit fabrics in the 1960s and 1970s with these sharp sewing machine needles designed for cotton, they often found that their fabric snagged and/or developed runs near the seams. For this reason, the more rounded ball point needle was invented. Instead of piercing and damaging the knit’s weave, a ball point allows the needle to part the individual fibers of the weave to form the stitch. A needle slightly less rounded than a ball point, but more rounded than a sharp, the “universal” needle will suit the needs of the majority of sewing applications. The intent of the universal needle is to be able to sew on the widest possible variety of fabrics with a single needle. This needle of course will not satisfy every sewing application. Often customers will come into our shop with a sample of their straight stitch on a certain fabric. They will show me how their stitching does not appear to be laying straight and will assume that their machine has a tension or mechanical issue. In fact, it may simply be that they are not using the appropriate needle. The real issue here is that, for the particular fabric and needles they have chosen to use, the needle is deflecting off the fabric’s fibers and giving the appearance of a staggered stitch. Using a needle with a sharp, non-rounded type point can help minimize the appearance of the stitch being staggered by deflecting off the fibers.
Last but not least, the eye (#6 in fig. 1) of a needle is the hole in the lower end of the needle through which thread passes. Needle size and type determine size and shape of a needle eye. For instance, machine embroidery needles, topstitch needles, and metallica needles always have larger eyes. Anyone who has sewn with metallic thread can testify to the fact that having the right needle is essential. Metallic thread is notorious for breaking with the wrong needle type, and this thread breakage is directly due to the needle’s eye being too small. A needle eye that is larger can accomodate larger threads or decorative threads better.
Most “household” (non-industrial) sewing machines require a flat shank needle, but for instance, Janome’s 1600P-DB and 1600P-DBX are examples of household machines that call for round shank needles. On all packs of needles, there is an identification code that specifies if the needle will fit your machine. This code is called the “needle system”, and for most sewing machines the system is “130/705” or “15×1”. I also sell DBx1 needles, BLx1 needles, 287WH needles, and ELX705 needles. Some of these needles are round shank, while others, like the ELX705 needles are extra long. Your sewing machine owner’s manual will specify which needle system your machine uses, and you should not use another type of needle in your machine.
I have personally never seen where a particular brand of needle has caused poor sewing reselts; however I have seen where a particular needle brand has improved machine embroidery results. I am talking about Organ’s Embroidery Needles. For whichever reason, since I have started using these needles in my embroidery projects, I have noticed the stitches, even when embroidering with metallic thread, seems to be perfect nearly 100% of the time. Over time you may find that a particular brand of needle better suits you for the type of sewing you do. Needles are relatively cheap, so make sure to try a few brands of needles and see what works best for you.
Needles are produced in many types. These types are produced with special traits that are suitable for different kinds of sewing, quilting, or embroidery. Needles are labeled in their packages, and letters on the needle package, and often on the needles themselves, also indicate the type of needle. For example, a universal needle would read as follows: 130/705 H. H = Hohlkehle in German meaning “with scarf”. It’s amazing how small the identification marks on the actual needles are. You might get out your magnifying glass one day and have a look for yourself. The needle type can be extremely important for certain sewing applications, so when your sewing results will face the scrutiny of judges at a quilting show, or when you demand perfection of your sewing results for some other reason, always use the appropriate needle type.
Some Common Needles types
- Universal – a slightly rounded needle point type; made for the widest range of sewing applications
- Ballpoint – the most rounded needle point type; for knitted material, as well as for foundation garments and curtain material
- Sharp – the least rounded needle point type; for woven fabrics, also used in heirloom sewing and straight-stiching
- Stretch – for highly elastic synthetic knitwear, such as lightweight or silk jerseys
- Microtex – for silk and microfiber fabrics
- Leather – for leather or artificial leather
- Denim – for jeans and similiarly densely woven materials; also for artificial leather, waxed cloth, and vinyl
- Topstitching – larger needle eye; many times used for making smaller decorative holes in heirloom projects
- Embroidery – for embroidering, especially with metallic or decorative threads
- Metallic (Metafil and Metallica) – for sewing with metallic threads
- Quilting – for quiliting and patchwork
- Hemstitch (wing) – for heirloom sewing; used for adding decorative holes
- Twin (double) – for pintucking and decorative stitches
- Triple – for decorative stitching
How Often Should I Change My Needle?
The needle condition should be checked and the needle replaced regularly. While it may be easy to see that your needle is bent, a needle’s point is very small. Examining a needle tip with your finger can be a way to feel if the tip has broken off. A defective needle may not only damage your project, but can also damage your sewing machine if the needle fully breaks. Many times when a needle point is broken or dull, you can hear a distinctive popping sound as the needle enters the fabric. This is especially apparent when doing machine embroidery, because of the thickness of the embroidery stitching, and the consistent speed of the machine. Instead of waiting for your needles to wear out, I always recommend replacing them at a set interval. So how often should you change your needle? While there is no “magic answer”, I suggest that you change your needle every 5 bobbins of thread used. A typical bobbin has enough thread on it to sew 20,000 stitches, so imagine the condition a needle’s point might be in after poking through even the softest material 100,000 times! Most of the machines I sell come with 5 bobbins, and I suggest filling them all. Then, when you have sewn and these bobbins are used up, change your needle. Get in the habit of changing your needle regularly and you can count on better sewing results.
Needles are relatively inexpensive, but very important, so don’t overlook them! Our sewing machines are precision machines, and are made to work well with the right needles. Always use the right needle for the job, and change your needle frequently for best sewing results.