A sewing machine can really act the total ar$e if you choose the wrong needle for the thread or fabric you are sewing with.
If you dream of sewing insanely pretty dresses, you gonna need to know how to select the RIGHT sewing machine needle (and sewing thread) for the job.
In other words, you can’t put any old sewing machine needle into your machine and forgetaboutit.
Having the RIGHT needle can literally be the difference between sewing ecstatically and having a successful project.
Or losing your sanity and throwing your hands up in the air right before you chuck your fricking sewing machine out a second story window.
By the end of this post, you will know the anatomy of a sewing machine needle. And how to choose the RIGHT one for the thread and fabric you are sewing…
NOTE: This article contains affiliate links. Please read my full disclosure HERE.
First, A True Story
Once upon a time, I was trying to sew a knit dress on my Janome 415 sewing machine. Since it was ITY knit, I put a brand new Schmetz ballpoint/jersey needle in my machine. I laid out my fabric, pinned my pattern to it, cut it out carefully, and then sat down at my machine to sew.
It was a happy moment… until the stitching line kept puckering and skipping stitches.
I adjusted my tension. And still, it puckered and skipped stitches.
I cleaned my machine and dropped a few drops of sewing machine oil in all the hidden places my Janome 415 likes to be lubricated. Still, it puckered and skipped stitches.
I cursed. And still, it puckered and skipped stitches some more.
It beat me down. So I gave up.
And I concluded that something just had to be wrong with my sewing machine.
After all, Schmetz makes quality sewing machine needles. Check.
It was a brand new needle. Check.
My machine was clean. Check.
What else could it be?!
So I decided I’d schlepped my heavy ar$e sewing machine out to my car, placed her in the backseat, and take her in for a checkup at the nearest Janome dealership to me–26 miles away.
I wasn’t happy.
Finally, we arrived. And I lugged my machine into to shop. And took out a sample of the fabric I was attempting to sew.
Lady shop owner took one look at the needle in my machine and walked over to her notions wall, walked back, and replaced my needle with a Janome size 11 blue-tipped sewing machine needle.
Then, she sat down at my machine and sewed a sample with the fabric I had brought. And voila!
The damn machine sewed just beautiful. Lady shop owner got up and handed me a packet of those needles on the house…
But I still wasn’t happy.
I wanted an answer to this burning question:
Why didn’t my new brand Schmetz ballpoint needle perform properly? After all, I’d sewn successfully on this very machine with that very brand of needle before!
Lady shop owner didn’t blink. She didn’t answer me. She just walked away.
So being a quick study, I packed up my machine and my complimentary Janome size 11 blue-tipped sewing machine needle. And schlepped my heavy ar$e sewing machine back to my car.
As I drove back the 26 miles, I pondered these three takeaways:
- When you reach a certain age, you don’t waste your time explaining the obvious. The lady shop owner (probably in her 70’s) had no time for my nonsense.
- And just like we like custom made dresses, some sewing machines will only behave consistently when you use sewing machine needles custom made for them.
- And don’t fight with your machine–listen to your machine.
Pro tip: If you are in the market for a new sewing machine and you don’t want a diva, make sure you find out if the sewing machine you are considering will play nice with Schmetz needles.
Sewing Machine Needle Rules
Rule #1: New project, new needle. Some sources recommend you change your needle after every eight hours of sewing. I’m sorry, but how the heck do you actually track that. And in any case, do you really need one more thing to track?! No, you don’t.
Rule #2: NEVER sew over pins! When a sewing machine needle hits a pin, bad things can happen. It can damage the needle, your sewing machine or throat plate, or even end up in your eye. All this potential drama is not worth the few seconds you might save by sewing over a pin.
Rule #3: ALWAYS test stitch length using the sewing machine needle and thread you will be using along with two layers of project fabric. And if the garment section will be interfaced, make sure to interface the fabric before you test.
Rule #4: If a needle is leaving visible holes in your fabric or skipping stitches, stop sewing! You should change your needle to the correct size and type for the fabric and thread you are sewing with.
Rule #5: When in doubt, change the needle.
In fact, I recommend that you check the tip of your needle every hour or so of construction to see if it is dull.
Or, you could listen for the THUNK, THUNK, THUNK sound a dull needle makes when it pierces the fabric.
Anatomy of a Sewing Machine Needle
- Butt ~ The is the very top of the needle, opposite of the tip.
- Shank ~ With household needles, one side of the shank is flat.
- Shoulder ~ This is the sloping transition area between where the shank ends and the blade/shaft begins.
- Shaft (aka Blade) ~ The diameter of this area determines needle size.
- Groove ~ This is on the backside of the needle and it cradles and guides the thread into the eye. The length and size of the groove will vary based on needle type.
- Scarf ~ This is an indentation right above the eye. It allows the bobbin hook to grab the thread under the throat plate to create the lockstitch.
- Eye ~ This is the hole that the needle thread passes through. The size and shape of the eye will vary based on the needle type.
- Point ~ This is the area right above the tip. Its length, size, and shape will vary based on needle type.
- Tip ~ This is the opposite of the butt. Its length, size, and shape will vary based on needle type.
Did you know that a sewing machine needle–on average–pierces fabric anywhere from 600 to 1,000 times per minute?!
That’s a lot of work.
When you consider that factoid, it is clear that a sewing machine needle is an amazing piece of engineering in a tiny, humble package!
So respect the needle.
Choosing the Right Needle Size
Typically, both the American and European needle size is listed on the packet. European sizes range from 60 to 120, while American sizes range from 8 to 20.
A sewing machine needle can come in the following sizes, but not necessarily all: 60/8, 65/9, 70/10, 75/11, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16, 110/18, and 120/19.
Here’s how it works…
The European numbers indicate the actual diameter of the shaft (in hundredths of a millimeter), while the American numbers are arbitrarily assigned.
For example, a 60/8 is the thinnest needle while a 120/19 is the thickest.
So the lower the number, the finer the needle and the smaller the hole. And the thicker the needle, the stronger it is to penetrate thick fabrics without bending or breaking.
And there’s more…
Needles size 11 or 12 is a perfect match for a 40-wt thread.
A size 12 needle is a match for 50- or 60-wt thread.
And size 14 or 16 needles love 30- or 35-wt thread.
Which means that when you are choosing the needle size you will use, you need to ask yourself two questions…
- Is my fabric light, medium, or heavy?
- What is the weight of my thread?
To check if you’ve chosen the right needle for the thread you will be using, thread the sewing machine needle with the thread. The needle should glide over the thread freely.
Generally, the following needle sizes would be appropriate for the fabric types and weights listed below:
- Lightweight fabrics, such as chiffon, silk, organza, 65/9 or 70/11
- Medium weight, such as cotton, flannel, linen, synthetics, 80/12 or 90/14
- Heavyweight, such as denim, twill, cotton canvas, 90/14 or 100/16
- However, let’s keep it stupid simple to start.
For general sewing of medium-weight fabrics, you usually can’t go wrong with a size 80/12 universal needle.
But even size 90/14 universal will do.
Choosing the Right Needle Type
The standard needle system will also indicate the type of fabric a specific needle was designed for:
H ~ Home (household sewing machines)
J ~ Jeans/Denim (very sharp, thick needle that penetrates denim or canvas easily)
N ~ Topstitching (has a larger eye, so you can use a heavier thread or two strands of all-purpose thread)
L ~ Leather (has sharp and wedgy point that cleanly pierces leather and suede-like a sharp knife cuts through soft butter)
Here’s the deal…
The point and the eye vary based on needle type.
So when it comes time to choose a sewing machine needle for your project, you must also decide which needle type is appropriate.
And to do this, consider the following two things…
- Thread weight + thickness
- Fabric fiber content
Generally, it is a good idea to use the smallest needle size you can for the thread you are using.
Keep in mind that when you sew it is the point and tip of the needle that makes the FIRST contact with the fabric.
And it will pierce your fabric anywhere from 600 to 1,000 freaking times a minute!
So I think you can see why it is so important to choose a needle with the right point and tip for the fabric you’re sewing.
Here are some of the most common needle types used in garment construction and their uses…
Universal needles have a slightly rounded point that makes it versatile enough for sewing synthetics, natural woven fabrics, and some knits, such as Ponte (aka double) knits.
You can get a pack that comes with just one size of universal needle, for example, 80/12. Or you can get a variety pack that contains universal needles of various sizes.
Ballpoint/Jersey Needle (SUK)
Ballpoint needles are ideal for knits that don’t contain high amounts of Lycra, such as jersey and ITY knits.
Because of their more rounded tips, they slide between the yarns of knits so that they don’t snag or make holes.
Leather Needle (L)
A leather needle has a sharp, wedge point that is ideal for sewing real suede and leather, heavy faux suede and leather, vinyl, and other thick nonwovens without damaging them.
Pro tip: When sewing leather or suede, make sure that you lengthen your stitch length so that needle holes are not too close together!
Microtex Needle (M) (Ouch!)
Microtex (aka Sharp) needles are a slim needle with a very sharp point and are designed for sewing densely woven fabrics, such as…
polyester, faux suede and leather, microfibres, vinyl or laminates, silks, and high thread count fabrics (like Batiks).
Because Microtex needles pierce fabric cleanly, they produce a very straight stitch. This also makes them ideal for topstitching and edge stitching; buttonholes; and heirloom sewing.
Psst! Can I tell you a secret?!
I have a dream. And it involves me flaunting a drop waist, fit-n-flare suede dress in a red so crimson it makes me blush. I can’t wait till I’m such a master that suede doesn’t scare me!
Stretch Needle (S)
Stretch needles are the choice when sewing lightweight synthetic suedes; lightweight fine knits; and knits with lots of Lycra (Spandex).
If you are experiencing skipped stitches with a ballpoint needle, try this needle.
Topstitch Needle (N)
At some point in your sewing career, you will be topstitching. And when you do, you want a beautiful, perfectly straight line with even stitches.
To accomplish this, you can use a topstitch needle in combination with a straight stitch throat plate and/or single-hole presser foot.
Topstitch needles have an extra large eye and a deeper groove to accommodate thicker topstitching thread or the use of multiple threads simultaneously.
And the extra sharp point makes for precise and accurate straight stitches.
Twin Needles Needle (ZWI)
Twin needles consist of two needles that share a single shaft. They allow you to stitch two parallel lines simultaneously.
On the packet, the first number tells the distance between the two needles. And the second number is the needle size.
Pro tip: If you want to play with twin needles but your machine doesn’t have a second spool. You still can do it. Yep! Simply take a pencil–yes, a pencil–and tape it to the side of your machine with washi or duct tape. Now, you have a second DIY spool.
Now, how cool is that?!
Quality Brands of Sewing Needles
Schmetz is the most well known and readily available sewing machine needle brand.
Each packet comes labeled with the needle type and size. For example, on Schmetz needles packets, the 130/705H needle system indicates that the shank length is 130, the 705 lets you know that the back of the shank is flat, and the H designates this needle is for home sewing machines.
And every Schmetz has the needle size engraved on the shank. But it is only visible with a magnifying glass, and even then it is difficult. Maybe it is just my old eyes, but really, what’s the point.
In addition, Schmetz also color code their sewing machine needles for our convenience. The top color band indicates the needle type and the bottom color band, the size.
Because Nancy Z of Nancy’s Notions said so! And if you can’t trust Nancy to give you the real dope on anything sewing-related, you can’t trust anyone.
These needles are the result of 125 years of German experience. I know that sounds impressive!
These are titanium needles, which means they are coated with titanium. This titanium coating provides a smoother stitching experience by allowing the thread to glide smoothly through the eye of the needle as you stitch.
But wait! The best part is…
Titanium also extends the life of a sewing machine needle from a measly eight hours to a whopping 40 hours!
Which is crazy!
How to Store Used Needles
Now, if for some legitimate reason you need to store a needle that you’ve already used, leave a short length of thread in it before returning it to its original storage case. This way, you’ll know which needle(s) have been previously used.
How to Discard Sewing Machine Needles
Just wrap the pointed ends with tape and toss.
Or, you could collect spent needles in an old prescription bottle. Once full, discard the bottle with pins.
Bonus: What about Hand Needles?
There will come a time when you will have to actually sew something by hand.
And when that time comes, you will need to have on hand:
- 16 sharps hand needles for woven fabrics (the larger the needle size, the shorter and finer the needle); and
- ballpoint hand needles for working with knits.
Choosing the right sewing machine needle has a HUGE impact on stitch quality.
And it is one of the least expensive notions required for achieving a professional end result.
To make sure that you choose the right needle, choose your fabric, then your thread, and finally your needle.
Because it is the fabric and thread weight that, ultimately, determine the right needle for the job.
Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!
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