There’s been a little chatter about sewing machine needle choices over on our Viking Designer Gems Yahoo Group lately, so, I thought that between projects, it might be a good topic to talk about a bit. Let’s see if we can make you a Sewing Machine Needle Guru!
There are many different manufacturers of sewing machine needles, Schmetz, Organ, Klasse, Singer, Inspira to name a few. For my discussion, I’m going to stick general information that should apply to all types of needles, and leave out any specific differences between the manufacturers. Personally, I use Schmetz and have for decades. They have always been problem-free for me, made to fit my Viking sewing & embroidery machines, reasonably priced, and they are easy to find just about everywhere.
So, why such a big deal about sewing machine needles? Well, I think there are some sewers and embroiderers who may not realize how important it is to pick the correct needle. It literally can make or break your project. Perhaps for most of us out there in the sewing world, the reason for lack of importance placed on needle selection is probably due to sewing or embroidering mostly on average weight woven fabrics, using average weight sewing or embroidery threads. In those instances, using a 75/11 or 80/12 Universal sewing needle does a perfectly acceptable job. But, when you’re doing something special – using fabrics that are not “average”, or using something other than 40 wt. embroidery thread or 50 wt. sewing thread, then there needs to be some thought around which needle will perform the best for your special project. I bet you’ve made a fair investment in your project, why risk ruining it with big holes, seam puckering, or cut or pulled threads by using the wrong needle?
So, how do you pick out the best needle for a particular job, you ask? Especially a “non-average” project? Very good question, and glad you asked J Let’s take a look at some basic things you need to take into consideration when making the best sewing machine needle choice, as well as a little “Needle 101”, so you have a better understanding between the various sewing machine needle options, which will make that decision a whole lot easier.
Part of a Sewing Machine Needle
Okay, so let’s talk about the anatomy of a sewing machine needle:
(images courtesy of Schmetz website)
Shank: AT the top of the needle, you’ll find the shank (the very top of the needle at the top of the shank, is actually called the butt). This is the part of the needle you insert into the needle bar of your machine. The shank for a home sewing/embroidery machine will have a flat back. The flat back will always go towards the back of the machine. On the rounded front side of the shaft, you’ll see the size of the needle etched into the shaft, and for Schmetz needles, you’ll see the name, “Schmetz” also engraved into the shaft. Now, fair enough – even with my reading glasses on, it’s tough to see, so, you can use the clear bobbin cover, which has a built-in magnifying glass, to read the needle size. It is very important to seat your needle completely up inside the needle bar. I make sure I loosen the needle screw enough so the needle will slide up to the top of the opening without any resistance, and I can feel it hit the top of the opening in the needle bar. That way, I know the needle is seated correctly. Very important, as a needle not completely seated all the way up can end up hitting the bobbin hook with every stitch, and possibly damage the bobbin race area. You can use your Multipurpose tool to insert your needle, and I always put a little Post-It note over the throat plate hole, just in case. If you’ve been sewing long enough, chances are you’ve dropped a needle down into the bottom of your machine, necessitating a trip to the tech, to fish out the errant needle. I use a Post It note, because I can stick it to the deck of my machine, and not accidentally knock it away when I’m fiddling around changing the needle.
Shoulder: This is the sloping section that divides the shank from the shaft of the needle. Schmetz has started to color-code their needles on the shoulder, which for those of us with “mature vision”, it was a great idea. The top color designates the type of the needle, and the second color designates the needle size. Very helpful, and very smart of Schmetz, frankly, and wondered why it took so long! Those of use old time sewers were doing this with nail polish decades ago.
Blade: Located between the shoulder and the point of the needle, it is the diameter of the blade that determines the size of the needle. You may also hear it referred to as the shaft of the needle, and the diameter of the blade will determine the size hole made in your fabric.
Groove: The groove runs down the length of the blade of the needle, ending right above the eye. The groove allows the thread to rest within the groove, and it guides the thread to the eye of the needle. The groove helps to protect the thread from too much friction during the stitch process, and keeps it guided correctly through the eye of the needle. The size or depth of the groove can vary, based on the type of needle.
Scarf: This indentation on the back side of the needle, just above the eye allows the bobbin hook to pass by the needle and grab the top thread in order to form a lock stitch. The scarf size and depth can vary, based on the type of needle.
Eye: This is the hole where the thread passes through. The hole can vary in size. Shape and quality depending on both the type and size of the needle. Remember, we should never use our threader with a needle smaller than a 70, as the eye will be too small to accommodate the little threader hook. It is designed to be used with needles sized 70 to 120.
Point & Tip: The point is the tapering part of the end of the needle. The very end of the needle is the tip. The point and the tip vary, depending on the type of needle.
Needle Numbering System
Schmetz and most other home sewing machine needles will have two numbers divided by a slash, And with Schmetz needles, the letter, “H” at the end. For example, 70/10H. The smaller the numbers, the finer the needle. All parts of the needle are affected by its size, including the size of the needle eye. The first number is the European sizing system which actually indicates the diameter of the needle blade in fractions of a millimeter, and the second number signifies the American sizing system. The letter, “H”, according to Schmetz, stands for Hohlkehle, which in German means, “with scarf” (it actually translates to “groove”, but for the Schmetz company, it’s meant to indicate a needle with a scarf). Schmetz and other domestic sewing machine needle manufacturers make needles from 60/8 to 120/19. You should match the size of the needle to your fabric, and then take into consideration the weight thread you’re using, as well. Not all types of needles come in all sizes, so you may be limited with certain specialty needles in the sizes you can choose between. Here is a general rule of thumb regarding fabric weights to needle size. The basic logic is to use the smallest needle you can get away with, as larger needles make larger holes in your fabric:
- 60/8 to 65/9 – Very lightweight
- 65/9 to 75/11 – lightweight
- 80/12 to 9/14 – medium weight
- 90/14 to 100/16 – heavy weight
- 110/18 to 120/19 – very heavy weight
Types of Sewing Machine Needles
General Purpose Needles: These are the more commonly used needles, per Schmetz.
Universal: No color code. Slightly rounded point. General, all-purpose needle. Can be used with both woven and knit fabrics. Frankly, it will end up being my last choice, as there is always a better choice needle for your project, based on your fabric, thread, and number of layers of material being sewn or embroidered. But, in a pinch, it can be used on just about any fabric.
Jersey Ballpoint: Color code orange. Rounded, ball point (more rounded than a Stretch needle). This needle is designed to be used with knit fabrics.
Stretch: Color code yellow. Elastic materials, synthetic suede and highly elastic knitwear. Great choice for light-weight jersey knits, or knits with lycra. It has a medium ballpoint (less rounded than the Jersey Ballpoint). This needle has a specially designed eye and deep scarf to reduce skipped stitches. So, if you’re using a Jersey Ballpoint, and find that you’re experiencing some skipped stitches, try switching to a Stretch needle.
(Color Code Chart courtesy of Schmetz website)
Specialty Needles: These needles might be used less frequently, but if you’re a savvy sewer and embroiderer, they will be part of your needle arsenal.
Embroidery: Color code red. This needle has a light ball point, a wide eye and a groove. This needle was specially designed for machine embroidery with 40 wt. (and 30 wt) rayon and polyester embroidery thread. The special scarf, widened blade groove and larger eye help to protect embroidery threads, and guard against friction, since you’re embroidering through fabric and multiple layers of stabilizer. It is also a good needle choice for decorative stitching.
Gold Embroidery: Color code none (needle is gold). This is a newer needle option, and has a Titanium Nitride coating, to increase strength and lessen drag through the layers of fabrics and stabilizers. It has a slightly rounded point, like the regular embroidery needle. It is a good choice for coarser or densely woven fabrics, or fabrics that might need extra stabilizing (more drag and layers to punch through). The Titanium coating will resist drag, and is especially good if you’re using a sticky backed stabilizer.
(Needle Eye Comparison image courtesy of Schmetz website)
Topstitch: Color code light green. This needle is designed to be used with topstitching thread, which is very thick. So, this needle has an extra-long and large eye. The eye is the longest and largest of any needle type. It has an extra acute (sharp) point to help pierce the fabric and lessen drag, so the topstitch thread can more easily pass through the hole made by the needle. It also has a very deep blade groove to accommodate thick topstitch threads. This is my main “go to” needle for machine embroidery. I get the least amount of issues (thread shredding or thread breakage) with this needle. The caveat: Because the eye of the needle is so large and long, this makes for very long needle eye sides. So, the needle is intrinsically weaker at the eye than any other needle. It will tend to break at the eye easier than other needles, so you need to watch your embroidery projects carefully, so you don’t end up with a broken needle at the eye, and a ruined project!
Metallic: Color code pink. This needle has an elongated, polish eye and larger blade groove to help protect fragile metallic or synthetic filament threads. One of the things you can do to help reduce friction, is run a very thin bead of Tri Flo Teflon-based lubricant onto the edge of your metallic thread spool (can be found in bike shops or at some hardware stores, as well as online). Remember never to use a silicone-based thread lubricant with our Gems (such as Sewer’s Aid). Silicone can get gummy and cause all kinds of ickiness to occur in your bobbin area. Plus, silicone has this nasty habit of migrating to other areas of your machine. You don’t want it to migrate to your electronics or mother board of your machine.
Microtex (Sharp): Color code purple. Has a very slim, acute (sharp) point. This needle is designed to be used with micro fibers, polyester, silk, foils, artificial leather, Ultrasuede and coated materials. It is a very sharp needle. The very thin, acute point creates a very lovely, straight, even stitch. This is a great needle to use with delicate silks. I have also used this needle when making very small quilts with tiny pieces that require thinner thread (60 to 100 wt. thread for piecing, to reduce seam bulk). This needle comes as small as a 60/8, again, great for a very delicate, thin silk, or with making miniature quilts.
Quilting: Color code green. This needle has a special taper to the tip, which ends at a slightly rounded point. It is made especially for piecing and machine quilting. I like this needle a lot. It really does what it’s designed to do. It has a specially tapered design to allow for easier fabric penetration, and helps to eliminate skipped stitches. If you’ve ever pieced using your zig zag throat plate, and had your patchwork pieces shoved down into the oval throat plate openings, you’ll appreciate this needle.
Denim/Jeans: Color code blue. Modified medium ball point and has a reinforced blade (very important when punching through several layers of denim!) The point is specially designed to penetrate extra thick woven fabric, especially denim with little to no needle deflection (we all know what that is, if we’ve sewn long enough. It means that needle will deflect, strike the side of the throat plate to suddenly become an eye-seeking missile). This also helps to reduce skipped stitches or broken threads, as the needle is less likely to bend, and miss the bobbin hook as it passes by the needle eye underneath the throat plate. This needle works well for denims, heavy twills, duck, canvas, upholstery fabrics, vinyl and oil cloth.
Leather: Color code brown. This needle has a cutting (dagger) point. It is designed obviously to be used with leather, heavier artificial leather, heavy non-woven synthetics. For lighter weight synthetic leather or Ultrasuede, a Microtex needle is a better choice. Not to ever be used on knit or woven fabrics, as the tip is actually a little knife, and it will cut the fibers or knit. But for leathers, it does its job very well.
Hemstitch (Wing): Color code none (the needle has wings on either side of the blade to create holes in your fabric). Also called a Wing needle, this needle is used with woven fabrics, preferably natural fibers (linen, cotton, rayon) for heirloom sewing and to create decorative cutwork. Natural fibers do not have “memory”, as do synthetic fabrics, so your holes will stay open with natural fibers. For best stitch formation, you should use a light tear-away stabilizer underneath your work. Thread Pro makes a great product called, “Stitch & Ditch” which comes in a 3” wide roll. You can lay it down between your machine deck and your fabric, and it will help to create nice, crisp decorative stitches. It tears away very easily when you’re done. Schmetz also makes a Double Hemstitch needle, in a 2.5/100 size. It is a hemstitch needle and a universal needle with a 2.5 mm separation.
Twin/Triple: Schmetz makes several different twin and triple needles. Twin needles come in Universal, Embroidery, Jeans, Stretch and Metallic, and come in varying separation options (this is the distance in millimeters between the two needles, 1.6, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 4.0 and even 6.0, for example.) Make sure that your machine has a decorative stitch width that will accommodate the wider Twin needles, so, don’t purchase a 6.0 or 8.0 Twin needle if your machine cannot accommodate 6 or 8 mm decorative stitches! The triple needle is a Universal. They create two or three rows of stitches at the same time. Make sure you have your zig zag plate inserted, so you have the oval throat plate hole to accommodate this multiple needle. The Schmetz Stretch Twin needle has a blue plastic connector, and all other Schmetz Twin/Triple needles of any other type have a red plastic connector.
There are a few other specialty needles, but for our little discussion today, this probably will cover 99.9% of anything you might ever sew or embroider. So, now that you know all about sewing machine needles, let’s talk about how to decide which needle will work the best for your particular project.
Match your Needle to your Thread, Fabric, and Application
As I’ve mentioned above, the first thing I take into consideration is the type of fabric I’m using in my project, and the number of layers I can expect to be sewing or embroidering during the process. So, even though you might be sewing on denim, and think you could get away with an 80/12, if you’re constantly sewing seams, especially a welt seam that might be four layers thick, you might want to consider using a 90/14 or 100/16.
The next thing to consider when choosing a needle – both type and size – is the thread you’re planning on using. So, one factor may over rule another: You may be sewing on two layers of a medium woven, stable fabric that would call for a 75/11 or 80/12 needle, but let’s say you’re using 30 wt. cotton thread. The thread will dictate a larger sized needle, so the eye is larger. That will help to accommodate the thicker thread, and reduce friction through the eye of the needle. So, selecting a 90/14 needle would be more appropriate if you’re using a heavier weight thread, even on medium weight fabrics.
Here is a real-life example of trying to pick the most appropriate needle: I am getting ready to start a project that will be using Sulky 30 wt. cotton thread for my embroidery thread, with the Viking Collection #210 Handlook Needlework designs.
Love this collection, so pretty and has so much nice texture! There is also a “sister” collection, #243, Handlook Embroidery II that will be gracing my shelves, soon. These two collections are specially digitized to use 30 wt. cotton thread, but I’m embroidering on a stable double knit cotton fabric. What needle should I use? I’m going to test a 90/14 Stretch needle. This should give me enough room in the eye to accommodate the thicker thread, without risking cutting my knit fibers if I were to use my trusty Topstitch needle.
If you’re looking for some good thread knowledge, YLI has a knockout description of thread that everyone should bookmark or print off and keep in your resource notebook: YLI – Thread of Truth.
A Little About Thread Weights
Thread weights can be identified by a fixed weight number, the TEX number or by Denier. For us here in the USA, we tend to focus on the fixed weight measurement, but our sewing companions in other areas of the world use TEX or Denier measurements, which are actually more accurate, as those types of measurements will take into consideration both 2-ply and 3-ply threads. Fixed weight measurements really only applies to 2-ply threads. (remember with thread: The smaller the number, the larger the thread’s thickness.) The weight number actually indicates thread thickness. For those that want to know the details: Weight measurement is determined by the length of thread in kilometers that would be necessary to weigh 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), which means that “weight” on a package is actually an indication of length. Therefore, a thread with a thread weight of 50 would require 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) of the thread to weigh 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs). A 30-weight thread would require only 30 kilometers (about 18.6 miles) of the thread to weigh that amount, so a lower number indicates a thicker and heavier thread. An easier description I’ve found: The weight number is determined by measuring the length of 1 gram of thread. If 1 gram is 30 meters long, for example, then it is 30 Weight thread. The higher the weight, the finer the thread. But, I digress, and this could be an entirely separate (and lengthy) blog topic. So, suffice to say, you need to consider the weight of your thread as well as type and thickness of fabrics when choosing your needle size.
Picking The Best Needle for a Specialty Situation
Now, when to pick a specialty needle. Woven fabrics of average weight and thickness using an average sewing thread will do fine with a Universal needle. But, if I’m quilting, for example, and of course using an average weight woven quilting cotton and a 50 wt. cotton sewing thread, I would prefer to use a Quilting needle, because of its special properties. If I’m piecing a miniature quilt, and seam bulk is an issue, I will use a thinner thread (60 to 100 wt.), and switch to a 60/8 or 70/10 Microtex needle.
Sewing on silks, especially delicate, light weight silks like chiffons or charmeuses will do well with a lightweight Mictrotex. I will usually go with a 70/10 Microtex, unless the silk is very fine. If so, then I’ll try a 60/8, along with a finer silk thread (60 wt. to 100 wt.). A Microtex needles is also your needle of choice with Ultrasuede.
When I am machine embroidering on regular woven fabrics, my main choice is a Topstitch needle because it takes care of most of the issues I have with machine embroidery – thread shredding, thread breakage, skipped stitches or loopies. But, the Embroidery needle will work almost as well, and many folks use them without issues. I will use them if I’m embroidering on something “average” (average fabric, average embroidery threads, average amount/type of stabilizer).
Sewing on knits will give you three needle options: Universal, Stretch or Ballpoint Jersey. In a pinch, if I don’t have either of the specialty needles designed for knits on hand, I know I can probably get away with a Universal needle. However, I prefer to use a Stretch needle for most of my knit projects, both sewing or with machine embroidering, because it covers all possibilities (sort of the same logic in using a Topstitch needle with embroidering on woven fabrics), including stitching on a delicate single knit jersey. I will do some test stitching on some scrap fabric, to make sure my choice does not cut the knit fibers (more likely with a Stretch needle) , or produce skipped stitches (more likely with a Ballpoint Jersey needle). I will switch to the other needle if I experience either of those issues.
When sewing or embroidering with metallic threads, I will usually go to my trusty Topstitch needle, but if I’m still having any issues with shredding or breakage, I’ll try a Metallic needle, since the eye is specially polished. Along with a bead of Tri Flo on the spool, and also in keeping the metallic thread from kinking. I will try a thread stand with the thread much behind or in front of my machine to help the metallic thread to have enough room to “relax” as it travels to the machine. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll put in on my spool pin in the vertical position, and have the spool spin to pull the thread off, instead of pulling the thread from the top of the spool, and reduce the speed of my machine during embroidery.
If I am embroidering on a single layer high quality cotton quilting fabric, or, embroidering a very dense design. I will try a Microtex needle, so I can get the embroidery thread to pierce the fabric, instead of pushing the threads of the fabric to the side. This helps to reduce puckering, pulling, distortion or cupping. That, along with proper stabilizing.
If you’re getting broken threads while using a sticky backed stabilizer, try switching to a Gold Embroidery needle. The Titanium coating will help it pass through the adhesive with a little less friction, and may reduce your broken threads issue. A note with sticky backed stabilizers: Use one that has silicone in the sticky adhesive. It greatly reduces drag during the stitching process. I know Floriani includes this in their sticky backed adhesive formulation, and other stabilizer manufacturers may, also, so check with them to see if they do. I haven’t had a chance to use this needle, yet, but it will be going into my needle arsenal in the near future.
Wrapping it Up
Okay, that’s a LOT of information, but really, it’s what you need to know to be a knowledgeable sewer and embroiderer. As you venture out using a better specialty needle choices, the logic and information will start to sink in.
Lastly, my best advice is to change your needle frequently. The question always seems to come up, “How many stitches or hours of sewing until you need to change your needle?” Well, it kind of varies, based on whether you’re sewing on synthetics, which will dull your needle faster, or on natural fibers. And, how many thicknesses of fabric you’re stitching through, as well as how much stabilizer you’re using. Thread also comes into play, along with any encounters with pins. Finer, sharper needles will wear out faster than ball point needles or heavier needles. Titanium coated needles will last even longer. A very rough general rule of thumb – change your needle after four hours of sewing time, or after every project, whichever comes first. You may be able to get away with more time on the needle, or, in some of the above higher wear scenarios, less time. If you start to see skipped stitches, thread shredding, thread breakage, see pulled threads or damaged fabric in your project, hear a popping noise when the needle is making stitches, or, feel a burr at the end of the needle, it is high time to change that needle! You can check for a burr by dragging the needle across a pair of old pantyhose, or a fine single knit scrap. Schmetz has some very interesting progressively magnified images of a needle point that appears to look fine to the naked eye, but in fact, has quite the burr at the point: Schmetz Needle Dull Needle Close Up. I store my used needles in an old prescription pill bottle. When it’s reasonably full, I toss the entire thing into the trash.
Well, that’s about all I can pull out of my brain about sewing machine needles. Hoped this has help shed a little light on a pretty important topic. And, hope this has upped your Needle Know How! Here are some helpful links from Schmetz’ web site:
Cohen says, “Go sew!”