Whether you’re a new sewist or an old hand like me, there is never an end to learning more about the craft of sewing. I thought it would be a good exercise to take the time to write a series on all the small details of sewing that often get overlooked. To start off the series, let’s talk about machine needles.
Anytime I teach a newbie how to sew, they are surprised to learn that machine needles are interchangeable and specialized for different fabrics. The question then becomes, which needle should be used? There are a few keys things to think about when selecting a needle.
1. Not only should the needle match the fabric, it should match the thread.
2. The thread needs to pass through the eye of the needle freely. A too-small needle will cause the thread to fray and break.
3. The needle should be small enough to enter the fabric without damaging it, but strong enough to pierce the fabric without being bent or deflected.
4. A needle that is too fine for the fabric can lead to needle breaks.
Needles come in many sizes ranging from fine to heavy duty and use a two-number system to denote size. One number is the diameter of the needle shaft in millimeters (European) ranging from 60 to 120 and the other number is the American equivalent ranging from 8 to 19. The bigger the numbers, the thicker the needle. A 60/8 needle is the finest while a 120/19 is the strongest. Keep in mind that the numbers can sometimes be reversed so a 60/8 is the same as a 8/60.
Here’s a quick rundown of the best needles sizes to use with different fabrics.
9/65 – Delicate fabrics such as net, chiffon, silk, voile, fine lace, organdy, and organza.
11/75 – Lightweight fabrics such as lawn, batiste, sheers, taffeta, and chiffon velvet.
14/90 – Medium weight fabrics such as gingham, poplin, muslin, linen, jersey, satin, and flannel.
16/100 – Medium heavy fabrics such as denim, gabardine, tweed, and drapery fabrics.
18/110 – Heavy fabrics such as dungaree, ticking, canvas, and upholstery fabrics.
Needle points vary from rounded, allowing the needle to slip between fabric threads instead of piercing them, to sharp for denser fabrics such as denim or leather or for sewing through many layers of fabric. Universal needles are a mix of the two – sharp enough to pierce the fabric if the fabric doesn’t give way to the needle’s slightly rounded point. Needle packages are usually labeled with the types of fabrics they are best for: leather, denim, stretch, machine embroidery, quilting, etcetera, so that helps to simplify things. Here’s a handy chart to reference if you’d like even more details on needle points.
Machine needles are pretty inexpensive, so it shouldn’t be hard to keep a variety of sizes on hand. Even if you tend to stick with the same fabrics, keep a supply of the proper needles in your sewing kit so you can replace a bent or dull needle immediately. Bent needles cause fabric to draw to one side while blunt needles cause pulls in the fabric. Also, make sure your needle is properly and securely inserted into the needle clamp, if not, your machine could skip stitches or not stitch at all.