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When I first started sewing, I used the exact same type of needle for MONTHS. The pack of needles came with my machine, so I thought they worked for every project. I only changed my needle when it broke or bent, and I sure didn’t consider my fabric or thread type before I started sewing.
Fast forward many years and sewing life lessons learned, and I can now tell you picking the right needle for your purpose makes a HUGE difference in your success. Choosing the wrong needle can damage the machine, the needle, and the fabric. Not good!
Thus, let’s talk about sewing machine needle sizes, sewing machine needle types, and how to pick the right needle to use for your projects.
I’ve even put together a free printable sewing machine needle chart and guide that you can print out at the end of this post to keep next to your machine for future reference! And if all this information seems overwhelming, I’ll give you a rundown at the end of which needles I think are best to keep in your sewing box.
Hand Sewing Needle vs. Sewing Machine Needle
This post will focus on the different types of sewing machine needles. A sewing machine needle is solid at the top of the needle, and the eye of the needle is located at its point. A needle used for sewing by hand, in contrast, will have the eye at the very top of the needle. Just remember, these are not interchangeable.
Here’s a picture comparison of the two.
Parts of a Sewing Machine Needle
First, to understand how different types of sewing machine needles differ, it’s essential to know the parts of a needle.
At their top, household sewing machine needles are round on the front side and flat on the back. This makes sure you don’t insert the needle the wrong way when setting up your machine. This fatter, top part of the needle is called the shank.
Below the top of the needle, there is the shaft, which is the round part with a groove through which the thread will travel down before going through the eye of the needle, which is the hole. The needle ultimately ends in a point or tip.
Above the eye of the needle is a short groove called a scarf, which allows the hook of the sewing machine to pick up the needle thread to form the stitch.
Changing the size or shape of the eye, shank, scarf, groove, or tip changes the function of a needle, as we will shortly see.
General Rules For Choosing A Sewing Needle
In most cases, you will pick your sewing machine needle size and type based on your fabric and thread characteristics. Now, let’s delve into that.
Sewing Machine Needle Sizes Explained: What Do the Numbers Mean?
Needles come in different sizes and are described by both an American and European size. This size describes the thickness of the shaft. To avoid confusion, when purchasing needles, you will see the European number followed by a backslash and then the American number—for example, 90/14. There is an easy-to-remember correlation between the European number and the exact diameter of the needle. A 100 needle is 1 mm in diameter. Thus, a 90 needle is 0.9 mm in diameter, and a 110 needle is 1.1 mm in diameter.
|European||American||How It’s Written|
The Rule of Sewing Machine Needle Sizes: The smaller the needle number, the finer the needle, and the finer the thread it can accommodate. The larger the needle number, the thicker the needle, and the thicker the thread it can accommodate.
Sewing Machine Needle Size: Considering Fabric Weight
In general, choose your sewing machine needle size based on the weight of the fabric you want to sew. (We’ll be discussing the types of needles right after this.)
Fabric weight is determined by the thickness and composition of the threads it is made of and the density of these threads. A thicker, or more heavyweight fabric, needs a thicker needle to be able to penetrate it. A lighter, delicate fabric will be damaged by a thick needle and thus needs a finer needle.
Here are a few examples of which needle to use for which fabric below. Since each type of fabric comes in different weights, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of which needle to use for each type of fabric. Take denim, for instance. There are thin, lightweight denim fabrics, and then there are very heavy denim fabrics. The thicker fabrics will need a thicker needle.
So, take this as a general guide to help you learn rather than the set-in-stone rule!
|Fabric Weight||Examples||Needle Size|
|Lightweight||Gauze, crepe, chiffon, tulle, organza, silk, voile, tricot, net, lace||65/9 – 75/11|
|Medium-weight||Taffeta, quilting cotton, jersey, satin, poplin, seersucker, broadcloth, rayon, linen, knit, elastic, thin denim, velvet, gingham||75/11-90/14|
|Heavy-weight||Upholstery, heavier denim, vinyl, corduroy, gabardine, tweed, canvas, velour, wool, leather, oilcloth||100/16|
|Very heavy-weight||Extra heavy denim, leather, or upholstery||110/18|
Sewing Machine Needle Sizes: Thread Weight and Type
Also, make sure to take into account the weight and type of thread you are using. A larger needle accommodates a heavier thread. If you are using a small thread with a large needle, the needle’s point will leave large holes in the fabric that are not fully filled by the fine thread. This can mimic a tension problem and is not aesthetically pleasing. If you use a heavy thread with a fine needle, you risk skipped stitches, broken threads, and what may also look like a tension problem when the thread has difficulty running through the needle’s eye.
Types of Sewing Machine Needles
There are three main types of general-purpose sewing machine needles. The best type of sewing machine needle for your project depends on the fabric type: woven or knit.
- Universal point needles are general-purpose needles with a slightly rounded point. They are “jack of all trades, but master of none.” As such, they will work for most woven or knit fabrics. When in doubt of which needle to pick for my project, I always start with an 80/12 or 90/14 universal needle.
- Ballpoint needles, or jersey needles, have rounded points and slip between loops of knit fabrics rather than piercing the fabric, which leads to fabric damage or skipped stitches. Because these are made specifically for sewing on knits, choose a ballpoint needle when you know your fabric is a knit.
- Sharp point needles, or Microtex needles, have a sharp point and are especially good for piercing high-density woven fabric. Because of the sharp point, they can pierce the fabric cleanly with minimal resistance. Choose this type of needle for tightly woven natural fabrics like silk or for very heavyweight wovens. These are also great for topstitching, which may require sewing through several layers of fabric and interfacing.
What are the types of specialty needles?
While the above three general-purpose sewing needles cover many projects, there are also specialty needles that accomplish certain tasks even better. Most sewing tasks will be served well using the correct needle from the all-purpose needles, but it’s important to know other options when it comes to troubleshooting sewing issues.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I’ll give you some examples.
Topstitch needles have a very large eye, a very sharp point, and an enlarged groove to accommodate thick, decorative threads necessary for topstitching multiple layers.
Stretch needles are a “specialty” version of a ballpoint needle and thus also do not damage stretch fabrics when sewing. Stretch needles are slightly less rounded at the tip than ballpoint needles and are useful for preventing skipped stitches on elastic materials such as rib knit, Lycra, or spandex. They have a modified scarf and eye, allowing or better pickup of the top thread by the hook.
These very strong needles have a long, sharp point and work well on tightly woven heavyweight fabrics such as denim and canvas.
Metallic needles have elongated eyes, allowing metallic and other specialty threads to pass through with minimal friction, thus decreasing thread breakage.
Machine Embroidery Needle
These are used for machine embroidery with rayon, polyester, and even cotton machine embroidery threads. The point is medium-sharp (between a ballpoint and sharp needle), and the needle has an oversized eye and groove. These features protect delicate threads against extra friction while embroidering.
When sewing with leather, choose a leather needle, a wedge-shaped needle that resembles an arrowhead. The needle pierces the leather without tearing or damaging it or causing skipped stitches. Skipped stitches are formed if the leather grabs the needle and doesn’t let go as the stitch is formed. Do not use leather needles on knits or woven fabrics!
Quilting needles have a special taper to their sharp point, making them perfect for machine quilting, especially piecing. Their tapered design penetrates multiple layers of fabric and even areas with intersecting seams easily.
Twin Needle (Double Needle)
Here, two needles are located on a single shaft and produce two rows of parallel stitches. I use my twin needle most when I am sewing hems on garments, making a faux cover stitch. They are also used for pintucks, decorative topstitching, and heirloom sewing. Always use the handwheel to advance your needle when starting to sew with a twin needle to make sure it won’t hit the presser foot before picking up speed. Been there, seen that, broke the twin needle in the past!
When purchasing a twin needle, the first number of the package is the distance between the needles, and the second number is the size of the needle. These double needles come with many different types of points such as denim, stretch, universal, and more.
There are also triple needles if you find yourself needing a line of three parallel stitches!
Hemstitch Needle (Wing Needle)
Hemstitch needles have a wide blade, or wing, on each side of the needle. This cuts a decorative groove in the fabric each time the needle is passed through.
Other Types of Needles
There are also double eye needles, which are universal needles with two eyes for two different threads. There are quick-threading needles, which have a slot on the slide to slip the thread into the eye. I’m sure there are ones I’m failing to mention, but I’ve cleaned out my needle stash and not come across any others at the moment!
So, are sewing machine needles universal and interchangeable?
As you can see, all sewing machine needles are not universal and interchangeable. Yes, there is a universal type of sewing needle that works great for many projects, but selecting the best needle for your project may mean choosing a sharp or ballpoint needle instead for better results.
One sewing needle may work perfectly for one project but may cause major issues for another. A leather needle will not work well on knits, and a ballpoint needle won’t work well on thick woven fabrics. Taking care to pick the appropriate needle for your sewing is worth the time!
What Sewing Machine Needles to Keep In Your Sewing Box?
Choosing a sewing needle may seem very complicated with all the options, but just know in many cases, there are several right answers for needles that will work.
If you’re not sure what you need when you first purchase your sewing machine, I’d recommend purchasing universal needles, sharp needles, ballpoint or stretch needles, and topstitch needles, each in a few different sizes.
If you want to sew leather or have other specific needs such as twin needle stitching, add those specialty needles to your collection as well.
When is it time to change needles?
Always change the needle if you significantly change the weight of thread or type of fabric (for instance, from knit to woven fabric). Some sewers recommend changing needles after every project or a certain number of stitches or amount of time, but that’s not always necessary.
A dull needle or bent needle, though, can wreak havoc on your sewing project. Here are some indications that it may be time to change your needle:
- Threads breaking
- Popping sound when puncturing the fabric (suggests the needle tip is dull or damaged)
- Skipped or uneven stitches
- Large punctures in the fabric
If you’ve never changed needles, check out my tutorial for how to change a sewing machine needle.
How To Check A Needle Before Sewing
Sewing with a bent needle is a bad idea since the needle could break while sewing and injure something or someone!
To check if the needle is bent, remove it from the machine and lay the flat side of the shank on a flat surface. If the distance between the shaft of the needle and the flat surface is even, you’re good to go. If not, discard the needle and try another.
Sewing Machine Needle Chart – Download Below
Now that you’ve learned more about choosing the proper sewing machine needle, download my handy sewing machine needle chart pdf file featuring all the information here. Please respect the time I put into making this and do not redistribute or resell it. Rather, send other sewers to my website to download their own copy.