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When I first started sewing, I used the same type and size 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 I now know that 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.
So, let’s discuss sewing machine needle sizes, sewing machine needle types, and how to pick the right needle for your projects.
I’ve even put together a free printable sewing machine needle chart 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 focuses on the different types of sewing machine needles, which are not interchangeable with hand sewing needles.
A sewing machine needle is solid at the top of the needle, and the needle’s eye is located near its point.
In contrast, a needle used for hand sewing has an eye at the very top of the needle and is not compatible with a sewing machine.
Parts of a Sewing Machine Needle
To understand how different types of sewing machine needles differ, it’s first essential to know the parts of a needle.
The thick top part of a home sewing machine needle is called the shank and is rounded at the front and flat in the back.
This difference between the two sides helps you know which direction to insert the needle when setting up your machine.
All you need to remember is that the flat part faces the back of the needle clamp.
Below the top of the needle is the shaft, which is the round part with a groove in it.
Sewing thread travels down the shaft 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 you’ll shortly see.
Sewing Machine Needle Sizes Explained: What The Numbers Mean
Needles come in different sizes (or shaft thicknesses) and are described by an American and European size.
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.
|European||American||How It’s Written|
The size is written as a series of numbers with the European number first, a backslash, and then the American number.
For example, 90/14 is a common needle size for sewing where 90 is the European needle size, and 14 is the American size.
The easy-to-remember correlation between the European number and the needle diameter is this: A 100 needle is 1 mm in diameter.
Thus, a size 90 needle is 0.9 mm in diameter, a size 110 needle is 1.1 mm in diameter, etc.
How to Choose a Sewing Machine Needle
In most cases, you will pick your sewing machine needle size and type based on fabric and thread characteristics.
Now, let’s get a little more into what that actually means.
1. Consider Fabric Weight When Selecting a Needle Size
Fabric weight is determined by the thickness, density, and even fiber composition of the threads in the fabric.
Choose your sewing machine needle size based on the weight of the fabric you plan to sew.
This means a thicker, or heavier, fabric requires a thicker needle to penetrate it when stitching.
In contrast, a lighter, delicate fabric will be damaged by a thick needle and thus demands a finer needle.
Here are a few examples of which needle to use for which fabric below.
|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|
As you can see, while an 80/12 or 90/14 needle is perfect for most medium-weight fabrics like linen, elastic, satin, quilting cotton, or poplin, you need to size up and use a 100/16, 110/18, or higher needle for very thick fabrics like leather or upholstery.
And, for those thin fabrics like gauze, chiffon, or organza, those small 65/9 or 70/10 needles will poke smaller holes and cause less damage.
However, since each type of fabric comes in multiple 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, which require a much bigger needle.
So, take this as a general guide to help you learn rather than the set-in-stone rule!
2. Consider Thread Weight and Type
Also, take into account the weight and type of thread you are using.
A larger needle can accommodate a heavier, thicker thread.
Why does this matter?
If you use a small, thin thread with a large needle, the needle’s point leaves 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.
On the other hand, if you use a thick, 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, and the best needle system for your project depends on the fabric type: woven or knit.
As a reminder, woven fabrics are formed by weaving two or more sets of yarns together to form a stable, non-stretchy fabric like quilting cotton.
In contrast, knit fabrics are formed by one or more yarns that are knitted together to form a stretchy fabric like a t-shirt knit.
1. Universal Needles
Universal point needles are general-purpose needles with a slightly rounded tip.
They are “jack of all trades, but master of none.”
As such, they work for most woven or knit fabrics.
When in doubt about which needle to pick for my project, I always start with an 80/12 or 90/14 universal needle.
2. Ballpoint Needles
Ballpoint, or jersey needles, have rounded points and slip between the loops of knit fabrics rather than piercing the fabric, which leads to fabric damage or your sewing machine missing stitches.
Because these are made specifically for sewing on knits, choose a ballpoint needle when you know your fabric is a knit.
3. Sharp Needles
Sharp point needles, or Microtex needles, have a sharp point and are especially good for cleanly piercing high-density woven fabric 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.
Types of Specialty Sewing 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 above, but it’s important to know other options when it comes to troubleshooting sewing issues.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I’ll provide some examples.
1. Topstitch Needle
This needle type has a very large eye, a very sharp point, and an enlarged groove to accommodate the thick, decorative threads necessary for topstitching through multiple layers.
2. Stretch Needle
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 for better pickup of the top thread by the hook.
3. Denim/Jeans Needle
Denim needles (aka jeans needles) are super strong needles with a long, extra sharp point and work well on tightly woven heavy fabrics such as denim and canvas.
4. Metallic Needle
Metallic needles have elongated, larger eyes, allowing metallic and other specialty threads to pass through with minimal friction, thus decreasing thread breakage.
5. Machine Embroidery Needle
These needles are used for machine embroidery with rayon, polyester, and even cotton machine embroidery thread.
The point is medium-sharp (between a ballpoint and a sharp needle), and the needle has an oversized eye and groove.
These features protect delicate threads against extra friction while embroidering.
I almost always use a 75/11 machine embroidery needle when embroidering.
6. Leather Needle
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, which 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!
7. Quilting Needle
Quilting needles have a special taper to their sharp point, making them perfect for piecing quilt blocks and adding quilting stitches to finished quilt sandwiches.
Their tapered design penetrates multiple layers of fabric and even areas with intersecting seams easily.
These are some of the best sewing needles to use for quilting cotton projects if you don’t want to use different needle types for piecing and quilting.
8. Twin Needle (Double Needle)
In the case of a double needle, two needles are located on a single shaft and produce two rows of parallel stitches. (There are also triple needles if you need a line of three parallel stitches!)
I use my twin needle most when I am sewing hems on garments, essentially creating a faux cover stitch.
However, this type of sewing machine needle is also used for pintucks, decorative topstitching, and heirloom sewing.
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 also come with many different types of points such as denim, stretch, universal, and more.
Select the right size and point type just as you would a single needle, as described above.
And, a note: use the handwheel first to advance the needle when starting to sew to ensure neither of the points will hit the presser foot before you speed up.
9. 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.
Additional Different Types of Needles
There are also double-eye needles, which are universal needles with two eyes for two different threads.
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 unsure what you need when you first purchase your sewing machine, I 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.
Brands of Sewing Needles
My two go-to brands of needles are Schmetz needles and Organ needles, although there are many different needle manufacturers.
Schmetz needle numbering is simple to follow, and the types are clearly displayed on each needle box, which is why I often prefer them.
While Organ needles are typically less expensive in bulk, their numbering conventions are a little more confusing.
When is it time to change needles?
Always change the needle if you significantly change the thread weight or type of fabric (for instance, from knit to woven fabric or from 60wt thread to 30wt).
Some sewists 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 and cause poor stitch quality.
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, that’s great. 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 size and type, download my handy sewing machine needle chart pdf file here.
Please respect the time I put into making this and do not redistribute or resell it. Rather, send other sewists to my website to download their own copy.