Using the wrong type of sewing machine needle is one of the most common mistakes we come across at Sew Essential. It can lead to needle breakage, difficulty working with the chosen fabric and poor stitch quality. You'll never have to experience these problems with our sewing machine needle guide! We've outlined the different types of needles available and the fabrics and threads they should be used with. Even if you're a confident stitcher and are in the know about needles its worth having a quick read. You might just surprise yourself and discover a life-changing needle you never knew existed!
Sewing Machine Needle Types
The first thing to know is that sewing machines needles are standardised. They are compatible across the range of brands, including Janome, Brother, Husqvarna, Elna, Pfaff etc. You can be safe in the knowledge that any sewing machine needle purchased from us will be compatible with any relatively modern domestic sewing machine.
The number of different types and sizes of machine needle can seem a bit bewildering at first. However, it's not that difficult to get a handle on the different types. We've listed the most popular needles and the techniques and fabrics they're used for.
As the name suggests, universal needles are the most commonly used needle. They can be used with woven fabrics, synthetics and some knit fabrics, although check the other needle types outlined below for specific types of knit fabric. The finer needles are mostly used for lightweight fabrics. Larger sizes are used on medium to heavyweight fabrics. Polyester / cotton or silk threads should be used with a universal needle.
Ball point needles have a more rounded tip than a universal needle which pushes the fabric fibres apart rather than cutting them. This makes ball point needles ideal for working with rib knits, interlock, cotton knits, fleece, double knit and generally most knit fabrics because it prevents them from running or laddering as a result of stitching. Polyester and polyester / cotton blend threads are best for use with ball point needles and finer threads should be used for finer needles.
A stretch needle has what is called a 'scarf' which allows extra room for the hook to pass close by and prevents skipped stitches making it ideal for use with fabrics such as Lycra, power net, two way stretch knits, silk jersey, spandex and highly elasticated synthetic fabrics or indeed elastic itself. Polyester or cotton wrapped polyester threads should be used. Stretch fabrics are renowned for being more difficult to work with and choosing the right needle is crucial to achieving a good end result.
If you're a quilter working with several layers of cotton and wadding or you're working with densely woven fabrics such as silk and micro fibre a sharps needle should be used. These needles are designed to work with several layers of fabric thanks to a stronger shaft which helps to avoid bent or broken needles and a sharp point which enables it to penetrate through the fabric and produce smooth buttonholes. A short round threading eye also gives extra strength during sewing.
Quilting needles are also designed to be used with several layers of fabric and wadding thanks to a reinforced shaft, however, they are much shorter in length than the sharps needle to allow quilters to achieve quick and even stitching. Beginners will most likely find a smaller needle such as a size 7 or 8 easier to use whilst more experienced quilters often choose a larger option.
No prizes for guessing which fabric these needles are designed for! Yes, denim is the most obvious choice, but these needles are also best for other densely woven fabrics such as heavy twill, canvas and heavy linens often used for workwear. Whereas stretch and ball point needles are designed not to cut the fabric jeans needles have a very sharp point and a stronger shank to prevent needle bending or breakage and push through the heavy fabric. Threads such as synthetic or blends, 100% polyester, heavier top stitching threads and cotton wrapped polyester should be chosen when working with these needles and fabrics.
Leather needles are often known as chisel point needles thanks to a point that looks and acts like a chisel when in use. Yes, you've guessed it, these needles should be used with genuine leather, suede and difficult to sew projects, but should not be used with PU imitation leather, ultra suede or synthetic suede since the characteristics of these fabrics are quite different to their real counterparts.
If you're a bit of a magpie when it comes to thread and love a pretty metallic or rayon, a metafil needle is ideal when sewing or embroidering on woven or knitted fabrics. Metallic needles have an extra large eye meaning these fancy threads feed through more freely and won't shred or split as a result of the sewing motion. If you ever struggle to thread your needle a metallic needle would be a good buy because it is also appropriate for general sewing and is much easier to thread due to the larger eye.
Embroidery needles are designed with a wider eye to allow threads such as rayon, polyester or cotton machine embroidery threads to pass freely and easily when embroidering. Missed stitches can often occur when machine embroidering thanks to the fabric flexing up and down rapidly as a result of the fast moving embroidery stitch. Embroidery needles have a pontoon scarf with an oversize bump which reduces the chance of this happening by reducing the amount of movement in the fabric.
Top stitch needles have an extra sharp point which will pierce all types of fabric easily and the large eye allows thick top stitching thread to be used.
These needles are used for pin tucking and decorative stitches and need to be used at a reduced speed. They are not compatible with all machines so always check your manual before using.
Used in conjunction with the special stitch options on your machine, wing needles will produce holes in the fabric to replicate drawn thread work. Fabrics made from natural fibres such as cotton should be used with these needles.
Quick Reference Chart
|Sewing Machine Needle Type||Needle Size||Fabric Type||Thread Type|
|Universal needles||70 (10)||Voile, sheers, delicate silk||Gutermann Sew-All|
|80 (12)||Shirtings, poplin, rayon, light wool||Gutermann Sew-All|
|90 (14)||Medium - heavy, calico, linen||Gutermann Sew-All|
|100 (16)||Heavy fabric, upholstery, bag making||Gutermann Sew-All, Gutermann Extra Upholstery|
|110 (18)||Extra heavy fabric, upholstery||Gutermann Extra Upholstery thread|
|Sharps needles||70 (10)||Voile, microfibre||Gutermann Sew-All|
|80 (12)||Shirtings, microfibre, patchwork||Gutermann Sew-All|
|90 (14)||All Sharps produced perfect top stitching||Gutermann Sew-All|
|Ball point needles||70 (10)||Light knits, tricot||Gutermann Sew-All|
|80 (12)||Interlock, Lacoste||Gutermann Sew-All|
|90 (14)||Medium heavy knits, double knit||Gutermann Sew-All|
|Stretch needles||75 (11)||Light lycra, elasticised fabrics||Gutermann Sew-All|
|90 (14)||Elastic, heavier lycra, elasticised fabrics||Gutermann Sew-All|
|Jeans needles||90 (14)||Denim, tightly woven fabrics||Gutermann Extra Upholstery|
|100 (16)||Heavy denim, vinyl, furnishings||Gutermann Extra Upholstery|
|Leather needles||90 (14)||For all leather and suede||Gutermann Sew-All, Gutermann Extra Upholstery|
|100 (16)||Do not use on synthetic leather||Gutermann Sew-All, Gutermann Extra Upholstery|
|Metafil needles||80 (12)||Decorative sewing on various fabrics|
|Quilting needles||80 (12)||Quilts made from cotton, wool or polyester with wadding centre||Gutermann Natural Cotton|
|Embroidery needles||75 (11)||Decorative sewing on lightweight fabrics|
|90 (14)||Decorative sewing on heavier fabrics|
|Twin needles||Various||Decorative sewing on most fabrics|
What Do the Size Numbers Mean on Sewing Machine Needles?
You may be wondering what the size number such as 80/12 or 110/18 on sewing machine needles mean. Well, wonder no more! Of the two numbers, one is the European size and one is the American size. From thinnest to thickest, the European sizes range from 60 to 110, whereas the American sizes range from 8 to 18. Pretty simple, eh?
Generally, a 80/12 needle is used for dressmaking (and will probably be the size of needle you received with your sewing machine) but please refer to the quick reference table above for information on which needle sizes to use with particular threads, fabric types and fabric weights.
How Often Should I Change My Needle?
We generally recommend changing your needle after every project. Needle are pretty cheap, so it's not going to break the bank and you have the assurance that your needle will always perform as expected.
We also recommend giving the needle a good visual inspection if you machine has jammed. Jamming can result in the needle bending, which can lead to unexpected results such as poor stitch quality. If your machine is making an unusual thumping sound as the needle penetrates the fabric, then you definitely need to change the needle.
Fitting a New Needle
To fit a new needle the first thing we recommend is to pop a piece of paper under the foot. Then, when loosening the needle screw, there is no danger of the old needle dropping inside the machine. We don't want any expensive repair bills! Once the old needle is out, the new needle will only fit in the correct orientation due to the shank design. The flat side of the shank should face towards the rear of the sewing machine.
Make sure you push the new needle up as far as it will go before tightening the needle screw. If you don't you may get poor stitch quality, the needle could strike the bobbin case or your needle threader could be damaged (if your machine has one).
Anatomy of a Sewing Machine Needle
To finish off this article, lets get geeky and look at the various parts of the sewing machine needle.
Eye - The hole in which the thread slides through. Good quality needles have a smoothly machined eye to minimise thread shredding. The eye size varies according to the intended thread type.
Shaft - The shaft varies in thickness according to the intended fabric - thicker materials require a stiffer shaft.
Shank - The part goes into the machine. Has a flat side to prevent incorrect insertion.
Point - The point shape varies widely between different needle types, from ball point for knit fabrics to chisel shaped for leather.
Scarf - Enables the hook to get close to the eye of the needle to avoid skipped stitches.
So there you have it, a run down of the movers and shakers of the needle world, their uses, recommended sizes, fabrics and threads. If you have any requests for a particular sewing guide or tutorial please don't hesitate to get in touch. Watch this space for more in-depth articles from Sew Essential.