Needles – Part 2

Apart from your sewing machine, the needle is probably the most important factor in the success or failure of a sewing project. In spite of this, most people tend to pay little regard to the needle, much less than the attention given to thread, tension, and other considerations. Let’s look at the most important things you should know about needles.

We will begin by taking a close look at a needle’s anatomy. At the top is the shank, which is flat on one side. This part of the needle is standard across all types made for household use, and is the part that gets inserted into the sewing machine. It is critically important that it be placed with the flat of the shank toward the back of the sewing machine. Most modern machines have been manufactured to make improper insertion very difficult, but I won’t say it can’t be done!  

The bottom 2/3 of the needle is the shaft, which varies according to the size of the needle. The front edge of the shaft has a groove, from the shank down to just above the eye. That groove is where the thread goes when you are sewing, and it should not be smaller than the thread you are using.  

At the bottom of the needle is the tip. It varies between needle types, and in fact, defines how needles are sold.  On the back of the needle you’ll find the scarf, a dished out place that allows the sewing machine hook to pass between the needle and the thread to make a stitch. Without this, you can’t sew. By far the most common sewing machine problem is having the needle in backward, which puts the scarf in front, and causes the hook to either miss the thread or break it.  

Finally there is the part of the needle that we have so much trouble seeing, the eye. The size varies with the type of the needle. Because the eye is made by literally knocking a hole through the needle with a huge machine, it’s possible for a manufacturing defect to leave the edges of the hole rough. This can cause thread breakage. Since all of the needles in a package are likely to have been made at the same time, changing out a bad one may not seem to help. When all else fails, try a new package.N

Needle Types

  • Universal
    In this case “Universal” has a double meaning. This is the type of needle that most sewists use, and is what most companies pack in the box with their sewing machines. The tip of these needles is modified to be somewhat rounded. That makes it suitable for sewing both woven and knit fabrics, which is why they are called universal. A rounded tip tends to push between the fibers of the fabric, rather than through them. That causes less damage to the fabric, and is critical for knits, which can unravel if the needle cuts the fibers.
  • Ball Point
    Needles made specifically for knits have an almost blunt, rounded tip. While you can generally use a universal needle for knits like cotton interlock, those don’t work well at all on stretchy knits like Lycra. In that situation a ball point is critical. Ball points can also be helpful in sewing unusual items, such as Velcro fastener tape.
  • Microtex/Sharp
    The tip of these needles is very sharp, with no rounding. This is good for sewing on microfibers, silk and heirloom fabrics.
  • Denim (Jeans)
    These needles have a very sharp point, and the scarf is a little deeper to give the hook a little more room between a larger needle and a heavier thread. They are good for sewing on jeans, home decorating projects and other densely woven fabrics.
  • Leather
    Leather needles have a sharp 3-sided tip, designed specifically to pierce through the leather. They should not be used on synthetic leather, however. The Microtex is a better choice for those fabrics.
  • Embroidery
    Embroidery needles have a modified point that is neither sharp nor a ball. The eye is extra large, to allow decorative threads to pass very easily through it. If thread shredding or breaking occurs in dense embroidery, it may help to switch to a larger size so there will be a bigger hole for the thread to pass through. However if the stitches are very short, such as a narrow satin stitch outline, and you are using a size 14, you may do better by switching down to an 11 or 12. That’s because a size 14 is 1.4mm in diameter. If embroidery stitches are shorter than 1.4mm then you will have skipping, nesting, breaks, and similar problems. In very dense embroidery it is sometimes necessary to go to a much smaller needle, such as 8 or 10, and 60wt or smaller thread.
  • Quilting
    Made for free motion quilting techniques, such as stippling, these needles have a tapered shaft that helps minimize fabric damage when going through multiple layers of fabric and batting. Since it is impossible for a human to time the movement of the fabric perfectly, it’s a good idea to use larger sizes that will not easily be pulled and broken.
  • Topstitch
    These needles have a sharp point, with an extra large eye and groove to accommodate heavier threads. When embroidery or metallic needles are not available, these make a good substitute.
  • Metallic
    The tip is a modified ball, much like a universal. Both the eye and groove are greatly enlarged to allow delicate metallic threads to pass through easily. When a metallic needle does not seem to be working on a Janome machine, it’s often not the fault of the needle. Placing metallic thread on the horizontal spool pin causes the thread to twist as it comes off the spool. Frequently the twist will manifest itself as a kink when the thread gets to the eye, causing breakage. The solution is to stand the thread up vertically so that it rolls off straight, without twisting, or using a thread stand to extend the distance the thread travels to get to the machine.
  • Wing
    Wing needles are so called because of the large metal “wings” that come out on each side. They are designed to make a hole in the fabric, and are usually used in heirloom sewing. For best results, choose stitches that cause the needle to go through the same hole more than once. These are typically decorative stitches with a reverse cycle in them.
  • Twin
    When two needles are mounted on the same shank, it’s called a twin needle. Most often twin needles are used for topstitching or decorative techniques, such as pin tucks. The needles are sold by type and by the distance between the individual needles. Typically they vary from 1.6mm to 6mm apart. Note that the Twin Needle button added to many computer machines automatically limits stitch widths for the 1.6mm twin included with them. If you use a wider needle, like a 4.0, that button won’t protect you from breaking it!
  • Triple
    Often this needle is sold with its German name, drilling. It does 3 rows of stitching, and is used in the same decorative applications as twin needles. Use great care with these needles, as they are quite wide. If the stitch width is too wide you can break an expensive needle.

When using a wing, twin, or triple needle it’s a good ideal to turn the hand wheel of the machine through a full cycle of the chosen stitch. This lets you confirm that the needle clears the hole in the needle plate and will not be broken as soon as you start sewing.

Needle Sizes

Once you have determined what type of needle you need for your project, you need to decide on the size. There are two different systems used to specify needle sizes, and most are sold with both sizes on the package, separated by a slash. The larger number is the size of the shaft in 100ths of a millimeter, while the smaller is the number of the needle within the Singer sizing system, as set up a long time ago. So a size 90 needle (90/100ths of a millimeter) is the same as a Singer 14. The 90/14 needle is the most common size, and is packaged with most new sewing machines. Most sewing machine adjustments are made using a 90/14 needle.  This is especially true for needle threaders, which can lead to trouble with smaller needles. If using a size 10 or smaller needle, it is best not to use the machine’s needle threader, as the smaller eye can damage the mechanism. You should also not try to use the needle threader with wing needles, twin needles, or triple needles. It won’t work, and could damage the threader.

Needle Hygiene

There is a lifetime for a needle, and it’s not nearly as long as you might think. As a general rule, it’s good to start each project with a new needle. For embroidery, or sewing that’s not project-related, plan on a new one after 8-12 hours of sewing time. For specially coated needles, like Organ titanium, you can probably safely double that time, maybe even triple it. You can also get extended use from the chrome-plated needles that are now being sold. However these coated needles cost more, so there is a temptation to use them longer than you might use ordinary needles. That’s dangerous, because when they become dull they will not penetrate fabric well. That can lead to breakage, but because they are so strong they will usually damage the bobbin case or the machine when they break. If the needle hits something, but doesn’t break, change it anyway. Likewise, if the needle appears to be bent, change it. In fact, when in doubt, throw it out! 

Needle Brands

There are many different brands of needles on the market today, so you have a lot of choice in what you use. Most Janome owners are familiar with the blue tip and red tip needles that are included with their machines. These are made for Janome by Organ. The color on the shank indicates needle size. Blue tip needles are size 11. Red tips are size 14. They are good quality needles that work well for sewing and embroidery. Janome also has topstitch needles, leather needles, and a purple tip needle that has a tip that resembles the head of a cobra. The purple tip is recommended for quilting, and it also works very well for embroidery and regular sewing.

Schmetz is probably the largest needle manufacturer in the world, making both household and commercial needles. They have a huge variety of needle types for just about any sewing activity you can think of. Their needles are very high quality and last a little longer than other brands, at least in the non-titanium varieties. While many people use Schmetz needles, some Janome owners report that they don’t work with Janome machines that have automatic needle threaders. This is only reported by some Janome owners, not all. It likely has to do with how the needle threaders are calibrated. As previously stated, this is usually done with a size 14 needle, which can cause problems with smaller sizes, and perhaps other brands.

Many thread and notions suppliers also offer needles. These are mostly quite good, as they are manufactured by established companies like Organ and Schmetz. Good quality needles are also available online, often with substantial discounts for large quantities. If you cannot get high quality needles locally, you may be tempted to resort to the “Sewing Supply” rack in the local supermarket, or something similar in a “big box” discount store. That’s not a good idea. Those needles are made to sell for a low price. If they are sold under the Singer brand they may also be optimized for the Singer hook system and not ideal for other brands of machines. It’s advisable to get the best quality needles you can and change them frequently, even when there is no obvious damage. Regardless of what brand you use, you will find a lot of in-depth information on this website.

Needles – Part 1

Operating a retail sewing machine store for 25 years gives one a different perspective on sewing machine needles. We quickly learned that needles are misunderstood by most sewing enthusiasts, even those who have been sewing for decades. It also became apparent that the sewing business, like most others, had a shady side.

A customer came in with a machine that was misbehaving badly, breaking threads, skipping stitches, and generally not working. It didn’t take long to see why. The needle was in backward. We replaced it with a new needle, showing the customer how to insert it with the flat to the back, and the machine was immediately working perfectly. The customer then revealed that she had this problem with her machine many times in the past. Each time her dealer had diagnosed very serious problems and charged a lot of money to “repair it”. Sadly this practice was not uncommon at the time, and more than a few dealers did it. Our fledgling business gained a lot of customers quickly, just because we didn’t trick people that put the needle in backward.

These days machines have needle clamps that make it nearly impossible to insert the needle backward, but that’s not the only needle-related problem that we encountered. There was the machine brought in from years of storage in a barn, that was not working well. The needle was caked in rust. We said we would start with a new needle, which caused the shocked owner to say “Why? It’s not broken!”

Then there was the lady who brought her machine in for service. She had two or three needles loose in the machine, and asked us to be very careful not to lose the one currently installed, as it was “My favorite needle”. Apparently she had no idea that needles have a lifespan and need to be replaced on a regular basis.

By far, though, was the case of a new-to-sewing customer who bought the top of the line (at the time) embroidery-capable machine. She was a minor celebrity, having been on television a decade or so before; not someone you would recognize on the street, but enough of a celebrity that a sewing machine selling for more than $1,000 did not raise an eyebrow. As we did with all customers, we gave her a short introduction to her machine. When we started with bobbin winding her comment was “What’s a bobber? Do I need that?” Patience, and a request that she come to new owner classes, as well as beginning sewing, got her out the door with her new machine.

A week or so later she was back, somewhat despondent. She said “I need a new machine. I broke this one.” We were pretty incredulous, because it looked fine. As it turned out, what she broke was the needle and she was prepared to buy another machine as a result. A new needle and several classes later she was happily embellishing her wardrobe.

At the time our store was one of only two owned by women, having been started by my wife Diane. It was the attitude of the local “good ol’ boy” network that motivated her to open her store, and her honesty got her a lot of flack from competing dealerships. By the time we retired many more women had entered the traditionally male-dominated business and things were much better.

Next time we will discuss the obvious role of needles in the sewing process, and how to get the most from them. Don’t miss it!