Embroidery... it looks so cool, yet can seem so mystifying when it's time to gather your supplies. I, too, once stood at the fabric store wondering which needles and thread were appropriate for, um, everything. But don't fear! The basics you need are actually pretty straightforward.
Depending on the style of hand embroidery you're trying, and the fabric and floss you use, the right needle will (literally) make or break your design. It's important to pick the right needle style (more on that in a moment), and to buy quality. Cheapie needles can bend or break, which is totally frustrating and can even damage your project, which is obviously the WORST.
There are three types of needles you need to make friends with right away: embroidery (AKA crewel), chenille and tapestry. They're shown from left to right in the photo above.
Embroidery needles are the thinner of the three — they're usually long with a very sharp point designed to move easily through embroidery-appropriate fabric. (FYI that's muslin, cotton, linen or osnaburg — a coarse, durable fabric). Embroidery needles usually have a large eye that's easy to thread with your floss of choice. Chenille needles have sharp points too, but they also have a larger eye and thicker form than embroidery needles. They work well on the same fabrics as embroidery needles. Tapestry needles have a large eye, but a blunt point that's great for canvas work or counted cross-stitch on aida fabric (a type of open-weave cotton).
All three needles come in a range of sizes where the higher the number, the thinner or smaller the needle. You'll vary your needle size depending on the size of your floss. The goal is to have a needle-thread combo that's easy to work with, but leaves the minimum possible hole in your fabric once you pull the needle through.
Embroidery floss is available in cotton, silk, satin, or pearl (sometimes spelled perle) cotton.
The most common hand embroidery floss is 6-strand cotton. The strands can be divided according to how fine you want your finished embroidery piece to be. The fewer the strands, the more fine the finished design.
Pearl cotton, unlike 6-strand cotton floss, can't be divided. Like needles, pearl cotton comes in a range of sizes with the higher number indicating a thinner or finer size.
If the embroidery design you're creating calls for thin or fine floss, you'll want to use a thinner needle to make sure you don't end up with visible pokey holes in your fabric. For 6-strand or thicker ply floss, you'll need something larger to make sure the floss fits through the needle's eye.
Be savvy and test out needles and floss size before you actually begin an embroidery project. That way you get a feel for what works best.
Once you're ready to start for real, here's a pro tip: Cut the floss the length of your forearm (from fingertips to elbow). This will make sure the pieces aren't long enough to twist or knot as you stitch. If the floss gets fluffy or dull-looking as you're working, that's your cue to switch to a fresh piece.