Sewing Machine Needles 101: How to Choose

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Sure, they might seem insignificant, but sewing machine needles can literally make or break your stitching. Sewing with damaged or worn down needles can result in all sorts of small tragedies — broken or shredded threads, skipped stitches, fabric puckering, uneven seams, or even permanently damaged fabrics. Don't do that to yourself.

Choosing your needles

Needle type and size are the magic words here. You should select the type of needle based on the type of textile (i.e. knit vs. woven), and the needle size is determined by the thickness of the thread and the weight of the fabric you'll be using for your project.

For starters, get friendly with the different parts of a sewing machine needle:

  • The shank is the part of the needle that fits into your sewing machine, with the flat side to the back.
  • The blade is what determines the needle size. (For example, a size 75 needle has a blade that is .75 mm in diameter.)
  • The shaft is the "body" of the needle, and the groove that runs the length of the shaft holds the needle thread. The diameter of the thread you're using should take up no more than 40% of the groove.
  • The point and tip of the needle refer to the size, shape and length — all of which vary based on the type of needle.
  • The scarf of the needle is an indentation on the backside that allows the bobbin hook to smoothly grab the thread under the sewing machine throat plate to create a proper stitch.

Needle types

There are three main types of needles used for most sewing (plus plenty of other specialty needles, but let's leave that for another time).

  • Universal needles have a slightly rounded tip. This general-purpose needle should be used on wovens and some sturdy knits.
  • Jersey needles have a medium ballpoint tip designed especially for knit fabrics because it slips between the knit fibers and doesn't break or damage them while sewing.
  • Stretch needles, often confused with Jersey needles, are also a medium ballpoint tip. But these have a special eye and scarf designed for extremely stretchy fabrics and elastic. If you're stitching swimwear, grab this type of needle for sure.

In addition to these three, there are also specialty needles for sewing with denim and leather, sewing suede, topstitching, needlepoint and embroidery, along with specific needles for quilting. 

Remember to select the type of needle first based on fabric or usage, and then determine the correct size based on the weight of the fabric and the size of the thread you'll be using.

Needle sizing

Just to keep things nice and complicated, there are two needle sizing systems: American and European. American needle sizes range from 8 to 19, and European sizes range from 60 to 120. The larger the number, the larger the blade of the needle. Often you'll see both sizing numbers on the needle package, like 60/8 and 70/10.

There's one more number you need to know: Home sewing machine needles are classified as the 130/705 H system, and you'll see this on the label. This tells us the needle is designed for use in home sewing machines, rather than industrial machines. The designation means the needles have a flat shank and a scarf.

Needle lifespan

Believe it or not, sewing machine needles only have a lifespan of six to eight hours of sewing time — and this can be even less if you're dealing with really heavy fabrics. Luckily, needles are one of the least expensive components in a sewing project, so do yourself a favor and change your needle with each new project.

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Sewing Machine Needles 101: How to Choose