Other than our machines, needles may be our most important sewing tool. There are many more needle choices in the shops than when I started machine sewing about 55 years ago. We puzzle over the “best” needle and many resist using a new needle, complaining about the expense and bother.
What is the “best” needle?
Top Stitch needles have revolutionized sewing for me. This is my favorite all around needle. If I boil it down to a single needle, this it!
A Top Stitch needle has a sharply tapered point, all the better for separating threads well as it plunges down into the fabric. It also has a larger eye, which means easier threading and less chance of thread breakage. They are so good for applique and for sewing with virtually any thread -metallic, cottons, poly and even MonoPoly (invisible thread) – so good that I no longer buy specialty needles except for sewing apparel knits like fine jersey.
A Top Stitch needle will work beautifully on any type of woven fabric, which means cottons for quilting, woven polys for apparel, canvas and denim! I keep a good stock of sizes 12, 14 and 16 close to the machine and also have a couple packs of 11 and 18. Schmetz and Superior Threads make excellent Top Stitch needles and they will fit almost all modern domestic machines (and many vintage ones!). I also use them in my serger, which takes regular needles.
Great, one needle! Now what size do I use?
Match your needle size to your fabric type. Lightweight, gauzy cottons and lawn or poly types benefit from a smaller needle size (11), while cotton canvas and heavier denims need a 16 or 18. Quilting cottons are good with a 12 or 14. Keep in mind the thickness under your needle. A 12 might sew along on two layers of a light weight canvas (think tote bags), but snap when faced with pockets, webbing and binding chores. Start with a 16 and avoid hassles. Multiple layers need a stouter needle to travel straight through thick layers to the bobbin. Using a too small needle often results in your needle bending as it travels and hitting the plate or the bobbin case. Yikes! Neither are good for your machine and can throw out the timing. That is pricey repair on any machine!
Thread should also be matched to needle size. Needles have a groove down one side (get out the magnifying glass, or your bifocals) on which the thread rests as it enters the needle eye. Thinner thread (100 wt, 60 wt) will need a smaller needle than a thick thread (40 wt). If your needle is too big, a thin thread may slipdown into the bobbin (happened to me recently!). If your needle is too small, you are likely to experience skipped stitches and/or thread shredding.
If you are wondering about quilting cotton and a typical 50 wt thread in a domestic machine, a size 12 Top Stitch will serve you well.
How long does a needle really last? Do I need to change them as often as they say?
I know quilters who insist they only need to change a needle when one breaks. I know those who are using “the needle that came with the machine” and have no idea the type or size of needle in their machine. Breaking needles can result in a machine repair. Over time, a needle starts to bend a bit and can result in a clunking noise as it slides by your bobbin case. Old, dull needles can also snap the threads in your fabric and may result in poor, sloppy stitches.
How much does a needle actually cost? If you buy in 5 packs, Schmetz run about 60 cents apiece. Titanium coated needles (Superior Threads, which I use, makes them in titanium dipped only) will last longer than the regular ones, and cost about $1.25 each. If you buy in 100 packs (which I do) the price goes down to about 50 cents each for Schmetz and down to 60 cents for the Superior Threads titanium.
How often should a needle be changed? Manufacturers recommend replacing a needle after 8 hours of sewing. Titanium will last up to twice as long. BUT, if I am sewing through an applique, taking close blanket stitches (multiple piercing for a single “stitch”) and transverse a layer of cotton, applique media, another layer of cotton on my turned edge, plus the background fabric, I will change a Titanium needle after 8 hours because that is a lot to demand of a needle!
Sewing Machine Needle: Dull Needle with Burrs
Think it doesn’t matter how long a needle is used? Have a microscope in your sewing room? Take a look at a used needle on the left. With each magnification you can see not only the dull point, but look at the striations and that GIANT burr on the needle point.
Now imagine what this needle will do to your fabrics and thread? That’s right, it bears repeating the clues to using a dull needle:
Shredded or Broken Threads Skipped Stitches, Puckered Fabrics, Damaged Fabrics, Uneven Seams or Clunking Sound from Sewing Machine
Change your needle! It’s the easiest and least expensive way to improve your stitches.
Given what we invest in our machines, their maintenance, beautiful fabric and our time, a fresh needle is worth it! Think of it as a small price to pay for beautiful stitch work.
One final note: I sometimes hear complaints that a larger needle makes “holes” that are “too big”. Hmmm. If you are getting a true hole, a dull needle may be snapping your fabric threads. A nice, fresh sharp needle does make a hole – a space between the fibers. After all, that is what sewing is all about! Threads will relax after the sewing process, and even more with a little iron heat and steam or when the piece is washed, closing gently around your threads.
Happy quilting and may all your needles serve you well!