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Choosing The Right Needle And Thread

You’ve chosen your sewing pattern and your fabric to make it from, but what needle might you need for a particular fabric? Ever considered what thread you might use? Choosing a needle and thread is almost as important as picking your pattern or fabric, as the wrong needle or thread type could cause you problems which may otherwise be completely avoidable. Following on from the previous post about setting up your sewing machine, I’m posting content based on the instruction book of my sewing machine, which is from the 1980s and is packed with useful tips and tricks.

choosing needles and threads
There's many types of needles for sewing machines - here are just a few. You can see the ones which came with my machine on the right, with the blue tip on one to show it's a ballpoint needle.

Test your needles before using them in your machine

The first tip it has is actually a very practical one – test your thread and needle size on a bit of scrap material from cutting out your pattern first. You should use a bit of scrap for testing at the beginning of each project anyway, even if you’ve used the fabric before and know what needle and thread to use, as you’ll need to set your stitch length and tensions. But if you don’t know what size needle to use, it can be a bit daunting – especially if you don’t know what the numbers on the needle mean.

At the haberdashery shop choosing a needle? What the numbers mean:

Put simply, the numbers are the sizes for two different markets. Just like in knitting and crochet, sewing needles have one size which is European and another which is American. In either market, the bigger the number, the thicker the needle. You’ll want finer needles for lighter, more finely woven fabrics and thicker needles for heavier, densely woven fabrics.

European size American size
60 8
65 9
70 10
75 11
80 12
90 14
100 16
110 18
120 19
125 20
130 21

While the sizing guide goes all the way up to 130/21, I’ve not seen any needles between 110/18 and 130/21 sizes for sale for home sewing. I’m reasonably sure that the reason is these are sizes of needles for industrial sewing machines only – if you’re lucky enough to have a vintage industrial sewing machine and want to use it for really thick leather or dense fabrics, you might have to hunt around for these needles.

What are the different types of needle?

Choosing the right needle for each project depends on the fabric you’re using – in many cases a universal needle is appropriate, but not always. Most universal needles are regular point – that means they have a sharp, pointed end and can be used for most projects.

There are, however, a number of “special” point needles which are used for different things and some of these only come in certain sizes.

choosing a needle
On the left is a universal 75/11 needle, the middle is a jeans 100/16 and the right is a leather 90/14. You can see the jeans needle has a larger, wider eye than the universal and the leather needle has more of a chisel shape to its point.
  • Ballpoint – having a slightly rounded tip, these needles are specifically for using with stretchy fabrics like jersey, knits and very fine synthetic fabrics. Some vintage ballpoint needles might have a coloured tip to identify them as ballpoint – my one which came with my machine is coloured blue on the end of the needle. These needles are typically sold in sizes 70/10, 80/12 and 90/14.
  • Stretch – similar to ballpoints, stretch needles are designed to be used with materials that have a high amount of spandex. These needles are typically available in sizes 75/11 and 90/14.
  • Leather – with a short, blade like point, leather needles are designed to be able to pierce the tough material of leather or suede cleanly and effectively. These are typically sold in sizes 90/14 and 100/16.
  • Jeans – the long, thin point to a jeans needle helps it to pass easily through densely woven fabrics like heavy weight denim. Like leather needles, these are typically sold in sizes 90/14 and 100/16.
  • Embroidery – with an extra wide eye and a special shape of scarf (the groove in the needle face), embroidery needles are designed to prevent embroidery thread from shredding as it passes through the machine. These needles are typically sold in sizes 75/11, 80/12 and 90/14.
  • Quilting – designed to penetrate the multiple layers of fabric going through a sewing machine when quilting, these needles are long and have a thin point to them. They’re typically sold in sizes 75/11, 80/12 and 90/14.
  • Metallic – these needles are specifically for use when sewing fabrics with a high metallic thread content, as it can pass through these threads without shredding them due to a teflon coating. These needles are typically sold in sizes 80/12 and 90/14.
  • Topstitch – with long, sharp points to pass through several layers of fabric, these needles also have a wider eye to allow thicker, decorative thread to pass through. These needles are typically available in sizes 80/12, 90/14 and 100/16.
  • Sharps – very slender and sharp needles, these tend to be used for very finely woven fabrics but can also be used for appliqué. These needles are typically available in sizes 60/8, 70/10, 80/12 and 90/14.
  • Serger – these needles are specifically for use in serger or overlocker machines, so don’t try to use them in a regular sewing machine! These needles are typically sold in just the one size, 80/12.
  • Wing or Hemstitch – designed with decorative stitching in mind, these needles are ideal for finishing touches like hems. They’re typically available in just the one size, 100/16.
  • Twin Point – these needles look like two needles stuck together, which they essentially are. They’re used for double stitching things like hems or even finishing decorative touches. You’ll find twin point needles for different uses, such as twin point ballpoints, and they’ll typically come in similar sizes to regular single point versions of those needles.

choosing the right thread
Choosing the right thread can be difficult if you aren't sure what you need.

Match your fabrics to the needle and thread

When it comes to threads, there are also different thicknesses of thread depending on the fabric and strength required – heavy fabrics like denim and canvas need a thicker thread than very finely woven cotton lawn fabric, for instance. Thread in the UK is typically sold in weights of “ne”. Ne is the English Cotton Count, which is the number of units at 840 yards (770m) to 1lb (0.45kg). This generally means that the higher the number, the finer the thread is. Make sure to use the same type and thickness of thread for both your needle and your bobbin, even if you use different colours.

Fabric Thread Needle
Crepe de chine, voile, taffeta 50ne silk, extra fine rPET 60/8 or 65/9
Cotton lawn, organdy, poplin 60ne cotton 70/10 or 75/11
Crafting cotton, linen 40 to 50ne cotton 75/11, 80/12 or 90/14
Denim, canvas, tweed, gabardine 40 to 50ne cotton, linen, 40 to 50ne rPET, 40 to 50ne tencel 90/14 or 100/16
Leather, suede 40 to 50ne rPET, waxed linen, 40ne double mercerised cotton 90/14 or 100/16

Some stores don’t specify which thickness of thread they’re selling, so you might need to do a bit of detective work if you need a particular thickness of thread. You might also find your machine works better with particular brands of thread. Generally speaking, the better known brands of thread will be of higher quality – a good quality thread is important, as poor quality thread won’t run through your machine properly and can cause your machine to jam. If you have a spool of thread which your machine doesn’t seem to like, don’t throw it out as you might be able to make use of it for another purpose – for example if you need to repair something by hand, or perhaps it could be useful for transferring markings from your pattern to your fabric.

An interesting tip from my machine’s instruction manual is if you’re sewing with very fine fabric and thread, sew over a piece of paper to help prevent the weave of the fabric from distorting. I’ve never sewn with fabric finer than cotton lawn or poplin, so I can’t say how well this works, but if you’re nervous about sewing with very fine fabrics it might be worth a try.

Choosing a needle for your sewing machine or project

Hopefully this will help you to choose the most appropriate needle and thread for your project. It’s not the end of the world if you use a slightly different size of needle or thickness of thread – I’ve sewn cotton poplin with an 80/12 needle before without realising I should have been using a finer needle and it was okay. It is always worth double checking before you start a project though, particularly if it’s an important project that you want to make the fewest mistakes on.

Presser foot with needle in fabric
Try and get into the habit of checking which needle to use with your fabric type before you start your project.