By Patricia Belyea
There’s a popular saying: Your sewing machine stitches are only as good as your sewing machine needle. This is true.
But if your needle is the wrong size for the thread or the wrong type for the fabric, you’ll have problems. Missing stitches. Shredding thread. Pulled fabric.
Your Naked Needle
It’s important to get to know your needle intimately to create perfect stitches.
Butt—The beveled end of your needle.
Shank—The thick shaft at the top of your needle that has a flat side to ensure that it’s inserted into your domestic machine securely.
Shoulder—The sloping area between the blade and the shank.
Blade—The main part of the needle. The width of the blade determines the needle size. Subject to the most friction, this is where needles break.
Groove—The long shallow slot down the front of your needle. Your thread lays in the groove when the needle passes through the fabric. If the thread is too thick or the needle size is too small, stitches can not form correctly.
Scarf—A little indentation on the back side of your needle. The scarf is critical for creating perfect stitches. As the needle delivers the top thread to the bobbin case hook, the scarf brushes past with the exact clearance to form a stitch. If the needle bends or flexes (for instance, due to thick fabrics), you will miss a stitch.
Eye—The hole at the bottom. The eye is for inserting the top thread in the needle. The eye shape and size varies according to the needle type.
Point—The tapered end of the needle. There are three kinds of points available: Sharp, Universal, and Ballpoint. As a quilter you need a Sharp needle to sew finely woven cottons.
Tip—The sharp end of the needle point. The tip is the first part of the needle to contact your fabrics. If the tip is blunt or damaged, from the get-go you will have stitch problems.
There are two numbers on your needle packaging. The larger number (60 to 120) is the European size; the smaller number is the American size (8 to 19).
The bigger the numbers, the thicker the blade of the needle. For piecing quilting cottons, you would typically use a mid-sized needle: 80/12.
Best Needles for Quilters
75/11, 80/12, 90/14
Engineered for quilters, this sharp needle creates even stitches when piecing and its tapered blade penetrates smoothly through your quilt sandwich for final stitching.
60/8, 65/9, 70/10, 80/12, 90/14
This slim needle produces very small holes and is extremely sharp for making nice straight stitches when piecing quilting cottons.
70/10, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16, 110/18
Designed for more than sewing jeans, this strong sharp needle features a reinforced blade for high-thread count fabrics such as batiks, and thick fabrics such as denims.
The Three Bears Test
Here’s a simple test to check if your needle is the correct size for your thread weight.
Cut a length of your thread from the spool and slip one end through your sewing machine needle.
Stretch the thread up vertically with the needle at the top. Now let go of the needle and watch it fall.
If the needle slips down quickly, it’s too big.
If the needle gets stuck at the top, it’s too small.
If the needle spirals slowly to the bottom, it’s just right.
A Fickle Relationship
You do not need to live with the same needle forever. How do you know that the relationship is over?
Pulled threads in the fabrics
Breaking or shredding thread
A popping sound when stitching
Hearing your sewing machine labor as it pushes the needle through the fabric
Changing your needle regularly is recommended for top sewing performance. But, how often?
After 8 hours of sewing OR
After filling your bobbin three times OR
If your fabric is puckering after stitching OR
If your needle has been damaged—by hitting a pin or struggling in thick fabrics
Needle difficulties are often mistaken for a faulty tension setting. Sometimes just changing your needle and re-threading your machine can take care of stitch troubles.
To safely throw away a spent needle, eat a pint of Talenti gelato and use the round container to discard used needles, bent pins, and dulled rotary blades. Top Talenti flavor for this task: Sea Salt Caramel.
The Pleasure of Stitching
Seemingly simple sewing machine needles are key to our happiness. We can trust that the perfect needle will form stitches dependably, smoothly and efficiently. And this brings joy to all of us quilters!