At the fabric store, you will see packages of needles with names like Universal, Ballpoint, or Sharp (don't you want them all to be sharp?) and numbers like 80/12 and 90/14. While it may look like it, these names and numbers are not a secret code. The name refers to the type of needle and the numbers refer to the size of the shaft. The higher the numbers on the package, the larger the shaft is. The larger number is the European metric size based on millimeters and the lower number is the American system (as always, we Americans have to be different). The heavier the fabric you are using, the larger the needle you will want to use. Most basic sewing is done on medium-weight cotton fabric (think quilting cotton) using a Universal 80/12 needle. I base my needle selection on that standard; if my fabric is heavier (upholstery or curtain fabrics), I go up a size. If my fabric is lighter weight, I go down in size (the sizes range from 60/8 to 120/19). For something lightweight like chiffon, you will want to use a 60/8 or 70/9 needle. If you arenít sure what size needle to use, test different sizes on scraps of your fabric and see how the stitches look and how big the needle holes are.
Universal: Appropriate for most sewing.
Ballpoint: For use with knits. The point is rounded so that the needle can pass by the threads rather than through them. Regular sharp needles can cut or snag the threads when stitching so you end up with tiny holes in your fabric.
Stretch: Stretch needles also have rounded points and are good for using on, you guessed it, stretch fabrics. They are intended for use on very stretchy fabrics like swimsuit lycra but if your ballpoint needle doesnít seem to be working well on your knits, try a Stretch needle instead.
Sharp/Microtex: These have a very sharp point and thin shaft. They were designed for use on silks or microfibers.
Denim: These are heavier weight needles for use on not only denim, but other similar heavyweight fabrics such as canvas. They are designed to easily pass through the heavier fabrics.
Leather: The point on leather needles has a sharp edge to cut through leather and other non-woven fabrics.
For specialty sewing, there are needles made for specific uses.
Topstitching: These needles have a larger groove and eye than regular needles to accommodate the larger threads used for topstitching. Since they are larger, be sure to use the smallest size necessary to minimize the size of the holes they leave in your fabric. I love using topstitching thread (like YLI Jeans Stitch) and these needles are a must when using the thicker threads.
Embroidery: These needles also have a larger than standard size eye to reduce stress on decorative threads. Most embroidery thread is made from rayon and as a result, is more delicate than standard cotton or polyester thread.
Metallic: These needles are designed specifically for use with decorative metallic thread. They also have a large, elongated eye. I have used these needles in my serger with metallic thread and they made a world of difference in being able to use the beautiful metallic threads for embellishing.
Quilting: The shaft on these needles is tapered in such a way to make sewing through multiple layers easier. But, donít get carried away when you are quilting and pull your fabric too fast through the machine. The needle *will* break. No need to ask me how I know this.
Now we will talk about the really cool needles.
Hemstitch or Wing Needle: As the name implies, these needles have wings. They arenít used for flying though. The wings cut the fabric to make decorative open-work designs like you see in heirloom sewing.
Twin and Triple Needles: These needles look a bit different. The shank is a bit shorter than usual and ends in a small piece of plastic and two (or three) needles protrude from the other side of the plastic. They are used for topstitching and decorative applications. I donít have a cover stitch on my serger (sob) so I use a twin needle to give my knit items a more finished look like RTW (ready-to-wear) garments. They come in varying widths (the distance between the needles) and are available in Universal, Denim, Hemstitch, Machine Embroidery, Metallic, and Stretch types. I also like to use a double-needle and a decorative embroidery stitch to edge hems of dresses or tops using two colors of thread. TIP: Be sure to check that the needle will fit through the hole in your faceplate before starting to sew.
Spring Needle: This needle has a spring above the point. They are for use in darning or free-motion quilting without the presser foot. The spring essentially replaces the presser foot by pushing the fabric off the needle.
Now you are armed with knowledge and the next time you are faced with a wall full of needles, you will know just what to purchase for your projects. Read carefully, there may be a quiz later on!