I don't know how many times I went to Joann's and picked up the first set of universal needles I saw and yolo'ed my sewing. I assumed the numbers meant something but I couldn't be bothered to learn what they meant until I broke a few hundred needles. It's actually not as complicated as you'd think! So with a little foresight on the projects you are planning, it's easy to collect all the needles you need.
Needle packages will say the type of needle they are along with a fraction. Unlike your blood pressure reading, the two numbers actually mean the same thing. The smaller number is the US needle size while the larger number is European. For the sake of consistency, I'm only going to refer to the US sizes.
Needles sizes come in size 8 all the way to 19. The smallest (8) is for extremely fine or lightweight fabric such as organza and chiffon. The heaviest (19) would be for heavyweights such as vinyl and upholstery. The numbers will also correspond with thread weight. A thread made for delicate fabric won't break in a fine needle, but certainly will in a 16, 18, or 19 size. You can see more on choosing thread here. For medium weight fabrics, you can choose a needle size somewhere in the middle and be ok! There's no strict guide for this, but most needles will have a bit of leeway. If in doubt, choose a slightly heavier size. As long as you aren't using large sized needles on delicate fabrics, you should be ok!
Types of Needles
Once you've figure out the size, it's time to look at the type of needles; and boy is there a selection to choose from! You'll be surprised how easy your sewing will be once you start using the correct type of needle.
Ballpoint: This needle is very similar to the universal but with more rounded edges. This is so it can slip between woven fabrics without damaging them. Ballpoint is frequently used with knit fabrics.
Denim/jeans: A sharper and sturdier needle for piercing tough fabrics like denim. These can also handle thicker thread with ease.
Embroidery: Designed to use on light to medium fabrics and only machine embroidery thread. The eye is larger to help reduce the shredding of delicate thread.
Leather: An extremely sturdy needle with a sharp triangular point made for piercing leather, vinyl, and suede.
Metallic: Similar to the embroidery needle, the metallic needle has a large eye for easy threading and to reduce the potential of thread shredding of specific metallic thread. The eyes are often coated in teflon to reduce shredding as well.
Quilting: This needle has a tapered point and a sturdy shaft to ensure penetration of multiple layers while quilting. However, it also creates the bare minimum hole to minimize fabric damage.
Self Threading: If you're having an issue threading your needle, these will help. There is a slit on the side of the eye to easily slip the thread through. However, because there's an opening in the eye, these needles can break more easily.
Serger: Specific needles to use with your serger or overlock machine.
Sharp/Microtex: Similar to the universal needle but slightly sharper and thinner. These are perfect for fine and lightweight fabrics, along with applique work.
Stretch: As the name implies, these needles are rounded to work specifically with stretch fabric like lycra and spandex.
Top Stitch: Similar in size and shape to the leather needle so it can pass through multiple layers of fabric. It also has a large eye to accommodate top stitching thread.
Twin/Triple: Two or three needles on a single shank to sew multiple rows at the same time spread equally apart. These needles can be used for top stitching and allow for fabric to stretch even while straight stitching.
Universal: A standard needle that's implied to work with most fabric. However, I would say these work best with medium weight woven fabrics.
Wing: This is essentially the hole puncher of needles, as it creates a hole for decorative purposes. This needle is frequently used with embroidery.
While there is no guide to when you should change your needle, if you're like me, you probably don't change it frequently enough. And no, when it breaks is not nearly as frequent as you should. Every three full bobbins is a good general rule to have in terms of changing your needle but it honestly just depends. If you are working with fine or easily snag-able fabric, you may want to change it as frequently as possible as to avoid permanently ruining the fabric. Heavy fabrics such as leather or extremely textured fabric like fleece will also dull your needle quicker than other fabrics. So it's important to take note of what you're sewing as well as how long.
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Hopefully you find this helpful! More posts will be added to cover the different tools and elements of sewing. Please stay tuned!
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