Sewing Machine Needles: A Primer

Selecting the correct size and type of needle can have such an impact on the success and enjoyment of a sewing project.  Unexplained skipped stitches, frustrating snaggles of thread on the underside of the fabric, and broken needles can all be the result of poor needle choice.  Here's a quick guide to help you choose the right needle for your project.  

There are two factors for choosing which type of sewing machine needle to use for a project: size and type.  The needle should be chosen based on the weight and fibre type of the fabric you are sewing.   

Needle Size

There are two systems of measurement for sewing machine needles: metric and imperial.  On the needle package, both are generally identified, for example 80/12.  The higher the number, the heavier the needle.   

The size of needle to use depends on the type of fabric you are sewing.  For example, when sewing with lightweight linen, I would choose a 70/10 needle.  If I were sewing a pair of wings, involving several layers of fabric, interfacing, and batting, I would opt for a 110/18.  

Metric Needle Size Imperial Needle Size Fabric Type
60 8 Very fine fabrics such as cotton lawn, sheer fabrics
70 10 Lightweight linen and cotton
80 12 Quilting cotton, shirting, jersey, lightweight wool, midweight linen
90 14 Heavyweight linen, corduroy, velvet
100 16 Denim, canvas, heavy corduroy, upholstery, heavy wool 
110 18 Heavy denim, heavy canvas, multiple layers of fabric
120 20 Multiple layers of heavy fabric

Needle Type

There are many types of specialty needles, however these are some good, basic needles that come in handy for a range of sewing projects:

Universal - as the name implies, this is a good all-round needle type for a range of fabrics.  Primarily used with light to heavy-weight woven fabrics, but the slightly-rounded tip means that it may also be used with knit fabrics.  

Ballpoint - designed specifically for stretch/knit fabrics, this needle has a rounded tip that pushes fibres aside rather than making holes in the fabric.  

Microtex - has a sharp, fine point that pierces fabric precisely.  Works well with light wovens such as silk or sheer linen.  If your sewing machine balks at very lightweight fabrics, try switching to a microtex needle.  

Jeans/Denim - a sturdy needle with a very sharp point, this is a good choice for denim or other heavy fabrics such as canvas or oilskin.  Also handy for sewing through many thick layers, such as when making wings or nature baskets.  

Leather - a sturdy needle with a wedge-shaped tip.  While universal or denim needles tend to struggle and get stuck in leather, these needles punch through the material and make the task of sewing leather much easier.  

Topstitching - has a longer eye to accommodate thicker thread for doing decorative topstitching.  

Remember to change sewing machine needles fairly regularly, as using a dull needle may cause problems.  Sometimes troubleshooting can be as simple as installing a fresh needle!  

The general recommendation is to put in a fresh sewing machine needle after 8 hours of sewing.  I find that this varies a bit, since some fabrics tend to dull needles more quickly than others.  When the needle is dull, it doesn't pierce the fabric quite as easily, and may pull threads.  I also find that the sound of the needle piercing the fabric tends to change a bit - there's more of a popping or thudding noise with a dull needle.  

You may also find that there is a certain amount of experimentation required, as some sewing machines are more selective than others.  I have two sewing machines - one is not picky at all when it comes to needles, while the other one always reminds me when I need to switch needles.

We hope that this little guide helps you to choose the right needle for your next project.  Happy sewing!