Sometimes, sewing machine needles can seem confusing and overwhelming. Newcomers to sewing often experience stress, wasted thread, and fabric when trying to find the right needle for their project. I didn’t even know the difference between needlepoint vs cross stitch when I started.
To help you feel more at ease, I have gathered all the information you need to know about sewing machine needle sizes.
What sewing machine needles do
Before we really get into learning about bigger and smaller needle sizes, we need to know what a sewing machine needle actually does. There are three main roles during the sewing process:
- Making a hole in fabric to allow the sewing thread to pass through and form a stitch without damaging the fabric in the process.
- Carrying the needle thread through the fabric so that a loop is formed. The loop is then taken back up by the hook in the lockstitch machine.
- Passing the thread through the loop that has been created.
What is a sewing machine needle?
A sewing machine needle is a specialized needle designed for use specifically with a sewing machine.
Sewing machine needles are classed by two characteristics: the size of the needle, which refers to the thickness of the needle shaft, and the type of the needle for a specific purpose or project.
You can find info about the type and the thickness of the needle on the packaging of the needles.
Is a sewing machine needle different from a regular needle?
The design of a hand sewing needle is much simpler than a sewing machine needle. Hand sewing needles have an eye on one end and a point on the other, and their length varies depending on the size and type.
Typically, larger needles are longer than smaller needles, and the shape of the eye also varies between the types.
Needle Size Numbers
One of the major differences between a hand sewing needle and a machine sewing needle is the sizing numbers.
The size usually indicates the diameter, but with hand sewing needles, the larger the number, the smaller the needle. With sewing machine needles, the opposite is true.
Sewing Machine Needle Parts
Let’s look at the different parts of a sewing machine needle.
At the top of a sewing machine needle you have the shank. One side is rounded and the other side is flat. The flat side should always face away from you when putting in a new sewing machine needle.
You then have the shaft of the needle and on the other side a groove.
On the front of the shaft is a little grove where the thread will sit.
Behind, facing away from you is where we have the scarf, which will change according to the function of the needle.
The eye is the hole where the thread goes through.
It is both the point and the eye that change according to the function of the needle. These two components will have a big impact on what you are sewing and how well it sews.
Sewing machine needle types
Universal needles are the sewing machine needles that most of us will probably buy in our sewing careers. The needle has been designed to work universally across most fabrics.
The tip is slightly rounded or ballpoint and should work well for most of your sewing projects.
It’s a bit of a mix, so it’s pointy enough for woven fabrics and “ball pointy” enough for knit fabrics and synthetics!
It will sew most woven fabrics, polyester and knits. The universal needle can be left on your sewing machine most of the time, as the everyday casual sewist can sew pretty much any project without having to get overly technical.
The ballpoint needle is ideal for cotton knits, fleece, rib knits, and double knit fabrics (also known as jersey).
The tip is more round than a universal needle, as the tip is designed to move fabrics apart rather than cutting them, preventing the knit fabric from lathering or bunching after stitches.
Stretch needles are designed specially for two way stretch knits and anything that is highly elasticized, such as spandex or lycra.
The stretch needle is not really suitable for your average jersey fabric. In fact, the stretch needle has a specially designed scarf to prevent skipped stitches.
Quilting sewing machine needle
A quilting needle is used for piecing and quilting layers of cotton fabrics with the layer of wadding or batting in between.
Even if you’re just piecing but need to sew though lots of seams, the strengthened shaft and groove help reduce needle deflections as it goes through multiple layers of fabric.
Denim / jean sewing machine needles
These are ideally suited to sew denim fabrics, canvas, or tightly woven fabrics such as work wear. It’s engineered to have a very sharp tip and a stiffer shank to prevent it from needle deflection.
This is to stop it from bending or breaking, as well as to pierce denim fabrics easily and allow penetration for very dense fabric.
Wing sewing machine needle
A wing, or hem-stitching needle is used to achieve an eyelet effect on sewing projects, also known as an heirloom effect. The two small flanges on either side of the needle creates holes in the fabric by separating the fibers while the hole is held open by the stitching. In general, it’s best to sew with cotton and light fabrics.
Here’s what a wing needle and wing stitch look like.
Metallic ones are ideal for sewing and embroidery with metallic or rayon threads on woven or knitted fabrics.
The needles are designed with a larger eye of the needle, to allow the thread to flow through freely as you sew without splitting, as metallic thread tends to be a lot thicker.
This needle is also good to use for general purpose sewing, giving its added advantage of being easier to thread.
These are specially designed for sheer embroidery fabrics and threads, such as rayon, polyester, or cotton. It features a wide eye hole to allow thread to pass through freely.
The scarf has been specially designed with an oversized bump, to reduce the chance of skipped stitches – they could easily occur with a fast moving stitch!
Twin needles consist of the same shank as a regular sewing machine needle, but branch out from two points that are variably spaced.
They produce two lines of parallel stitching as the bobbin zigzags between them.
Twin needles can be used for fabrics like polyester and spandex to help stretch the stitch when pulling items over your arms and head.
The sharp point is designed for sewing through multiple layers of tightly woven fabrics such as silk, microfiber, and other synthetic fabrics.
It’s great for straight stitching and patchwork. The sharp point will give you a perfect straight stitch, making it an ideal needle for topstitching and patchwork.
The leather needle has a cutting point that is used for sewing leather, suede, and other difficult to sew leather projects.
The leather needle is often referred to as a chisel point needle since the point resembles a chisel in motion.
My favorite needles and the ones I use the most, have an extra large eye, which accommodates thick topstitching thread. And, they have an extra sharp point which helps penetrate through thick and medium weight fabrics.
How do I choose a needle for my sewing machine?
When I first started sewing I used the same size needle for months! I only used a new needle when it snapped (mostly from my error).
I’d never considered how the needle works with different types of fabric before I started sewing. When selecting the right needle for your project, consider a few things first:
This is the most important factor in deciding which sewing machine needles to use. You want to make sure the needle tip will be able to pierce through the fabric, but without damaging the fabric, bending, or breaking.
Take a look at the chart to help guide you with sewing machine needle types.
|Fabric (These are listed as examples of weight, but can be of any fiber, cotton, linen, silk, wool, synthetic, rayon, blends.)||Machine needle type||Machine needle sizes|
|Sheer to lightweight fabrics: batiste, chiffon, microfiber or micro denier fabrics,||Regular point||70 / 9 or 80 12|
|Lightweight: handkerchief linen, silk, gauze||Regular point||80 12|
|Medium weight: broadcloth, linen, polin, flannel, velvet, synthetic suedes||Regular point||90 / 14|
|Medium weight to heavy-weight: coating, fake fur, ticking, woollens||Regular point||100 / 16 or 110 / 18|
|Denim and canvas||Denim jeans||100 / 16|
|Sheer to lightweight fabrics and knits: jersey, single knot, spandex, tricot||Ball point||70 / 10 or 80 12|
|Medium to heavy weight knits: double knit, sweatshirt, sweater knit.||Ball point||90 / 14|
|Speciality fabrics: leather, suede, buckskin||Wedge point||90 / 14 or 100 / 16|
If you are using slightly thicker threads, or you find yourself having trouble threading the needle or with the thread breaking, look for a sewing machine needle that has a slightly larger eye.
This will help you thread and even allow the threads to move around more freely.
How to choose the right thread
The larger the number for the threads, the thinner the thread will be. The smaller the number on the thread, the thicker the thread will be.
E.g. a size 12 would be good for a half stitch or a decorative stitch, whereas a 40 or 50 count would be used for most sewing with standard cotton fabric.
If you need more information, refer to this sewing thread size chart.
Machine needle sizes and needle thickness
We know that the smaller the needle number, the finer the needle type, needle size, and the thread it can accommodate.
The larger the number on the needle, the thicker the needle type, which can also work with heavier threads for stitches.
In order to help avoid confusion when purchasing the right size sewing machine needles, here’s an easy to remember correlation between the number and the exact diameter of the needle:
Number and Diameter
If you are using sizes 100/16 (European/American) the 100 needles are 1mm in diameter. Thus, 90/14 needles are 0.9mm in diameter, and a 70/10 is 0.7mm in diameter. I’ve provided a helpful chart above to help you see the correlation.
Another tip to remember is this: the thicker the needles, the thicker the fabric.
Type of sewing
Different types of sewing require different sewing machine needles. If you will be embroidering or free motion sewing, then I recommend using needle sizes with a larger eyelet to prevent thread from breaking during high speed movement.
Also, you could use a sharper needle to prevent any damage or bunching to the fabric.
Do all needles fit all sewing machines?
You’ll be pleased to know that any sewing machine needle sizes purchased from a haberdashery should be compatible with any relatively modern domestic sewing machine.
How to read sewing machine needle sizes?
Every needle’s packaging comes with a set of two numbers on them. These numbers refer to two systems: the European system (metric) and the American system (imperial). The large numbers are European and smaller numbers are American.
The larger the number on the needles, the larger the machine needle size will be. The most common needle sizes you’ll use are 80 12 and 90 14, which are universal threading.
The sewing machine needle sizes link to the fabric you are using. The larger the numbers, the thicker the fabric you can sew.
Conversely, the smaller the numbers, the finer the fabric should be, for example, 75/11 needle is for sheer fabrics, thin delicate fabrics. 100 / 16 would be outdoor and thicker fabrics and denim.
Universal Needle Size
We can see how clever the universal needle size is, because it can carry pretty much any category from a 70/10 – 90/14 and will cover most types of fabric.
But, if you are doing a specific project with specific fabric, it’s good to try and pinpoint that size and use a specific needle rather than a universal one.
How to insert a sewing machine needle?
To replace a needle, simply loosen the set screw which is usually on the right, just above where the sewing machine needle lives. Pull the needle out by moving it downwards and toward you. Insert the new needle so the scarf is facing away from you, and re-tighten the set screw.
That’s all there is to it! If you’re still stuck here’s a video that can help you.
When should I replace my sewing machine needle?
Change the needle after sewing two or three different garments, every 8 hours, or after hitting the pin.
A bent blunt or buried needle can often cause damage to your project. Uneven or skipped stitches are usually the result of an incorrect needle size or type.
After a while of sewing, you might choose to up your sewing skills as a seamstress and play around with other fabrics and other fabrics.
If so, you’d need to change the needle for the unique purpose of the project at the time.
Needles can often break or go out of shape when trying to pierce through multiple layers of fabric or over a seam, so you’ll want a needle with a strengthened shaft if you will be sewing on thicker layers.
I don’t think needles are the place to be pinching the pennies – you want to make sure you change your needle frequently to get the best sewing results.
While figuring out what’s the right sewing machine needle for your projects might seem daunting at first, I promise it doesn’t have to be!
Mostly, a big part of sewing is dependent on what you and your machine like, but try to make sure you do have the proper needle for your fabric.
Learning Needle Sizes
Once you get to grips with sewing machine needle sizes, you’ll have upped your skills to the next level.
The sewing machine needle size isn’t something you want to overlook, as it can have a drastic impact on the overall aesthetic of your project. Thus, it’s worth spending the time to master.