When you find it harder and harder to force a needle through the fabric, you may have worn down the sharp tip to a dull nub. Or you may notice a snag in your fabric as you stitch an embroidery or quilting design. Either way, you can easily keep sewing if you learn how to sharpen needles!
One of the most popular ways to sharpen a needle is to use a nail file or emery board. One simple way to keep needles and pins sharp all the time is to use a pin cushion filled with steel wool to store the sharp tools. Professionals often use a whetstone or oilstone to sharpen needles.
In this article, you will find out when you should and should not sharpen a needle. You will learn eight easy ways to sharpen your needles. Finally, you will discover common needle-sharpening hacks and see what works!
Why Do You Need to Sharpen a Needle?
You need to sharpen a needle if it grows dull or shows damage like a scrape or knick. Dull needles do not push through the fabric as easily as sharp ones, which can hinder your sewing progress.
But even more importantly, a damaged needle with a scrape or burr can snag on the fabric as you sew. It could cause a run in the cloth if you sew by hand or skipped stitches and tangled threads on a sewing machine.
Needles do not cost much to replace in most cases, but you also do not want to wastefully throw one out when it just needs two seconds for quick sharpening.
Plus, sharpening needles instead of buying new ones can save you time. If you have to pause your sewing project to run out to the store and buy a new needle–or even worse, wait for Amazon to deliver one–your sewing will get massively delayed!
What Type of Needle Can You Sharpen?
You can sharpen most sharps and universal needles but should avoid trying to sharpen specialty varieties like some embroidery or ballpoint types. Ask yourself if sharpening the needle will damage or alter the shape of its point. If it already has a sharp point, you will simply restore its shape like sharpening a knife.
But if the needle has a unique shape, you could ruin it by trying to make it sharp.
You should not try to sharpen ballpoint or stretch needles for obvious reasons. This type of needle has a rounded, ball-shaped point for sewing through knit fabric or some types of specialty hand sewing like cross stitch. Sharpening it would ruin its intended purpose.
You also should not try to sharpen a needle with a bent point. Sometimes sewing machine needles, in particular, can land wrong and bend the tip. You need to discard this needle for safety reasons and use a new one.
People who sew a lot have mixed opinions about whether you can sharpen sewing machine needles. Sharpening a sewing machine needle could alter its shape slightly and change the way it connects the upper thread with the lower thread to form stitches. But in most cases, so long as you do not sand away a significant part of the point, you can safely sharpen a universal style of sewing machine needle.
You should either sharpen or replace your sewing machine needle after every two to five hours of sewing or after using up eight bobbins of lower thread. If you find this hard to keep track of, you could also sharpen or replace the needle every time you begin a new sewing project.
If you keep your needle-sharpening tool of choice right by your sewing space, you can sharpen your needle in a couple of seconds when necessary and get right back to sewing!
How to Sharpen Needles: 8 Methods
You can easily sharpen a sewing needle using simple household products like steel wool, coconut oil, an emery board, or sandpaper. You can also use professional sharpening tools such as a whetstone or an oilstone.
1. Steel WoolOne of the easiest ways to smooth a scraped needle and sharpen the tip just a little is to push it through a piece of steel wool two or three times.
Steel wool looks like the lint you pull out of the dryer when you do laundry, but it contains incredibly thin iron wires and savings. These form a matted, felt-like fabric or sponge.
- Fold over the steel wool into a thick pad at least ½” to one inch thick.
- Hold the needle as if you plan to stitch through the steel wool.
- Push the needle through the steel wool using a firm motion.
- Repeat this stitching motion two to three times.
You can keep a scrap of steel wool with your sewing kit for easy access. Or you can use steel wool as the filling in a pincushion and store your pins and needles in it. Every time you take a needle out or push it back in, it will scrape through the mildly abrasive iron filings and become sharper.
2. WhetstoneOne of the most professional ways to sharpen a sewing needle is to use a whetstone. A whetstone has a grit or grade of abrasion, just like sandpaper, but it is a natural type of stone turned into a handy block for sharpening knives, scissors, or needles. You can find whetstones perfect for sharpening craft tools.
While using a whetstone is probably the best way to sharpen needles consistently and professionally, it does take a little practice. The most important skill to master is keeping the point aligned with the stone at the same angle as you sharpen every side.
- Place the whetstone on a desk or table in front of you.
- Hold the needle at a right angle to the flat surface of the stone. You want the tip and even a little of the shaft of the needle at that 90° angle. If you lift it so the point presses down into the stone, you will blunt it as you move it back and forth.
- Run the needle sideways about two inches down the length of the stone, maintaining that angle. You do not want to move it forward and back because you will have no way to track which sides of the point get more shaved and you will end up with a lopsided point.
- Smoothly twist the needle between your fingers and scrape it back across those two inches, still moving sideways with the whole point of the needle touching the stone.
- Repeat this dragging and twisting motion three or four times.
- Make sure you keep rotating or twisting the needle between your fingers as you run it along the sharpener. Otherwise, you will shave away more metal from one side of the point than another. This will change the shape of the needle and impact how it sews.
3. OilstoneYou can also easily sharpen a needle using an oil stone. An oilstone is a whetstone that adds a few drops of oil to lubricate the sharpening process.
For needle sharpening, you will want to use a fine carborundum oil stone. You will also need a small bottle of mineral oil on hand.
- Use an eye dropper to add a drop or two of oil to the oil stone or the special narrow spout if your oil bottle comes with it.
- Next, pinch the needle between your thumb and forefinger and practice rotating it, twisting it rapidly from side to side. This is the motion you want to use on the stone.
- Run the point backwards down the length of the stone while continuing that twisting motion.
- Repeat this dragging and twisting backward across the stone three or four times.
- Pause to test the sharpness of the needle to see if you need to repeat these steps.
For a quick temporary fix on a damaged needle, you can use a bar of soap to make your needle smoother. You can also use a chunk of beeswax for this purpose. This method makes your needle sew much more smoothly but does not make the tip sharper.
- Find a thick bar of soap. It does not matter what brand or kind!
- Push the needle into the bar. You may want to wear a sewing thimble or a glove while you do this.
- Pull the needle back out.
- Now push the needle through a scrap of fabric to remove soap flakes.
- Examine the point closely. The soap should fill in any tiny scrapes, scratches, or dings, giving it a smooth shape that will sew much more easily without catching on the fabric.
5. Coconut Oil and FoilCoconut or cooking oil and a piece of regular old foil can quickly sharpen a sewing needle. This method is sort of the housewife version of using a professional oil stone, though it may not work as perfectly or consistently as a real oil stone.
- Dip the needle in melted coconut oil or a bit of cooking oil.
- Run it back and forth down a piece of foil. Make sure to twist and rotate the needle as you scrape it sideways across the foil.
- Stop to test the sharpness.
- Once you like the point, make sure you clean off the needle to avoid getting oil stains on your sewing project!
6. Emery BoardOne of the most popular ways to sharpen a needle for home sewers is to use an emery board. You probably already have one in your purse or makeup bag for smoothing your nails.
This handy tool usually looks like a tongue depressor or popsicle stick, but it has a rough, abrasive texture on at least one side. This comes from glued-on emery sand or emery paper.
- Hold the emery board in one hand and pinch the needle between your thumb and forefinger in the other hand.
- Place the needle’s point on the board. You want the length of the whole point to rest on the board.
- Next, lightly draw the point up and down the emery board, moving sideways so that the needle is perpendicular to the board.
- As always, twist the needle as you move it up and down the board.
- Test the point to see if it feels sharper.
7. SandpaperSandpaper can also quickly sharpen a needle, though you should only use paper with fine grit for this purpose to avoid scraping or damaging it. Micro-abrasive grits like 320 or 360 should work well.
- Lay the sandpaper flat and use painter’s tape to hold it steady on a table or counter. If you can find a fine-grit sandpaper block instead, you can easily hold it in your hand.
- Angle the needle, so the point lies flat on the sandpaper.
- Run the needle sideways down the paper, turning it as you go to hone it on all sides.
8. Emery Strawberry/TomatoSome pincushions come with a built-in needle-sharpening tool called an emery cushion. Have you ever seen one of the store-bought pincushions with a tiny strawberry or tomato attached to the cushion by a string? Of course, this little strawberry or tomato looks cute, but it also contains emery sand.
Emery sand comes from a type of rock called emery, or black sand. When crushed up, it forms fine, abrasive particles made famous from use on emery boards for filing your nails. This abrasive powder is a great tool to sharpen needles and pins!
- Hold the emery strawberry carefully with your non-dominant hand.
- Pinch the needle as if you wanted to sew through the strawberry. Hold it perpendicular to the strawberry so that all sides of the needle will receive the same exposure to the sand.
- Push the needlepoint deep into the strawberry, and then pull it back out.
- Repeat this motion three to four times, then test the needle for sharpness.
How to Sharpen a Needle Hacks: What Works?
With the whole world connected through TikTok and Insta reels, you may find yourself overwhelmed with dozens of life hacks to fix everything, including hacks to sharpen a needle! The question is, which hacks work?
You can still find the urban legend that you can sharpen a needle with two pennies floating around online, but this hack does not work. Pennies have a copper coating that will scrape off against the steel of a needle, not the other way around!
This myth seems to have sprung up from when medical professionals had to reuse hypodermic needles. But back then, nurses used professional sharpening methods like stropping belts or whetstones, not pennies.
Unfortunately, people using hypodermics for less legal things did not always have real sharpening tools on hand, which is where many of the old wives’ tales about DIY sharpening tools came from.
If you have a super fine needle, you can sharpen it using a single human hair. You can also smooth and polish any needle by running it through your hair because it will pick up some of the natural oils in your hair as you do this.
- Use tweezers to pull out one of your hairs right at the root. (Ouch! But if you want to sharpen a needle in a hurry, you may find it worth the pain).
- Hold the hair right at the root with the end of the hair hanging down.
- Align the needle’s point with the thickest part of the hair root.
- Push the needle point into the hair. The needle must have a slimmer diameter than the hair root for this to work.
- Pull the needle all the way through.
- Test the point to see if it feels sharper.
While this “hack” can work to a certain extent, it only applies to a fine needle. It also originated in the world of hypodermic needles, which have very fine points these days.
You can sharpen a needle successfully if you spread a little oil on a folded sheet of foil, as you saw earlier in this article. But you cannot sharpen a needle by stabbing it through the foil.
Folding up a wad of foil and cutting through it is an old-fashioned way to sharpen scissors. It does not work on needles because the foil will rip and scratch the sides of the needle.
In some cases, toothpaste can sharpen a dull needle. But this method only works on old, blackened, tarnished needles. It will buff a new needle to a nice shine, but it won’t make it much sharper.
To use toothpaste on an old needle:
- Squirt a dab of toothpaste onto a clean rag.
- Hold the needle in one hand and use the rag to polish it with the other.
- The tiny bit of baking soda grit in the toothpaste will remove the tarnish that has dulled the point.
- You may have to keep polishing for a while to clean the needle.
How Do You Know When you Need to Sharpen a Needle?
You will know you need to sharpen your needle from several clues, like the sound it makes going through the fabric and the way the point feels to the touch.
On a sewing machine, you will hear a plopping or popping sound whenever a dull needle pounds through the material. Sometimes, you want to hear this sound, like when you sew on a jersey knit fabric using a ballpoint needle. But most of the time, this warning sign will let you know that your sharp sewing machine needle has grown dull from too much friction over time.
Of course, you can also just feel the needle with your fingertip. Make sure you turn off the sewing machine first! Simply slide your finger beneath the point and find out if it still feels sharp.
If you feel uneasy about touching sharp objects, you can look at the needle through a magnifying glass to see how sharp it appears.
Universal or sharp sewing machine needles require either frequent changing or sharpening.
That said, keep in mind that you should always select the right needle for your project. Different sewing machine needles work better on different materials. If you try to use a slender, sharp needle on a tough fabric like denim, it will quickly grow dull or even snap in half.
Hand-sewing needles do not require sharpening as quickly because you don’t drive them through the fabric with the same force and friction as a sewing machine! But you will still find that your hand needles grow dull over time, especially after a giant embroidery project.
You may want to pay special attention to less common, specialty hand-sewing needles like upholstery needles or doll needles because these cost more to replace. Check them for sharpness before you start any new project.
Finally, watch out for a metallic smell on your hands or odd colors rubbing off on your hands when you use the needle. Many hand-sewing needles feature a metallic coating of nickel or platinum over the steel core, which can wear away over time. At that point, you cannot sharpen the needle and you will need to discard it before the eroded coating gets on your fabric.
Sharpening needles can prolong their life and save time by allowing you to continue working on your sewing project. Many needles, including sharps and universals, respond well to the right sharpening methods. You can sharpen many sewing machine needles and hand-sewing needles, depending on the style of the point.
The most professional way to sharpen a needle is to use a whetstone or oil stone. You can also use cheaper household items to sharpen needles, like an emery board, a piece of fine-grit sandpaper, or a pad of steel wool. One of the key things to remember in any sharpening method is to turn the needle as you sharpen it to make sure you evenly hone all sides of the point.