If you like DIY projects around your home, you probably know how to swap out larger or smaller drill bits when you need bigger or smaller holes. You might not know that you can also switch out different sewing machine needles to get the best results! But how do you know what size sewing machine needle to use with your project?
Sewing machine needles come in different sizes measured in an American and European numbering system. Both numbering systems use lower numbers for thinner needles and higher numbers for thicker needles. Thick needles work best with heavy-weight fabric and fine needles work best with lightweight fabrics.
In this article, you’ll find out how a sewing machine needle operates. You’ll also learn how to match the correct sewing machine needle with your fabric. Finally, you’ll get some tips for when and how to replace your sewing machine needles.
How Does a Sewing Machine Needle Work?
In the simplest terms, the needle on your sewing machine carries the thread to the opposite side of the fabric to create stitches. As you watch your sewing machine run, you probably notice the bright flash of the needle driving in and out of the fabric so quickly that sometimes you might just see a silver blur! This simple process involves more complex engineering than you might think.
Domestic sewing machines have several easily interchangeable parts. If you’re a beginning sewer, you might not know that you can take the needle in and out of your machine by following a few simple steps! This allows you to match just the right needle to each project you sew.
To help you understand how a sewing machine needle works, check out this breakdown of each part of the needle. Then you will get a clearer picture of why different shapes and sizes work better for different kinds of fabric.
Parts of a Sewing Machine Needle
You will find it easier to understand the different types and styles of needles if you go over the anatomy of a typical needle first.
- Shank: Most home sewing machine needles have a rectangular section at the top with one flat side and one rounded side. This slides into the needle clamp. It is then held firmly in place, allowing the machine to drive the needle up and down at high speeds.
- Shoulder: The rectangular shank curves toward the more slender blade, and this curve is called the shoulder. The shoulder does go through the fabric as the needle moves up and down, creating a wider hole for the thread to move through.
- Blade: As you might expect, the blade is the long, sword-like section that runs from the shoulder to the eye. Different kinds of needles have thicker or thinner blades depending on their intended purpose.
- Scarf: Some kinds of needles have a slight dip before the blade meets the eye. This dip, called the scarf, allows the thread to move closer to other parts of the machine like the looper.
- Eye: The eye is the hole you put the thread through at the pointy lower end of the needle. You may find some variation in eye size or shape.
- Point: if you run your finger beneath the lowest end of the needle, you will feel its point! You will find a varying degree of sharpness depending on the style. Typically, a sharp point works well with woven fabrics, and a rounded point works with knits.
All of these parts work together to allow the needle to push a hole through the fabric. It then carries the upper thread through that hole and allows the thread to catch on a looper or hook. This lets the bobbin thread loop through it, creating a stitch!
Knowing the proper names for all the parts of your sewing machine will make you feel like an expert, but it will also help you understand the directions in your user’s manual or any other sewing reference you like to use.
Types of Sewing Machine Needles
Sewing machine needles come in several different styles as well as varying needle sizes. The most commonly used domestic sewing machine needle types are universal, ballpoint, sharp, and stretch. For special projects, you can also select from a range of specialty needles that include embroidery, topstitching, and denim needles.
UniversalUniversal needles function as the one-size-fits-all of the sewing world. Universal points are rounder than sharps but sharper than ballpoints. Your sewing machine likely came with a set of universals!
They work pretty well with most types of fabric, from wovens to knits. Many beginning sewers never even think of swapping out the standard universal! That said, for the best possible results, you probably want to match your fabric to the needle that works best with it.
SharpSharp needles have a very sharp point! They also feature a sturdy shaft and a small eye. These elements allow sharps to pierce through multiple layers of fabric easily for quilting or topstitching projects.
Sharps do not work well with knits, but they pair well with very lightweight, sheer fabrics.
You will most often see sharps recommended for projects that involve sewing through multiple layers.
BallpointThe slightly rounded point on ballpoint needles nudges through the fibers in the fabric instead of cutting through them with a sharp edge. For this reason, ballpoints work best with knit fabrics.
The unique structure of knit fabrics uses interlocking looped threads instead of the typical over-under pattern of woven cloth.
This means that a sharp needle can easily catch in the loops and cause runs through the knit fabric. If you use a nicely rounded ballpoint, you will avoid this issue!
StretchStretch needles have that special groove above the eye called a scarf. The scarf allows stretch needles to place the thread very close to the hook or looper, preventing skipped stitches. This works best with stretchy fabrics such as spandex or stretchy knits.
Sewing on stretchy material often causes difficulties because the cloth stretches and slides around as you work.
Working with the special stretch needle helps prevent any wiggle room and skipped stitches as you go!
SpecialtyIf you find yourself working on a special kind of fabric or a special type of project, you may need to try a less commonly used specialty needle.
Some sewing machines can use double or twin needles to create fancy stitching and to make pin tucks. You can also find triple needles that feature three needles working together!Embroidery needles have a scarf and a wider eye to work with the extra bulk of embroidery thread. Topstitch needles look very much like a typical sharp. The main difference is that they have an unusually large eye to allow for the extra thickness of topstitch thread. Self-threading needles have a tiny slit in the side of the eye to allow a self-threading mechanism to operate.
Finally, you can also find a selection of needles designed specifically for certain types of fabric, such as denim and leather. You will find more information on those if you keep reading!
Sewing Machine Needle Chart
Here’s a handy chart to sum up the different types of needles and their uses!
What Size Sewing Machine Needle Should I Use?
Once you select the right style of needle for your project, you will need to choose a needle size based on the weight of your fabric. Most of the time lighter material works best with a thinner needle, and heavier material does best with a thicker needler.
But how do you pick a thick or thin sewing machine needle? You can easily learn the numbering systems used to explain needle thickness.
Sewing Machine Needle Sizes
Sewing machine needle sizes are usually represented as two numbers representing the thickness of the needle’s shaft. How do you know what this measurement means? Let’s get down to the numbers!
Why do needle sizes use two numbers? Well, one number indicates the European method of sizing. The other number uses the American sizing system.
You will see measurements listed both with the European number first and the American second and with the American first and the European second! Yes, this is a bit confusing, but don’t panic! Both measurement systems follow the simple rule that bigger numbers mean a thicker needle.
The European numbers use the metric system, based on hundredths of a millimeter. For example, a needle measurement of 100 means that the diameter of the needle’s shaft is 100 mm thick. This numbering system ranges from 60 to 120, and smaller measurements indicate a thinner needler.
The American system exists because Singer made it popular long ago. It ranges from 8 to 19. Smaller numbers mean a thinner needle in this system as well.
So, if you see a measurement of 12/80, the 12 indicates the American measurement and the 80 indicates the European measurement. A 12/80 ballpoint needle works great with knit materials!
Remember, though, that you might also see this needle size expressed as 80/12.
A thin needle with a measurement like 10/70 (or 70/10) works with fine materials such as silk and organza. You will also need to find a lightweight thread to fit through the small eye.
Thicker needles with high measurements work best with heavyweight fabrics.
Universal needles in an average size of 12/80 or 14/90 work well with cotton. The eye in this size of the needle will easily allow an everyday polyester thread to fit through.
If you’re topstitching or quilting with cotton material, you may want to use a sharp needle in a 12/80 or 14/90 size instead. You see experts recommend using a sharp with cotton all the time because their tapered points slide through lightweight wovens so easily.
As you already know, ballpoints are the way to go with knit fabrics! Ballpoint needles come in a wide range of sizes, so you should select the size based on the weight of your material.
If you’re working with a heavy knit, you might want a 16/100 ballpoint. If you’re working with a knit so thin and light you can almost see through it, you might want a 10/70 ballpoint.
Of course, if you plan to use a stretchy knit, you may want to consider using a stretch needle instead. This will help you avoid skipped stitches while sewing on challenging material.
For a fine, sleek fabric like satin you typically want a slender universal needle that has a not-too-sharp point with a size of around 8/60 or 10/70.
Satin shows needle marks badly, so make sure you start your project with a fresh needle! If you start to see any runs, puckers, or obvious needle holes as you sew, you may need to replace your needle in the middle of the project as well.
You need a fine, skinny needle when you work with sheers. Look for the smallest possible measurements of 8/60 or 10/70. You will also need a lightweight thread to blend with your sheer fabric and fit through the small eye.
You will also want to stay stitch whenever possible to keep this type of material from fraying while you sew.
Denim, otherwise known as jean fabric, gets its own special kind of needle! These typically come in higher thickness like 18/110. They have strong shafts and cutting points to sew through heavy or tightly woven material.
You can use this needle for tightly-woven material like canvas, for sewing any kind of jean fabric, and for sewing through multiple layers of fabric.
As a word of warning, not every domestic sewing machine can handle heavyweight fabric. You can buy specialty machines just for working with denim these days!
Cutting point or leather needles work best for leather because they drive a hole through the thick material, just like an awl does when you work with leather by hand. You can buy these in varying sizes based on the thickness of the leather.
Once again, make sure your sewing machine can handle leather before embarking on a project. If you do plan to sew a leather project, buy several replacement leather needles in case they break while you work.
Quilting needles have a short blade and fine, round eyes. The shortness of the needle allows extra room for you to insert the thickness of your quilt!
You can purchase a number of different needle sizes depending on the type of fabric you use.
Quilting machines and domestic sewing machines may not always accept the same types of quilting needles, so make sure you read the product description before purchasing.
Embroidery machines follow all the same rules as domestic machines for needle selection. For example, you will want a ballpoint needle if you plan to embroider on knit material. You will also want to choose a needle size based on the thickness of the fabric.
Machine embroidery may require specialty threads, though. For this reason, read the user’s manual and make sure you select a needle that can accommodate this type of thread.
Do All Sewing Machines Use the Same Needles?
The good news is that most sewing machine needles will fit interchangeably in any brand of a domestic sewing machine! You can buy a packet of sewing machine needles and use them in a Singer machine, a Brother machine, or a Janome machine.
So, needle sizes remain the same for Singer, Brother, or any other brand!
The most commonly used sewing machine needle is a universal needle in a 12/80 size.
However, Sergers, embroidery machines, and quilting machines may use needles not designed to fit regular sewing machines.
How Long Do Sewing Machine Needles Last?
Typically you will need to replace a sewing machine needle after about eight hours of sewing or after sewing through two bobbins full of thread. You can also listen to the sound of the needle punching through the fabric. If it starts making a popping noise instead of sliding through soundlessly, you probably need to change the needle.
If it’s easier to remember, you might want to always put in a new needle at the beginning of a new sewing project. And, of course, you will want to swap out your needle to fit the type of fabric you plan to work with!
Special coatings like titanium can increase the lifespan in some circumstances.
Another big reason you will have to insert a new needle is because of chips or breakages. This can happen when you haven’t threaded the machine correctly. Sometimes pulling too hard on the fabric instead of allowing the machine to move the material through using the feed dogs can cause a needle to break.
Finally, one of the main reasons to pick the correct sewing machine needle types and needle sizes for the job is that using the wrong needle can cause it to break! If you use a thin needle on leather, it will likely snap right off.
To dispose of old sewing machine needles, simply place them in a sealable container such as a pill bottle. Some recycling or scrap metal centers will accept them as well.
Serger Needle SizesSerger needle sizes can range from special industrial sizes to the normal sizes used in domestic sewing machines. Of course, sergers typically use two or more needles to create overlocked stitching patterns.
Most of the time, newer sergers designed for home use can fit standard domestic sewing machine needles. In this case, just match the needle type and size to your fabric as you would with any sewing project.
If you have an older serger or a special industrial serger, you will need to purchase needles designed to fit it.
Best Sewing Machine Needles
Schmetz and Gros-Beckert sewing machine needles rank highly for quality and reliability. Singer also sells a great selection, including lots of specialty types.
Most sewing machine needles are interchangeable, so for your typical home sewing project, the quality and brand may not matter terribly much. Selecting the correct type and size of a needle, on the other hand, matters a lot!
That said, you probably shouldn’t buy a bulk lot of unbranded needles off eBay. You’re better off buying from a reputable sewing machine company so you know the product will fit into your machine!
Check out these reviews to get an idea of a couple of excellent needle sets you can buy today.
SINGER Universal Heavy Duty Sewing Machine NeedlesSinger sells a wide array of specialty needles, including this handy set of five heavy-duty sewing needles perfect for leather or denim! The shaft has one flat side and one rounded side that will easily fit most domestic sewing machine brands, including Singer, Kenmore, and Brother.
The needle sizes included in the set are 100/16, 110/18, and 90/14. Singer also color codes different styles, so you can easily choose which type you want without getting out a magnifying glass to look at the point! Plus, this handy set provides multiple styles to suit your sewing needs.
50 Schmetz Universal Sewing Machine NeedlesIf you want to stock up on quality universals, try this set of 50 Schmetz needles! You won’t have to pause your sewing project and run out to the store constantly to get a replacement needle when you purchase five cards of needles. Perhaps most importantly, each needle comes with the assurance of the Schmetz brand, known for quality sewing items since the 1800s!
Each needle has a slightly rounded point. The set comes in assorted sizes, perfect for working with any weight of material.
Last but not least, how do you replace a needle in your sewing machine? Follow these simple steps and you’ll be a pro in no time!
First, locate the needle screw sticking out from the side of the needle clamp. Loosen this screw a bit. (Remember, righty-tightly, lefty-loosey!).
Hold onto the needle very lightly while you loosen the screw because sometimes it just drops right out! If this does not happen, tug very gently on the needle to pull it free after you loosen the screw.
Next, align the flat side and rounded side of the new needle’s shank with the hole in the needle clamp. Slide the new needle up into this hole.
Lastly, tighten the screw carefully until the needle is snugged inside the needle clamp!
The key to picking the right needle is to select a needle type and size that matches the style and weight of your fabric. Different styles of needles have rounder or pointier tips.
Needle sizing measures the thickness of the needle’s shaft. Higher measurements describe a thicker needle that will work best with heavy materials. Small numbers mean a slender needler that will work with lightweight cloth.
Have you ever replaced the needle in your sewing machine? Give it a try today, and find out how much this simple trick improves your sewing!