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Needles – Q & A

In my last entry I wrote about general features of needles. This entry is about details and types of needles and hopefully answers many of your questions about needles and how to find the right one.

So, basics first: Needle Variables

There are a few variables which define the qualities of a needle:

- Needle point: is the point sharp, round, ...

- Needle eye: size and shape of the needle's eye

- Needle diameter: thickness of the needle

- Needle length: well, you guessed it, right?

- Needle flex: how stiff or bendy i the needle?

The combination of these variables decides what the needles works best for.

Needle Size

Needles usually come with size numbers on the packaging. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the smaller the needle. Don't ask me why it works like this, I have no idea. If you happen to know - please tell me!

It means a #9 needle will be shorter and thinner than a #7 needle of the same type. The sizes are not absolute though, meaning a #7 sharp will not have the same measurements as a #7 quilting needle, and also a sewing needle #7 by one manufacturer will not have the absolute same measurements as a sewing needle #7 from another manufacturer. Just to keep it nice and confusing!

Needle Types

A lot of times the needle type will tell you what it's made for. Here are a few common ones:

Sharps: These are the classic all-purpose sewing needles. They have a small eye and a sharp tip/point.

Milliners or Straws: They were originally made for miliners, but mostly used nowadays for sewing or decorative stiching. They are a lot like sharps, small eye, sharp tip, just longer.

Quilting or Betweens: These are made for hand quilting and help you make smaller stitches and work faster, as they are shorter than sharps. They are thin with a small eye and work best if you work with the quilting stich, rocking your finger up and down and making several stitches at one. They do work well for sewing too, though, if you like shorter needles. They are usually quite flexible as well.

Embroidery or Crewel Needles: They have a larger eye and sharp tips, their length, diameter and points are very similar to Sharps. The larger eye makes threading them with stranded floss easier. They work well with fine or dense fabrics and any kind of embroidery patterns that are not counted stitch.

Tapestry or Cross Stitch Needles: They come with a long, oval eye for threading stranded floss easily and blunt points. They work well for cross stich or counted stitch. The rounded points slip easily through canvas, aida, embroidery linen, etc. without splitting the fibers. Thus your working speed will be quite fast.

Chenille Needles: They are very similar to Tapestry Needles, only with sharp points, so they pass easily through coarse or dense fabrics. Their large eyes also make them well suited for ribbon embroidery.

Darners: Long and sharp with large eyes, made for darning and mending; the larger sizes work well for wool and thicker threads. They are usually very flexible.

Ball-tip Needles: their original use is for wevaers, who use it for finishing weaved pieces, sewing in ends or fixing weaving mistakes. The ball shaped tip also makes them incredibly useful for mending wollen pieces, as the ball-tip glides into the stitches rather than splitting them. They are also nice for embroidering on knits.

Sashiko Needle: Slightly thicker needle with a lot of flex, a relatively small eye and at best a very, very sharp point. They come in shorter and longer sizes. Originally meant to take up many stitches at once, hence the slightly bigger lengths, they are also my favourite when working with denim. Their sharp tips pierce even two or more layers of denim with more ease than any other needle type I have tried yet.

Leather Needles or Glovers: Their points have a triangular shape with sharpened edges, so they can cut easily through leather, vinyl and other leather-like materials.

Saddler Harness Needles: They have a round point, as they are used for leather that has holes punched before sewing it up.

Beading Needles: These needles are usually very, very fine and used for stringing beads or sequins; there are shorter versions used for bead embroidery.

There are many more types of needles for different crafts, like sail needles, bookbinder needles, needles for mattress making and upholstery, needles for sewing grain sacks close, quilt basting needles, darners for certain types of fabric, appliqué needles, silk needles, curved needles, ... Usually the name will give you a hint what they are made for and what they do really well.

You can of course always go by name/type for a first try, and then see what works well and what you'd need differently from your needle. Sometimes also the combination of variables can help you finding the right needle; for example I often hand quilt with thicker threads that are too thick for a quilting needle, which means I will still need a needle with a small diameter, small eye and a sharp tip, it can be quite short, but it needs a slightly larger eye than a quilting needle - so a sewing needle/Sharp #7 will do well; and that's exactly what I'm using.

Sashiko needles for denim are also an example for looking at qualities I need (very sharp tip, thick enough to not bend or break when working several layers of denim, quite a lot of flex while being stiff enough) and then looking at needle types and what could fulfill these needs.

Feel free to try what works well and feels nice, with time you'll get a sense of what you like and what fits your way of working well; in this sense there is no right or wrong, but it helps to know what you're looking for.

A few more tips and hints:

- For any kind of general hand sewing needs, get yourself an assorted pack of sewing needles with different sizes and you'll be set up for many hand sewing needs and thread/fabric combinations. They will also do a bit of embroidery, if it's not anything counted, if needs be. They will sew on buttons, close tears, do a bit of hemming, ... Good alround pack of needles to have at home.

- If you work with jersey/knits, use a needle with a ballpoint or slightly rounded tip so it will insert between the fabric threads and not pierce them.

- Look for a good fit between your needle's eye size and the thickness of your thread - larger eyes are easier to thread, but too large an eye with a very fine thread means your thread will slip out all the time, making fluid work almost impossible. I generally recommend learning how to thread a needle well, rather than using too large a needle eye.

- For hand sewing I have often made the observation that learning the basics is easier with a larger needle, something like a #7, but move to smaller ones like a #9 quite early on once you got a feel and a rhythm; people will often feel more fluid with a smaller needle. I know, they look tiny at first, but you'll get used to them very quickly and the'll start to look large soon enough.

- For hard jobs use the best needles - cheaply made needles will not be up for the task most of the time! And your good needles will survive, they are made for it! I recently hand lined a piece and had to stab through 4 layers of cotton plus 4 layers of vintage, dense linen, so 8 layers in total in some places. A Tulip Sewing Needle did the job just fine.

- Try different needles and find out what you like. There are preferences, of course, and in the end it needs to feel right for your hands and make your work go smoothly.

I think these were the most important things I wanted to cover from your questions. I hope I was able to answer your question and make needles a bit less confusing or intimidating.

And always feel free to drop me a question, I'll be happy to answer to the best of my knowledge!


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