One of the most overlooked reasons for unsuccessful sewing is your sewing machine needle. When I first started sewing, I thought the only needle I needed to buy was a universal needle for quilt weight cotton. Universal means it’s good for everything, right? The needles that came with my machine are the best needles in the world for my machine, aren’t they? Well, not really.
Choosing the right needle for the task at hand is based on two main factors: the type of fabric you are using and the weight of your thread. Sewing machine needles differ from one type to the next by how sharp the point is, the taper of the needle, and the size and shape of the eye. The point and taper of the needle affect how the needle enters your fabric. The size and shape of the eye affect how the needle handles your thread. Let’s get started by looking at the basic types of needles to choose from and why. A few specialty needles should be added to your arsenal, too.
I would not call these all-purpose but they are a great general purpose needle. I call these my “In Case of Emergency” needles since they are not my first choice but are fine if I run out of something more specialized. They have a slightly rounded point and can be used on woven or knit fabric.
Sharps have a slim sharp point which creates precise, straight stitches for quilt piecing. They are also the perfect needles for working with finer fabric like silk, voile, and lawn. These are my absolute go to needles for quilt piecing and garment construction.
These have a special taper and slightly rounded point for piecing and machine quilting. This needle design keeps stitches from skipping when penetrating multiple layers of fabric and batting. I like these when doing straight line quilting with a walking foot.
These have an extra-long eye which accommodates heavier thread for topstitching and prevents thread abrasion and breaks when free-motion quilting. Stitches will lay nicely on top of your fabric, giving your project a nice finish.
Now that you have the right needle, how do you pick the right size? Fabric weight is the first determining factor in which size needle you need. Here is a basic list of needle sizes by fabric. If you use a heavier-weight thread than standard sewing thread, go up one size on your needle. Smaller numbers are smaller needles. Larger numbers are larger needles.
Lightweight fabrics (voile, lawn, batiste and silk): needle size 70/10 or 80/12
Medium-weight fabrics (quilt cotton, linen, flannel, muslin): needle size 80/12
Semi-heavy fabrics (home decor fabric, light canvas or denim): needle size 90/14
Heavyweight fabrics (canvas, denim, upholstery fabric): needle size 100/16
Last rule of thumb: if your sewing machine starts skipping stitches or breaking thread, it is probably time to change your needle. Replace your needle after every 8-10 hours of sewing or if it becomes damaged. If your needle does not appear to be damaged but has sewn through something other than fabric–a pin, presser foot, or, uh, a finger–it is time to throw it away.