Friday, March 18, 2011

Quilting Basics 101: So many needles, so many types and what?

Anyone who has ever had the joy of sewing away on a their sewing machine knows that when things are good, they're great and when they're not, well, things are downright weird. I have 2 machines with 2 VERY different temperaments, and when they misbehave I always seem to sit there scratching my head (and definitely not swearing at it...nope...not I...) and wondering where it all went wrong.

So this time I want to take a minute to focus on our machines - what they need, what they want, and what to do when they decide to take their ball and go home. There are LOTS of blogs out there with varying opinions and information on what I'm going to talk about, so I recommend doing a search and reading up on their information too. I'll post some links along the way (they'll be the ones in green and underlined), and they are the places where I supplemented my information. I think for the first time, I'll focus on choosing a needle...because even though it sounds like a "so what?" kind of thing, it really is relatively important!

Yes, the Needle You Use Matters!
Up until recently, I thought that a needle was a needle was a needle was a needle. I didn't get why they would need to sell anything but Sharps - I mean, excluding the Twin Needles, they all look dang near the same, so big whoop, right? Wrong! The needle you choose does matter. Using the incorrect needle for the job can mar your fabric, snap your thread, cause tension issues and wreak general havoc. Okay, so that last part is an exaggeration, but it sounds good, doesn't it?

Okay, so first things first. When I started buying needles I had no flippin' clue what the numbers on the front of the needle pack meant. 80? 90? 12? 14? What the heck is that even supposed to mean? Well, like the gauge on wire, that number refers to the size of the needle (thickness). Normally the pack will say something like 90/14 or 80/12 (okay, so I may have those numbers reversed...but for the sake of example...). All that is, is the Metric measurement/the King's System measurement (for my U.S. readers, the King's System is what we use). It doesn't matter which you go by, just so long as you understand what it means. For my overseas readers, the 70/80/90 is for you; for my U.S. readers, the 10/12/14 is for you. It's also worthwhile to know that the smaller your needle size, the smaller the eye of the needle will be. That's something to keep it mind.

So why the different sizes? It all has to do with the task at hand. Are you planning to stitch on something sheer, or something heavy like canvas? The thicker your fabric, the thicker your needle will want to be. Large needles will mar fine fabrics, and small needles may burr or break in thick fabrics. Sew, Mama, Sew laid it out the best...I can't say it better, so I won't!:
  • Delicate Fabrics: When sewing with fabrics such as silk, chiffon, voile, fine lace or organza a fine “size 9″ needle would usually be the best choice.
  • Lightweight Fabrics: When using lighter weight fabrics such as synthetic sheers, batiste, taffeta or velvet would a “size 11″ needle would be the normal choice.
  • Medium Weight Fabrics: When sewing with slightly heavier weight fabrics such as gingham, poplin, linen, muslin, chambray, wool crepe, flannel, knits, jersey, wool, wool suiting, or stretch fabrics a “size 14″ needle is generally best.
  • Medium-Heavy Fabrics: Sewing with fabrics such as gabardine, heavy suiting or tweed would require a “size 16″ needle.
  • Heavy Fabrics: When using heavy weight fabrics such as denim, ticking, upholstery or canvas a “size 18″ needle is the most suitable.
 So you know the needle size you need, but what kind of needle should you use? There are so many brands and types out there, so how do you know? Well, everyone has the brand they prefer, which they figure out through trial and error. I'm a Schmetz girl, and I absolutely do not like Klasse needles. But that's just me! You either all ready have your brand of choice, or you'll find it so no worries there. As far as type goes...there are several to choose from and each are suited for certain tasks. These are the most common, though there are many more:

  • Sharps: These are my default needles. I use them for most things, but really they are intended for tightly woven fabrics (like Batiks) or for fabrics that are finer in texture, like silks. The needle itself is tapered, thinner and very, very sharp so it doesn't disrupt the fabric quite as much.
  • Universal: They are what they sound like; they're good for just about everything. While not as sharp as sharps (these have an ever-so-slightly rounded point), they still are very sharp and get the job done on most fabrics. When you buy a machine, this is usually the type of needle it comes with.
  • Quilting/Betweens: These are meant for quilting your quilt sandwich. They are designed with the length of the needle being very strong to withstand having to pierce several layers of fabric and batting. Even in the larger thicknesses, the eye of the needle is fairly small.
  • Metallic: If you are using metallic or monofilament thread, these needles are Godsends! If you try and use these threads in other needles, they have a tendency to strip and break, which, spekaing for myself, sends me into a tailspin of frustration and...not...swearing at my project. The eye of the needle is a little smoother and has a very thin coating of Teflon (or something very similar to it) to help ease the thread through with minimal damage to it as it pierces the fabric.
  • Ballpoint: These needles are meant specially for knits and wovens. They do not work well with quilting cottons, fine fabrics or heavy weight fabrics. These needles have rounded points rather than sharp ones (though I still wouldn't want to step or sit on one...youch!), which means they push between the fibers rather than piercing through. It's a needle you'd use more often in garment sewing and general sewing than in quilting, though you may in quiling on occasion.
  • Jeans/Denim: This needle is a real workhorse. It is not suitable for most quilting cottons or finer fabrics; it is definitely meant for denim and canvas weight fabrics. It is very sharp and the eye is slender, to help facilitate its movement through thick fabric. It is also more resistant to breakage than most other needles.
  • Embroidery: The eyes of these needle are larger to accomodate heavier weight threads and thicker, more decorative threads. The eye is longer and the groove along the length of the needle is deeper to help protect the thicker threads. If you have an embroidery unit on your machine,or you do art quilting, this is a needle you will use fairly regularly. In general sewing and quilting, you may not use it quite as much.
As far as the life of a needle goes, really (if you're the perfect quilter in an ideal world...or just very attentive to these things) you should changeit every project to be sure that you have a fresh, sharp needle. If your needle is dull or has a burr (which can happen from it nicking the bobbin case...or more likely, from running over that pin you "never ever ever" sew over), it can cause issues ranging from breaking your thread, marring your fabric or throwing off your machine's tension. If you hear clicking or popping while you sew, if your thread keeps breaking, if your machine is skipping stitches or if your fabric is tearing where the needles enters, change your needle - it is either too dull or it has a burr in it.

If you needle is dull, burred, or if you run over a pin (which I know none of us would ever do *cough*) your needle can break. If your needle breaks, usually the thread will keep the 2 broken halves together and it's an easy fix. But sometimes, and this really bites, but the point will fly off and hit you (my insolent broken needle hit me in the forehead once, no joke) which could be bad, or it can get stuck down in the bobbin area of the machine and really screw things up. I haven't had the latter happen to me *knock on wood* but I do know that it can happen.

Anyway, if you've lasted this long, I hope this was helpful and informative!

Sources: Sew, Mama Sew and Quilt Bug


  1. so, i guess maybe i should stock up on needles and change them more often, huh

  2. lol, I posted that this morning but forgot to enter the capcha >_<


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