You walk into a fabric or craft store to buy a new needle for your sewing machine and see a wall that looks like this:
Why are there so many?!?!!?! I'm going to let you in on a few secrets of reading those packages, and the small handful of needles that you need to know about to get you through most sewing projects.
First, there are many specialty needles. You don't need 3/4 of what is shown in the above picture unless you are sewing leather or making a couture wedding gown. Honest!
First lesson--the brand of needle does not matter. Schmetz and Singer are the ones most widely available, and I tend to pretty much use only Schmetz because I can get it anywhere.
Second--the word "Universal" refers to the needle fitting any brand of sewing machine. This does not mean it is good for any project/fabric type. Universal will fit Janome, Singer, Bernina, Brother, and everything in between. All sewing machines, even my grandmother's antique treadle machine take the same needles. Let me show you the anatomy of a needle.
There is a top and the bottom, the bottom being the pointy part that will come into contact with your fabric. The top shaft has a rounded front and a flat back (front shown on top, back on the bottom in the above photo). Check your machine's manual, but most needles load with the flat side facing back when looking at your machine.
Needles are sized differently, and this applies to how thick the metal of the needle. A thicker needle would be used for heavier fabrics like drapery or if you are making a pair of jeans. A thinner needle is good for finer silks and sheer fabrics. Somewhere in the middle you have the perfect size for quilting cottons, the majority of fabrics most home sewers tend to use. If you don't match the right needle to the fabric you are using, you can break the needle or poke holes in your fabric.
On that shaft, there are tiny etch marks that give you the size information (while this is extremely difficult to read, it comes in handy if you drop a multi-pack on the floor and you can no longer consult the package for what size needle you have in your hand. Not that I ever drop needles on the floor...ahem.)
Most needles come with a bit of paint that color codes the sizes, but this is not always universal from brand to brand. The numbers are universal, so I always go by those.
You know how we have standard and metric measuring systems for volume, length, etc?? The same applies for the gauge of a needle. Can you see "Schmetz 80/12" etched in the picture above? "Needle size: 90/14 refers to the diameter of the needle blade in hundredths of a millimeter measured above the scarf. 90 is the European measurement, 14 is the US reference number." (taken from The Sewing Machine Classroom by Charlene Phillips.) The higher the numbers, the larger the diameter of the needle. Generally, for a quilting cotton you want an 80/12 needle. Going up or down by one size is not the end of the world, just pay close attention to your seam as you work.
The above image is a multi-pack of needles, ranging from 70-90 (or 10-14, depending if you want to be American or British that particular day.) So what sizes do you need for what fabric? If you buy a multi-pack, it will tell you right on the back!
Some packages will tell you on the front.
So far we've covered the numbering system, that you need a heavy needle for denim or thick layers, that you need a thin sharp needle for fine fabrics, and how the needles are installed in your machine. There's one last needle type I want to mention that should cover most projects you sew. Ball point needles. These are needed for sewing with knits!
These have the same sizing scale, but the tips are slightly rounded, not super pointy. A knit fabric is different from a woven one, and it's important when sewing with knits that the needle not pierce the fibers, but pass through easily.
One other great tool for sewing with knits is the double or twin needle. That requires it's own separate post, but you can read about it from Katy at No Big Dill here. She explains it beautifully.
Have I addressed some mysteries surrounding the wall o' needles at the fabric store? If not, please leave me your questions in the comments!
As co-owner of Stitchery in Portsmouth, RI, I teach sewing classes to children and adults. Welcome to my blog Dancing Threads RI.