A needle is a needle is a needle, right? Wrong! Sewing machine needles come in a variety of sizes, sharpnesses, and materials, and choosing the wrong one could cost you your project.
In short, knowing how to identify sewing machine needles is an essential skill every sewist must have.
Our sewing machine needle guide will give you the scoop on the types of sewing needles and sewing machine needle sizes. We’ll tell you which needles work best for which fabrics and which types of sewing, and help you to determine what sewing needle to use for your next project.
The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine Needle
Sewing needle design hasn’t changed much over time. In fact, archaeologists recently unearthed a 50,000-year-old sewing needle in Novosibirsk, Russia, that you or I could still use for hand-stitching today. 
Sewing machine needles, too, have maintained the same basic design. However, over time, variations on that design have evolved to better fit different types of sewing.
So, once you know the fundamentals, working out how to identify sewing machine needles is a breeze. The basic parts of a sewing machine needle include:
This is the “top” of the needle. It may be rounded or flat. This is the part that you insert into the needle bar.
Extending down from the butt is the shank. A needle shank comes in different shapes, which correspond to the type of sewing machine you have. Industrial sewing machine needles may have round, threaded, or grooved shanks. Home sewing machines use a needle where the shank is rounded on one side and flat on the other.
The sloping space between the shank and the shaft is called the shoulder. The shoulders of some sewing machine needles are color-coded to show the usage of the needle.
The shaft (also called the blade) is the main body of the needle. Needle size is determined by the thickness of the shaft.
Sewing machine needles have a groove along the front of the shaft. The length and width of this groove can vary from needle to needle. In all cases, however, the groove helps to make stitches smoother by cradling the thread and guiding it to the eye.
Between the groove and the eye is an indentation called the scarf. This indentation helps the bobbin hook to grab the thread. The size of this indentation is different in different types of needles.
The eye is the hole near the tip of the needle, where you insert the thread. The size and shape of the eye can vary, depending on your needle type.
The point, or tip, of the needle makes first contact with your fabric. The sharpness can vary, depending on which fabric the needle is designed to sew. Heavier materials require a sharper needle. Needles meant for stretch fabrics are comparatively blunt. Universal needles, that is, needles made to sew a variety of fabric types, are somewhere between the two.
Which Needle Do You Need?
Although sewing machine needles may look similar, there are subtle differences in design that can affect your fabric, thread, and stitching.
So, how do you choose?
You need to consider three parameters: the purpose for which the needle is designed, the size of the needle, and the weight of the thread you’re planning to use.
What’s Your Project?
A universal needle will work for a variety of different kinds of sewing. However, when it comes to special tasks like embroidery or leather work, you should choose a needle purpose-made for your craft. Craft-specific needles will have different features that make them more effective for certain kinds of sewing.
What Kind of Fabric are you Using?
Different kinds of needles have features that allow them to work efficiently with different types of fabric.
Sewing machine needles for denim look a lot different from the needles you might use for silk, for example. Denim needles are both heavier and sharper. Machine embroidery needles are different from both of these. They have a longer eye and a specially shaped scarf. And the list goes on. 
Choose a heavier gauge needle for heavier work and a thinner, lighter needle for light fabrics.
What About Thread Weight?
You’ll also need to consider the weight of the thread you’ll be using. Pair smaller sized needles with lighter weight thread, and larger sized needles with heavier thread.
The numbering conventions for thread weights can be confusing, especially because they look so similar to needle gauges. We’ll tackle this more in depth in a bit.
What Types of Sewing Machine Needles Are There?
You might be surprised by just how many types of sewing machine needles there are. Each is a little bit different. Let’s have a look.
A universal sewing machine needle is made to work with most types of fabric and thread. The shaft is of medium diameter, and the tip is pointed but not as sharp as needles made for heavier fabrics.
Self-threading sewing machine needles have a gap on one side of the scarf, so that you can slot the thread into the gap sideways, rather than poking it through the eye.
Needles for Heavy Materials
Needles for heavier fabrics have a thicker shaft and a sharper point than universal needles. Here are a few you might encounter.
Leather needles have a chisel point, so that they can cut and penetrate at the same time. Leather needles come in five different sizes (diameters), which correspond to different thicknesses of leather.
Denim (Jeans) Needle
Denim or jeans needles are also very thick and sharp. You can use them with other thick fabrics, too, such as canvas duck cloth.
Needles for Lighter Materials
Needles designed for use with lighter threads and materials have a small diameter and are often very sharp. This helps the needle to pass through the fabric without damaging it.
Ball Point Needle
A ball point needle, like a ball point pen, has a rounded tip. Most commonly, people use a ball point needle to sew knit or loosely woven fabrics. The ball tip prevents the needle from damaging the fibers of the fabric while passing through. This, in turn, keeps the needle’s action from causing knit fabrics to run. 
Jersey Needle and Stretch Needle
Jersey needles and stretch needles are both types of ball point needles. Their special design features improve the quality of stitching with these sometimes difficult-to-sew fabrics.
Both stretch and jersey needles have a medium ballpoint. Stretch needles also have a shorter, narrower eye, a deeper scarf, and a special coating that helps to keep them free of different materials they can pick up from sewing elasticated fabrics. These features help to prevent skipped stitches, which can be a problem with knits and stretchy fabrics.
If you’ve ever tried to sew with delicate metallic thread, you know how difficult it is. Metallic needles are designed to make it a bit easier. Metallic needles have a large eye and a larger groove, which helps to protect metallic thread from shredding.
Some needles are designed to assist with a specific task, rather than to sew a certain kind of fabric. Here are a few.
Have you ever seen those identical, perfectly parallel rows of decorative stitching on garments? Those were made with a twin needle. Twin needle stitching can also reinforce seams. A twin, or double needle has two needles descending from a single shaft.
A triple needle has three needles descending from a single shaft. If you want to take your decorative stitching to the next level, try one of these.
Needles for machine embroidery come in a variety of sizes and weights. There are both sharp and ball-point varieties. All of them, however, have a longer eye than universal needles, and a specially shaped scarf. These features make it easier to work with delicate embroidery thread without fraying or breaking it.
Topstitch needles are a favorite of quilters and sail makers. A topstitch needle has a larger eye than a universal needle. It also has a deeper groove. Many topstitch needles also have a titanium coat. All of these features mean that the topstitch needle can stand up to heavy work and even doubling of thread.
You can use a universal or topstitch needle for quilting. However, there are sewing machine needles made specifically for quilting. Quilting needles have a thin, tapered shaft that allows them to pass smoothly through multiple layers.
Wing (or Winged) Needle
A winged needle is a specialty needle for sewing loosely-woven fabrics like linen. This type of needle has flanges on the side that open a wide hole in the fabric.
Why might you want this? Well, certain kinds of heirloom stitching uses wide holes as decoration. Also, it can facilitate sewing with embroidery thread. Finally, the flanges can help you to seal off raw, easily-frayed hem edges by pushing the edges back through the fabric, forming a seal. Have a look.
What About the Colors?
Some sewing machine needle manufacturers put a colored stripe across the shoulder of each needle. The color corresponds to that needle’s intended use.
- A yellow band means the needle is for stretch fabrics.
- Blue indicates the needle is for denim.
- A needle meant for use with microfiber cloth may have a purple band.
- A red band means the needle is meant for machine embroidery.
- Green bands are often seen on quilting needles.
What do the Numbers on Sewing Machine Needles Mean?
As we’ve already seen, the size of a sewing machine needle can play a big role in the ease and quality of sewing. Size affects the way the needle interacts with your materials, and also affects stitching quality. Also, different sized needles are suited to different types of work.
Needle size refers to the diameter of the needle. You might also hear it described as gauge. If you’re wondering what gauge is a sewing needle, it’s important to understand the numbering convention.
To make it even more difficult, the United States and Europe have different conventions.
American Sewing Machine Needle Numbering
American sewing machine needle sizes range from eight to 19. The larger the number, the larger the diameter of the blade.
European Sewing Machine Needle Numbering
European sewing machine needles come in sizes ranging from 60 to 120. Again, the larger the number, the larger the diameter of the blade. A size 60 needle, for example, has a 0.6 millimeter blade.
What About the Numbers on the Package?
Since many needle manufacturers sell their wares around the world, packages will often list both American and European sizes, separated by a front slash. The European number comes first. Therefore:
- 60/8 is for very fine lightweight fabrics like thin silk
- 65/9, 70/10 and 75/11 work best for lightweight fabric such as taffeta and lining fabric
- 80/12 and 90/14 work best for medium weight fabrics, linen, and flannel
- 90/14 and 100/16 are for heavier weight fabrics such as denim, fleece, tweed, and wool
- 100/16, 110/18, and larger are for heavyweight materials such as leather, vinyl, and canvas ducking
Thread Weight And Needle Size
If your thread keeps breaking, shredding, or skipping stitches, it’s possible you’re not using the right size needle for that thread. So, which size needle goes with which size thread?
Confusingly, the thread weight measuring conventions look similar to the measuring conventions for needle gauge: two numbers separated by a slash. But the numbers don’t have the same meaning at all.
Thread Weight Explained
There are several different conventions for describing thread size. The weight standard is one of the most common conventions, so this is the one we’ll be looking at here. 
With needle gauges, the smaller the number, the smaller the needle. With thread weight, it’s the opposite: the smaller the number, the heavier the weight of the thread.
Also, unlike needle gauge, which measures needle diameter, thread weight measures weight. Specifically, how many kilometers of thread it takes to make one kilogram. So, if you have a 30-weight thread, that means 30 kilometers of that thread weighs one kilogram.
A 50-weight thread, on the other hand, is lighter, as it would take 50 kilometers of that thread, rather than 30, to make one kilogram.
But what if your thread is “30/2”? What does that second number mean? The second number is the number of plies, or strands, in that thread.
Here are some examples.
50 and 60 weight thread is good for general purpose sewing.
A lot of quilters like to use 30 or 40 weight thread when they want their stitches to stand out visually. 30 weight thread is also often used for decorative stitching in upholstery.
20 weight thread is for ultra-heavy weight materials.
12 to 18 weight thread is often used for hand embroidery.
Note: another standard, called the Number Standard, labels threads as #100, #50, and so on. Although in this system, like in the weight system, higher numbers describe thinner threads, #50 thread is not the same weight as 50-weight thread.
How to Match Thread Weight to Needle Size
Here’s the rule: the larger the number on your needle, the smaller the number should be on your thread.
The higher the needle gauge, the larger the shaft of that needle will be. Possibly the eye will be larger as well. This type of needle is built for a heavier thread. By contrast, smaller, thinner needles require a finer thread–that is, a thread with a greater thread weight measurement.
Confused yet? Here’s a chart. Please note that this is a rough guide. There are heavier and lighter threads and needles not represented here:
|Ultra-light fabric, fine silk
|Leather and other heavyweight materials
Tips for Using the Right Sewing Machine Needle Every Time
Every time? Well, no system is perfect. But these tips can help.
Consider Your Task
What kind of sewing will you be doing? No matter what your task, it’s likely there’s a specific needle for it. A universal needle is fine for most general sewing tasks, however you may want a task-specific needle for:
- Stretch fabrics
- Heirloom sewing
Think About Your Fabric
Once you’ve chosen the right type of needle, it’s important to match the gauge of that needle to the weight of your fabric. Lightweight fabrics require a thinner, lighter needle, while heavier materials need a very thick, very sharp needle. Remember that a larger needle will leave a larger hole, so figure this into your calculations.
What Kind of Thread Are You Using?
Now it’s time to match your needle to your thread. This can go hand in hand with your fabric, but it doesn’t always. Lighter, finer threads require a smaller needle. Metallic thread is very fragile, so you should use a needle made for metallic threads. And thick, heavy thread requires a thick needle with a larger eye, of course.
Remember: the smaller your thread-weight number, the larger the needle gauge you will need.
Try to Thread Your Needle
When you’re preparing to sew, pay attention to how easy it is to thread your needle. The thread should pass easily through the needle’s eye. It’s easy to tell if the thread is too thick for the needle. But if the needle is too big, that can cause problems, too.
Your thread should snuggle nicely into the groove of the needle. If it fits well in the groove and passes easily through the eye, you have a better chance of producing even, high-quality stitches.
Make a Few Test Stitches
Before you start sewing, make a few test stitches. Are they tight and evenly spaced? Are they the same size? If not, it could be an indication that you’re using the wrong size needle. (It could also mean that you’re not using the correct thread tension.)
How Often Should You Change the Needle On Your Sewing Machine?
A dull sewing machine needle can harm your fabric, cause skipped stitches, snag or even break your thread, and throw your thread tension off. On top of that, it can damage your sewing machine motor. So, how often should you change it?
The amount of time is about the same, but people have different ways of measuring that time. Some suggestions include:
- After 6 to 10 sewing hours
- After going through three full bobbins that you wound yourself
- After two full pre-wound bobbins
- After completing a single project
Different factors can influence these times, including working with heavier or layered materials and sewing through coated materials.
Sewing machine needles experience a variety of pressures in addition to punching through fabric. These pressures can cause different types of damage. Always check your needle for dullness, chips, abrasion, and other damage before using it.
Sewing it All Up
Your sewing machine won’t speak up when it’s time to change the needle. And it can’t tell you if you’ve chosen the wrong one for your project. Unfortunately, your first sign of trouble may be damage to your project or even to your sewing machine.
Choose your needle carefully. Consider your fabric type, thread weight, and what sort of sewing you’ll be doing. Inspect your needle regularly for damage, and change it often.
What’s your favorite kind of sewing? And what’s your favorite needle to use?
- Archaeology Magazine | Denisova Cave Yields a 50,000-Year-Old Needle | https://www.archaeology.org/news/4784-160823-denisova-cave-needle
- Bernadett Csaszar | Choosing the Right Needles for Your Machine Embroidery Projects | https://blog.hatchembroidery.com/choosing-the-right-needles-for-your-machine-embroidery-projects/
- Wisegeek Writer | What are Uses for a Ballpoint Needle? | https://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-uses-for-a-ballpoint-needle.htm
- Superior Threads | THREAD WEIGHTS AND MEASUREMENTS | https://www.superiorthreads.com/education-thread-measurements