The Complete Need(le) to Know Guide for Quilters and Sewists Who Care

You can never know enough about needles

 No matter how long you’ve been sewing…     No matter how skilled you are …     No matter what kind of quilting or sewing you do…     You need to know about needles.

People who don’t sew think that one needle is as good as any other. A needle, after all, is just a slender little metal thing with a sharp end and a hole in the other.

It’s something you’d have trouble finding in a haystack.

Or something you’d need to make a “stitch in time…”

A needle is simply an object that inspired the shape of the useful “needle-nosed pliers.”

You know better!

One needle is definitely NOT like another.

There are hundreds of different types of needles, and quilters and sewists who care about their work need to know which one will produce the best results in a particular sewing project.

The complete need(le) to know guide for quilters and sewists who care  follows below, but only AFTER two stories you might not NEED to know about needles, but that you’ll find fascinating and cool, anyway.  

Elias Howe, Isaac Singer, and the needle patent that paid

In the early 1800s, a guy named Walter Hunt was developing a lockstitch sewing machine. He got a good design that worked, but he worried about putting seamstresses and tailors out of work, so Walter Hunt put his design aside and never applied for a patent.

Enter Elias Howe.

Elias Howe was a poor tailor’s apprentice, barely able to feed his family on his paltry wages. As he watched his wife sewing for others, Howe swore to make a machine that could sew replicate his wife’s stitching – only faster.  He created a machine much like one that Walter Hunt had already designed and applied for a patent which he was granted in 1848.

Sadly, Howe’s wife was ill. Howe sold the rights to his sewing machine to an English buyer for $1250, enough to barely support her and pay for him to get to London to develop his sewing machine design for the buyer.

Elias Howe returned home to the United States, broke and sad, to stand by his wife’s deathbed.  He was not only devastated by his wife’s passing, but furious because multiple sewing machine manufacturers were producing his patented design without paying him royalties.

Howe took every one of those companies to court, and because he owned the patent to the sewing machine and all its parts, he won every single case. Manufacturers had to pay up.

What does this have to do with needles, you may be asking?

After Elias Howe won all the court cases and had proven the power of his patent, he was approached by a guy named Isaac Singer.

Singer had designed his own sewing machine, totally different from Howe’s model – except for the sewing machine needle. Isaac Singer knew he couldn’t infringe on Howe’s design and needed to use the patent for the needle.  With seven other manufacturers, Singer created a patent pool, and they all agreed to pay Elias Howe $25 per machine sold for the use of his patented needle.

The royalties paid by sewing machine manufacturers for the use of the needle design made Howe a millionaire. Sadly, it came too late to save Howe’s wife.

Another weird and wacky needle story that you might not need to know - but should

Every quilter or sewist who has ever lived has poked a needle of some kind into his or her skin. Ouch! It hurts. It bleeds. It’s sore.

But that kind of pain is nothing compared to what was planned by the British scientist, Dr. Paul Fildes.

World War II was raging in Europe, and Dr. Fildes wrote to the Singer Sewing Machine company in 1942 asking for lots of needle samples for the war effort.

Singer was happy to comply to the request.

The English were developing a poison dart bomb. Needles would be inserted into the lightweight darts, dipped in poison, and packed into a bomb. A single bomb could contain 30,000 poison needle-darts.

Recently declassified information suggested that the needles would have been tipped with sarin, and anyone struck with the dart would collapse within seconds and die within a half hour.

Upon testing, scientists discovered that it was too easy to avoid the darts by taking cover. Secondly, poison needles cost too much to produce.

The idea to use needles as weapons was never brought to fruition.

The complete need(le) to know guide for quilters and sewists who care:

General sizing information:

What the numbers mean:  

  • Sewing machine needles are labeled with two numbers separated by a slash.
  • The number on the left is European sizing. The number on the right of the slash is American sizing.
  • A 75/11 or 80/12 sharp needle is a good choice for most basic sewing
  • One rule of thumb is to use the smallest needle that easily pierces the fabric and doesn’t leave larger holes than necessary.   

Sewing machine needles:

The bigger the number of the needle, the thicker the needle is. A size 14 needle is bigger than a size 10.  The heavier the fabric, the bigger the needle you should be using.

Hand-sewing needles:

BEWARE! The sizing for hand-sewing needles is exactly opposite from machine needles. (Go figure!)

The BIGGER the number on the package, the SMALLER the needle will be.

A size 12 hand-sewing needle will be a lot smaller, thinner, and shorter than a size 5 hand-sewing needle!

Different machine needles for different types of sewing

Basic sharp point needles:

  • Good for sewing on basic woven fabrics
  • Work for general sewing

Ballpoint needles:

  • Sewing on knits and synthetics
  • Designed with a rounded tip
  • Round tip prevents the fibers from being split.
  • Split fibers in synthetic fibers result in fuzzies and runs

Denim needles:

  • Ultra-sharp points
  • Elongated design
  • Stronger shaft
  • Most popular size denim needle is 16

Twin and Triple needles:

  • Multiple needles attached to single shaft with a bar
  • Allows double or triple lines of identical stitching
  • Can be used with straight or decorative stitching
  • Excellent for stitching hems

Wing Needle:

  • Made with a blade that makes a larger hole in your fabric
  • Used for creating eyelet or doing decorative, heirloom stitching.

Machine Embroidery Needles:

  • Designed with an elongated eye to reduce tension on the thread
  • A specially designed “scarf” of the needle to suit the finer embroidery threads
  • The “scarf” of a needle is the indentation right above the eye of the needle.

Specialty Needles:

  • Specialty needles are created for particular kinds of sewing, including those designed for sewing on leather, felt, fleece, or vinyl.  
  • Metallic thread stitching is best with an embroidery or specialty needle
  • Quick-threading needles are also available

What needles are made of:

  • Unless the package states differently, most needles are chrome.
  • Titanium needles are lighter-weight, stronger, and stay sharp three to six times longer than standard needles.
  • Teflon-coated needles easily go through adhesives and are great to use on embroidery or applique projects with sticky backings.

How often should you change your sewing machine needle?

Experts advise that you insert a new needle at the beginning of each project, or approximately after six to eight hours of sewing time.

Make sure to use the right needle for the fabric you’re using and the kind of sewing you’re doing!  A needle is not "just a needle!" Keep this in mind and it can save you a headache.  Ask yourself: What type of fabric will I be sewing, have I changed my needle lately and also what needle is currently in my machine?  Many people that come into the shop telling woes of their poor tension and stitch quality, when asked, often have no idea when the last time they changed their needle was, not to mention clueless as to the type of needle in their machine.

Whatever needle you need

 If you are unsure about which needle to use, just talk to the staff at Threads of Time, all skilled and knowledgeable quilters, embroiders, and seamstresses themselves. They will help you choose the perfect needle for your project as well as give you a free pocket needle guide as a reminder.

Come in or call us at 217-431-9202.

Stock up!

No matter what you’re working on, you can get the needles you need from Threads of Time online store.




  • Carol Kussart

    Thanks for a great article. I too enjoyed the stories. I’m looking forward to the next post. (I think I had better change my needle now.)

  • Benita Runion

    What great info and interesting article. I really enjoyed the stories especially about Mr. Howe and Mr. Singer. Keep the good info coming our way. Thanks sew much.

  • Pam Johnson

    Another well written blog full of useful information! I need to go change my needle now. It’s been awhile. 😊

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