Back when I started sewing, rocks were soft, dinosaurs roamed the earth… and my sewing machine had “a needle” in it. Just a needle… any old needle. I know there must have been spares somewhere because my mom was pretty exasperated when she had to find them because I broke one.

When I took my first quilt class, I showed up with a 10 year old Kenmore that probably had a 10 year old needle in it. Like a lot of people, I thought that you only changed the thing when it broke, and that the 5 pack you got when you bought the machine would last you a lifetime, assuming you weren’t an oaf. I didn’t know that there were different needles for different uses.

Things have changed, as things always do, and the information and technology around machine needles is no different. Now you actually have to choose a type of needle to sew with, which can be a confusing thing… as was pointed out to me by the friend that asked for this post. So here we go, Arlene – this one is for you!

First up – all this stuff is my opinion, so take it as gospel under your own risk. As they say – your mileage may vary. And nobody gave me free stuff so this is pretty much what I think without censorship.

What kind of needles do I buy? All Schmetz. I have some Superior needles that were given to me, and they are supposed to last longer (they ought to , given the increased price), but I can’t find any actual data on what “longer” is.

Schmetz has some great needle info here, and Superior has some here. Both are worth a perusal.


Schmetz also makes this handy little guide – you can often find them in stores. Schmetz provides them free to retailers so don’t let anyone charge you for it!


The book covers needle anatomy…


… and information specific to each type of needle.

All of this info is also on their site at the link above, so don’t fret if you can’t find the little blue book… they have it here as a PDF download.

If you’d rather not own the paper and would like to keep the information in your pocket, well guess what… there’s an app for that! All of the needle info and more is in a FREE iPhone/iPad app, and according to Schmetz the Android app will follow soon.

The needle choice is part the thread you are using, and part the fabric it’s going through. As for what I use:

For piecing – the 80/12 Denim needle. It’s one of the sharpest in the bunch, and it has a strong shank with a reinforced blade. This means that it’s less likely to break in a thick-seam situation. The strong shank also means it flexes less, making for a better stitch.

For decorative stitching – the 80/12 Topstitch needle. This needle is designed to not shred delicate threads as they rub up and down through the fabric during sewing – longer eye and more space in the scarf and groove (go read up on the anatomy and that will make sense). They are finer needles, so they break more often. I might go up to a 90/14 if I still get shredding trouble – these are larger in shank and eye so the thread gets more room to run.

For quilting – depends on the thread. If I’m using delicate thread, then the topstitch needle. One exception here – for Superior threads I use the 90/14 topstitch needle. The folks at Superior have kindly put their needle recommendation on the spool label, and I have found that when I follow it the stitching all looks great. Note to other thread manufacturers… DO THIS. We will blame your thread for misbehaving long before we figure out we have the wrong needle in the machine.

What about Universal needles? I don’t use them… the are a decent needle for most uses, but not really the best needle for any use. They are slightly ball-pointed (so that you can universally use them on stretchy stuff as well as wovens), which isn’t ideal for anything I make. I like to get the best needle for the job and dispense with the one-size-fits-most universals.

How often do I change the needle? After approximately 8 hours of sewing time, or after one project (a whole quilt top… not just a placemat). If in doubt, I change it. If I forget, the machine will let me know… the sound changes. There’s a popping or thumping noise with each stitch (I get the popping more with batiks as they are a tighter weave). It’s subtle, but when you sew a lot you’ll hear it. You’ll notice the machine sounds louder and less smooth. Also, one of my machines is a bit of a drama queen and will skip stitches as soon as the needle gets the slightest bit old. You will also see a degradation of stitch quality… the stitch line just isn’t quite as straight.

Every project? Yep. A needle costs a buck. Skip one expensive frothy coffee and have needles for FIVE projects. It’s like keeping the oil changed in your car (you DO change the oil in your car, yes?) – it helps the machine last longer by not asking it to expend additional force to punch a dull needle through the fabric.

How to keep track of needles that are used but not dead? How about this nifty widget from Grabbit Sewing Tools:Needle 6

It’s like a mouse pad that you can plant your needles into. And as an aside, the folks at Grabbit were lovely, friendly people at Quilt Market and had baskets of handmade caramels that they shared with me several times. Several times. Every time I went by they gave me more caramels. Damn fine caramels they were too. Nice people. Very nice people.

Another option is to get one of those old fashioned tomato pincushions, and write the needle types/sizes into the segments. Plant the needle into the right segment when not in use. I have one of these somewhere in the studio, but I forget to use it and usually just toss the needles. Saving the dollar isn’t as high on my list as saving the machine.

So there you go, Arlene! I hope it helps!