All about needles

During one of our department meetings, we were deciding whether or not to pick up some new needles, and that opened a huge can of worms! We discovered talking to each other that most of us didn’t know anything about needles or how to choose them, so we decided that our resident needle expert, Judy, needed to research the topic and write an article. I feel so much more enlightened on the topic and less intimidated about buying needles! Here are Judy’s articles on Hand Sewing Needles and Machine Sewing Needles on our tutorial page, or keep reading below. We loved hearing your input on our January article about pre-washing, so I’m curious to see what kinds of needles you use.

Hand Sewing Needles 101

by Judy Reed

Choosing the right needle for the job can be overwhelming when there are so many kinds and sizes. Ideally, what you want is a needle that feels comfortable, glides through the fabric, has an eye that you can thread, doesn’t bend and is the right size for the fabric you are sewing.

When you choose your hand sewing needle size, the larger the number on the package, the finer/smaller the needle will be. This is the opposite of the needles you purchase for your sewing machine. If you are using finer/thinner fabric you would select a finer/smaller needle.

Needles are normally made of high carbon steel and then coated with nickel, gold, Teflon, or platinum. The coatings are put on to prevent the needle from corroding and to make the needle glide through the fabric.

I have listed the common needles that are used by quilters and what their intended uses are. Some of the needles go by more than one name but are the same type of needle. There aren’t any quilt police going around to make you use a certain needle, so use this as a general guide, but feel free to decide what you like for yourself!

A general-purpose round eye needle for sewing, appliqué, and mending. This is a needle with many uses. It is great for appliqué because it is thin enough to glide through the fabric smoothly, has a sharp point and doesn’t bend as easily as a milliner.

Two sizes of appliqué needles

This is the needle of choice for hand quilting because it is short and easy to control. It is thicker than other needles which makes it stronger for penetrating multiple layers. The shorter the needle the smaller the stitches. Start with a 9 or 10 and with experience you can move to a smaller needle. This is a tiny needle with a small round eye. They are also available with a large eye for easier threading.

Two sizes of quilting needles. The bottom one is a large eye quilting needle.

These are similar to Sharps but are a longer needle. They were developed for hat-making, and are now used for basting and gathering. I know of people who love them for binding and appliqué too.

A milliner needle.

This type of needle is the same length as Sharps, but with a longer eye for easier threading with multiple threads and floss.

Two sizes of embroidery needles.

Needle Accessories
Many needles are now made with a big eye for easier threading. The larger eye helps, but I love the Clover Needle Threader. It makes threading oval eye needles quick and easy.

Until recently I have stuck all of my needles in one pincushion and used them until they broke or bent so badly I had to throw them away. I never knew what I was using, I would just grab one. The Clover Sort ‘n Store Pincushion for hand needles has a section for each type of needle (or you could make your own labeled pincushion). If you stick your needles in the right section you will be so much happier using the right needle when you need it. Also, needles really aren’t that expensive. You don’t have to use them until all of the finish is worn off and they are badly bent or dull. Treat yourself to a new needle occasionally – you deserve it!

Shop hand sewing needles at Connecting Threads >

Machine Sewing Needles 101

by Judy Reed

There are many different types of sewing machine needles, and a lot of variables to consider when choosing the right one. Your sewing machine, your thread type and size, and the fiber content and thickness of the fabric you are using all factor into deciding what needle you should use. You should also change your needle often. I’ve heard the rule that you should change your needle every time you start a new project.

Titanium-coated needles have been available for industrial and long arm machines for years and are now available for home sewing machines. They have a very thin layer of titanium nitride that keeps them sharper longer. They last longer than other needles so you don’t have to change them as often.

Fabric/Thread/Needle Combination
There isn’t a specific needle type for every combination but, there are many specialty needles for specific types of threads and fabrics. A general rule is the finer the fabric you are sewing with, the finer the needle should be. If the needle eye is too small for the thread you are using the thread will shred; if it is too big the needle may leave holes in the fabric because the thread isn’t thick enough to fill them. When selecting a needle for your sewing machine another general rule is to use a ball point for knits and a sharp point for woven fabrics. A Universal needle will work for both.

Needle Size
There are two size numbers on the package. The smaller number is American (universal) sizing and the larger number is European (metric). It doesn’t matter what order you see the numbers in, they mean the same thing. The larger the number on the package size, the thicker/larger the needle. This is the opposite of the needles you purchase for hand sewing. A size 60/8 is very fine and 120/19 is heavy duty. For general piecing on quilting fabric I like to use a 70/12 or 80/14 and adjust my size depending on the project.

Slightly rounded point. General-purpose needle suitable for a wide range of fabrics. It can be used on woven fabrics as well as knits. If you are only going to use one type of needle for quilt projects, make it a Universal.

Has a larger eye so thicker threads can go through the eye. Slightly rounded point. Specially designed shaft and
longer eye for embroidery and decorative stitching and embellishing using specialty threads.

Tapered shape designed to stitch through multiple layers and crossed seams. The shape of this needle makes it ideal for quilting.

Extra sharp for heavier fabrics and quilting. It has a longer eye so you can use heavier threads without leaving holes in the fabric.

Needle Accessories
Sewing machine needles are color coded in case you can’t read the size on the needle. If you change the type of needle that you are using often, the Clover Sort ‘n Store Pincushion is a great idea for organizing your needles until you are ready to use them again (or you can make your own labeled pincushion).

Shop for machine needles at Connecting Threads >


  1. J Dugan - February 21, 2011

    I use between/quilting needles most often. I agree with Judy that the Clover Needle Threader is the best! Regarding machine needles, I usually keep Universal 90/14 in my machine, unless I need a Jeans or Stretch for a project. P.S. I keep my needle cases in their original package and put them in a book that holds business cards.

  2. Christine - February 21, 2011

    I use a sharp for applique and binding and I love the Clover Needle Threader (I have two). I keep an 80/12 needle in my machine for general use and I use a ‘tomato’ pincushion, labeled on each section with the various size machine needles, to store the used needle when I switch to a different size. I keep the package for the needle I am using in my machine in the accessories box so I know what size is in the machine when I start a new project. Thanks for your research and advice Judy. It’s good to have a refresher. I know that I get set in my ways and need a push to try something new that’s maybe better.

  3. Stephanie - February 21, 2011

    A needle sorter pincushion. Clever! I love straw needles for applique…I don’t do a lot of it but those are my go to needles. They are nice for binding too. For my machine I mostly use 80/12. This is a great topic. Thank you.

  4. Ginger - February 21, 2011

    With machine needles I change them regularly (with each project or 2) and I match the needle to the project. But for handsewing I usually just grab whatever, which is usually a between. I don’t do a lot of handsewing.

  5. Kelly O. - February 25, 2011

    thank you for this! so helpful!