Where to Start? With Needles and Thread, of Course!
So, just how important are needles and thread to sewing? WAY important! In the course of my 20 years as a shop owner, I have fixed more sewing machines simply by changing the needle and thread than anything else. (The right size and type of needle and thread really does make a difference - go figure.)
It's not regularly that I seek the counsel of my sage sewing friends regarding a sewing quandary. When I was younger, even when I sought the wisdom of my needle and thread gurus, it was likely I wouldn't follow it. Until much later in life, I was a crash-into-the-wall kind of guy who would pick up the pieces, and then crash into another wall until I figured out a problem. (Often, this was accompanied by the realization that I should have followed the advice I was given...)
Fortunately, I've come out the other side of my sewing challenges reasonably victorious, albeit a little battle worn. But had I actually listened to the advice I was given, I probably could have made more forward progress more quickly.
Suffice it to say, my first few sewing machines weren't of the best quality, so when anything ever happened, it was the machine's fault. Period. It couldn't be the user in front of the machine - that would be preposterous.
After replacing my first machine, shortly thereafter I began having trouble with my second machine. I was quick to complain about this to one of my gurus who was a costume designer. He asked me if I had changed the needle... (For many of you, I don't really need to go on with this story.) Who knew you had to change the needle?
The first best sewing advice I remember actually following was to change the needle every eight sewing hours or after every sewing project - whichever comes first. A "Russellism" sprang from this bit of wisdom, and I use it all the time: "Change your needle, change your life!"
Those shiny little harpoons are extremely well-engineered, and purpose-built. There are a myriad of different types needles and all these different types come in different sizes. And yes, when you’re first starting out, it can be a little overwhelming. So, when I first introduce folks to sewing machine needles, I break them into two camps: sharps and ballpoints.
Use sharps when sewing woven textiles, ballpoints when sewing knits. Then, select a needle size that is appropriate to the fabric weight.
But what size needle? Ahhh…
Heavy weight fabrics (think upholstery, some denims): Size 90/14
Medium weight fabrics (think chino pants): Size 80/12
Light weight fabrics (think dress shirts): Size 70/12
As your confidence increases and your textile explorations grow, you’ll want to explore other types of needles. Working with leather? You’ll want a leather needle. It’s built completely differently to accommodate the way leather sews. And yep, it comes in a variety of sizes for different weights of leather. Working with polyester chiffon? Though it’s a woven fiber, I often use a size 60 Universal needle - a modified, sharpened ballpoint needle. Hey, but wait! You said “universal”…
Well, you would think that a “Universal” needle would be universally good on all fabrics. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be any other types of needles! It’s typically not my go-to choice, but I do find it works moderately well on a range of fabrics. So, if you’re not sure what type of needle to use, a Universal needle will get you going.
And that’s just the tip of the needle. Next time, I’ll follow up with an overview of sewing machine thread.