Embroidery needles to the point

Embroidery needles have come a long way from when our ancestors used pieces of sharpened bone to stitch with.

Now they come in all sizes and types. You might make do with a general purpose needle or need something more specialized, but how do you know which one to pick?

Two factors will determine the choice — the fabric and thread that you are using. 

  • If the needle is too thick, it will create a hole in the fabric that the thread won't fill. 
  • If the needle is too fine, it will be difficult to thread, and the fibre could fray

Before we make the final decision, let's look at how the humble needle can vary. 

Needle characteristics

The Size

Do needle sizes confuse you? You are not alone.

If the only sewing you have done in the past is to attach a button, you may not even be aware that needles come in different sizes.

But if you compare a size 22 tapestry needle with a size 12 quilting needle, you'll discover that they are very different!

Manufacturers measure needle diameters in thousandths of an inch, ranging from 0.040 up to 0.092. These measurements are not very practical to deal with, so they number their needles with the thickest being number 1. As the needles get thinner, the number gets higher. 

 As you will see later, manufactures split needles into different types for different purposes, and not all sizes are available in all types. 

The Point

A point is a point, eh? Well, not really. Needle points can, and often do, vary depending on their purpose.

Think, if you will for a moment, about a pencil (as they are bigger, therefore easier to photograph). When it comes out of the sharpener, it has a sharp point and produces a fine line when you write or draw with it. But after using it for a short while, that point softens. If you continue to use it, it becomes blunt and it no longer hurts if you poke it into your finger tip. It's time to resharpen it.

Pencils illustrating how the points of needles can varyPencils, illustrating how needle points can vary

We don't sharpen needles: we buy them with different tips. Sharp points to pierce closely woven fabrics, blunt to slip between the threads of cross stitch cloth, and ballpoint for slipping under existing stitches without going through the fabric. You can even find needles with flat, arrow-like ends that are made for stitching leather.

The width

The width or diameter of the shank can alter from one end of the needle to the other. 

Normally it will begin the thin out just before the point.

However, at the other end it can get wider. This is to allow room for the eye. Needles with large eyes, designed for thicker threads, can bulge out substantially: for example, darning needles, those designed to sew knitted garments together and the tapestry needles used for counted cross stitch.

Beading, or milliner's needles, have a consistent width to allow them to pass through the hole in a bead. 

The length

The length of a needle can determine how suitable it is for the for the task.

For example if you want to add several beads to a piece, you might pick a long, thin needle which will hold enough for your purposes. This is also the case when you are wrapping the thread around the needle multiple times for stitches like Bullion Knots.

If, on the other hand you are quilting, you might prefer to choose a really short "Betweens" needle. This can save you time when placing many stitches. 

The eye

In addition to the size and the type of point, the other difference between them is the shape of the eye. These can be round, long, elongated or even self threading. A round eyed needle is stronger.


Different Needle Types

The following tips should help you pick the best tool for the job.

Crewel or Embroidery Needles

These are medium sized, with a sharp point and a long eye. They come in sizes 3-10. The long eye allows more than one strand of embroidery floss to be threaded at the same time. These are ideal for nearly all surface embroidery and smocking.

Sharps

These are a general purpose hand sewing needle. They have a round eye, a sharp point (as the name suggests) and are of medium length. They come in sizes 3-12.

Tapestry

A short, blunt tipped needle, the tapestry is used for needlepoint, hardanger, blackwork or cross stitch on evenweave fabrics. They have a long eye designed to take thick or multiple strands of floss or wool. They come in sizes 18-28 and can be gold or platinum plated.

Chenille

A thick, strong needle with a elongated eye for thick fibres and and a sharp point for coarse fabrics. They generally come in sizes 18-24.

Straw or milliners

These are distinctive by the fact that the long shaft is the same width throughout until it tapers at the sharp point. They have a small, round eye which does not bulge outside the shaft. They are mainly used for bullion knots or Brazilian embroidery stitches where the thread is wrapped around the shaft. They come in sizes 3-10.

Ballpoint

No sharp point makes these ideal for needlelace work. The ballpoint tips slips easily across the pattern without piercing it, and likewise does not pierce the threads making up the lace stitches. They have a round point, and are of medium length in sizes 3-9

Beading

These very long, very thin needles have a very small, long eye and a sharp point. They are fine enough to go through the hole in a seed bead and long enough for many beads to be threaded onto them. They are not strong and can bend easily. They come in sizes 10-15.

Betweens or quilting needles

These are short, round eyed and have a sharp point. They are used by quilters for quick, even stitching. They come in sizes 3-10.

Easy thread

Made with a special eye, which is actually a slot, which the thread is pulled into they are used for the same general purpose sewing as the sharps.


Looking after your embroidery needles

Whichever type you use it is important that they are straight and have undamaged tips. Stitching with a corroded needle will make life difficult as will using one that has burrs or pits in it. They should slide effortlessly through the fabric, not pull at it or tear it. It is a false economy to continue using a needle that has seen better days.

You can keep your embroidery needles in their original packet or in a specially made needlebook. The traditional strawberry shaped emery is ideal for keeping the points sharp.


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