Getting to the Point (Needle Basics)

Needle Basics for Quality Stitching     

Needles are metal works of wonder that begin as a simple length of wire. The ends are ground into cone shapes, the shank is punched, and the eye is created. The eye is then chemically or string-polished, removing any rough edges than can shred your threads, and then the needle is marked as to size and manufacturer.  The final steps temper, smooth and polish. Then plating is applied—first nickel and then chrome. Chrome lasts longer than other metals, dispels heat, and works well with both synthetics and natural fibers. But, research is constantly bringing us new innovations such as Teflon®, titanium nitride and ceramic sewing needles that are much stronger than chrome, sew smoother and last longer.

In spite of all this scientific marvel and hard work, the price of a needle is less than twenty-five pennies…a bargain at twice the price for the magic that it creates.

But, the magic has to have a fighting chance, and so the initial choice is important—and the timely replacement of a spent needle is crucial.

Shoot the Trouble

So many troubles in an embroidery machine can be traced to the needle. Incorrect size or point, dull or bent needles or a needle with a burr in its eye can often be the only reasons a machine is not sewing properly. When the point of a needle gets dull, pressure builds on the shaft and the eye can collapse. This can destroy the embroidery design and even ruin the garment.

My first trouble-shot is directly at the needle. Change it, make sure the new one is in straight (and the right size and point) and sew again. Chances are your troubles are over. There is absolutely no point (pardon the pun) in manipulating tensions and timing if a new needle is the answer. Check the needle first, verify the thread is correct in the thread path…these are the first things I address when a stitching issue rears its head. Nine times out of ten I don’t have to look further. I save production time and preserve my bottom line by not spending time (which equals money) looking for solutions to problems that simply don’t exist.

Choosing Well

There are many different parts in the anatomy of a needle. The two most important when it comes to stitching are the groove and the point. Of course, the eye should be polished, free of burrs and large enough for the thread to maneuver (metallic thread likes a rectangular eye for greater maneuverability), and yes, the blade should be reinforced or larger in diameter when stitching heavy goods, but the groove and the point are golden when it comes to proper consideration of the thread and the fabric.

The purpose of the groove is to hug the thread close to the needle. It is important to remember that needle size is matched to thread size—just as the eye is matched to thread size.

The width of the groove is just 40% that of the needle, which limits the thread size that can be used on a particular needle. A smaller needle with a smaller groove when threaded with a #30-weight thread will find the thread protruding out from the needle and the chance of abrasion as it passes through the garment is greater, which can result in fraying and possible thread breaks. Likewise, threading a larger-grooved needle with a finer #60-weight thread can result in loops forming from the movement of a thread that is not cradled safely during the stitching process.

The point of the needle is dictated by the fabric being sewn. Sharp, ball point and wedge needles are available. If you choose the wrong point, you can cut the fabric, pucker the embroidery or end up with fuzzy lettering.

I have met embroiderers who boast about using the same point on all fabrics…but what a shame to sacrifice quality and crisp lettering and details for a thing as simple as a needle choice. Start learning about and using the correct needles for your project and watch your stitch quality improve.

Sharp points pierce the threads of the fabric. They create holes through which the thread can pass. The warp and weft of a woven fabric (the horizontal and vertical fibers) hold the threads in place even if the needle cuts them. A ball point used on a woven fabric can pound on the hooped goods to the point that the hoop can loosen and ruin the garment. It can also burst the threads and cause uneven edges in the design.

Ball point needles nudge the garment’s threads aside, finding holes in the weave, not making them—slipping between the fibers, not cutting them. Ball point needles should be used on knit fabrics which have a tendency to run. Using a sharp point on a knit can cut the fibers and cause a run which can make your embroidery fills look rough and even cause holes at the perimeter of the design.

The Inevitable Exceptions

The question often arises about a “universal” needle. In the sewing world, this refers to a needle that can be used in all brands of machines. In the world of embroidery the universal point is one that is not as pointed as a sharp and not as round as a ball point. It is a slightly rounded point that is used for general stitching of many knit and woven fabrics. It is not considered a wise choice for all embroidery. It can be used to embroider a middle range of materials but, when the target fabric falls outside the range, a sharp or ball point is a necessity. It is important to remember that any universal point will have limitations and should not be considered a means to avoid changing needles.

Loosely woven fabrics can be stitched with a ball point needle.

A sharp needle in a large size has a duller point than a smaller ball point needle.

A size 60/8 or 65/9 needle come in sharp points only but, since they are small enough not to cut through any one fiber, they can be used on knits.

If you have a sewing background, be aware that the same size needle that sews the seams in garments will be a savvy choice for embroidery. The exception to this rule is pliable garment leather which—in embroidery—does better with a sharp. Harder or spongy leathers may stitch better with a ball point as it creates larger holes which allow the thread to move more freely through the garment. Remember that thread needs to move back through the garment on the upstroke of the needle. Thread breaks can result if there is not enough room for smooth movement. When stitching leather, I start with a sharp. If the holes are large enough and the thread moves freely, all is well. If there are thread breaks or drags on the stitching, I change to a ball point. Besides making the right needle choice, consider lessening the density in a design destined for leather to prevent perforation which can occur when needle penetrations are too close together.

Care and Feeding of Needles

 “When in doubt, throw it out.” That’s my rule when a needle hits the floor. Don’t take a chance that a chip will turn a ball point into a sharp. By the same token, remember that a sharp needle with lots of mileage can be more like a ball point…blunt on the end.

Be sure you know what needles are on your machine when it arrives and then consider replacing some of them with other flavors. On a 16-needle machine it is efficient to load seven sharps, seven ball points, a metallic (rectangular-eyed) needle, and a small needle for crisp lettering and details. Now, if you have a design that needs more than seven ball point needles, you only need to replace a few.

I store needles that can be used again in one of those tomato pincushions, marking the segments with a permanent marker to show the sizes. There are different color tomatoes so you can use one for ball points and one for sharps.

Dispose of used needles in cans or other containers to avoid accidents when the trash is disposed of and collected.

Viva La Needle

We’ve come a long way since the days of needles made from ivory, bone and porcupine quills. We should respect the needle as a precision tool of our trade and select that tool with the garment, thread, fabric and design in mind.

Remember the “smallest” rule: Smallest hoop, smallest (and proper) needle, smallest thread, smallest tension equals quality embroidery. Add to that a cotton bobbin, which does not have the stretch of its polyester cousin, and your embroidery stitching will have an excellence and superiority that you might not even realize you are missing.

Take some time to stitch designs on the same fabric with different size needles and gauge the differences (good and bad) for yourself!