Needles and Pins
WHAT’S THE POINT?
Needles and pins aren’t as complicated as space ships or engines, but they are still, after many, many years, absolute necessities in the art of dressmaking—and embroidery.
Before automated methods, eighteen steps were required to fashion metal into a simple straight pin…much like the twenty-plus steps in the manufacturing of basic caps and shirts today. These steps were performed by hand—each member of a human production line doing a single operation.
There are over two-dozen in the production of a needle. Wires are cut into pre-determined lengths and then the ends are ground into cone shapes. The metal is shaped into the blade and shank and the eye is punched.
The eye of the needle is then either chemically or string polished…the slightest rough edge in the eye can wreak havoc on the thread. The needle is marked (size and manufacturer) and then the rough edges removed. It is tempered and smoothed, polished and pointed and smoothed and polished again—and finally the plating is applied—first nickel, then chrome.
In 1832, an American medical doctor, John Howe invented a machine for automatic pin-making. Howe also mechanized the process of putting pins into their paper holders, a product that inspired the love song that says: “I’ll buy you a paper of pins, and that’s the way our love begins…” By 1870, the needle was also being produced by a mechanical process
Needles and Pins, needles and pins, When a man marries, his troubles begin.
Another Howe—Elias—married himself to the development of the sewing machine, patented in 1846…and one particular hurdle was the needle.
The story goes that Elias fell asleep on night, in a quandary over how (no pun intended!) to make his conception of the machine work dreamed he was caught by jungle natives and thrown into the proverbial soup pot. He tried to escape, but his captors kept sticking him with pointed spears. It was later the next day, while working on his invention, that he recalled that there were holes in the points of the spears. The common needle at the time was used for hand sewing and had the point in the butt end of the needle…the last section to pass through the fabric. Howe realized that a sewing machine would require the thread to go through the fabric first in order to function correctly.
It was only later in history, as the machines and their needles (and the operators and artisans) became more sophisticated, that different points, diameters and systems were devised.
There are variations in blades, and eyes and points. No one needle is standard. They are not one-size-fits-all or even one-type-fits-all. Although a size one way or the other isn’t crucial, a poor selection may find you two or more sizes away from what you need. An improper needle can tempt the unwary and unknowing to fiddle with the tension—which can compound things unnecessarily if the trouble is simply the needle choice.
Advice is often given to slow the machine down in order to stop needle and thread breaks and compensate for timing issues. The problem might be improper scarf and hook alignment or needle bar depth. That slower speed might be a short-term fix, but it is not the path to educated, quality embroidery…any more than using a matching colored bobbin to disguise bobbin thread creeping to the top of the embroidered design teaches us to set our tensions correctly.
Simply put, needles should be changed when the garments and thread change.
Changing needles for specific jobs may be time-consuming and tedious, but it is a fact that a sharp needle (the correct term is set point) will stitch caps better than a ball point and pierce the center seam and buckram backing without hesitation. A ball point needle used with knits will prevent unsightly runs.
You should change needles more frequently when sewing caps, satin and leather. Fleece, wovens, terry cloth, sweaters and knits are the kindest to your needles…and the needles will need changing less often when stitching these fabrics.
If you are planning to sew with metallic or other specialty threads, learn about the different eye sizes and shapes that will make thicker and more difficult threads a welcome part of your embroidery repertoire.
Embroiderers are taught to consider the fabric when selecting a needle. Proper needle size also depends on the thickness of the target fabric. Thicker material requires larger needles (80/12–90/14) and thinner material requires smaller needles (65/9–70/10).
Heavier materials may also require a stepped (reinforced) needle to minimize deflection, which may occur when high sewing speeds and longer stitches slow the machine down, causing the needle to bend as the thread passes through the eye. This can pull on the tip. Smaller needles flex more when the thread tugs them and the reinforced needle helps cut down on that deflection, reducing thread and needle breaks. The reinforced needle also cuts more easily into dense material.
A delicate fabric needs a thinner needle with a straight blade to prevent over-large holes. A too-large needle can cause fuzzy lettering and blurry details—no need to blame the digitizer if the fault is with the needle.
But, is the fabric the only—or most important—consideration?
In choosing a needle, the thread size is more critical than the fabric thickness.
It is so important to consider the thread—in fact 50% of the needle choice is determined by the thread. I hear fabric 90% of the time when needles are discussed, but the thread is just as vital in the decision-making process.
Needle size is matched to the thread size. Thicker thread needs a thicker needle to punch a larger hole in the fabric, and it needs its larger groove. The thread rests against the groove during the stitching process. A thin thread in a large grove invites too much movement which can result in looping and thread breaks. A thick thread in a groove too small will abrade, fray and break.
Here’s a simple list to remember:
The size of the needle is dictated by the thread.
The eye of the needle is dictated by the thread.
The point of the needle is dictated by the fabric.
The system (blade size) is dictated by the fabric
Change the needle when you change to a larger thread—the eye of the needle should be 30 to 40 percent larger than the diameter of the thread. The size of the eye is also important. If the eye is too small, the close quarters can abrade the thread and cause frays and breaks. Average, standard #40-weight thread can run in needles as low as 65/9, although it will be snug (it will be more comfortable in a 70/10 or 75/11.) If you use the 60/8 you should use #50- or #60-weight threads.
If the eye is too large, the loop created in the formation of the stitch may not form correctly; it will be a slipshod affair and may show up on the top of the fabric (ah, the dreaded looping).
Test the eye for size. Thread a section of thread through the eye of the needle. The needle should move smoothly along the thread. If it hesitates, try a larger needle…or just a larger eye if you need a thin shaft. Skipped stitches can be the result of a needle that is too thin, so match your needle well with your thread and fabric.
A larger eye allows the thread to pass through without the friction that causes shredding and thread breaks. If you choose a thicker thread, select a needle with a larger eye—not necessarily a larger blade.
Remember to watch your tension when you change to a larger thread—the greater diameter of a #30-weight thread will spread the tension discs apart further than a #40-weight thread, increasing the pressure on the tension spring. The tension with the #30-weight thread will be too high and the thread can abrade. If your tension is set for the #30-weight thread and you change to the average #40-weight, the tension will be too tight and the thread may loop on the reverse of the goods.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
What happens if you learn to select your needle more carefully? Thinner needles can give you smaller penetration holes in fine fabrics and crisp details. Thicker needles can run faster and will break less often.
Sew patterns or stitch designs with different size needles and see the difference for yourself. If you have a sewing background, it helps to know that the same size needle that sews the seams in garments will be an educated 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, which creates a larger hole that allows the thread to move freely through the garment. Remember that the 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 can move freely, all is well. If there are thread breaks or drag on the stitching, I change to a ball point to give the thread more room to navigate and less chance of shredding or breaking.
TIPS TO REMEMBER
- If the eye is too small it can give the embroidery a scuffed look; if the eye is too big you can end up with sloppy embroidery.
- If the needle size is too small for the thread or the needle is bent or the point damaged, thread breaks can result. Use finer thread or a larger needle. If the point or tip is damaged, replace the needle.
- Detail is better with a 70/10 and smaller.
- A 75/11 ball point is fine on knits but leaves unsightly holes in wovens.
- A 65/8 needle and a fine thread can stitch lettering as small as 1/8 of an inch. You can also sew these letters or other details over a fill with this needle, as it is very thin and can penetrate with little or no flex.
- Use an 80/12 needle with thicker threads such as the stronger #30-weight. This thread is 25 percent thicker and fills faster—a way to cut down stitches in an area where appliqué doesn’t suit.
- Use a 90/14 on canvas and a 95/16 on thick vinyl and layered goods like karate belts.
- Use an 80/12 sharp on caps and change them when they become dull (a ball point on a cap starts off dull.)
- Change your needles more often when you are sewing canvas, Lycra®, nylon, silk, satin jackets and leather.
- Use a ball point needle on spandex products. The finishing process on the fabric can cause skipped stitches.
- Use a coated needle for canvas such as the titanium needle.
- Use a needle with a reinforced blade for 6-panel caps and any webbing.
- Needle deflections can nick the plate and the lower thread path. Avoid that by choosing the right needle.
When selecting a needle, remember these points and use the smallest needle possible for the job (just like hoop selection) to produce the smallest hole possible in the fabric—to produce the best embroidery.