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Meg’s Thread and Needle Guide
A question I am asked frequently is "How do I know what type and size of machine needle to use?" In a nutshell, here is the basic idea:
Choose the needle TYPE according to the job you are doing, i.e., use a metallic needle for metallic thread, a quilting needle for quilting through 3 layers, a sharp Microtex or Jeans needle for piecing, and an Embroidery needle when using fragile threads, especially those made from extruded fibres such as rayon and viscose. Then, choose the needle SIZE to match the weight (thickness) of the top thread you are using. If you are using a very fine thread (e.g., monofilament, Aurifil 50, YLI Soft Touch) then use a size 60 or 70 needle. Use a size 75 or 80 needle for medium weight threads such as Aurifil 40, YLI Machine Quilting, King Tut, etc. Use a size 90 needle for heavier weight threads such as Rayon 40, Aurifil 28, etc. Use a size 100 needle, or even a 110, for Jeanstitch and other 20-30 weight threads.
Why? Every machine needle has a groove running down the front. The thread nestles into this groove and the groove shields the thread from friction as it passes rapidly in and out of the fabric when you stitch. If the machine needle is too small, the thread will not nestle into the groove and will suffer too much friction, increasing the probability of both snapped threads and skipped stitches. Regardless of what needle TYPE you are using, you must choose a needle SIZE that has a sufficient groove for the thread you are running through it.
Below is a basic guideline to successful thread and needle combinations for patchwork and quilting tasks:
General Guide: Use invisible thread for IMA, or decorative threads for folk or more noticeable effect. Soft Touch or Masterpiece work well in the bobbin.
YLI Monofilament, smoke or clear
Microtex 60 or 70
Any decorative thread, variegated or plain, thickness to suit
Embroidery or Topstitch, sizes 75-90 (size 100 for thick threads)
General Guide: Use fine threads (e.g. silk or light weight cotton) for ‘invisible’ effect, where thread sinks into fabric. Use any heavier decorative threads for buttonhole and decorative appliqué stitches, but don’t use any that shred easily.
YLI silk in neutral colour to ‘sink’ into fabric
Hand Sharps, size 10 or 11
YLI Soft Touch, colour to match background
Hand Sharp, size 10
Superior Masterpiece, colour as background
Hand Sharp, size 10
General Guide: Almost all threads can be used for hand quilting. Not all threads can be used in a machine. Those that cannot are the hand quilting threads that are waxed. Some threads that are labelled ‘machine quilting’ threads are especially smooth and good quality cotton, so they are ideal for hand quilting despite being labelled as machine quilting threads. For hand quilting, choose medium to heavy weight threads so the stitching shows. Choose a shade which is a bit darker than the background fabric.
Aurifil 28 – a beautiful smooth thread that behaves well and has a good finish and body
Betweens 9-10, or Sharps 10
Aurifil 40 – ditto, but slightly lighter weight
YLI Machine Quilting – good standard weight, smooth cotton, excellent for hand quilting
King Tut – low lint, smooth cotton, excellent results
Coats Dual Duty – cotton covered polyester
Betweens 8-11, or Sharps 10
General Guide: All our threads can be used for machine quilting except those labelled specifically as hand quilting threads (i.e. glazed threads). For best results, cottons should be good quality and long staple. These will have even thickness along the length of the thread and be less likely to break. They should also be low lint threads (e.g. Aurifil) as any lint will gather in the bobbin chase. Rayons and metallics are suitable, as are silk, and threads of varying weights. Match the needle TYPE to the work you are doing; match the needle SIZE to the top thread. Use YLI Soft Touch or Superior Threads Masterpiece as good general purpose bobbin threads to balance almost any of our machine quilting threads.
YLI Machine Quilting
Quilting 75 (90 on some machines)
Valdani Plain 50
YLI Superfine Metallic
Metallic 80 or Topstitch 90
YLI Soft Touch (for intricate, heirloom MQ)
Masterpiece (for intricate, heirloom MQ)
YLI McKenna Ryan
General Guide: a fine, good quality, light-weight long staple cotton used with a size 70 sharp needle is best.
YLI Soft Touch - 60 weight
Microtex 70, Jeans 70
Superior Masterpiece - 50 weight
Aurifil - 50 weight
Below is the text from Meg Leach's class in which she explains all about domestic machine needles:
Correct needle selection is one of my big bug-bears when I’m teaching or advising customers. It always amazes me that people can spend £1000’s on a sewing machine but then overlook the fact that it is the needle that is the business end of the whole stitching process. Give me a very basic machine with a perfect needle any day over an expensive machine with a blunt old Universal needle in it. You would be absolutely amazed how many people I come across who have very expensive sewing machines, which are nothing more than elaborate motors driving a very blunt or totally inappropriate needle up and down!
Domestic machine needles, for the purposes of this conversation, fall into two broad groups: ball points and sharps. Ball points are used for stretch and knit fabrics and are designed so that the needle separates the fibres as it plunges through the fabric. Ignore all of these. Sharps are what we use in patchwork and quilting with woven fabrics such as cotton. Sharps pierce the fibres as the needle penetrates through the fabric. Sitting in the middle between ball points and sharps is the ‘Universal’ needle. It is neither a true ballpoint nor a true sharp, it’s not quite the right needle for any one particular task. If you have any Universals, save them for mending and use your sharps for patchwork and quilting.
When selecting your needle, you need to choose a needle TYPE and a needle SIZE. Choose your needle TYPE according to what you’re planning to do with it – piece, quilt, work with fragile threads, work with metallic thread, embroider, etc. Choose your needle SIZE to match the size of the thread you are going to put through that needle. The thread should lay nicely into the groove on the front of the needle shaft. This groove sheathes the thread as it penetrates in and out of your work; if your needle size is too small or too large, you may experience skipped stitches or thread breakage.
Common TYPES of needle (sharps) used in patchwork and quilting:
1. Microtex:- Almost identical to a Jeans in the smaller sizes. Hard to differentiate between the two, so if your LQS is out of stock of Jeans, buy Microtex, and vice versa. A Microtex 70 is commonly used with thin piecing threads such as those mentioned above for the Jeans 70. Size up to a Microtex 80 if your piecing thread is a little thicker, so the thread nestles into the groove. Microtex needles are perfect for ‘micro fibres’ and densely woven poplins and silks. The design of the needle helps the holes to heal so that your silk doesn’t look like it’s been hole-punched after stitching a line. A Microtex is probably the best choice if you’re stitching through experimental fibres such as thin plastic or Lamafix. One of the advantages of the Microtex needle is that it comes in a size 60 – very good for monofilaments, size 100 polyesters and other whisper thin threads. Useful for machine appliqué – choose the size to match the thickness of your appliqué thread.
2. Quilting:- Quilting needles are very sharp (perfect for woven cottons) and designed to cope with the extra thickness of a sandwiched quilt with wadding in it. Please note that the term 'quilting' does not equate to 'patchwork'. These needles are designed for the actual machine quilting through the three layers of your quilt, not for the patchwork piecing. Match the size of your needle to the thread you are running through the needle. If your tension is still not correct or you are experiencing skipped stitches, move up to a slightly larger quilting needle.
3. Topstitch:- Topstitch needles have a nice big round eye and of course sharp points. They are (obviously) quite good for topstitch purposes, but can also be used for quilting with thicker threads, as one of the advantages of Topstitch needles is that they come in big sizes, i.e., Topstitch 100. A useful needle for decorative surface embellishment when using thicker threads. One particular thread manufacturer recommends Topstitch 90 needles for all of their quilting threads. I don’t quite know why they say this, because I’ve tested this and in my own tests with this thread, the quilting needle comes out tops every time with this thread, so there is no reason to pay the extra for Topstitch needles for that particular thread brand. In all honesty the topstitch needle is not one that I use very often, but it is so widely touted by this one manufacturer, that I mention it here because most people will at some stage come across advice to use it.
4. Metallic:- Metallic needles are designed to cope with the most fragile of threads in our stash. Metallic needles have a round eye, unlike the tear-drop shaped eyes of other needle types. The eye is also teflon coated to reduce friction on the metallic thread to its absolute minimum. If your metallic thread keeps breaking, switch to a metallic needle and slow your machine speed. Metallic thread has a metallic sheath surround a core of rayon thread. If your needle is not teflon coated or if you have any nicks in the eye of your needle, the metallic sheath on the thread will be split under friction, and then will shir up up the rayon core.
5. Embroidery:- A really useful needle to keep on hand. The embroidery needle is designed for more fragile threads such as viscose and rayon varieties. However, it’s really useful for any thread that is turning out to be a bit pesky. The embroidery needle has a deeper groove along its shaft than other needles and it also has an enlarged scarf (the notch at the back of the needle, causing the loop for stitch formation). I won’t go into detail here, but both of these features help to protect the thread from breakage. The embroidery needle is my ‘go to’ needle, my ‘when all else fails’ needle. Definitely use the embroidery needle for fragile decorative threads, but also give it a try when more ordinary threads keep breaking. Also a good backup if you are out of metallic needles. The most common sizes of embroidery needle are 80 and 90.
There is a lot more to say about this and I have oversimplified a bit here, but the above is a good start for choosing needles. Remember – choose your needle TYPE according to your materials and what you are going to be stitching; choose your needle SIZE according to the thread size that you intend to run through that needle. And always use a sharp needle; don’t struggle on with a blunt needle. Using the right tool for the job really does make sewing more enjoyable. When you find a good combination of thread & needle, it’s a good idea to write the needle type and size on the top of your thread spool.
A note for Janome users
The blue tip Janome needle is an Embroidery needle. The red tip Janome needle is a metallic needle. If you use only Janome branded needles for machine quilting, then generally speaking, the blue tip works quite well for machine quilting.
Titanium needles: These are widely touted at the moment and are said to last longer than ordinary needles. Not if you hit a pin! My own personal preference is for standard, good quality needles, such as Schmetz, which are relatively inexpensive to replace if broken. Some people prefer the titaniums. This is a matter of personal choice and you just need to try them yourself to see if you thnk they are worth the extra cost.
Other needles: There are of course other needles available. Wing tips, leathers, twins, triples, lana, etc. But the five above are the basic ones to keep in your toolbox for patchwork and quilting. Jeans and Microtex are virtually identical, but I have included them both in the list because they are available in different size ranges. Between the two, you can get any size.