I have been seeing a lot of debate over this topic recently and thought that I would weigh in to simplify the topic… at least from my point of view. While this topic can get much more in depth, I am taking the “50,000 foot approach” and looking at the subject to boil it down to basics. There are generally three characteristics you need to know when selecting the proper needle for your project. They are needle class, needle type, and needle size. There really isn’t a needle that I consider “one size fits all”, knowing the type of fabric you will be sewing will determine the best needle to use. Lets go over these three characteristics.
The majority of domestic sewing machines, regardless of maker use the Class 15 class of needle. Thy are commonly identified as 15×1, 2020, 130/705H, HAx1 etc. but they are the same when it comes to fit. Some Singer machines use a different class of needle known as the 24×1. These are not interchangeable with the 15×1, but if you have one of these Singer machines (model 206, 306, 319, etc) you probably already know this.
There are basically three types of needles generally encountered. These are called sharps, ball point, and universal. While there are many other specialized needles for leather, embroidery, overlocking, etc, these are the most common types you see and they cover the majority of everyday sewing applications. Lets take a look at the differences between them.
Sharps – Before manmade fabrics became readily available (pre-1960’s) there was only one kind of needle and these were called ‘sharps’. Exactly as the name implies, they had a very sharp pointed tip. While working well on wool, cotton, and natural cloth fibers, the introduction of manmade fabrics revealed a problem that needed a different type of needle called a “ball point” to overcome.
Ball point – As manmade fabrics became plentiful as an alternative, sewing machine needle manufacturers found that that these “sharps” needles could not penetrate these new material fibers effectively and either cut, or deflect off the material fiber. This would result in skipped stitches and poor stitch quality. To overcome this a new needle type called a “ball point” needle was introduced. The slightly rounded tip of the ball point needle allows it to slip between the fibers instead of piercing or cutting them.
Universal – As if two types of needles was bound to confuse people, the “universal” needle was developed. It basically falls somewhere between a sharps and a ball point which was part way between a sharp and a in that it has a slightly rounded point.
Of course, as more modern materials arrived on the scene, more needle types were developed to sew them. Rather than describing the needle by the point, some needle companies marketed them according to the type of fabric being sewn… denim, leather, jersey, etc. and this was included on the packaging.
The following chart is taken from Schmetz Needles website and it describes the different needle types for different applications for their needles… as you can see, there are many choices today.
Of course, the proper needle “style” is important, but so is the needle size. The Singer Sewing Machine Company pretty much dominated the United States market and they pretty much set the standard for needle sizes. Common needle sizes include 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 19, 21 etc. where the higher numbers had thicker shafts and larger eyes to suit thicker threads and fabrics. The European needle manufacturers sized their needle according to the metric system. Designated as tenth’s of a millimeter, they typically ranged from 55 to 130. It is common today to see both sizes imprinted on needles and they show the Singer designation followed by the metric equivalent. This would look like this… 9/65, 11/75, 14/90, 16/100, 18/110, 21/130, etc. Of course, there are needles smaller and larger, and there are other designations but they are just not as common in general use.
Pick the right needle and change it regularly! One of the most important considerations in any sewing project is needle selection. Choose the right needle and you will be pleased and satisfied with the outcome. But needles do not last forever… You can expect a sewing machine needle to last for about 8 hours of sewing before it needs to be replaced. Even with x-ray vision, you cannot look at a needle and tell if it is worn. The slightest imperceptible bend in a needle cannot be detected but will present itself in skipped stitches, poor stitches, and more. Consider this… Fabric is expensive, your time is valuable, frustration leads to loss of interest. It probably costs more in electricity to sew a garment than it costs to replace your needle. Don’t be lulled into a sense of false economy by using an old needle.
I think of it like this… a razor blade will stay sharp and provide a nice smooth shaves for a couple of uses. A dull razor blade creates a bad shaving experience. They still look sharp, but they have reached their life expectancy and dulled. You know when it is time to change your razor and you likely don’t hesitate to do so. The same holds true for sewing needles… If in doubt, throw it out.
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I hope that this tutorial has helped you and answered a few questions in the process. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Thanks for reading!