Ever wonder which needle to use when sewing, either by machine or by hand? Which needles will give you gauge when knitting? Finding the proper size tools is important to complete your project with the handcrafted look instead of the handmade look.

LockstitchHave you ever wondered how a sewing machine needle works?  I’ve provided an animated diagram from Wikipedia that demonstrates how a needle works on a sewing machine to complete the stitch.

The lower image in the animated diagram represents the bobbin and how the sewing machine creates the “locked stitch” when sewing. Cool huh?

This illustration should help to conceptualize subsequent information that I will be sharing in this post, such as needle size and types of needle points. But let’s not go there yet…

Have you ever read the package of needles and/or your sewing machine manual and wondered what they were trying to tell you?  A simple needle has parts and an anatomy that helps explain how to replace your needle in your particular machine.  Not all sewing machine needles are created equal and having the proper needle for the job will provide you with a greater sewing pleasure and a much more professional looking result. So read on…

anatomy of sewing needleAnatomy of a Needle

Understanding the anatomy of the needle helps a lot when reading your manual and replacing your sewing machine needle.  The shank of the needle will usually have a flat side and the orientation of the flat side into your machine varies depending on the make and model of your sewing machine. Please refer to the manual when replacing your sewing machine needle.  Also use your screwdriver that came with your machine to tighten the screw that clamps the needle tightly in the machine. I learned that if I only hand tightened the screw when I replaced my needle and used my walking foot to quilt, my needle vibrated loose and fell out or even worse, broke my needle.

Sizing of a Needle (Sewing)

sewing needle sizes

The first number listed corresponds to the diameter of the needle shaft in European sizing, based on its measurement in millimeters.   A European Size 70 needle has a 0.7-millimeter shaft. The size of a needle is determined by the diameter of its blade and is calculated by taking the diameter of the blade in millimeters times 100. For example, a needle with a .80 mm diameter is size 80. The size of the needle you want should correlate with the fabric you are sewing. A thicker, heavier fabric will require a larger needle than a lightweight sheer.

The second number (after the slash) indicates the American (Universal) sizing, based on a mathematical relationship to the European (Number Metric) sizing.

In both sizing methods, a smaller number means a smaller sized needle shaft.

The most important thing to know about these numbers is that they designate the size of the needle hole that will be made in the fabric by the needle blade.

A fine or lightweight fabric needs a fine needle.  A size 60/8 is good for lightweight fabrics such as silk chiffon.

A durable or heavyweight fabric needs a larger needle to help the thread move easily through the fabric. Needle sizes of 90/14 and 100/16 are used for heavy fabrics such as denim.

What’s the Point?

The Needle Type refers to the point and tip of the needle. This is where the fabric you are sewing comes into consideration. There are many variations on these needle types and you can find a specific needle for almost any application, but here is a basic overview of some common needle types.

August_needle-diagram-2 Round Point (Sharp): This is the most common needle type and it features a sharp point that can be used for all general sewing.

Ball Point: Ball points are a specialty needle designed for sewing knit fabrics and stretchy materials. The blunt point preserves the elasticity of the fabric, because it passes between the fabric’s fibers rather than cutting through them.

DI Leather: This is a specialty needle designed for working with dry, heavy, or hard leather. The diamond shaped blade of the DI Leather Needle cuts the tough fibers so the needle doesn’t have to separate them.

SD1: This is another specialty needle designed for sewing fine leather goods such a gloves or clothing. It also works well for heavy sailcloth assemblies. The SD1 needle is similar to the DI Leather Needle but it has a smaller cutting point that cuts and pushes the fabric out of the way.

Serv7: This needle has an optimized scarf shape that makes it perfect for sewing through heavy fabrics. The Serv7 needle features a reinforced blade to help avoid skipped stitches and reduce needle breakage. This needle is recommended for use with Tenara threads.

What About Hand Sewing?

4 tips for embroidery needles

Hand Embroidery

The type of needle you choose for your embroidery project depends on what type of embroidery you’re doing.  Choosing the right needle can make the difference between a frustrating or a pleasurable stitching experience.  Mary Corbet’s website – Needle ‘n Thread explains the various embroidery needles.

Crewel Needle
Tapestry Needle
Chenille Needle
Milliner Needle

What About Knitting Needles?

knitting needles with yarn sizesA knitting needle or knitting pin is a tool in hand-knitting to produce knitted fabrics. They generally have a long shaft and taper at their end, but they are not nearly as sharp as sewing needles. Their purpose is two-fold. The long shaft holds the active (unsecured) stitches of the fabric, to prevent them from unravelling, whereas the tapered ends are used to form new stitches.

The size needle you choose depends on the weight of the yarn you are using for your knitted project. You may need to change needle sizes based on the gauge you obtain when knitting with the yarn as indicated in your knitting pattern. Gauge is the number of stitches you create per inch and how many rows you knit per inch using that specific yarn. The number of stitches or rows can be adjusted by using a slightly smaller or larger needle. Smaller needles will give you more stitches and rows per inch whereas a larger needle size creates fewer stitches/rows. Most gauges are calculated over a 4″ knitted “swatch” (sample of knitting).

Types of Knitting Needles

Straight knitting needlesStraight Needles
The original knitting needles were the straight and were made from whatever material was readily available, wood, bone, metal.  Today most straight needles are made from aluminum, wood or plastic and are usually shown in movies and cartoons depicting a knitter. The straight needles are easy to find and come in the various sizes (diameter) and lengths. Knitting a hat (or other circular item when finished) on straight needles requires a seam to make the flat knitting shaped into the circular shape needed for a hat.  Circular needles allow you to knit in the “round” and create the circular shape as you knit, therefore eliminating the need for a seam.
double pointed knitting needles

Double Pointed Needles

It’s easy to see where these needles get their name.  Both ends of the needles are pointed and although they also come in the various sizes (diameter) and lengths, they are typically shorter than the regular straight needles. Double pointed needles are used when “knitting in the round” or creating a circular garment, such as a hat, sock or fingers on gloves.

Knitting in the round with double points

Knitting in the round with double points

The double pointed ends allows the knitter to use either end of the needle to knit with so there isn’t a noticeable beginning or end to the row.  This is where your stitch markers come in handy.

Circular needlesCircular Needles

Circular needles can be used in place of straight needles and/or double needles most of the time.  The needles can be purchased as a set with the various sizes (diameter) of needles points in the set that are detachable from the cables that are included in the set.  The sets include several lengths of cable to allow for a wider variety of circumferences of finished knitted garments. Please note: all circular needles are not detachable from the cables. If you buy one cable needle in a package the needle will be permanently affixed to the cable and the length of the cable as well as the diameter of the needle will be indicated on the packaging.  I typically use a 16″ cable length when knitting a hat but will use 24″, 32″ or 40″ lengths for a larger garment.  Circular needles allow you to knit “flat knitting” (back and forth) or “in the round” (circular knitting). I love my circular needle set when swatching since I have all the usual sizes.

cable needlesCable Needles

Not to be confused with circular needles, cable knitting needles are used when crossing stitches during knitting to create a cable or twist in your knitting.  The cable needle holds a specified number of stitches to the front or the back of your work (indicated in your pattern) while the next stitches on the main needle are worked.  Afterwards the stitches that were held on the cable needle can then be worked, creating a twist or cable in your finished garment.  The cable needles come in a variety of shapes and some knitters prefer one shape or style over another.  Cable needles can be made of a variety of materials but most are either made of metal or plastic.  A double pointed needle can be used in place of a cable needle.

magic loop illustratedMagic Loop

This is the method I prefer to use when knitting socks, as opposed to using double pointed needles.  I use a 32″ long cable for magic loop and for socks I’m usually knitting on a US #2 with sock weight yarn.  I prefer the Magic Loop method because I don’t worry about losing needles when travelling with my knitting project, especially in the car.  I also don’t have as many places for the “ladders” to show up in my socks.  “Ladders” are where the knitter typically has a looser tension due to changing needles.  This looser tension creates what looks like a run in a panty hose in the finished sock.

magic loop showing division of stitchesThe main points to remember when knitting using the Magic Loop method is to divide your stitches evenly between the needles. Since I can hear you saying…”huh?” I’ve included a diagram to explain.

  1.  1.  Once you’ve cast on the required number of stitches for your project, slide the stitches down along the cable so you can bend the cable at the halfway point and distribute the stitches on either side of the cable as shown in the diagram.
magic loop starting position

Diagram 2 – Starting position

2.  Slide your stitches to their respective needles. Check that stitches are not twisted on either needle. Position the needles so the working yarn is dangling from the needle in the rear position when held like the diagram shows (Diagram 2).

3.  Pull the rear needle out so stitches slide down along the cable of the needle.  Slide them just enough to allow easy use of the “working needle” but not so much that all the stitches slide back together at the bent end of the cable.  Use this “working needle” to knit the stitches from the other needle.  (See the configuration in the first diagram above showing the Magic Loop).  Tip: after knitting the second stitch on each row tug on the yarn to get a tighter tension.  This will eliminate the “ladders” referred to above.

4.  Slide your stitches back to the “starting position” shown in Diagram #2.  The working yarn should be coming off the rear needle (always).  However this time the stitches are the second half of the row that remain to be worked.  Knit this set of stitches to complete your row.  When your cast on tail and working yarn are both dangling from the back needle (to the right of your work) you will be at the beginning of a new row.  As they say…”rinse and repeat”.

For more information:

Other videos to assist you in learning how to knit with the Magic Loop.
Simple Magic Loop
Troubleshooting Magic Loop

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