Don't be too Cheap

Do you change your sewing machine needle only when it breaks?

You put the time and the essence of yourself into your sewing, so why cheat yourself to save a few pennies?

The needle sews; the thread holds the garment or craft together. Yet these are the two places where people get in credibly cheap. The 30- or 40-cent-per-item investment is a small price to pay for the difference that quality notions make in the beauty of your project and the ease of your sewing. Change your needle every two garments, or every twelve hours of actual sewing time.

You don’t need to see the eye to thread the needle. If you follow the lengthwise groove down the front, it will guide your thread into the eye easily (Fig. 3.1).

Fig. 3.1 Slide thread down the groove to eye

The Evolution of Sewing Needles

Fabrics have changed more in the past twenty-five years than since we crawled out of skins and started wearing fabric clothes.

In the beginning, all we had were natural fibers and dyes—cotton, linen, wool, and silk. We had no need for specialized needles because these fabrics only had to touch the tip of the needle. All we needed were sharp points.

Twenty years ago, when we developed man-made fibers and dyes and polyester double-knits hit the market, the face of home sewing changed for ever. But we had not learned to change our methods of sewing or to alter our home machines to work with these new fabrics. We weren’t getting the same quality as we saw in commercial garments because the garment industry al ways adapts its machines to new fabrics well before the home market does. In fact, our home machines haven’t changed much since 1895. They have been improved and have become infinitely more versatile, but they still form stitches in basically the same way.

The rash of polyester on the market created a mind-set of its own: Al ways use ballpoint needles with poly ester to avoid skipped stitches.

But what is polyester? Is it wool- like, chiffon, a silkie? We need to stop thinking about fiber content and grab hold of what the manufacturers have done with it. In other words, don’t look at the end of a bolt to read about fiber content as your only criterion for choosing which needles and threads to buy. You need to consider that, today, man-made fibers can be made to look like silk or wool. Crepe de chine, for example, can be silk, rayon, polyester, or even some other fiber. Concentrate on fiber usage, not content: Is it soft, thick, dense, stiff? How will it handle? How does it feel?

This section will tell you what options are available and how to make sense of the problems that mismatches can cause. These considerations are why I am not giving any reference charts; there are no absolutes. Each project must be analyzed according to its own difficulties and requirements.

Every needle package will give you two classifications: the number, which denotes its thickness or size; and the letter, which specifies the point or tip and overall shape. It is the combination of size and shape that makes a needle best for any one piece of fabric.

I will use the Schmetz needle classifications because, in my opinion, these are the best needles manufactured to day. I will present all the numbers in pairs, starting with the most commonly used needle, the 80/12. The left number is the European designation (millimeters around); the figure on the right is the American standard (Fig. 3.2). I will discuss first the number, then the letter, of each series of Schmetz needle currently available. Check later in this section for special cases.

Fig 3-2 Marking on needle package for type and size

Selecting Needles by Number

You don’t need to buy every kind of needle for every kind of fabric you might use. You will use the 60H, 70H, 80H, 75H-S and 90H-J most often. But when you do encounter problems, if you have a basic understanding of the structure of these other needles, you can increase your options for problem solving. See the closeup of machine needle in Fig. 3.3.

Fig. 3.3 Front and side close-up of machine needle


This needle is the most flexible for use in the middle range of fabric densities in both cotton wovens and knits. Today’s standard is slightly smaller than that used in the “old” days. In the past we used big needles to prevent break age, because they were comparatively expensive. But with the influx of many kinds of needles and more sophisticated fabrics, we have learned that we get the best quality stitch with the smallest possible needle for any given project.


This next larger needle is best used with denim, jeans, corduroy, most upholstery fabric, and canvas.


This needle is best for backed upholstery (such as Herculon) and very-heavy or dense fabrics such as fake furs.

110/18, 120/20, and 130/22

Any time you use a needle larger than a 100/16, you are purposely creating a hole. These needles are fine for hemstitching, fagotting, and other decorative work. If you really want to create a hole, you can buy a wing needle, which is made only for this purpose.

Note: Be aware of overkill. Do not automatically buy a larger needle, thinking that it will never break on thick fabrics. If the needle is thicker than the density of the fabric it must penetrate, it will break. Be aware also that using too big a needle on a piece of heavy fabric might force your machine out of timing.


This needle is best used for aver age light- to medium-weight fabrics such as voile, lighter dress fabrics, men’s shirting, light cottons, and batiste.


These needles are relatively new. They are best used with crepe de chine weights, silkies (rayon, polyester), and real silk. This needle is the smallest you can use with standard-weight thread if you don’t have finer thread.


This needle is best for very light weight fabrics such as crepe de chine, charmeuse, satin, and chiffon. Don’t forget that the eye of the needle is directly proportional to its circumference. Be sure to read the thread section to learn which weight is best used with this needle.


These needles are hard to find, but they sew wonderfully on real silk. Be aware that some of the cheap silk being sold today hasn’t been adequately treated to remove the gummy residue that causes needles to stick while penetrating the fibers. These needles break easily, but they are the only ones that sew on problematic, extra-fine fabrics.

Selecting Needles by Letter

Thinking again about the evolution of fashion and the great changes in fabrics will help you understand the various letter classifications on needle packages (Fig. 3.4).

Fig. 3.4 Needle points

When we had only natural fibers, we bought needles by size alone. They all had sharp points. Then we had poly ester double-knits and used only ball points. Today we have as many kinds of needles as varieties of fabric. This change is also why you can’t buy needles according to what you were taught twenty years ago. Now we must also consider the needle’s overall shape.

I will start with the letter “H” or “universal,” meaning that it works on the broadest group of fabrics.

The Schmetz H series denotes a point or shape that's neither strictly sharp nor ballpoint. It is an all-purpose needle point for most knits and wovens. It is barely rounded at the tip and has a scarf. The point is universal to most fabrics.

Since there are exceptions, your best rule of thumb is: If in doubt, make a test seam with the same fabric, needle, and thread you will use in your project. You can start with the 80/12 H as a base, since this is the needle you will use most of the time.


The sharp points worked fine until the advent of polyester knits. When stretch and density were added, the industry had to change the shape of the needle as well as its thickness.

The problem for home sewers in using the sharp points with knits and stretchier fabrics was skipped stitches. The fibers would catch on the end of the needle and be carried down into the bobbin area so that no loop of thread could be formed to make the stitch.

The industry solved the problem at first by inventing the ballpoint needle. The first big lie “they” told you was that all polyester fabric needed ballpoint needles. The tip was redesigned with a rounded point, so the thread would slide off the tip, allowing a stitch to be made. The bad news, however, was that the ballpoint needle produced holes along the seams of the garment after it had been washed. These holes were particularly visible on Qiana-like fabrics.

A new needle for knits was necessary. So manufacturers left the H point to prevent the holes, and redesigned the scarf and hump so the needle would have a better chance of making a stitch. The H-S series works well on most knits without damaging the seam line.

The “5” denotes “stretch,” and the needles come in 75/11 and 90/14 sizes. The smaller is best for lingerie and other stretchables that need to be pulled onto the body, such as T-shirt knits. The larger is best for double-knits.

Remember: Ultrasuede is a knit and takes a 75 H-S needle. If you use a 90 H-S, you will create a hole to last forever.


There are still a few times that the ballpoint needle, denoted by the letters “SUK,” will be necessary. Fabrics with spandex, some elastic waistbands and other elastics, and occasional knits that won’t respond to any other needle are the best examples.


A few years ago we started seeing the return to natural fibers and the popularity of jeans. So the industry had to reinvent the wheel: they had to bring back sharp needles to penetrate the tightly woven, dense fibers. So they began making the H-J Q for jeans series. They painted them blue and now they cost more, but the scarf is basically the same as the H series, although the point is sharp. They come in 90s, 100s, and 110s, larger-than-standard sizes, and are used for extraordinarily dense fabrics such as upholstery and canvas. In fact, whenever you want a 90 or 100 needle, you should automatically buy an H-J.

N series

Have you ever done topstitching and gotten wads or loops underneath? The reason is, if the thread is thicker than the eye of the needle it can’t slide properly and be pulled back up as the stitch is formed. The N series is made specifically for topstitching. It comes in 80s and 90s, and has a double-size eye. It is best used with topstitching thread, although you may double-thread it with standard-weight thread for similar results.

NTW series

Real leather or suede takes the NTW needle, which comes in 80s, 90s, 100s, and 110s. They have a wedge point, which slits the hide instead of making a hole. If you use a normal needle, the fabric will heal itself around the hole before the needle pulls back, making skips and loops underneath. Do not use on synthetic suede or leather.

Double needles

Double or twin needles are meant for decorative work, primarily on fine fabrics. They are not meant for top- stitching on woven fabric because the back is a zigzag. Don’t forget that top- stitching on commercially made jeans is done by a special machine with two separately functioning needles, not a double needle.

Double needles do excellent top-stitches on knits. The zigzag back gives stretch; the front looks like straight stitching. Double needles don't come in ballpoint, which will cause skipped stitches on some fabrics.

Hint: When using double needles, if you want the seams to lay flat, you must loosen your bottom tension mechanism almost all the way. otherwise, you will get mini-tucks, How ever, if you want those tucks to show up even more, tighten the lower mechanism.

Special Cases

Singer or Yellow/Gold Band

If you have a Singer that skips a lot on many different fabrics—and only then—you need the Gold or Yellow Band series. The company adapted this needle so that it moves closer to the hook while forming the stitch, reducing the chance for skips. Many Singers will work well with the Schmetz needles, but Gold or Yellow Band needles are not recommended for use in European machines.

Bernina B

The manufacturer recommends using the B needles for Berninas prior to the 900 series. If you have found that your machine skips stitches with other needles, you may need to use the B series. They have less scarf and work better with the Bernina hook design. They come in normal, sharp, and ball- points and are available only through Bernina dealerships.

To determine whether your ma chine takes B or H needles, you must experiment. You can almost always use the B; however, if your machine will function with the H series, you will find a broader range to choose from and greater availability.

Viking and Elna

There is no such animal as a Viking or Elna needle per se. They are all made by Schmetz, who then some times puts another name across the package. Most European machines use Schmetz needles, which are also manufactured in Europe.

Specialized needles are more likely to be found in sewing machine stores than in fabric stores. This is also true for attachments and better- quality threads.

The Evolution of Thread

There is no economy in buying cheap thread. Why buy the 5/$1 thread in a bin if it ends up costing you a $25 trip for a repair? Bad thread may have been the sole source of your problem.

Needles and thread are the two most important variables in your sewing because they come in direct contact with your fabric. I can't overstate this fact. You spend so much time creating something beautiful, why ruin it with cheap thread? You need to start looking at and feeling the thread you buy. Is it smooth, so that it will slide easily through the eye of the needle? Or is it rough and full of slubs that will catch and cause it to break?

In the beginning, when all we had were natural fibers, the only thread needed was 100% cotton. It sewed beautiful seams, and we didn’t much think about it. Then when polyester double-knits became popular, sewers who used the cotton thread with it experienced much breakage.

Polyester knit was and is a stretch fabric, the first of its kind on the market. So polyester thread was invented, which at the time was the easiest way to cure the breakage problems. This thread had a certain amount of stretch and wouldn’t pucker on stiff, non-giving fabrics.

Then we slipped into the polyester mind-set: The second big lie was to al ways use polyester thread with poly ester fabric. And until recently there was so much polyester thread on the market that cotton had all but disappeared. We had little choice of which thread to use.

The truth is, sewing machines were invented to be used with cotton thread (and they still do function best with it). Even so, our fabrics and tastes keep changing. We were introduced to T-shirts and other single knits and began to see puckers along the side seams. We got around the problem by stretching the material as we sewed, which actually stretched out the formation of the stitches so that the thread had some give when we let go.

Now we are returning to natural fibers—soft fabrics that give, move, and work up differently than man-made fibers. If we still use polyester thread with them, we will get puckers. Most poly ester thread has a lot of stretch to it. Because tension is resistance against the thread, it stretches out polyester thread like a rubber band as it moves through the machine. Then when the thread is sewn into the garment, it relaxes back into its original state, puckering the fabric with it.

Manufacturers can make acrylic look like wool, linen look like cotton, and polyester look like silk. So it isn’t a matter of whether to use polyester or cotton thread as such; what is relevant is whether the fabric is thin, stiff, resistant, soft—in other words, how it handles. In all cases you want the thick ness of the thread to approximate the thickness of the garment fibers as closely as possible.

Cotton Thread

Cotton thread is more flexible than polyester thread, so it’s wonderful for buttonholes and satin stitching because it doesn’t stretch. Thus it won’t pucker as much as polyester on the zigzag stitch.

Cotton thread makes the smoothest, best seams. Cotton is absolutely the best for dressmaking. Its tendency to dry out has given it a bad reputation, but it can be re-hydrated in the crisper section of your refrigerator. Don’t put it in the frost-free compartment, as that encourages dryness. (That’s why museums use humidifiers; many tapestries and documents, including the Declaration of Independence, have been preserved this way.)

Before discussing specific sizes and weights of thread, it's important to mention that measurements have never been standardized. What one company calls “double zero” another calls “50 weight” and yet another calls “30 weight.” Most companies give no ratings.

For a frame of reference, I will use Mettler thread, because it features an understandable grading system. It is also among the best on the market today, and it’s widely distributed.

Mettler makes several varieties of cotton thread for general sewing and two types of standard weight. One is referred to as machine-embroidery weight, noted as 30/2 (30 weight /2 ply). It comes in a wide range of colors and is Mettler’s softest cotton thread; 30/2 has a tendency to be fuzzy and is best used for crafts, such as appliqué and machine embroidery.

The other is called “silk finish” or (50 weight / 3 ply). The name refers to the high-luster sheen, not the fiber con tent, as it's made of 100% cotton. It is used for everyday sewing. In most cases you will want to use it for the smoothest seams on most normal-weight fabrics.

If your thread is chubbier than your fabric, you will have lumpy seams. The knots will always show more on thin fabrics. To solve this predicament, Mettler also makes a “fine machine em broidery” weight thread, designated 60/2. It is best for those fine fabrics that may have always given you trouble. It is half the weight of normal thread and therefore flows right into the fabric, hiding the seams. For example, this thread works beautifully on silk and silkies, specifically at a stitch length of “2” or “14” (stitches per inch).

I don't recommend using the fine- weight thread with anything but a size 60 or 50 needle. If you use it in a larger size, it will not fill the eye properly. If it isn’t held tight against the groove, the needle will break when punched down into the fabric.

When you use the 50s and 60s needles, you must use fine-weight ma chine-embroidery thread. If the thread thickness is larger than the eye of the needle, it will produce poor-quality seams because it can’t slide through smoothly. It is also very hard to thread.

There are several other good brands of cotton thread: Swiss Zwicky, and Coats and Clark ONT are two. Check what is available to you locally, as well as the Supply List at the end of the book. (These better threads are often used in machine demonstrations because they produce such beautiful stitches.)

Polyester Thread

Polyester thread has three basic uses: (1) in garments that will receive stress, such as leotards or the rear end of pants; (2) on fabrics that will be exposed to elements, such as swimwear and furniture; and (3) on real leather, because the tannic acid will eat away at cotton thread that hasn’t been specially treated.

The primary reason for using polyester rather than cotton thread is its strength. Although its stretchiness can be a disadvantage, in these cases it's better than cotton because it won’t break. The strength of the seam is more important here than how it looks.

The way that polyester thread is made determines its quality. Many companies make it by a process similar to that of cotton candy. It is pulled on and run through a series of heat rings until the outside shrinks down. If you could look through a microscope, how ever, you would see slubs and fuzz rather than smooth strands. In cheap thread, these chunks catch on the eye of the needle. These imperfections can cause more frustrations than you may realize.

The best polyester threads are made of continuous filaments and then twisted. Metrosene and Gutermann, both made in Europe, are two of the finest.

Metrosene, for example, is 100% long staple polyester. It is made on cones that pull out the strands over a long space. This makes for a smooth thread that travels easily through the machine.

Cotton-wrapped polyester thread is the worst of both worlds. Several kinds are available today, but some are better than others. To find out which is best, take a bit of thread off the spool and look at it. Check it for sTubs; pull on it to see how rubbery it's . The more give, the more problems it will cause. You don’t want to use thread that stretches out as you sew, only to snap back to original size once in the garment. The seams will look terrible.

Sometimes you won’t be able to find the exact color you need in either cot ton or polyester thread. If you must choose between good quality or exact color match, choose good thread. A lousy seam will look bad whether the color matches or not; a good seam will hide an imperfect color match. Manufacturers buy in such large quantities that their threads are dyed to match. That option isn't open to home sewers. Don’t hold an entire spool against your fabric. Instead, unwind a few inches and use a single strand to check the match. Try dark gray for those difficult purples and blues.

Note: Do not use polyester thread on silk. (It is four to seven times stronger than silk.) If you do, you will wear a garment that looks as if it were sewn with bandsaws. In fact, when working on thin fabrics, remember that you are hardly going to play basketball in them. The seams don’t have to be as strong as those in jeans.

Silk Thread

Silk thread was created for hand sewing. It isn't recommended for home machine use. It is wonderful for hand- sewn hems and pad stitching because it's so strong and can’t be easily broken. (It can shred but rarely breaks.) It has much greater tensile strength than cot ton thread, and it doesn’t knot because it's made from one extremely long, continuous filament.

This brings up another mind-set that misleads consumers: Silk thread isn't to be sewn into silk fabrics. It is too strong, even for most wovens. It could be used, for instance, in a particularly heavy wool coat that had to be dry cleaned and needed a strong seam. But that's a rare exception.

Topstitching Thread or Buttonhole Twist

Topstitching threads are available in both silk and polyester. For best results, you must use a topstitching needle. If you use this thread and have trouble with it jamming underneath, it's because it’s too thick to be pulled back up with normal tension. Tighten the up per mechanism to add enough resistance to allow the thread to be brought back up to form a stitch instead of wad ding below.

Note: Don’t put topstitching thread in the bobbin. Its thickness can ruin the tension mechanism. Use normal- weight thread instead. Consider using two standard-weight threads in stead of one thick one in both the needle and bobbin areas. In the up per tension mechanism there is usually a separation disk; guide one thread to each side, For the bottom, wind two threads at a time onto your bobbin.

Thread Notes

The machine is carefully set up to balance upper and lower tensions, so you must put the same thread in both mechanisms (except for topstitching thread). Take the thread from the same spool. If you can’t tell the difference between polyester and cotton by feel, devise a system to keep them apart during storage. Even if two threads seem to look alike, if one is smoother, it could mean enough of a difference in gram weight of pull to throw off the tension.

Commercial-weight thread, especially thread recommended for upholstery, isn't made to go through a nor mal home sewing machine. If you use too thick a thread, you can actually damage both tension assemblies. Look for threads in home sewing stores that state “For Hand Sewing Only.” Check the ends of your spools.

Don’t take for granted that the thread you bought yesterday is still made with the same standards today. Be aware of the quality of thread you buy. There are unmentionable examples in which a brand started out with high quality but once the name was established, the standards dropped dramatically.

If you’re sewing with a dark brown thread, for example, and suddenly have trouble, try switching brands to see if that helps if nothing else seems to work. This problem stems from poor-quality dyes. A variety of problems can occur when thread standards drop. Test by inserting a thread that you have used successfully before.

In fact, until you as a consumer find out what thread you ought to be using and ask for it, stores will continue to sell junk. Experiment until you are satisfied. Poor-quality thread is causing more puckers today than ever.


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Tuesday, 2009-04-28 15:00