Garment sewists have myriad sewing machine needle types from which to choose.
This humble sewing notion can make — or break — your stitching experience and project outcome.
By understanding needles, you avoid the woes that come with making a poor needle-fabric match. (And, we’ve all been lousy matchmakers at least once!)
In this article, you will discover:
🪡 The ins and outs of sewing machine needle sizes (and systems!)
🪡 The parts of a needle and what they do
🪡 How needles are made, including special coatings
🪡 A sewing machine needle guide to help you choose the right needle based on fabric
🪡 Organizational tools for keeping your needle stash under control
If this post were a college class, it’d be Sewing Machine Needles 102. It’s a level up from the introductory course, my fellow sewing nerds! 🤓
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What Do Needle Numbers Mean?
When matching a sewing machine needle to a project, the most important thing to evaluate is the needle’s size (i.e., large, medium, small).
Sewing machine needles have two numbers, usually separated by a slash, for example, 80/12.
Larger numbers — 90/14, 100/16 — indicate heavier-duty needles relative to 60/8 or 75/11, which are lighter-weight needles.
Metric Needle Size System
The first number is from the European/Number Metric (NM)/International system. Needle sizes in this system (generally) range from 60 to 130 and increase by 5 or 10.
There are needles smaller and larger than 60 and 130 (respectively), but for home sewing needs, it’s unlikely you’d see these outliers.
The number is the diameter of the needle shaft in hundredths of a millimeter — teeny weeny.
American Needle Size System
The second number is the American/U.S./Singer/Imperial system. The Singer sewing machine company came up with this system.
American needle sizes (generally) range from 8 to 21 and increase usually by 2, but sometimes increase by 1.
Sewing Machine Needle Classes
Sewing machine needle classes refer to needle design, i.e., how the parts of a needle look. Sometimes “needle system” is used interchangeably with “needle class.”
Today there’s (basically) one class for all domestic sewing machines. The thing that makes it confusing, though, is that this one class has lots of different names.
The following needle classes are the same:
More than likely your sewing machine takes this needle system. BUT — just to be on the safe side — please review your owner’s manual for needle specs in case you’re in the itty-bitty minority that doesn’t use the 130/705H class.
After one of these needle class designations, there’s also a letter code. The letter code identifies the needle point — round or cutting.
IMO, for home sewists, the actual name/type of needle (e.g., stretch, leather, universal) is more important than knowing the needle point code. (Some of these codes get into industrial sewing stuff.)
That said, I still think it’s kinda cool to know for when you’re looking at a pack of needles.
Round point needles are used for fabric — wovens and knits.
|Codes for Most Common Round Point Needles*|
|BR||Extra-wide twin needle|
|DRI||Triple needle (drei is three in German)|
|E or EB||Embroidery, light ball point|
|E-LP||Embroidery, anti-glue needle|
|GT||Silk, light ball point|
|J||Jeans, acute round point|
|M or HM||Microfiber/microtex, acute round point|
|MF||Embroidery w/ metallic thread, light ball point|
|N||Topstitch, light ball point|
|Q or QU||Quilting, slightly rounded point|
|R||Set cloth point (normal round point)|
|S||Stretch, medium ball point|
|SES||Light ball point|
|SKF||Heavy ball point|
|SKL||Special ball point|
|SP||Super stretch, medium ball point|
|SPI||Slim set/sharp point (acute round point)|
|SUK||Medium ball point|
|WING||Hemstitch (wing) needle|
|ZWI or Z||Twin needle (Zwilling is twin in German)|
|ZWIHO||Double hemstitch (wing) needle|
|*Source: Coats’ All About Needles, Schmetz ABC Pocket Guide to Home Sewing Machine Needles, Organ Needles Needle Index|
Cutting point needles have blade-like tips in a variety of shapes, including round, triangular, and square. They’re used to sew non-fabric material, such as leather.
|Codes for Most Common Cutting Point Needles*|
|D or TRI||Triangular point|
|DI or DIA||Diamond point|
|LBR||Wide reverse twist point|
|LR or RTW||Reverse twist point|
|P or NW||Narrow wedge point|
|S or NCR||Narrow cross point|
|SD1 or TRI TIP||Round point with small triangular tip|
|VR or R TW SP||Reverse twist spear point|
|*Sources: Coats’ All About Needles, Tech Sew Needle Buying Guide, Schmetz Industrial Needles – Cutting Points|
Anatomy of a Sewing Machine Needle
Here are the parts of a sewing machine needle for a domestic sewing machine (via Wikipedia with a few edits by me):
So, how do the parts of a needle “work”?
The shank is clamped into the needle holder, with the beveled butt pushed as far up as it will go and the flat side facing the back of the sewing machine. (Fun fact: The majority needle system, 130/705H, means the needle is designed with a flat shank.)
The shoulder is the transition zone between the shank and shaft (blade).
The needle’s size is determined by the diameter of the shaft.
The groove, on the front, guides the thread down the shaft.
The bobbin/shuttle hook passes through the scarf indentation (on the back of the needle) to grab the thread and create a stitch. (See this great GIF for reference.)
The thread passes through the eye of the needle.
The point either slides past the fabric threads or punctures the fabric.
And… the tip is the top of the point.
You can see from the above illustration that the points and tips of needles vary.
Needles for knit fabrics have rounded points/tips to slip between knit stitches in fabric and not break the stitches.
Needles for woven fabrics (and leather) have sharper points/tips to cut a little hole in the material to let the needle thread pass through.
What are Needles Made of?
The Construction section of the sewing machine needle Wikipedia entry says that “needles are made of various grades of hardened steel coated with either nickel or chromium.”
Needles start out as cylindrical wire, and during manufacturing they’re stamped, polished, and plated into the notion that sewists recognize in a heartbeat.
Schmetz has a video factory tour of how needles are made, and you can further get the picture (literally) by checking out this cool patent diagram of the manufacturing process.
Sewing Machine Needle Coatings
The three types of platings you’re most likely to come across as a home sewist are nickel, chrome, and titanium.
Nickel plating is the least expensive and most used sewing machine needle coating. It gives the needle slightly more hardness. But, many people have nickel allergies.
Chrome-plated needles, according to Schmetz, “stay cooler with less stitch distortion. Thread passes through the eye with less friction. Chrome allows the needle to penetrate through fabric with less resistance.” Chrome plating is harder than nickel plating.
Sewing needles coated in titanium are more expensive than nickel- or chrome-coated needles. They are harder than chrome-plated needles, which improves their durability, but they create a little more friction than chrome-plated needles.
RELATED: Why is My Sewing Machine Skipping Stitches?
Sewing Machine Needle Guide: How to Choose the Right Needle
This guide features the four needle brands that I determined, based on online and in-person shopping, were most accessible to (U.S.) sewists.
Following are the brands and a link to each brand’s official needle product guide (so you can go deep on a particular make of needle if you please):
- Organ – Read the Organ Needles Needle Index.
- Singer – Read the Singer Needle Guide.
- Schmetz – Read the Schmetz ABC Pocket Guide to Home Sewing Machine Needles.
My No. 1 tip for choosing a needle is pick the smallest needle that will pass through the fabric with ease.
Smaller needles leave smaller holes in fabric, and (in general) you don’t want needle holes to be a garment feature.
With that in mind, here’s an across-the-board needle guide to popular sewing machine needle brands. (Don’t forget to use a needle labeled “ball point” or “stretch” for knit fabrics.)
P.S. When I write “top,” I mean closer to the shank. When I write “bottom,” I mean closer to the shaft.
|Sewing Machine Needle Guide by Fabric 🪡|
|Very fine fabrics (silk, chiffon, organza, voile, lace)||Sharps (green shank) 60/8 or 70/10; Universal 70/10||Silk 55/7; Microtex 60/8 and 70/10||Universal (red top) 60/8; Microtex (black top) 60/8||Universal (aqua bottom) 60/8 or (green bottom) 70/10; Microtex (purple top/aqua bottom) 60/8 or (purple top/green bottom) 70/10|
|Lightweight fabrics (cotton, synthetics, spandex)||Universal 80/12; Ballpoint (black shank) 70/10 or 80/12; Stretch (pink shank) 75/11||Universal 80/12; Jersey 70/10 or 75/11; Super Stretch 75/11||Universal (red top/green bottom) 70/10 or (red top/orange bottom) 80/12; Ball Point (green bottom) 70/10 or (orange bottom) 80/12||Universal (green bottom) 70/10 or (orange bottom) 80/12; Stretch (yellow top/pink bottom) 75/11; Jersey/Ball Point (orange top/green bottom) 70/10 or (orange top/orange bottom) 80/12|
|Medium-weight fabrics (velvet, corduroy, linen, knits, fleece)||Universal 80/12; Ballpoint (black shank) 80/12 or 90/14; Stretch (pink shank) 90/14||Universal 80/12 or 90/14; Jersey 90/14; Super Stretch 90/14||Universal (red top/orange bottom) 80/12; Stretch (yellow top/orange bottom) 80/12 or (yellow top/blue bottom) 90/14; Ball Point (orange bottom) 80/12 or (blue bottom) 90/14||Universal (orange bottom) 80/12; Stretch (yellow top/blue bottom) 90/14|
|Heavyweight fabrics (denim, leather, canvas, suiting)||Jeans/Denim (blue shank) 90/14 or 100/16||Jeans (blue shank) 90/14 and 100/16||Denim (blue top/blue bottom) 90/14 or (blue top/purple bottom) 100/16||Jeans/Denim (blue top/blue bottom) 90/14 or (blue top/purple bottom) 100/16|
|Very heavyweight fabrics (heavy denim, upholstery)||Jeans/Denim (blue shank) 110/18||Titanium 90/14; Jeans (blue shank) 110/18||Denim (blue top/yellow bottom) 110/18||Jeans/Denim (blue top/yellow bottom) 110/18; Universal (yellow bottom) 110/18 or (brown bottom) 120/19|
RELATED: What Does Weight of Fabric Mean?
To summarize all this sewing machine needle info…
🪡 Very fine fabrics → 70/10 and smaller
🪡 Lightweight fabrics → 70/10 to 80/12
🪡 Medium-weight fabrics → 80/12 to 90/14
🪡 Heavyweight fabrics → 90/14 to 100/16
🪡 Very heavyweight fabrics → 100/16 and larger
🪡 If the fabric is knit and/or has elastic/spandex/lycra, try a ball point or stretch needle.
🪡 Try a Jeans/Denim needle for jeans and heavy stuff.
Shop Sewing Machine Needles
How to Organize Sewing Machine Needles
A prepared sewist has an array of sewing machine needle types on hand (and half used up!) at any given time, which means she needs a plan for where to stash them.
There are many tutorials on Pinterest for DIY sewing machine needle storage. Here are a few I spied:
🪡 Tutorial: Embroidered Pin Cushion in the Hoop (ITH) – I like this one because it attaches to your sewing machine. This page is in German (hooray, Google Translate), but once you check out the photographed tutorial, I think you’ll get the gist of what you need to do.
🪡 Needle Book with Pockets – There’s not a tute with this, but you could take this idea — pages with pockets for needle packs — and make a book of any size. I especially like how there are spots to stick needles you’ve started to use but aren’t “expired” yet.
🪡 DIY Sewing Machine Needle Storage System Tutorial – This sewing machine needle organizer keeps needle packages segregated. Needles in use get stuck to the organizer box with a magnet. Clever.
And, if you don’t want to go 100 percent DIY (or you’d like a head start), there are patterns and products for sewing machine needle storage. Behold:
🪡 Grabbit myPad Sewing Machine Needle Organizer – This needle organizer is made by Schmetz, and it coordinates with Schmetz’s needle color system. A few years back I included this in a list of sewing gifts.
🪡 Needle Pincushion Template Sewing Needle Holder – This is a PDF pattern/instructions for how to make your own sewing machine needle pincushion organizer.
🪡 Sewing Machine Needle Book – This sweet book made of fabric has interior pockets for needle packages, and it closes with a slip-over elastic band. Love the handmade vibes.
🪡 Machine Needle Case Sewing Pattern PDF – Sew your own tri-fold needle case with this downloadable sewing pattern. It features interior pockets for needle packs, and it closes with a bias-tape tie.
🪡 Dritz 812 Needle Storage Tubes (3-Count) – This is an Amazon offering that’s intended for hand sewing needles, but if you use your imagination, you could use it for sewing machine needles. An internal magnet brings needles to the top of the tube, and I like that it has a cap to protect from needle stabs.
My current sewing machine needle storage system is a small box of unorganized needle packs. I tape needles in use to my sewing machine or toss them on my magnetic pincushion (not great, I know).
Looks like I need to level up with some sort of sewing machine needle organizer.
Final Thoughts on Sewing Machine Needle Types
Sewing machine needles are a critical part of your sewing practice.
The wrong type of needle will give you poor results — and could damage your project. A bent or dull needle or a needle with a burr could cause bird’s nests, skipped stitches, and shredded thread, and it could even damage your sewing machine. 😲
Best practice is to use a new and fabric-appropriate needle when starting any sewing project.
It’s true that needles aren’t free. But, I think your time, sanity, and patience are even more valuable than a needle. Do yourself a favor and get out a fresh needle, OK?
Over to you, sewing friends: What are your hot takes on sewing machine needles? Have a great needle organization hack to share? Please leave a comment.