Have you ever wondered what all those colors and numbers on sewing machine needles are for? Do you struggle to decide which needle is the best choice for your current project? Today I’m excited to reintroduce my Sewing Lessons series with our first lesson on Sewing Machine needles! Find out which needle to use for which project and what all those colors and numbers mean. We’ve even created a free printable to help you keep track of it all!
Is there a Universal needle permanently on your machine because you don’t know what else to use?
If so, that’s not a big deal! Most of the time, I keep a universal needle on my machine. However, if at times you find yourself “stuck” because your machine won’t sew your fabric or maybe your stitching lines are not clean, then you may need a different machine needle.
Table of Contents
Then read on for an explanation of the “coding” of sewing machine needles and how to choose the right one for every project.
Before we begin, let me preface this by saying every time I post regarding a specific sewing or quilting technique, I get a lot of people telling me I’m wrong. Some even use very unkind terms when telling me this. This article was written as a cooperation between myself and another experienced quilter. Between the two of us, we have a lot of experience.
When it comes to sewing, I believe there is more than one right answer to a lot of questions. One method is not necessarily wrong, and another right. Rather each option has its pros and cons. If you have a favorite needle, please let us know in the comments section and tell us why you love it! However, refrain from offering unkind opinions on the subject.
What The Color on the Needle Means
Sewing machine needles will either have one or two colored bands just below the shank (that’s the thicker bit at the top), or the whole shank will be one color. Unfortunately, to make things a little more confusing, different needle brands use different colors to denote different information.
However, the systems of two bands below the shank or the whole shank color always point to the same type of information.
The first three needles in the photo below use the two-band system:
– the upper band tells you the type of needle
– the lower band tells you the size of the needle
And the needle on the far right of the photo is using the colored shank system.
As I said early, different brands of needles use different colors, meaning a quilting needle from one brand will have a different color from another brand.
With this in mind, it’s hard to list all the colors because it gets rather confusing, so I would recommend finding a chart for your preferred brand. But always keep in mind that the upper bands shows the type of needle, and the lower band shows the size.
What the Numbers Mean
Happily, the numbering system of needles is much more universal. The numbers tell you the size of the needle and are written in two parts e.g. ?? / ??.
Both numbers actually give you the same information; one shows the European number (most commonly between 60 and 100, increasing in 10s), and the other shows the American number (most commonly between 8 and 16, increasing in 2s).
Depending on where you purchase the needles may mean that the order of those two numbers varies, but, as I said earlier, they actually give you the same information. The bigger the number, the heavier the fabric with which it is intended to be used.
The numbering sizing is usually stamped onto the shank of the needle, as you can see from the photo below.
Generally speaking, the following numbers would be suitable for these types/weights of fabric:
100/16 – heavy – denim, canvas, upholstery, etc
90/14 – medium – linen, curtain fabric, wool, etc
80/12 – medium – quilting cotton, shirting, etc
70/10 – light – cotton lawn, voile, etc
60/8 – very light – delicate silks, organza, etc
Needle Types and Their Uses
Although the most commonly used needle type, the name doesn’t refer to the relevant fabric/project more that this is essentially the “base” needle design which has had no alterations made to suit specific uses.
A quilting needle is stronger with a tapered point so the needle can go through the layers of a quilt without breaking the thread or fabric. This needle is great for machine quilting or for piecing. A denim needle is also great for piecing.
Denim needles have durable sharp points that are designed for heavy fabrics like denim. Their sharp nature and strong needle shank make them great for sewing most woven fabrics. Choose a smaller number needles (70 or 80) for light to medium wovens and 90 for heavier wovens.
Top Stitch Needle
Top Stitch needles have very sharp points with a large eye for heavier top-stitching threads. If you are not going to be top-stitching with a heavyweight topstitch thread (a 40 or 30 weight), a Microtex needle is also great for top-stitching.
Large eye for thicker thread mostly used with machine embroidery machines and embroidery thread (not to be confused with embroidery floss, which is a different product).
Ballpoint or Jersey
A ballpoint, stretch, or jersey needle end isn’t as sharp and slightly rounded, so the needle pushes through the weave of the fabric rather than cutting/stabbing through. This prevents the needle from snagging the fibers in a knit or stretch fabric.
This needle “punches” the leather as it sews, which allows the thread to pass freely though the material and the machine. I would not try to sew leather without a leather needle.
In my opinion, Microtext needles don’t get nearly the attention they should! They are very sharp and are great for most sewing projects. If you are sewing with a silk or rayon fabric, they are a must. However, they are also great for top-stitching and quilt piecing due to the super sharp nature. They are not recommended; however, for heavier fabrics, a Jeans/Denim needle would be the better choice.
There are other needle types too for specific fabrics and thread types (their use is pretty clear from the name) e.g., denim, leather, metallic, etc.
I use a 80/12 Universal needle for patchwork piecing, even though it might not be a perfect choice.
I use a 90/14 topstitching needle for free-motion quilting, the size of the needle helps it get through the quilt layers easily, and the large eye helps with thread wear/breakage during quilting.
My biggest top tip for not getting confused by your needle selection and keeping track of what you are using is to keep it organized. Although the information is there on every needle, it can be hard to read and/or a little confusing (especially if you buy different brands).
If you keep your needles organized, so you know without even looking closely what type of needle you are putting into your machine, then you’ll overcome a lot of confusion and difficulties.
The little plastic case that most needles are sold in are good for keeping needles stored and organized (plus they have the type and size printed on the box!), but if you are anything like me, you might end up with loads of these tiny boxes dotted all over the place and, perhaps even more importantly, you won’t know which is the “current” needle in the box and which are still brand new.
You can purchase a small tackle-type box to keep your needles.
This one from PatternTrace (one of the authors of this article is based in the UK; at this time, I don’t see that this box is available in the US; you could use any plastic divided box.
You can also buy a simple pincushion with a grid. When you finish with a needle, simply place it in its proper spot.
Free Printable Needle Cheat Sheet & Inventory Tracker
If you are still a bit lost and would like a fun “cheat sheet” to keep near your sewing machine, I’ve used my handy dandy Illustrator skills to create a quick reference and inventory sheet.
To get printable, fill out the form below. You need to fill out the form on this page, not our general subscribe page (otherwise, how do we know which of our hundreds of free printables to send you?)
Your needle information was much needed to this vintage sewer that really never took the time to learn about sewing machine needles. Thank you!
Thanks for the helpful post.
Could you comment on how to know when to replace a needle?
Melissa Mortenson says
If you notice that your needle is making a punching sound, it’s time to replace it. If you’re a quilter, I recommend a new needle with each quilt project. They need to be changed more often than you think.
Thank you for this information regarding needles. I usually use the universal needle because it seems easier to use the same needle for everything! (I wonder if you’ve written an article about different types of thread. There are so many types of thread available; it’s confusing too!)
Melissa Mortenson says
A thread post on “the list” for sure!
I have a “tomato” pin cushion, with what looks like sections, for my needles. I have the types of needles written on each section. To know what you’re using, you can put a put a large headed pin or something stuck in that section. This works very well.
Melissa Mortenson says
That’s a great idea!!
Rebecca Sloane says
Thanks so much for helping with this confusing issue of which needle to use and with what fabrics!
Thank you so much for all of this information and storage suggestions. It has helped me a lot. I was very curious about the colors and numbers and now I know what the mean. I was also unsure which needle to use for different projects. You have cleared this up for me too. Please let me know if the PatternTrace storage option ever becomes available in the U.S.
Thank you for your informative article on needle choices. I always need a refresher on this and your cheat sheet will be invaluable. Please accept my apologies for those who respond to your articles with hurtful remarks. It appears that the world has a population that believe that their way is the only way. As you stated, there are often multiples roads to success and we should go with the one that works for us even though it may not work for others. t hank you for your articles and patterns.
Great article. I was going to make a suggestion for knowing which needle is the current one, but I see in one of your pictures that you do what I do. I keep the plastic case they come in and when I have to change to a different size needle, I put the used one back into the case with the flat size facing forward. That way I know that one is used, but still useful!
PATRICIA H. Flournoy says
Thank you for this…I thought I “knew” all about needles…I did not! Now I do!
Great information. Even though I have been teaching for years it is always good for a refresher. The free sheets will be handy to use with new students. Thanks
Thank you so much for all your wisdom, information and encouragement! You are greatly appreciated in the quilting world!
Kathy M says
Thank you so much for this information! I have never seen it in print. I too, usually have a universal needle in my machine but after reading your blog I might be interested in trying a microtex needle.
Do the needle containers fit inside the tackle box? I appreciated this article, thanks!
Its funny you should be writing about this right now, Im often confused and just use what goes through the fabric.
This really helps, Thank you
And if someone has to leave negative feedback, they should keep it to themselves, what a waste of time.
Im enjoying your articles, not all are for me, but you give great information
Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I’ve been teaching Home Economics for 20 years and still need refreshers and updates. I often use your lessons to refresh my lessons as well.
Thank you for the information on needles.
Jane Sprague says
As always, very informative material (no pun … or every pun … intended!)
Say, I do a LOT of machine quilting using my embroidery module. Do you recommend specific needles for that purpose? Technically, I’m not embroidering but rather mostly straight stitching but VERY fast. With that said, however, the thread I use can be either cotton, tri-lobal polyester (that’s mostly what I use), or metallic (only on occasion). I guess what I’m thinking is that different threads also affect which needle you’d use, right?
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience with everyone. One is never too old or knowledgeable to learn something new!