On Needles

I’m often asked what kind of needles I use, and what size. If you’re new to hand sewing, needles can be a minefield as there are various brands and different sizes within each type. I wondered if it might be helpful if I gather some thoughts, and needles, together this morning.

Birdie is carrying far too many needles at present. He can barely stay on his feet

My favourite needles are made by John James, who have been manufacturing needles since 1840. In my view their needles were better before they developed the association with Entaco, who appear to be overseeing the manufacturing, but they are still good quality needles. You can read about the history of the company here. I am not on commission, by the way – I just like a good needle. What I especially like about this company is that they do a downloadable needle catalogue, showing each needle at its actual size – you can see that here.

The needles I use most often are embroidery needles, and quilting needles. You can buy embroidery needles in a range of sizes; in the picture below you can see sizes 3 to 10 (the higher the number, the smaller the needle). Embroidery needles are sometimes sold as crewel needles – they are more or less the same thing. They have a fine, pointed body with an elongated oval eye which is ideal for stranded cotton (other threads are available – I generally use this kind of needle for my hand-dyed silk and cotton threads). The size of needle you need depends on the type of thread you’re using as well as the kind of fabric you’re sewing on, and the kind of stitch you’re doing. If in doubt, go for matching the needle to the thread. Your thread should go through the eye of the needle comfortably without too much effort. If your thread rolls around in the eye or falls out, you probably need a smaller needle; if it feels too tight (you can sometimes hear it when this happens, and you will feel some resistance when you pull the thread through), then you probably need a larger size. I don’t take much notice of what the size is called, I just use whatever feels right for the thread.

Embroidery needles: from the left (ignore the two random ones on the far left, photobombing – they are a size 5 embroidery needle and a size 24 tapestry needle) – sizes 3, 5, 7, 7, 9 and 10

Quilting needles (often sold as Betweens) are shorter, stronger, and more flexible than embroidery needles. They are designed to pass easily through all three (or more) layers of a quilt, and to enable you to make small, fairly regular quilting stitches to hold the layers together. I often use these for general sewing as well because I like the shorter length. I use mainly size 10 and 11, and I like the Big Eye variety because my eyesight isn’t what it was. These needles also allow me to quilt with thicker threads.

John James Big Eye quilting needles, with grid ruler for scale

For utility hand sewing (sewing seams, piecing patchwork, etc – anything that needs regular cotton sewing thread, the kind that you would use in a machine) I use sharps. These also come in a range of sizes, and probably the easiest way to buy them is in an assorted set so you can choose the best needle for the job. Sharps are flexible, but not as strong as quilting or betweens, which makes them prone to breaking more easily. I generally use size 11 for sewing most lightweight fabrics together (quilters cotton fabric and lighter), and size 7 if I’m sewing thicker fabrics like medium to heavyweight linen.

Sharps needles, sizes 7 and 11

Probably the easiest way to see which needles you like, if you’re a complete beginner, is to buy a set of assorted needles and try them all on various fabrics with different kinds of thread.

Assorted needles: betweens, sharps, darners and tapestry

I am very bad at looking after my needles, which is why all these packs look so new. I’ve had to replace most of my needles recently because I leave them out, stuck in pincushions (like birdie), where they pick up dust and moisture from the atmosphere which turns them rusty in the end. They also become blunt over time. I thought it was probably time I made myself a needle case.

Birdie watches with interest. He will not be redundant, but he will have a bit of a tidy-up.

I’ve used a bitty background that I made a while ago – layered scraps covered with a sheer, with hand stitching across the surface. I’ve backed it with some hand-dyed cotton fabric, added a button and a buttonhole bar, and that was a very nice Sunday morning’s productive stitching.

Little needlecase

So there we are: a very quick gallop through some needles for hand-stitching, which I hope has been useful.

Many people these days tend to refer to hand-stitching as slow-stitching (though they’re not necessarily the same thing, as I understand it) and most of us are all about taking time out and slowing down. Needles in the past were valued for their ability to enable hand stitchers to sew more quickly. How times change.

Vintage needles: no friction no stop rapid work!

Author: Karen

Textile and mixed media artist

10 thoughts on “On Needles”

  1. Interesting that you have written this as a post on this very topic has been brewing in my head recently … I’ve long been a fan of John James quilting 10s and 11s, with an “amen” to big eyes … but recent projects have called for more length and I’ve found that Bohin sharps and appliques are wicked sharp, thread easily, and remain unbent … that said, I haven’t had them long enough to see whether they will oxidize/lose their plating over time (or whatever it is that causes my needles to lose their lustre and get “sticky” about 1/3 of the way up from the point)

    Like you, my needle collection is not as organized as I would like … and though I have a 40 year old needle cushion, it is stuffed with cotton which makes it virtually useless … one of these days I will take the time to replace the filling, but in the meantime I may follow your lead and put together a needle book

    1. Aha, that’s interesting… I’ve heard of Bohin but have never used them – I will try some. Had to make a needle book when I found myself casting around for the emery strawberry yet AGAIN to try and file all the rough bits off a needle that was blunt in any case. I should send myself to detention, writing lines: “l must look after my needles”…

  2. Lovely news on your needle selection. I love Tulip needles from Japan probably top of the price range but beautiful to see with. I also use Bohin ones from France. I made a needle book with labels as to wat size

    1. Ah, labelling is a very good idea… I haven’t heard of Tulip needles so will try those too. Thanks so much for visiting 🙂

  3. I also use John James, mostly. I have a couple of handmade Japanese needles from the Thistle Threads kits, but they need a bit of practice to manage, being shorter than we are accustomed to.
    But as you say, it boils down to “Use the needle that feels right for the job”!

  4. I have a drawer full of John James but always end up using the same few! I like a longer needle now , especially Sashiko, as my knuckles don’t seem to want to bend as much. I also have a lot of 26 tapestry about! Me just being lazy with the larger eye 😄

  5. Bohin and Tulip are my favorites. My friend Patricia Belyea of Okan Arts gave me some Japanese needles from a needle shop in Japan–the family has been making needles for many years. They are the best I have seen.

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