Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Embroidery Stitch Tip: Changing Needle Sizes


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Here on Needle ‘n Thread, we’ve chatted quite a bit about hand embroidery needles. If you’re new to the website or the newsletter and you’ve missed those articles and you want to know more about needles used for hand embroidery, I’ll provide some links at the end of this article.

But today, I want to talk about needle sizes and stitching, about changing needle sizes for two different stitching scenarios.

I’m going to ask the wider Needle ‘n Thread community to pitch in their suggestions, too, at the end of the article, so make sure you revisit this article in the next day or so on Needle ‘n Thread to see what other stitchers have added to the topic!

Embroidery Needles: Changing Needle Sizes

I’m working on a special project right now that involves a bit of long and short stitch shading, among other embroidery techniques.

On one area of the design, I’m padding the long and short stitch area, to give it a little lift. That is, I stitched a layer inside the split stitch outline around the area that I planned to shade with long and short stitch.

My Go-To Needle Size

Now, my go-to needle size is generally a size 7 or 8 embroidery (also called “crewel”) needle.

Even when I’m working with only one strand of floss, I’ll use a 7 or 8. Many stitchers, when working with one strand of floss, might use a 9 or a 10, which is fine – they work!

A 7 or 8 might seem like a large needle for only one strand of floss. Actually, it’s not so large that it opens up the fabric to leave noticeable holes, but it is large enough to open up the fabric and allow the thread to pass through without as much abrasion.

That said, in some circumstances, a 7 or 8 is too large, so I’ll switch to a 10.

When to Switch to a Smaller Needle

When working a dense area of stitching on ground fabric that’s stretched taut in a frame and backed with a layer of cotton fabric (you can read about backing ground fabric for embroidery here), pushing the needle through the fabric with stitch can be tough.

The combination of the density of the padding, the taut fabric, and the two layers of fabric can become a real torture-fest for your little fingers while you’re stitching!

And a larger needle in this case only exacerbates the problem.

So, when the going gets tough in this particular situation, I actually do what seems counter-intuitive. I switch my needle to the smallest needle that can handle the size of thread I’m using – in this case, a #10.

A finer needle slips into dense areas of stitching and fabric more easily. It’s not necessarily as easy to grasp as you’re working, but the fineness of the wire and the sharp point of the crewel needle allow the needle to slip through the padding, into the fabrics, and out again on the other side with greater ease.

The upshot: when you’re having a hard time getting your needle through your work, try switching down a size or two in your needle. As long as the needle is large enough to handle your thread size, the smaller size of the needle will probably slip through your work much more easily.

When to Switch to a Larger Needle

However, if the needle requires real effort to pull through when the fabric and the eye meet, if your fabric distorts as you try to wrestle the needle through, and it pops through with a loud noise after extreme effort, then your needle is most likely too small for the thread.

In this case, switch to a larger needle!

If you notice that your thread is wearing very quickly as you stitch – it’s getting fuzzy and losing detail in the twist, or it’s fraying at the eye of the needle very quickly – then try switching to a size larger. If you’re using a 9, for example, switch to an 8 or a 7.

You want your needle to create an opening that the thread can pass through with the least abrasion, without the opening so large that it leaves a noticeable hole around your thread.

Needle and Thread Size is Relative

Many folks hold strictly to the notion that your needle should be the same circumference as the thickness of the thread you’re using. They lay their thread down and then try to find a needle that matches the thickness of the thread.

While this will get you in the vicinity of a good sized needle to use, it isn’t necessarily always an accurate way to choose the best needle size.

For one thing, perceived thread thickness or circumference changes as soon as you pull on a piece of thread. It gets noticeably thinner.

For another, we double the thread at the eye of the needle, so you’ve got two pieces of thread passing through the fabric at once.

The real test of whether you’re using the right size needle is how the needle and thread handle as you’re stitching.

For example, it shouldn’t be difficult to pull the thread through after the point that the eye and fabric make contact. Sure, there may be a little resistance and sometimes a popping noise. But you shouldn’t have to wrestle the needle through.

And, as mentioned above, a quickly fraying thread can also be a sign of the wrong size needle.

Finally, the needle should be relatively comfortable for you to use. If your hands are feeling particularly stressed, if you feel like you’re fighting with every stitch, then the needle can be the culprit. Switch to a larger size or a smaller size, depending on what you’re trying to do.

For the Beginner

If you’re just getting into embroidery, your best bet is to purchase combination packets of embroidery (also called “crewel”) needles.

Most good embroidery needle brands (my favorite is Bohin, but John James needles are more common) market a size 3-9 combination pack. This should get you going for most stitching needs.

More Information on Hand Embroidery Needles

Not every needle is made for the same task. If you’re unsure of the types of needles available out there, or what needle you should be using for specific embroidery-related tasks, then you might enjoy the following articles:

Hand Embroidery Needles: How to Choose Them & Use Them
Why Switch Embroidery Needles – on needle burrs and flaws
All About Embroidery Needles: Types, Storage & Resources
The Needle you Need! (On Chenille Needles)
Keeping It Simple: On Hand Embroidery Needles
Gold Embroidery Needles: Are They Any Better?
5 Things You Need to Know About Embroidery Needles

Over to You

What’s your favorite needle tip for folks struggling to find the right-sized embroidery needle? Do you have any ideas, thoughts, questions, suggestions or comments you’d like to share about needles for hand embroidery? Any insights? Feel free to join in the conversation below!


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(42) Comments

  1. For counted cross stitch, sometimes a chart will call for the Dreaded Metallic Thread. Using a size larger tapestry needle will help by enlarging the hole slightly to allow the thread through. (One of many tips for stitching with metallic threads.) I would assume this would work for other forms of embroidery.

    1. Thank you Phoebe. I am stitching with a Silk Lame’ Braid on canvas. It is a bear! I will try a larger needle. Thanks.

  2. Dear Mary

    A very useful piece of advice I never thought to change needles like this but it makes total sense to change needles if you are experiencing difficulties pulling the needle through the fabric. I will bookmark this page for when I need information of changing needles. Like you I prefer Bohin needles I think they are the best although I have to order them from France, it’s worth it. Thanks for sharing with us the tips and techniques on when to change needles very useful information.

    Regards Anita Simmance

    1. Dear Anita,
      I too prefer Bohin needles; I’ve found they’re the only ones that don’t have a burr in the eye. You don’t have to order them from France, though. Elegant Stitch in Modesto, CA, carries them, for a good price.
      Best wishes,r

  3. I like to cross stitch over one thread on 40 count linen (using a magnifying lamp). I find that a #10 quilting needle does the job because the sharp point gets into the smallest space. A tapestry needle just won’t do!

  4. Hi Mary,
    When stitching with a softly twisted thread like floche, try a between 7 if you are getting fuzzies or thread wear. A betweens round eye will not wear the thread as much as other types of needles that have oval eyes.

    1. Thank you Kim.
      I’m doing a Jenny Adin-Christie white work piece now; and the floche does fray. I’ll try a Between needle. It makes good sense!
      Love from Liz in OZ

  5. I learned when the Needle starts to squeak as it passes through the fabric, it’s worn out and needs to be tossed out. I also stay away from John James, until they stop being made in China, I won’t buy them. Tulip needles, made in Japan are fabulous!

    1. So that is why the quality of the J.J needles seem to be not quite a good as they were when I first started using them! I use his gold plated needles for my counted thread work

  6. It is good to be reminded about needle sizes – thank you!
    I think I have sufficient needles to open a shop but with failing eyesight I now find it necessary to use a needle threader and I find this restricts the size of needle that I can use because the needle threader wire has to be able to travel through the small aperture of the needle …
    I think I am keeping the needle threader manufacturers in business when I am using Perle 8 embroidery thread!.

    1. Hi Amorel Carlyon,
      You might consider trying a Micro Needle Threader made by Puffin. The hook is metal but will slip through the eye of a Bohin 10. I’ve not used it with Perle 8 though.
      Also a drop of super glue to reinforce your wire threader may help preserve your threaders longevity. Good luck!

  7. This is exactly why every time I sit down to stitch, I have my cell phone or iPad next to me. That way, I can double check what I’m doing so I’ll know I’m doing it correctly. Thanks again for a great posting that simplifies my handiwork!

  8. I think you should also consider adding a pack of Milliners Needles to your stash. The straight shank, without an enlarged eye, makes doing bullion’s and cast-ons easier to pull through.

  9. Good morning Mary
    This is a very good article on needles.
    Thank you.
    I support Bohin needles also.
    My hands tarnish needles quickly so I go through many.
    I use the strawberry often to clean the needle. It does not
    take much to soil the needle – then the thread and fabric.
    For needle painting I do try to use the smallest needle possible – the fabric
    is Dupioni silk. Needle painting is my latest focus. And it is a challenge for
    old eyes and hands!


  10. I have a question about needles. I purchased a packet of various sized needles but there is no indication which is which, especially troublesome because I took them out of package to store in a needle “book”. I know size of the eye determines size of needle but I get confused on those that may have similar size eyes. Also have same problem when trying to determine type of needle, such as chenille, embroidery, crewel, etc. I know I should have been more careful in keeping track of sizes from time of purchase, but is there a chart or something available to check which size a random needle might be?

    1. John James web site has a wonderful chart of all needle sizes and shapes that you can print out. The needles are all actual sizes on the chart. Saves a lot of hair pulling! I wish their needles now were as good as they were before the manufacturing went to China.

  11. Highly agree. The needle has to make the hole large enough that the thread goes through cleanly. Great explanation Mary.

  12. Mary, I have some Alba Maxima Linen and need to know if I straighten the grain of the fabric first or do I preshrink the fabric first. I appreciate your help with this question. Sincerely, Louisa

    1. Mary, I probably should have mentioned that my piece of linen is a full yard, so do I preshrink the entire piece first or cut it into the sizes I plan on working with. I have had this linen for nearly 2 years now and have not used it because I did not know how to proceed. Thanks for your patience. Louisa

  13. Hi Mary
    Could you suggest a good combination of needles to have on hand for various types of hand embroidery including ribbon embroidery and needle painting

    1. Hi, Susan – I’d suggest a combo pack of different size crewel needles, as mentioned in the article. From there, as you take on different types of needlework, you can expand to specialty needles that suit different purposes, but a combo pack of 3-9 crewels is a good starting place.

  14. I LOVE Tulip Japanese stainless steel needles for my silk embroidery projects.
    They have very fine sharp tips and eyes that are easy to thread with fine floss.
    They come in small glass vials with cork tops and have size labels for easy ID.
    I use size 7-9 for most work. My faves by a long shot!

    1. I’ve been toying with Tulip needles, too! While I like the storage vial they come in, they can be problematic when ordering them from places that aren’t judicious in their packaging materials. I ordered from one place that mailed the vials in a bubble mailer (envelope style), and I received a whole bunch of needles mixed in with a lot of crushed glass. I grabbed them all out of the glass with a magnet, but then had to sort the sizes and repackage them in my own holder. So much for the glass vials!

  15. The comments regarding needle threaders, made by Amorel Carlyon, are important ones to those of us who rely on them. I use the thin wire kind. I wonder if needle threaders cause serious wear and tear on both needles AND threaders. I am finally about to buy my first Bohin needles as I am fed up with craft quality needles.
    But just what will a threader do to the eye of even good needles? And is the need of a threader why I have relied on #24 chenille as my “go to”? Bigger eye. Any thoughts out there?

  16. What type of needle do you recommend for silk threads? Also I often find my thread getting twisted. What am I doing wrong??

  17. Mary, your advice is right on! Couldn’t have said it better myself . After over 70 years of stitching my only suggestion is for those who may have experienced allergic reactions to common needles. Split skin on the finger tips or itchy skin on the fingers are indicators of the problem. The solution I found was switching to gold plated or platinum needles. Those easiest found are the tapestry type, crewel or chenille needles are harder to come by but in any case need to be carefully kept track of.

  18. Great article! I too love a size 7 or 8 for almost all my embroidery. A size 8 from Piecemakers is my go-to, favorite needle. I can use it comfortably with up to 4 strands of floss. When using 6 strands, I like to use a chenille needle.

  19. Hello Mary. I too love Bohin needles. A tip that is very practical that was given to me was to get a business card holding book/wallet. Keep your needles in the original packet and slip them into the plastic sleeves. Perfect storage and you can see at a glance what needles you have. Easy to carry etc. If you have oodles of needles, just get a larger wallet!!
    Cheers. And the group is the best thing since sliced bread!! Soooo stimulating and such stunning work !! well done in starting it up Mary !!

  20. I have recently started stitching with Hiroshima Needles from the Tulip Company. These needles are made in Japan and are a little on the pricey side. They stitch like butter! When stitching on any type of fabric these needles seem to glide right through the layers without a problem. Have you tried these? I do a lot of embroidery on garments – these are the brand of my choice.

  21. Here is a dilemma: I have many needles that are still good with nice sharp points, but I have no idea of their size. Is there any way to find what size they are, or should I just buy new ones?

  22. This is my first email! And a perfect subject! Thank you! I experienced exactly what you were talking about Mary…started with a needle that felt too large, though it worked well. Switched to a smaller needle and had to fight getting the thread to pull through. Went back to the larger needle. The larger needle definitely made it easier by piercing the fabric with a large enough hole. Just had to be careful to not spear myself. No idea what sizes they are…will look at those sites and compare. Appreciate all the comments and recommendations!

  23. Greetings sewing friends! I agree with Mary’s needle suggestions, but want to add my new favorite needle, Tulip brand. There is just something about how smooth they go through the fabric. I noticed it most on sashiko, but they are great for embroidery too. There are many types and sizes and I’m just getting familiar with them, but know I like them even better than Bohin or any other ones. Happy stitching!

  24. I bought a combo pack of Milward needles, said to contain 16 needles in 4 sizes from 5 to 10. I don’t know if I didn’t check them after receiving the package, because there’s only 12 needles left (did I really “lose” four needles? – can’t believe it somehow). However, I remember exactly, that there were 3 sizes only from day one, and they are not labelled, so I can only guess which size is which.
    Working with one strand of cotton, I always use the smallest size, maybe #10. Sometimes even two strands fit into the eye, sometimes I have to change the needle to medium size (#7? #8?) with two strands. The largest needles (#5, I guess) are proper for pearl cotton.
    It’s interesting that you mention the thread wearing more quickly with smaller needles. My threads do fuzz and untwist after a while. Then again it’s very cheap floss. But I will give the larger needle a try, thanks for the hint!

  25. I tend to use as small a needle as I can get away with -size 12 embroidery needles for long and short stitch (how I was taught to get the required detail),and a ten if it’s not that fine but still one strand. I think the fabric you use will also play a part and needs to be considered when choosing. Comfort is a big thing though – if you can’t thread it, and going to the bigger size will make life easier and not make a noticeable difference that could be a good thing as you will enjoy it more!

  26. I don’t usually find the need to change needles, then again, my projects are nowhere nearly as complicated (or frequent) as many of yours or of the commenters. I’d love an article on needle threaders as well, or a pointer to any posts you’ve already done about them. I use the wire threaders on occasion, but they seem to break so easily (maybe that’s an indication a larger needle is needed?). I don’t seem to be able to get the hang of the “automatic” threaders. I recall when I was doing a crewel project, I simply folded a strip of paper over the wool and then threaded the needle. It worked well, I wasn’t trying to stuff 2 threads through the eye and the paper kept the fluffy ends under control. But I’d think there’s a size limit when the needles and thread get too small for that trick.

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