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 Needle Facts: Three Points worth Knowing


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On a website called Needle ‘n Thread, it probably isn’t too surprising that I’ve written a lot of articles about hand embroidery needles.

For those who are just getting into the hand embroidery world and just becoming aware of the Broad World of Embroidery Needles – and even for those seasoned stitchers who might like a little brush-up – I’ll include some further reading about needles for embroidery at the end of today’s article.

But today, I just want to mention three facts about hand embroidery needles that you might not know, that might help simplify your Stitching Life a bit when it comes to using, choosing, and organizing your embroidery needles.

Embroidery Needle Facts: Three Points worth Knowing

Three simple points:

Not All Sizes are the Same

Needles made in different places may very well be sized differently.

So just when you thought you had that whole what-size-do-I-use-in-this-particular-case thing down, you may discover that those French needles you just bought are not necessarily going to be the same size as those English needles you’ve been using.

There are tools to help you size your needles, if you want to keep them organized by size and type. These Needle ID cards that I reviewed a long time ago are still on the market and they are handy if you are determined to keep your needles ever organized.

But … in case you think I’m making your life harder by mentioning the above … here’s the good news: the more you stitch, the more comfortable you’re going to be reaching for any needle that will work for you in any given scenario.

You don’t really have to obsess about size. As long as you’re using the right type of needle (and that’s easy to tell with a quick glance at the tip and the eye) and it’s working well, does it really matter what the label says, size wise? Not really.

You can read more about choosing the right type of needle for specific stitching tasks here.

Down is Better than Up

When it comes to figuring out the size of a needle in relation to the stitching materials for the task you’re undertaking, it’s always better to err on the side of the larger needle, rather than the smaller needle. In other words, go down in size, rather than up.

Needles are sized like wire gauge, so the lower the number, the larger the needle.

When you’re stitching, if you’re experiencing repeated frustrations with your thread – knots, pilling, tangling, twisting, fraying – and you can’t find another obvious reason why, it could very well be the size of your needle. Go down, my friend! Choose a larger needle, and you may very well find all your problems solved.

If your needle is too small for the materials you’re using (too small for the thickness of the thread, too small for the weave of the fabric compared to the thickness of the thread), it will wreak havoc on your thread and drive you nuts!

Some ways to tell that you might need a larger needle:

A. It requires some effort to pull the needle through the fabric, and when you do, it makes a really loud popping noise. A subtle pop is one thing – that’s sometimes a nice sound when you’re stitching. But a really loud pop, where the fabric dents in as you pull? You’re not making a large enough hole for the thread to easily pass through.

2. Your thread makes a loud zipper noise as you pull it through the fabric. It’s nice to hear your thread passing through the fabric – that’s one of the mesmerizing things about stitching. But if it’s a loud zipper noise rather than a soft wispy noise, the hole your needle made is probably too small.

An exception to the zipper noise can be the type of thread you’re using. Sometimes, perle cottons or buttonhole silks (non-stranded threads with a tighter twist) make more of a zipper noise when passing through fabric, due to their more twisted structure.

3. Your thread is fraying, pilling, dulling, or fuzzing after using only a short length. If you’re using good quality cotton floss, you should be able to stitch easily with at least a whole 18″ of floss before your thread shows obvious signs of wear. If it is fraying or dulling sooner than that, try switching to the next size larger (the next number down) for your needle.

4. Your thread is twisting up on itself greatly every time you pull through (usually accompanied by that louder noise mentioned in #2) and knotting. A too-small hole “pushes” the thread into twisting more than it normally would.

There are Two Sides to Every Eye

I’ve mentioned this tip many times on Needle ‘n Thread, for folks who have a hard time threading their needles.

There are two sides to every (machine punched) needle’s eye. Because of the way needle eyes are punched during manufacturing, one size of the eye is somewhat larger and more eager to receive thread than the other. If you’re having a hard time threading a needle, turn it around and try threading it from the other side of the eye.

If that’s not going to do it for you, there’s always a needle threader! There are a gazillion needle threaders on the market. It’s just a matter of finding the one that works best for you. Don’t let frustrating threading experiences keep you from stitching!

I’m planning to review a new-to-me threader in the near future. Keep an eye out (chortle chortle) if you have problems threading your needles.

Further Reading

If you’d like to read up on embroidery needles, you can find a whole list of needle-related articles here that you can browse through. You’ll find good tips and further information that will help you choose and use the right needle!

Over To You!

Any bits of wisdom about needles that you’ve learned during your stitching career? Little nuggets of gold that you’d like to share with other stitchers, that might make their relationship with embroidery needles easier, more efficient, or more pleasurable? Any eye-opening moments when you discovered something about your needle that you never knew before, but wish you had known?

Feel free to join in the conversation below! You never know when your good advice may help a frustrated stitcher keep going!


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(33) Comments

  1. Oh, my goodness!! You really can teach an old dog new tricks! I always thought a needle was just a device to PULL the thread through the fabric. It never occurred to me that it was also needed to DRILL a hole through the fabric for the thread to travel through! MIND BLOWN!! I have always favored tiny needles, but that is going to change from today! Thank you, so much!!!!

  2. My grandma taught me to thread a needle when I was a little girl. She said you always put the eye of the needle onto the thread NOT the thread through the eye. Hold the thread between your thumb and pointer finger so that you can just see the tip. Push the eye of the needle onto the thread. I can thread the smallest needle using her tip!

    1. Yep, that’s how I invariably thread needles. Sometimes, I might fold thread over the needle and pinch the fold very tightly before bringing the needle down onto the thread. That helps, too. It’s a great way to thread a needle, and you can pretty much do it without having to see the thread!

  3. That was helpful! I have all the needles you mentioned and use them all. However, I do a lot of crazy quilting and find my go to needles for perle cotton are ‘long darner’ sized between 7-9 with 9 being my favorite. Thank you so much for your articles.

  4. Compared to the price of other materials, needles are inexpensive. So I start every project with fresh needles. It is a small thing that assures me I am starting right.

    I also have all my needles in either labeled needle books or Tulip tubes. Brands differ in how their needles work so Bohin is separated from John James which is separated from DMC, etc. specialty needles have their own felt needle book.

  5. The new Easy Guide ballpoint needles from Sullivan’s are fabulous. They’re pricy but well worth it. Please do a review on them!

    1. I haven’t tried those, but for fine work – especially silk gauze – I use the John James ballpoint beading needles. They slide right into place and are excellent little needles. They’re the ones I used in my Thousand Flowers kits.

  6. Thanks for this timely article. I knew all of this at some time, but had forgotten how important point number two is about correct needle size for thread and ground and therefore I have been struggling with just the problems you mention, wondering why my thread was getting frayed and knotting up after just a few stitches and feeling that tell-tale pop and flutter as the needle comes through the fabric. I’m off to hunt for some larger needles for both of my current projects, one requiring tapestry needles and the other requiring standard embroidery needles. Coming from a quilting background, I’m somewhat conditioned to believe smaller is always better with needles so I tend to forget that bigger can be beautiful too!

  7. Thanks for this timely reference material today, Mary. It’s just exactly what I need as I finish my first ever embroidered needle book. This was a challenge from our local embroidery group. I’ve wanted to learn more about the different needles and how I will sort them into my needle book. I had quite intended to research on your web site and now you’ve given me the portal. Wonderful!

  8. Thanks for the great advice Mary! I love needle threaders; I’ve used the LoRan Threader with two different sized hooks on the ends for years. But as I’m getting into finer embroidery needles, I’ve had trouble finding good threaders.

    Tip: For the silver coin threaders (like these), I constantly had the wire break off after a few uses. It was so frustrating and I threw several of them away, as I didn’t see how I could to fix them. Then I read to add a drop of clear nail polish to the back where the wires meet; it was better but still didn’t last. So I added a drop of strong glue, Gorilla Glue, and I’ve been using mine regularly for over a year with no breakage! Great way to extend the lives of these useful threaders 🙂

  9. I like to have, what I call, “Mystery Meat” needles.

    I don’t know what type of needle they are (though I could hazard a guess), I don’t know what size they are, and I don’t really know where they came from. But! I always know when it would be best to use them and where they are (if I leave them with a project, for instance).

    The best thing: I don’t worry about them so much. With my Bohins, I’m always thinking “Is this a 10, or a 9? Are these all the 9s I have? Where did the rest go?!” And I’m constantly trying to organize them so that I don’t mix them up. It is stressful when you know what you have and what you should have. Mystery Meat? Meh. They just show up and I typically don’t lose them. But if I do, there’s always more Mystery Meat somewhere. That’s part of the fun!

  10. Thanks for these tips Mary, two of the three were new to me, a long time appliqué practitioner.
    In terms of threading needles without a threader I use the practice of using saliva to moisten the eye of the needle. The wicking action helps to get the thread through (if you have the bigger side of the eye closest to the thread.

  11. Quilting needles are always my favorites for everything. numbers 10 and 11 are perfect for needlepaiting with one strand of embroidery floss. The quilting needles work easily when you are stitching with both hands and tthey don´t bend too much. Larger needles are not for me. For wool threads I use Chenille needles numbers 26 or 28. I can recommend firstly quilting and chenille needles from Clover Japan, and secondly big eye quilting needles from John James.

  12. This isn’t about needles, but fabric how do you know what fabric to use when you transfer a pattern. I have trouble with stretch. How do I get the right fabric?

    1. Hi, Ann – I think normally, the order of “decision making” in a project is to decide on a design you want to stitch, and then from there, what fabric you want to stitch it on, with what thread. So long before you’re ready to transfer, you should already have the fabric picked out. Then, the way you transfer depends on your fabric – not visa-versa (the fabric does not depend on the type of transfer technique you intend to use). There’s no “right” fabric in surface embroidery. It really depends on what you want to use, to create the project you envision. It can pretty much be anything, although certain fabrics are definitely easier (and more forgiving) to embroider on. If you’re selecting synthetics, for example, you’re will often end up with stretch or slipperiness. Linen and cotton are good, standard natural fibers that lend themselves well to hand embroidery. Another issue that can cause distortion or stretch in your fabric is how you cut your fabric. You should always cut fabric for embroidery on the grain, not on the bias. If you’re not sure what the difference is, here’s an article that will help you: https://needlenthread.wpengine.com/2012/01/cutting-linen-on-the-grain.html

  13. Mary, I have a question regarding your Favorite Monograms Collections. I am doing the letter C from the Shadow Work Monograms and am doing this in Stem Stitch. I am starting on the top of the left long area to be filled and do I stop when I reach the bottom and end my thread, or can I turn my work and work back up to the top? I have never done Stem Stitch as a filling and want to make sure that I am doing this correctly. I just don’t know if I am supposed be to staring and stopping all the time. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I appreciate any help that you are willing to share. Louisa

    1. You can definitely turn your work and work back up the letter. If you’re working in a hoop, it’s much easier to do that (compared to working in a frame), but either way, you definitely can!

  14. Sometimes, I experience trouble threading the needle when I had *just* done it perfectly previously, so I know the thread is OK and the needle eye is OK. (I hadn’t known about the two different sides of the eye, so I’ll keep that in mind.) In those cases, instead of “threading the needle” … which is literally what we do … I **needle the thread** by holding the end of the thread tightly between my thumb and forefinger and ever so slightly roll my fingers apart to expose just the tippy end of the thead. Then I slide the eye of the needle down onto the thread end .. literally “needling the thread”.

    Between those two techniques, I’m usually pretty good. If not, then it’s either time for a glass of wine or bed. But not wine *in* bed because that’s too messy. 🙂

  15. I love the easy guide ballpoint needles from Sullivan’s. They really do find the holes rather than pierce the fabric, like the thinner tapestry needles can do. Please do a review.

  16. After years of embroidery I have been having trouble using a single thread of DMC. The tail end becomes tangled and then fully entwined in the main thread, sometimes after only a few stitches. I never thought of the needle. I went up one size and problem solved. Thank you Mary!

  17. Mary, Do you have any thoughts about east threading needles for those of us who are visually impaired? I’ve tried some and the thread pops back out. I do hand sewing a lot on dolls and I hand embroider the faces. I also hand sew a lot of the dolls. I use my high power reading glasses to help me thread it. Thank you for tip about checking both sides of the needle. I did not know that.

    1. I like the spiral eye needles that are easy threaders. I think they are better than the top threading ones. The original ones are hypoallergenic (nickel-free) stainless steel for those who have skin sensitivities. They work quite well and are worth investing in, especially if threading the needle has become a chore. Scroll down this home page for Spiral Eye Needles to read about different easy threading needles and how they compare to each other.

  18. Hi Mary! Does your advice to change to a larger needle, when the needle pops loudly and the thread makes a zipper noise, apply also to a 50 ct. linen? I use a #10 or a #9 embroidery needle, and it isn’t, I admit, the most pleasurable stitching experience on such a dense linen (don’t ask me why I bought it … just wanted to support a folding weaving mill …). Also, it is hard to push the needle through an already existing layer of threads, as in needlepainting. I was blaming the fabric – should I rather blame my needle choice?

    Angela from the (rain-swept today) Ore Mountains

    1. Hm. If you’re stitching on a very tightly woven fabric, the trick is using a very sharp needle for surface embroidery. I’m not sure if a larger or small needle would be better – it really depends on your fabric and the type of stitching. I can’t imagine, though, if you’re using a good, sharp needle, that there would be a lot of difficulty with surface embroidery stitches on a high count linen, as it’s usually an ideal fabric for embroidery. Maybe if you’re used to doing counted work, where the holes are available to you and more open, you are noticing a difference? I’m really not sure – I would have to see what you’re trying to do and see the fabric and thread you’re using. But yes, I’d experiment with different needles if you’re having a tough time managing the stitching.

  19. Thank you so much for this article. I now understand better why my thread is doing what it does and my needle does pop going through my fabric. I thought just the opposite. Your articles are very informative.


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