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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Needle Identification and Organization… & a Morality Tale


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We’re revisiting the topic of the ‘umble needle today – that little tiny, but mighty, little tool.

Truly, it’s the only tool that those of us into needlework really couldn’t do without.

Imagine if needles disappeared. Poof! No more needles!

It would be hard to indulge in this art that means so much to us, wouldn’t it? Sure, we could figure out how to make one to get by, but … it wouldn’t quite be the same. I want to be embroiderer, anyway – I don’t want to be a needle manufacturer!

So now and then, I like to talk about needles. I have a healthy respect for them, for many reasons. Today, I’ll recap some information on different types of needles and how to identify them, give some suggestions for organization, and to top it off, I’ll share a little morality tale with you.

Embroidery Needles: Identification & Organization on Needle 'n Thread

When it comes to handwork, there are many types of needles made to accommodate different techniques. Choosing a needle can be really confusing, especially for a beginner, but even for accomplished stitchers.

Before launching into detailed information about needles, here are my general recommendations for the beginner.

A Simple Approach to Embroidery Needles

If you’re just starting out, your best bet for equipping yourself with serviceable hand embroidery needles is to purchase what’s called a “blister pack” of assorted sizes of good quality embroidery (also called crewel) needles.

These have a somewhat elongated eye (not as long as a tapestry or chenille needle, but not a small, round eye) and they have a sharp tip for piercing the fabric. The picture on this article is an embroidery (also called “crewel”) needle.

My recommendation is that you purchase a pack of assorted sizes, 3-9, in a reliable, good quality brand, such as John James or Bohin. John James are English needles and Bohin are French needles, so they will be slightly different in size, but the assortment will pretty much give you everything you need, needle-wise, to get started.

Hobby stores (Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, JoAnn’s, and the like) sell other brands of needles in their needlework aisle, but usually these needles are kind of crappy (even the DMC brand), so it’s worth investing the whole $2-$3 in an assorted pack of better quality needles.

You can often find John James needles and sometimes Bohin needles in higher end sewing stores, at local quilting stores, and the like. (Never underestimate the notion wall of a local quilting store! I usually find the best needles available there, plus a variety of very useful gadgets and tools.)

For my go-to needle size, I normally use a #7 or a #8 crewel needle in either John James or Bohin – and sometimes, maybe a 6 in Bohin. For most of the hand embroidery you see here on Needle ‘n Thread, that’s what I use. If I only ever had #7 and #8 crewel needles, I’d be ok for most embroidery that I do.

If you’re unsure how to “read” the needles available in a pack of assorted sizes, here’s an article that explains the sizing of needles in a multi-pack.

Identifying Needle Types and Sizes

As you progress on your embroidery journey, you’ll most likely become well-acquainted with the needle types that you use for various techniques, so that you can identify them at a glance.

You’ll also develop a “feel” for the size of the needle you need, based on the weight of the thread and type of fabric you’re using. Trust me – the more you stitch, the less you’ll need to categorize the needles you use by their type and exact size. You’ll know what you need, and that’s what you’ll reach for. And if it doesn’t work, you’ll know right away and make a new choice accordingly.

But if you do want to identify and organize your needles by type and size, there are a couple tools on the market that will help you do this.

The first are these handy Needle ID cards that I wrote about here. They’re excellent to have on hand especially if you want to keep your needles organized by specific types and sizes, but you tend to mix them up a lot when you’re working.

The next is this Needle Index book that I wrote about here, put out by the Valley Quail chapter of the EGA.

You can find both of these tools available at Needle in a Haystack, on their needle page. Just scroll to the end of the page! Handy!


To store needles, I’ll be perfectly frank: I use a pin cushion, or two, or five, and they are pretty much all a-mess with needles. In fact, I’ve written a couple articles about my pincushions, because they are such a ubiquitous part of my life. I use them all the time. And they aren’t fancy.

This particular article is about my pincushion of despair, from back in the days when I thought it would somehow make a difference in my life if I organized my needles with diligence, and was embarrassed because I didn’t.

I’ve gotten over the embarrassment. You have to pick your time-sink obsessions, and I just can’t sink time into obsessing over organizing my needles. And I’m ok with that!

This article is about what I found lurking within a pincushion in my studio. I’ve since given up the tomato pincushions. I never really got over that, and I found that I could make my own small pincushions for practically nothing whenever I feel the need for a new one.

A pin cushion does not have to be extravagant. It just has to be a cushion where you can stick needles or pins.

Needle Books

I do make Huge – almost obscenely excessive – use of needle books, too. I like needle books because they are so very transportable.

Embroidery Needles: Identification & Organization on Needle 'n Thread

For example, I have a gazillion little needle books from my e-book, Lavender Honey & Other Little Things, wherein you can learn to make a very simple small needle book – and then, if you want bigger ones, you can just apply the concept to any size.

This stitch sampler needle book is made basically with the same concepts as the needle books in Lavender Honey.

And then there’s this slightly fancier needle book, and the floral needle book at the end of this article.

If you want to organize needles by types and sizes, and you want to do it in a fancy way, you could always make either a very large needlebook with multiple pages, or you could make a collection of smaller needle books, one for each type of needle you want to store.

If I were going to organize my needles (and there’s a part of me that often wants to), I think that’s how I’d do it – with several small needle books, each dedicated to a specific type of needle.

And then, of course, I’d have to have lots of small needle books that I’d put various needles in for projects… and, of course, pin cushions on my table next to where I’m stitching, where I could quickly stick a needle when I need to… and they’d all get mixed up again. And then I’d have to sort them all back into their respective needle books.

I’m not quite sure I want to spend my time that way!

More on Needles

If you want to learn more about different needles used for handwork, you’ll find many helpful articles here on Needle ‘n Thread.

Specifically, these two articles will provide you with plenty of information:

Embroidery Needles: How to Choose Them & Use Them – This article talks about different types of needles and what they’re used for.

All About Embroidery Needles – This article is an index with descriptions of most of the articles on Needle ‘n Thread that have to do with needles. You can scan through to look for specific information about needles that you might be curious about.

The Morality Tale

Finally, a morality tale:

Lately, I’ve developed the unfortunate – though admittedly quite comfortable – habit of going barefoot in my studio. The main room where I work, and where I conduct local classes occasionally, is carpeted.

When needles fall into the carpet, they can be hard to find, and if you don’t keep track of them, they can be dangerous! Needles are small, but they are mighty!

Normally, I keep close track of the needles I use. I notice if I drop one, and I have the Policy (and habit) to pick it up right away. A telescoping magnet (like the one I reviewed here) is a Very Helpful Tool that can find and retrieve a dropped needle easily.

But, because I teach occasionally, I’m not the only person in my studio, and a dropped needle can remain dropped.

Last November, I stepped on a needle.

Embroidery Needles: Identification & Organization on Needle 'n Thread

The needle – a #9 Cruel Needle – broke in half. The eye-half remained embedded in the carpet. The tip-half could not be found. I went in for an X-ray, where it was found cozily embedded between two toe bones, scratching against one of them. The whole ordeal involved three trips to the doctor, x-rays, outpatient surgery with general anesthesia, and about two weeks of foot pain and recovery.

On one hand, I can laugh at the irony. Needle ‘n Thread took on a whole new meaning.

On the other hand, I am still miffed at myself for the situation. Had I been more careful about wearing shoes at work, I would have avoided great expense, inconvenience to others, a lot of pain, and taking up doctors’ valuable time over such a silly little thing.

Invest in a telescoping magnet! Or a magnetic sweeper! And insist that others who sew in your space adopt the “find it immediately” practice if a needle is dropped. Develop the habit of always placing pins and needles in a receptacle (like a pin cushion or on a needle minder or in an appropriate dish or something) rather than leaving them loose on tables, where they can be easily swept off onto the floor. Wear shoes or at least slippers in highly-trafficked-with-pins-and-needles areas.

If you have children and / or pets, you are probably already pretty careful with your pins and needles. But even if you’re alone most of the time that you stitch, you never know when one might be lurking on your floor, just waiting for your tender little toes. Develop good needle habits, and it will hopefully save you (and others) a lot of pain, expense, and inconvenience.

(I like to make mistakes so that you don’t have to!)

The End.

Have a wonderful weekend!


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(24) Comments

  1. Thank you for all your useful advice. I have a telescoping magnet and its wonderful, I constantly use it to pick up bit that have rolled to far away. I am so lazy. The only thing that would make this tool more useful is if it also picked up beads.

  2. I think your needle post offers excellent advice. Making a needle book sounds like just the right size project for now for some fun. I hope you have fully recovered from your barefoot escapades!

  3. Dear Mary

    Great blog on needles needles they are the queen of embroidery and should be respected as such, what would we do without them. Like you I have an array of needles bought over the years but my go to needle I use is Bohin crewel size 9 I just love Bohin needles they are so easy to stitch with and as you say it’s better to pay more for a great needle then pay less for needles that don’t last and are not good to stitch with. I like the tale of the strawberry pincushion how revolting, I have a strawberry pincushion which I used to like but fortunately I don’t use it as I tend to put my needles in a piece of material that I have on my work desk and when I have finished with the needle I just stick it in the material for future use, I have various sizes so I can just take the needle appropriate to my project. I like your homemade pincushion I might even try and make one myself. I remember when the needle got stuck in your foot it must have been so painful and I must be more careful in future about dropped needles although I quite good at remembering when I have dropped needles even if I don’t pick them up straight away I know they are there. I have a telescopic magnet which I bought after you reviewed it and it is brilliant at finding needles in a haystack. Thank you for your review on the needle and for your thoughts on different aspects of them and for sharing these views with us ‘umble embroiders and for the links to various aspects of the needle. Have a good weekend.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  4. Your policy of “stop everything and find it NOW” if a needle is dropped is also the one I employ. I stepped on a pin in grade school and while it did not break or become embedded, it did hurt like the dickens when I walked on it for a few days and gave me a healthy respect for the power of a pin or needle lost in carpeting. No one is allowed in my sewing room without shoes. If I bring pins or needles out into the rest of the house the aforementioned policy is STRICTLY enforced with anyone in the vicinity immediately conscripted in the search until the pin or needle is found and secured.

    Needle books are a new obsession with me also.

  5. Oh needles….. yes, I have a $800 needle in a tube stored as a reminder that kitties and needles don’t always play well together either. Jack our black kitty has a love for red thread. One day when I had stitching friends over, I left my needle threaded with red thread out as I was saying goodbye to my friends. When I came back to stitch, the thread was gone and so was the needle. Won’t make the story too long, but Jack decided to eat the thread and the needle followed and we ended up at the vet. We were lucky. the needle stuck in his throat and didn’t make it to the stomach, which is whole another type of surgery. I now keep a count of how many needles are out and ALWAYS use a pin cushion.

  6. As a diabetic, when I started reading about your needle adventure I actually felt the pain. Yikes!

    And, if you know someone who has diabetes and tests their blood, the plastic container that holds the test strips is the perfect thing to put broken needles in. Ask around — somebody has one. They are very easy to flip open, and yet when you push that cap down it seals very tight. And the ones I use the label peels off really easily so you can decorate it with a sharpie so you know what it is.

    My other recommendation is Haflinger slippers. I have the hard soled ones. It’s a boiled wool clog, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, great arch support, easy to kick off, easy to put on…

    And yes, diabetes and cats means I am very cognizant of where my pins and needles are.

  7. Hope your toes are feeling better. In this part of the country, especially in January, we don’t go barefoot, but I do sluff around in cushy, warm slippers.

    And be thankful you knew what the problem was from the moment it happened. My favorite uncle was in WWII in France after D-Day. One day in a hands-on fight, an enemy kicked him in the knee. It hurt, but he didn’t have time to worry about it. After he got him, his knee hurt, so he got an ex-ray. Apparently, the enemy had a needle embedded in the front of his boots, which then became embedded in my uncle’s knee. For whatever reason, it was never taken out. He took it to his grave at 92.

  8. My needles (and threads) have the condemnable habit to secretly stick to my loose, cosy sweater, this way being carried out on walks, and where they like it, there they stay … Fortunately, I however have the commendable habit to keep only one of a kind of every needle size and type I use in my pincushion, this way being able to spot straightaway when one of them got lost, so I can chase it down with a magnet.

    But I use to walk in socks, too, so I hope I never will experience what you were going through! :*(

  9. small, but mighty, for SURE! and they can make significant “mischief”. So sorry about your foot experience. i had a needlework buddy that went in for her annual mamogram… The doc said everything looked fine, but did she know she had a needle in her breast??? No, she did not. It has slipped into the side, by her armpit. She never knew. The removal wasn’t nearly as “costly” as your experience, Mary!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of experience and knowledge with us! I so enjoy having a cuppa and reading your articles – you are such a great writer too!
    You are my go to for whatever I might need to find out.
    May you have a prosperous 2021.

  11. I always *try* to find dropped needles, but I often can’t however diligently I search my clothes and surroundings. Would love to know how you manage always to triumph!

    I think it ought to be said that John James no longer makes English needles, although Bohin does make French ones. JJ now makes what I believe are Chinese needles. I don’t know what the old English ones were like, but I’m not impressed by the current Chinese ones. I’ve used worse needles and I’ll use the ones I’ve got, but I’m not buying any more. This is partly because I prefer embroidery needles with gold eyes, but there’s more to it than that. They just don’t feel good to work with.

    Is it usual for needles to break a lot? I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong because I don’t remember breaking needles when I used them in the past, but now breakage happens with disturbing regularity. Am I using the wrong size? I’m pretty sure I’m using the right kind of needle for the right kind of thing (crewels for surface embroidery, tapestry on canvas, milliners’ for knots …). I’ve broken Korband, Pony, John James and Clover (but only one Clover), which is pretty much all the brands I know I’ve used. Between the ones I break and the ones I lose I’m using more needles than I would have imagined possible.

  12. Thanks for the safety reminder about needles. I’d like to add one more: disposal of needles, pins, Xacto blades, utility knife blades, etc. I would recommend that you put these sharps in some type of puncture-resistance container before throwing them away. (An empty medicine bottle, for example.) Accidents don’t end at that trash can!

  13. Been there! Doc, “you just think the needle is in there” He finally agreed to an xray and there it was imbedded in a tendon. Five internal, nine external stitches, three weeks on crutches.
    I have a plethora of pincushions and needle books and somehow one escaped.
    The #15 crochet hook stuck in my finger is another story.

  14. Ouch! I sew and have later discovered pins in the carpet that I didn’t realise had fallen out. Painful but not as bad as your experience

  15. I second your ‘morality tale’ wholeheartedly! I also walk around barefoot & we have multiple kitties. If I drop or just can’t find a pin or needle, I stop immediately to make sure I locate it. When I was about ten years old a friend and I were sewing doll clothes on the floor in my bedroom. My pin cushion was sitting on the floor. My three year old sister came running in, tripped & fell on the sewing supplies. She got up, appeared fine, and went on her way. The next day she knelt on the floor to play and started shrieking. Turns out a needle had been thrust into her knee and come to rest floating under her kneecap. She didn’t feel anything until she knelt. This resulted in surgery and a hospital stay. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I always make sure I know where my needles are and replace them in their container as soon as I am done with one. I never have more than one out at a time and I don’t use pin cushions!

  16. I’m glad you are healed from the needle. I had to do back and read about your tomato pincushion dissection – Yeeeks! I have the “find it now” rule as well. However, even though I’m the only one who does any sewing or needlework in this house, sometimes I find a stray pin on the carpet that I didn’t know came out of the sewing project. And I don’t use furniture as pincushions. If I don’t have a real pincushion, the pins & needles get put into the project or the instructions.

    Besides the magnet (I really should get one), I highly recommend a flashlight in the pin & needle finder kit. Usually the pins and needles will reflect enough light making it much easier to see them.

    When I get a needle out of the package, I return it IF I remember what it is. If not, they go in a cushion separated by sharp & pointy or blunt & dull, then any decision on which to use is based on task at hand. Needle books seem to work better for travel projects for me. Probably because there’s no sticky-out bits to worry about poking through whatever the travel project is carried in?

  17. I once stepped on a darning needle, it went through my baby toe and into my foot effectively pinning my toe to my foot, then it broke off. At first I picked up the piece I found and thought…oh there it is. I was at a party so my judgement may have been slightly impaired. Then I took a step ……pain shot through my foot! Off to emergency to have it removed.

  18. I am glad that you found the piece of needle and had it extracted from your foot before it traveled elsewhere in your body.

    My problem used to be doing needlework in bed – sometimes done at home, but more often done when traveling in a hotel’s bed.

    After using the pillow for a needleholder and losing a few needles inside pillows, my husband told me that using the pillow to hold needles is much too dangerous to do – let alone the needles just lost in the bed itself. I no longer stitch in bed.

  19. Also don’t stick it in your shirt! I know a woman who had a similar nasty experience but in a different part of her body…

  20. My needles are the most organised thing in my life! I made a large needle book, and I keep different types of needles on each page, organised by brand and size. Then I have a little tin with a piece of felt inside with five different coloured embroidered dots and a matching coloured pin for each dot. When I’m doing a project I take out the needles I need, put them in the felt under a coloured dot, and put the corresponding coloured pin in the place in the needle book where I took that needle from. ( hope you’re following all this). Since I always have five items on the felt ( a combination of needles and coloured pins) I can see at a glance if ones missing. At the end of the project the needles go back in the needle book and the pins go back on the felt. It’s practically the only thing in my life that’s organised and it brings me great pleasure!

  21. I have a very powerful magnet that I skim over the floor when I suspect there is a needle lurking down there. Don’t have good eyes anymore.

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