There are ergonomic, comfort, quality and speed benefits from using the correct hand needle for your work. Whether or not your workroom does a great amount of hand sewing, you can benefit from understanding needles and their specific purposes.
I learned to sew on a treadle sewing machine as a child. I’ve
been machine and hand sewing ever since then. However, I was never
taught about needles and why there were so many kinds. If I needed
to hand sew, I grabbed any needle I could find quickly and did my
sewing. A few years ago, I decided to research needles and discovered
a treasure of information. I was finally able to choose a needle
that is healthier for my hands, fingers and eyes and is also less
damaging to my fabric.
THE NEEDLE'S EYE
Look close. Just below the eye of the needle is a gradual groove
to help guide the thread into the eye. There is also a slight groove
at the top of the eye that minimizes the bulk of the threaded needle
as it passes through fabric.
To make threading a needle easier, there is a calyx eye needle that
has an opening at the top of it. Lay the thread across it and pull
against the needle and the thread will go into the eye. This is
great if you have trouble seeing the eye of the needle to thread
it, but there are disadvantages. The eye is flat and wider than
normal needles, which might be harder to pull through the fabric
and might damage the fabric. Also, sometimes, if you pull too hard
on the needle as you pull the thread through the fabric, the thread
might come out of the eye.
Needles for drapery work must be sharp. Be sure you do not use round
points that are for knit fabrics or blunt points that are for tapestry
and cross stitch. However, because needles are very inexpensive,
it would not hurt to have these just in case you might need them
for an unusual job.
Do be sure your needle points are sharp. A point with a burr can
damage your fabric as well as being more difficult to push through
the fabric. While it is best to have spare needles around, if your
needle has a burr and you have no replacement, you can sharpen it.
Did you know that the strawberry that hangs from those red pincushions
is for sharpening your needles? It is full of abrasive so sticking
your needle through it a few times should sharpen it for you.
By the way, those green threads that circle the red pincushion divide
it into sections. You can organize your needles and pins according
to the sections so you can quickly find the needle you want.
NEEDLE THICKNESS AND LENGTH:
Before you choose a needle, think about what you need it to do.
Does it need to be thin? Does it need to be long? Short? As you
shop for needles, in general, the lowest number on the needle, e.g.
#1, will be the thickest and the longest. The higher numbered needles
will be thinner and shorter. That is a general rule that varies
between types of needles, e.g. Sharps or Betweens. A #1 Sharp may
not be the same thickness and length as a #1 Between, etc.
The average size of needles is 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 inches, but Betweens
come as short as 13/16-inch. There also are much longer needles.
If you need to close an opening in a pillowcased piece, then a medium
length—maybe about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2-inch needle—is what
you need. You also probably want the needle to be as thin as you
can get it, depending on the fabric. I found that as my hands started
having some arthritis problems with a reduced range of motion, a
very short needle, about one inch, was more comfortable. But for
that same reason, as my hands became a bit stiffer, a longer needle
was more serviceable so I could get a good grip to pull it through
Much depends upon how you are going to use the needle and the fabric.
Very fine needles, which tend to be short, are best for sewing through
chintz and tightly woven fabrics where any kind of needle will leave
A very long needle—2 1/2 to three inches—is essential
to drapery work. It’s invaluable for basting, gathering, hemming,
sewing batting together and stab stitching chouxs. This size is
not always easy to find.
TYPES OF HAND NEEDLES
When you shop for needles, you will find a wide variety. Be aware
that different stores have a different selection and the brand and
selection they have are constantly changing. So shop around and
check out the needle selection whenever you are in a store that
carries them. The following are the basic types of needles available:
• Sharps—These are the most common. You can use them
for a variety of jobs, from closing hems to sewing on rings. The
drawback to these needles is they are a bit thicker than some others
and thus a little harder to pull through some fabrics.
• Betweens/Quilting—These can be very short and are
most commonly used for detailed work. They are a favorite of quilters.
The size of the eye in these needles is very tiny but can vary in
different brands. If you want this type of needle, it is wise to
look for the largest eyes you can find.
• Crewel/Embroidery—The numbering and lengths of crewel
needles are like Sharps but they are thinner than Sharps and the
eye is longer. I find the elongated eye much easier to thread and
will look first for a crewel needle before I will a Sharp. However
the larger crewel needles will have a blunt point. Even though they
are thinner than Sharps, the blunt point may be a problem. But in
many cases, it is not a problem.
• Tapestry—The tapestry needle’s point is very
blunt, but it does have a very large, easy-to-thread eye. While
it generally has limited uses in a drapery workroom, it’s
good to have around for those odd times when you might need a blunt
• Milliners—These needles are very long (2 1/8 to 2
1/4 inches long) and strong and a favorite of workrooms that do
a lot of hand hemming. You can take very long stitches with these,
which make the hand work go much faster. They also work very well
to sew densely fringed pillows closed. The only drawback is that
they are a bit thicker than other needle types and not as easy to
pull through some fabrics.
• Quilt Basting Needles—These are about the same length
as the Milliners’ needles. They are long, perhaps thinner,
and strong. They are interchangeable with the Milliners’ needles.
If you can’t find one, you might be able to find the other.
• Darners—These needles are very long and very thick,
which eliminates them for most uses in the workroom. However, they
are outstanding if you sew batting together, e.g. covering a cushion
• Curved needles—These needles are curved, thick and
pointed and meant to be used to sew boxed cushions and mattresses.
Even if you don’t normally do cushions, these are another
type of needle you should have around just in case. On the few occasions
that I needed a curved needle, it was quite a blessing.
BRANDS AND QUALITY
I have found that there can be a major difference in needle quality
and size between brands. I’ve been surprised at the poor quality
from brands I thought were good for quality. Look for a brand that
is going to offer you the thinnest needle with the largest eye and
which will not bend easily. Look for a Gold Eye. These are better
quality and glide through fabrics much easier than regular needles.
They cost a little more, but are well worth the cost. My personal
preference is a brand called John James, from England.
You usually can find multi-variety packs of needles that offer the
less useful needles such as the curved needles. Even if the quality
is not the best, those odd needles may come in handy one day.
1. Use Needle Grabbers, which are round textured rubber circles
used to grip the needle to pull it through tough fabric. You also
could try circles cut from old rubber gloves. This tool really does
come in handy.
2. Run the needle through your hair to lubricate it so it is easier
to pass through the fabric. This really does work!
3. Lubricate your needle and thread with bees wax or Thread Heaven®.
Needles are one workroom tool that costs very little. For that reason,
you should consider trying many styles in many brands. For such
a small investment, you can find the best tool for your needs and
for good ergonomics. Different brands may work better for different
fabrics and jobs. As you search the quilting department of your
local stores for needles, you are likely to find many more useful
If you or your employees do a lot of handwork, carpal tunnel or
any physical problem brought on by repetitive stress is a real threat.
Your hands are absolutely essential for your work. Don’t you
think it’s time to be kind to your hands?
Kitty Stein, CWP, WCAA past board member, is a 29-year veteran
of the drapery workroom industry. She has owned both retail and wholesale
drapery workrooms as one person and as a company of nine, and she
is the founder and past owner of Workroom Concepts, a consulting firm
offering educational resources to the industry. Her experience includes
professional speaking and writing for two industry trade magazines.
She currently owns Kitty Stein & Co., which supplies industry
vendors with the industry-specific products she has authored including
Order in the Workroom, The Price List, Workroom Specifications, and
Price Your Work with Confidence, available through D&WC.