The only debate that could be greater than cotton vs polyester thread in the quilting world is probably to pre-wash or not to pre-wash fabrics. I am not going to jump into either debate here. But I do want to share some information about how to pick the right thread and more importantly the correct needle to go with that thread and the material being sewn.
Let’s get right to the point – literally. The type of needle you need is based upon the fabric you are sewing. Two of the most typical points are ball point and slightly rounded point. Ball points are not quite as “pointy” as slightly rounded needles, so they glide rather than stab through fabrics. Ball points are used for stretchy or knit materials – like jersey or minky. Slightly rounded points are found in universal, top stitching and quilting needles. Embroidery needles are in between these two. Schmetz has a great resource to describe these needles and some more specialized needles. The difference between universal, embroidery, top stitching, and metallic needles is the shape of the eye. Universal has the smallest eye. Meanwhile, metallic and top stitching needles have longer eyes for the thicker threads. Embroidery has the widest eye. Quilting needles have a special taper to help it glide puncture several layers of fabric.
Once you know the type of needle, you will need to find the right size. The size of the needle depends upon the size and type of thread. Thread measurements increase as the thread gets smaller, counterintuitive; I know. So 100 weight thread is very fine, whereas 30 weight thread is thicker. Size 8 threads are more like pearl cotton and are too big for machine needles! Typically, quilters sew with 40 or 50 weight thread. They use 40 or 30 weight for decorative stitching or thread painting. For microquilting, they will use 100 or 80 weight.
Once you have picked your thread, fabric (needle point), and type of sewing (needle eye and shaft), it is time to pick the needle size. Needles are given in both metric (nm) and imperial measurements (i.e., 80/12, 90/14, etc.). For general sewing, finer needles are used for lighter materials (70/10), whereas larger needles are used for thicker or denser fabrics (100/16). Needle sizes are the inverse of thread. Threads should match needles. This is a good generalization:
- 30 weight thread => 100/16 Needle
- 40 weight thread => 90 /14 Needle
- 50 weight thread => 80/12 Needle
- 60 weight thread => 70/10 Needle
- 100 weight thread => 60/8 Needle
If you do hand work, you also need to match the needle to the type of work and thread. John James has a needle guide, which is very helpful. Sharps are like machine universal needles. They are good for most work. Hand needles are generally given in imperial sizes. The smaller the sizes are used for heavier fabrics, while larger sizes are used for finer fabrics. Yep – this is the inverse of machine quilting. For hand needles, the needle matches the thread (not the inverse as in machine needles).
If you don’t match the needle to the thread and material, you are likely to have needles snap, threads break or fabric fray. Manufacturers recommend changing needles after 8 hours of stitching. This ensures you have the sharpest point and cleanest eye. If you have ever noticed, needles (hand or machine) tend to break at the eye as it is the thinnest point on the needle. I have had shanks break before, but that is an exception rather than a norm.
There is a great video with Rob Appell from Sew Well (Stitchen’ Heaven) which talks all about needles.
Hopefully, this information will keep you on point!