With any job you do, it's important to understand the necessary tools, and before you start hand sewing or stitching, it's essential that you know your needles. Because they are so simple, it would be easy to assume that any needle will do, but choosing the right one is what will make your project come together with much more success. Needle sizing is standard, but not all types of needles use the same numbering system. Unlike sewing machine needles, generally, the larger the needle, the smaller the number. With some types of sewing needles, as the needles get larger and you reach size 1, the number suddenly jumps to a higher number, then starts getting lower again. This can be confusing at first, but as you work with needles more, it becomes second nature.
When choosing a needle type and size, match the needle to the type of stitching and the materials you're working with. For example, if you're hand-quilting, use a quilting needle that is just large enough to accommodate the thickness of your thread.
Sharps are all-purpose sewing needles. You can use these for dressmaking, mending, appliqué, and more. As their name suggests, sharps have a sharp point. They also have a small, round eye and are strong, but thin. These qualities help them pierce and glide through the fabric easily and without making a large hole. Like sharps, ballpoint needles have a small, round eye, but their point is rounded. This makes ballpoint needles ideal for sewing knit fabrics because the rounded point helps them go between the fibers instead of piercing them.
Designed for hand quilting and taking tiny stitches, betweens are small and sharp with a round eye. They make it possible to dip through the fabric and load several tiny stitches onto the needle quickly. Because betweens are so fine, they're also useful for precision sewing when finishing details on garments.
Embroidery needles are the tool of choice for hand embroidery. They are similar to sharps but have a longer eye to accommodate thicker threads or several strands of embroidery floss. It's vital to use a large enough needle for your thread so that it opens the fibers of the fabric and doesn't cause unnecessary wear on the thread, which is the feature of embroidery.
Other Specialty Types of Needles
Tapestry and chenille needles share the same length and size numbering, but tapestry needles have a rounded point and chenille needles have a sharp point. Both have large, elongated eyes. Tapestry needles are common for needlepoint and cross-stitch, while chenille needles are useful for ribbon embroidery, crewel work, and more. Darners and milliners are both much longer than other needles and have a sharp point. With a larger eye, darners are good for darning and mending. Milliners, traditionally used for millinery, have a smaller round eye and are useful for pleating, smocking, and basting.
Beading needles are ideal for threading beads, both for jewelry-making as well as sewing or embroidering beadwork. You can also use them while attaching sequins. These needles come in several lengths, but it's their fine gauge and small eye that allows you to slide them through beads. When selecting a beading needle, be sure it's small enough to avoid breaking the beads. Upholstery needles are larger, heavy-duty needles designed to hold up to dense fabrics. They come in both straight and curved styles, making it easier to stitch on furniture and work at different angles. Leather needles stand out because the points are triangular. This unique shape helps them pierce through leather, suede, and vinyl smoothly. You may find them packaged with other leather crafting tools or upholstery needles.
Each of these needle types has a specific purpose and it's always wise to use a needle that's designed for what you're working on. As you work, you may find that you need to adjust the size of the needle or even try another type to accomplish the best possible result.