Sewing Machine needles, thread and tension knowledge from 50+ years of sewing …. Sewing has been my passion since age 14 when I ‘took off’ as my Mom tells the story. Since then, I earned my B.S. in Home Economics, and did custom dressmaking for many years while the kids were young. It wasn’t until I opened a fabric shop and machine dealership at age thirty-eight that I really learned and came to understand some of the basic mechanics about sewing machines that could have made all those previous years far less tearful. Read on…and, just maybe, what I have to share can even save you a repair bill. Though most certainly, what I’ve learned and share here can make YOUR precious sewing hours more frustration-free!
1. Always buy more thread than you think you’ll need! (Personally, I ALWAYS buy at least 2 or 3 spools!) If you’re a serious sewer, you’ll use it eventually. Time is too treasured to run out and be delayed having to stop until you can get more. Personally, I love and used to use exclusively is Swiss Mettler thread. As of 2018, I can add that I also love and use Gutermann and Coats & Clark, and a NEW favorite: Intressa from A&E. I just did some price comparison, and where Metrosene is $2.75/164 yard spool, Intressa is $4.99/600 yard spool…AND, it is MADE IN THE USA!!!
I just took some time to do the math based on MSRP of my favorite threads, and here are the results comparing basic 100% polyester thread as I use in most of my sewing as I predominantly sew on knit, stretchy fabrics:
Metrosene (made in Switzerland) .o1682957/yard
Gutermann (made in Germany) .01014625/yard
Intressa (made in the USA) .00831667/yard!
Sew…made in our own USA and far less expensive – that’s a no-brainer for me in the future!!!
I’m a purist: either give me 100% poly or 100% cotton or 100% silk. The ‘default’ thread is 50/3 weight silk finished cotton mercerized thread. When I sold it these had purple printing on the spool. The 50 tells us the weight of the thread and the 3 reveals that it is a 3 ply thread – three strands make up this single strand. This is a basic top quality thread that sewing machines were invented to sew with. It is the perfect choice for cottons, wools, etc. You may find it hard to find the full color selection available though. Try your local quilt shop as this is a popular cotton sewing thread for piecing quilts. The big thing is: do NOT use decorative embroidery thread for garment construction! AND… if sewing a knit – you MUST use a thread that stretches – likely 100% polyester.
Here’s an interesting note for you: back when I sold sewing machines, we were told to demo with 30 weight cotton thread – so that when doing buttonholes and decorative stitches, they looked more filled in. 30 wt thread is FATTER. The lower the number on threads, the fatter the thread. Go figure…..
The other thread I’ll stick in here is monofilament, ‘invisible’ thread. I have used OODLES of these in my needle. Winding them on a plastic bobbin can be a disaster, so whenever I HAVE to have it on the bobbin, I go to my old Pfaff for which I have metal bobbins. You’ll find that the tension on a plastic bobbin when winding monofilament can get SO tight that you can’t even get the bobbin back off the bobbin winding spindle!
Invisible monofilament thread comes in 2 fibers: nylon and polyester. Polyester enthusiasts will say never to use nylon, as heat will melt it. Never have had that happen! Both fibers come in smoke and clear. I use smoke on darker colors, clear on lighter colors. My favorites are as follows:
YLI Wonder Thread. A cross-wound spool, so you can use it vertical or horizontal. It is 100% nylon. HERE is a link.
Mettler: Transfil Monofilament Thread. It is parallel wound, so only use on a vertical spindle. It is 100% nylon. HERE is a link.
Superior: Mono-Poly Thread. It is parallel wound, so only use on a vertical spindle. It is 100% polyester. HERE is a link.
How/why do I use invisible thread? These 2 ways:
A. To stitch something down when I don’t want the stitches to show. I usually use either a very narrow buttonhole applique type stitch, or even a very narrow zigzag. Stitch length of 3.0 seems to be my favorite length.
B. To Couch – which means laying down a decorative thread or yarn and holding it down by ‘couching’ over top with monofilament in my needle. Stitch length 3.0 and only as wide as needed to jump on either side of the thread with a zigzag stitch. Makes it look like the thread is ‘floating’.
2. To emphasize: If sewing a knit, or anywhere stretch is needed, be sure to use 100% polyester (Metrosene’s red or black printing on the spool). I steer completely away from cotton-wrapped polyester, which was invented to be a ‘hybrid’ of cotton and polyester; but it comes nowhere close in my personal opinion.
3. For lightweight fabrics, 60/2 ‘fine embroidery’ 100% cotton from Mettler(green printing on spool) is my choice as it blends in with the very fine threads of the light-weight fabrics. In Heirloom Sewing, it blends in with lace, and doesn’t fill up the holes of hemstitching with wing needles.
4. For lovely buttonholes and hand basting that won’t impress a line on fabric when pressed, I recommend Clover’s Tire (pronounced tiray) Silk Thread for lightweight fabric and handwork. I keep this in basic – and my core wardrobe – colors. Nothing is more pleasurable than hand stitching with silk thread!
5. Using cheap thread is like feeding your sewing machine poison! Examine the thread: if it is furry – just imagine all that fluff compacting in your sewing machine! In general, select a thread whose diameter is a close as possible to the threads of which your fabric is constructed. Regrettably, there is no consumer-available numbering system for thread weight that covers all thread manufacturers. However, within the Metrosene line it is quite valuable. Remember this: The higher the number, the finer the thread. When the weight is given like 50/3: this means that this is 50 wt thread, and 3 ply (3 yarns twisted together to give you the thread you see.) 6. Don’t use a thread stronger than your fabric! Why? If there is undue stress on a seam, you WANT the thread to give and break (an EZ fix!). If the thread seam is too strong and fabric tears and pulls away from the stressed seam, you might not have enough ‘extra’ to stitch a deeper seam to fix it!
1. Schmetz needles work in ALL sewing machines. Use Singer needles ONLY in Singer machines. (At least that was the case when I had my machine dealership 1990-2003. Since that time, Singer/Viking/Pfaff, SVP are all together, so perhaps that has changed. I also know that Bernina has Schmetz package needles with their name on them. There are other good sewing machine companies that have surfaced lately: Inspire, Superior, Klasse. It’s always a good idea to consult your sewing machine dealer regarding the BEST needles for your brand.)
2. “That little 2″ piece of metal (needle) is the most important part of your sewing machine – AND the least expensive to replace!” says a friend of mine who is an EXPERT. I agree completely! CHANGE YOUR NEEDLE WITH EVERY PROJECT if you want to be nice to your sewing machine! It’s like taking your car in to have the oil changed, or checking the air in your tires…even filling the gas tank! Using a dull needle is putting undue stress on your machine. Every time a stitch is made, MUCH has to happen in a certain sequence, and none of that CAN happen properly and in the right timing if your needle has trouble penetrating the fabric and making a loop below with which the hook grabs and interacts to make each and every stitch. Keep an old film canister or baby jar handy for safe old needle disposal. To make a believer of you, look at the microscopic views of ‘bad’ needles below.
Schmetz Needles come in a variety of types and different sizes within each type.
Machine Needles: The higher the number, the larger the needle (and eye). Hand Needles: The higher the number, the SMALLER the needle (and eye)! needles. I always joke and say that surely some MEN decided THOSE rules!
NEW is the color-coding at the end closest to the needle tip that indicates what size of needle you have. This is WONDERFUL! If your needles don’t have 2 color bands, it is just because your pack is older. It will take several years for this color-coding of size to work its way through the market, let alone our own stashes. I believe this color-coding started in 2014.
By the way, needles have a flat side, and a round side. The round, grooved side ALWAYS goes towards the side of the machine that delivers the thread – which in today’s machines is usually the front. I learned on an old 301 Singer where the needle threaded from right to left – so the round grooved side of the needle faced to the right.
Londa’s Favorite Sewing Machine Needle Types
I’ve given links to the needles I currently have in stock, but I can order any of these for you. I also sell Schmetz needles in Bulk Packages of loose needles – 100 to a box. Especially for embroidery machines – this can be a real savings! Just email me at Londa@londas-sewing.com for any of your needle/thread (same color, full box – any type at 20% savings) any time. I’m happy to help you find what you need!
* Jeans/Denim Needles are for sewing ANY firmly woven fabrics (in addition to the mis-leading “Denim” name). In the Schmetz line, Denim Needles have a BLUE Band to so designate them. These needles have an advanced point design that is a Schmetz exclusive specifically designed for penetrating extra thick woven fabrics, denims, or quilts with minimum needle deflection, reduced risk of needle breakage or skipped stitches. So – if I’m sewing a cotton gabardine or broadcloth, I’ll use a Denim Sharp Needle. If it is a lightweight firmly woven fabric, I’ll use a size 70 Denim/ Sharp Needle. Jeans/Denim Needles are available in sizes 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16, 110/18, Assorted Sizes and also in a Twin Needle 4.0 mm apart in a size 100 – perfect for decorative stitching on jeans. This twin needle has a Blue Bar (like the Stretch Twin Needles – so be careful to keep them straight!).
* Stretch Needles are needed for sewing knits where the fabric and the thread will stretch. These have a slightly rounded tip that separates the yarns of knit fabric rather than piercing them. In the Schmetz line, Stretch Needles have a YELLOW Band to so designate them. These needles are designed to prevent skipped stitches – a frequent problem with knits. There is a hump above the eye to force a larger loop, they have a shaved shank to position the needle closer to the hook and make the loop easier to pick up by the hook, thereby reducing skipped stitches. Stretch Needles are available in sizes 75/11 and 90/14 and also in 2 Twin Needle sizes: 2.5 mm apart in size 75 needles (2.5/75) – order HERE and 4.0 mm apart in Size 75 needles (4.0/75) – order HERE. I almost exclusively use the 75/11, even for my sweatshirt transformations and the 4.0/75 Twin Stretch Needle for my double-stitched hems (even though I DO have 2 sergers with Cover Hem capability). I always keep these in stock and sell them HERE.
*Jersey/Ball Point Needles also exist for sewing on knits. They seem to work perhaps better on fabrics with a high Lycra content. They have a medium ball point and are designated with an ORANGE Band in the Schmetz line. Available in Sizes 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16 and Assorted Sizes in a package. Hence, when sewing a fabric of a much heavier nature, the larger size might come in handy. For sewing on Felted Wools – quite heavy, and usually knits, I’m going to first try the Jersey in 100/16 size.
*Universal Needles (or H) don’t have a sharp OR rounded tip. They are an all-purpose needle for most knits and wovens, but in my estimation, are not as good of a selection as a Denim/Sharp or a Stretch needle. However, the Universal Needle is probably the most commonly used needle – but in my opinion, NOT the best. If you are a connoisseur of sewing, go with the BEST needle for the fabric on which you are stitching! Universal Needles are available in the widest size range: 60/8, 65/9 70/10, 75/11, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16, 110/18, 120/19. As you become more of a connoisseur of sewing, you’ll use Universal Needles less often: opting for the other, more specific use needles instead. Experiment. You sew to be in control, so do whatever works best for you, what you sew on and your specific sewing machine.
*Twin Needles: Universal Needles come in many configurations of Twin Needles. Here are the sizes: 1.6/70, 1.6/80, 2.0/80, 2.5/80, 3.0/90, 4.0/80, 4.0/90, 4.0/100. These all have a red bar. There is even a TRIPLE Needle – in sizes 2.5/80 and3.0/80. For sewing machines with a wide zigzag width, Schmetz also makes a Universal Twin Needle size 6.0/100 and 8.0/100. Most ‘regular’ (non-expensive) sewing machines have a throat plate that accommodates a 5mm wide zigzag stitch. Therefore, you could only use a Twin needle that is 4.0 mm apart. Only with a machine with a 7 mm zigzag width, could you use the 6.0/100 and only with a machine with a 9 mm zigzag could you use a 8.0/100. All of the Twin Needles come just 1 needle to a pack, and are usually about $5-$7 each, so hand wheel the needle into the throat plate to carefully test before starting to stitch. Twin needles are really quite miraculous inventions – as somehow one bobbin thread interacts with the two needles! On knit fabrics, this yields a stretchy stitch – which is wonderful! Depending on the body of the fabric sewn and tension manipulations, twin needles can pull up a nice ridge or ‘pin-tuck’. Pintucks can be achieved easily on lightweight fabrics and using a pintuck foot to allow the fabric to be pulled up into a tuck. You can even cord these pintucks to keep them ‘tucked’…or use a colored cord under a sheer fabric. If all this is interesting to you, look for Fine Machine Sewing by Carol Ahles. (Taunton Press) – find on Amazon – any of the versions will be valuable. I learned SO MUCH from my friend, Carol about all kinds of wonderful stitching that machines can do with the right needle during my ‘heirloom sewing phase’ – truly AMAZING!
*Microtex Needles are for microfibers and very, very lightweight silky fabrics. The Microtex Needle is quite fine and has a slimmer point. They have a very thin, acute point that creates beautiful topstitching and perfectly straight stitches for quilt piecing when precision is paramount. In the Schmetz line, Stretch Needles have a Violet Band to so designate them. Personally, I would select this sharp needle to piece quilts using either a 70/10 or an 80/12. These would be GREAT for piecing batik fabrics which often have a very high thread count. Microtex Needles are also available in wide size range: 60/8, 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16, 110/18, and Assorted. I sell them at my website HERE.
*Topstitch Needles are designed to accommodate larger threads, and the eye is larger and longer to accommodate heavier threads. In the Schmetz line, Stretch Needles have a LIGHT GREEN Band to so designate them. I use these for topstitching with heavier threads, like Jeans Stitch Thread from YLI for accent top stitching on denim. Schmetz Topstitch Needles are available in sizes 80/12, 90/14, 100/16. Superior Threads market a Topstitch Needle that has a titanium nitride coating, making them last much longer. (In factories, titanium-coated needles are the norm.) Many swear by these needles for embroidery, and any type of decorative stitching. This is an ORGAN Brand of needle – very common for commercial machines of all types, and work in any home sewing machine. Try them – you might love them. I keep them handy myself. They come in sizes 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16. These are available at my website HERE.
*Embroidery Needles (red stripe) are designed to be used with specialty embroidery threads. They have a special scarf, widened groove and an enlarged eye to protect fragile threads and guard against excess friction for trouble-free embroidery and decorative stitching. In the Schmetz line, Stretch Needles have a RED Band to so designate them. Schmetz Embroidery Needles are available in sizes 75/11, 90/14, Assorted and Twin in sizes 20./75 and 3.0/75 with a red bar. Schmetz has also developed a needle that has a Titanium Nitride coating, slightly rounded point and enlarged eye. The titanium coating resists adhesives, improves needle wear and penetration of coarse and densely woven fabrics – so in very dense embroidery designs, give them a try! The needle itself is gold in color. These are available insizes 75/11 and 90/14.
*Metallic Needles are designed to be used with metallic threads. They have an elongated eye that is a ‘must have’ for sensitive metallic threads to prevent shredding and breaking. In the Schmetz line, Stretch Needles have a Pink Band to so designate them. Schmetz Metallic Needles are available in sizes 80/.12 and 90/14 and Twin in size2.5/80 and 3.0/90. These needles have a red bar.
*Quilting needles are designed to penetrate multiple payers of fabric. In the Schmetz line, Stretch Needles have a GREEN Band to so designate them. Schmetz says they can be used for both piecing and machine quilting. Schmetz Quilting Needles are available in sizes 75/11,90/14 and Assorted.
*Schmetz Hemstitch or ‘Wing’ Needles have a ‘wing’ on each side designed to create a large hole in the fabric for that antique hemstitch look. ALWAYS use a very lightweight thread so as to not ‘fill up’ the hole. Use a 60 wt. cotton or skinny silk thread with these. They are available in sizes 100/16 and 120/19. As of 8-20-18, I have several Wing Needles in my Close-Out Department at alnost 50% off. Click HERE. There is also a Double Hemstitch needle, that contains a Wing and a Universal needle with a 2.5 mm separation. The Hemstitch Needle is the smaller size 100/16. It has a red bar. Note that many of the Twin Needles have a RED BAR so be sure to keep them in their appropriate packaging!!!
*Leather Needles have a wedge shaped point to cut instead of tear leathers.
*Spring Needles have a spring around the needle, which assumes the function of the presser foot making these terrific for free motion and embroidery. Remove the presser foot for easy viewing of stitches. These needles come in the following configurations:
Denim – 100/16 Embroidery – 75/11 and 90.14 Quilting – 75/11, 90/14 Stretch – 75/11 90/14 Universal – 70/10, 80/12, 90/14
All of the above information (though without my personal additional info/opinions) is found in a small booklet I include with every website order: Schmetz ABC Pocket Guide. Also – go to www.schmetzneedles.com for much more interesting information.
Threading your Machine
I have 3 important clues (in addition to first following your manual) for successful and proper threading:
1. Thread a machine with the presser foot UP. When up, the tension discs are open, and the thread can easily slip back in between the tension discs where it belongs. When the presser foot is lowered, the tension discs close and apply tension to the thread. So many times, when a frustrated customer walked in with their sewing machine they would inevitably say “Something is wrong with my bobbin tension…it is all loopy!” I immediately knew – and had to patiently explain (and prove) that it was the TOP thread, NOT the bobbin thread that was looping on the bottom (proven by using different colors on top and bottom). Reason? No tension on top thread. Why? Because the thread wasn’t IN the tension discs to get ‘squeezed’! Now…How did it happen? By threading with the presser foot down (meaning tension discs were closed). Do yourself a favor, and go back and re-read this paragraph and understand it.
2. Don’t miss the take-up lever! That part is akin to your arm pulling the thread tight with each stitch…missing the take-up lever will cause your machine to cough – screech – yell; and for sure, not sew! My ears can always tell when this is the problem in a class. The ‘clear’ smoke or clear monofilament nylon threads are especially notorious for jumping out of this all-important guide.
3. Bobbins…there is no such thing as a generic bobbin!!!!! Use only the EXACT bobbin with which your machine has been designed to work!! For proper winding, be sure you have a tightly, firmly wound bobbin. If you can easily stick your fingernail into the thread on a bobbin, you have what I called a “mushy bobbin”, and you should place it on the spool and rewind to a new bobbin. See the photo below where the top bobbin has proper tension, and the lower bobbin is ‘mushy’. Make sure you don’t miss the little tension button for the bobbin winding system. Again, consult that sewing machine manual. Also – wind a bobbin slowly – especially if you are using a stretchy, polyester thread. Winding fast stretches the thread, which will then relax when stitched into a seam causing puckers! For proper threading of the bobbin: verify this with your sewing machine manual; but in most drop-in bobbin machines, when pulling the thread, the bobbin should rotate counter clockwise. For sewing machines with a removable auxilliary bobbin case, if looking directly at the bobbin in the case in your hand, pulling the thread causes the bobbin to rotate clockwise. Consult your manual! “Operator Error” – 2 words I meekly spoke many times! It seems it is EZ to fall into bad habits, or do something so often that you may think you’re doing it right, only to discover you just fell into a bad habit. Enough said!
If you think thread feeds off the spool and travels straight through the thread path and needle eye into fabric, think again! I’ll always remember sitting on an airplane reading in a book by Gale Grigg Hazen after a class at fabric market that “the thread travels back and forth through the eye of the needle…even into and out of the fabric numerous times (like 15 to 20) before it finally is stitched into a seam”!!!! I couldn’t wait to get home and see if this was REALLY true! Prove this phenomenon to yourself as I always did first thing with students in our class of the same name as this column…Care & Feeding of your sewing Machine. Thread up with white thread. With a magic marker, color a big blotch of black on the thread somewhere close to the tape up lever. Set machine to slow speed, long stitch length, and sew… keeping your eye on the black spot. After this experiment, you’ll most surely have a new appreciation for compatible size of machine needle and thread! Needle eye size increases with the size of the needle. Too small of a needle eye will cause undue abrasion and thread breakage. Too large of a needle eye for size thread is also not good because the thread wallows around in the eye and yields skipped stitches. Again, Hubby recently filmed a quick video. Watch it below:
Tension Headaches – Cured with Tension Understanding
When doing decorative stitches – the filled-in, satiny ones on your machine, even plain old zz as appliqué, you almost ALWAYS will need to lower the upper tension. Why? So that the top is soft, the threads fill in, and so that there is enough ‘play’ in the top thread to be pulled to the bottom where it locks with the bobbin thread. If you would try to do appliqué with balanced tension, you would have to wind a matching colored bobbin for every color of top thread you use, as you would surely see a speck of the bobbin thread at each point of the zig zag. The computerized machines today automatically reduce the upper tension when you lower the stitch length on a zig zag or embroidery stitch that is ‘filled in’. However, understanding this principle will let you further tweek the settings for perfect results on whatever fabric (and stabilizer) you are stitching. I know my sophisticated smart Brother Quatro can even memorize the settings that work. I DO use that feature while I’m working on a project. Make USE of those features you have paid for in your machine!!!
In Summary: YOU need to adjust the tension to get the desired stitch. Most tension adjustments can be made with using just the upper tension, but I feel serious sewers should also ask their dealers for instruction on adjusting of the bobbin tension as well. See the photo at the right for identifying that all-important tension screw on the bobbin case.
Tension is each and every guide or physical ‘thing’ that adds to the drag on the thread – not JUST the tension discs. Keep this in mind when deciding which thread cap to use for horizontal riding thread delivery systems. Match the thread cap to the size of the spool. If you use too large of a cap on a smaller spool, the tension will be INCREASED by the thread dragging on that larger thread cap.
An additional fact that many do not know regarding thread delivery systems that I learned from Bob Purcell of Superior Threads: Parallel wound spools such as Coats n’ Clark as in the photo at the left on the right behind the large spool cap should NEVER be used in a horizontal delivery system, as that will add an extra twist to the thread. ALWAYS put that type of spool on a VERTICAL spool pin!!! Cross-wound spools like Metrosene as in the photo at the left, can be used either in vertical OR horizontal positions.
The final crucial element of successful sewing is an awareness of the effect of grain and fabric handling techniques as you actually stitch a seam. The keyword is TAUT. Not stretched, but TAUT. Your left hand always belongs behind the presser foot and your right hand in front of the presser foot, creating a taut surface for stitching in order to have a nice seam. This is emphatically true especially on straight grain seams. Without taut technique, a seam that is straight grain will inevitably pucker – even with the best thread, proper needle, and the most expensive sewing machine! Why? Because straight grain, vertical, lengthwise warp yarns in a fabric are stronger and have no ‘give’. Prove this to yourself: take a piece of firmly woven muslin, broadcloth, etc. and without any taut technique, just stitch with a balanced tension, stitch length of normal 2.5 (10 to 12 stitches per inch). Then pivot 90 degrees and stitch. The lengthwise grain (warp) will be the stitching that is puckering the fabric. The crosswise grain(weft) will be the nicer0looking stitching line. This is because the cross grain (weft) threads have some ‘give’ that stretches ever so slightly and creates a better looking seam. I show this at a video at my You-Tube Channel:
I do hope this information will prove helpful to sewers of all levels. I know that I never stop learning! Experts (who I’m proud to call friends) along the way to whom I owe the most for the above understanding and techniques include: April Dunn, Carol Ahles, and Gale Grigg Hazen and Bob Purcell at Superior threads. Always read anything by these folks that you can get your hands on! Bob has many great videos at You-Tube. To them and many others for teaching and sharing, I am ‘sew’ thankful. If I can become one of those teachers for you, I would be honored. Now – let your sewing machine know who is the Boss, and go forth and sew!