Needling About

Alanna Heaton 2006

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Almost as long as we have been human (homo sapiens) we have been sewing furs, skins, fibers, leaves and cloth together to make things. To do this sewing, needles were required. In the prehistoric era, choice of needle was simple. It was the size you made it out of bone or antler. The eye was as small or as big as you wanted. Custom made needles were the rule.

Today we don't have the luxury of custom-made needles. We have something much more scary - choice! With different types of eyes, points, diameters, and length how do you know which needle to use? And the sizing, the smaller the number the larger the needle. What's up with that? That is the easiest part to answer. The American male, in his infinite wisdom, numbered wire sizes from the biggest (1 gauge) to the smallest (upwards of 30 gauge, very fine). Since needles are basically modified wire and men made the needles, they used wire gauge sizes to number them. So there you go. BUT, there are exception of course. See the size ranges of the various needle types listed below.

Another neat thing about needles, you don't need emery anymore to store or "clean" them. Emory is the stuff in the little strawberry that comes with your standard tomato pincushion. Old needles were made of a steel that would rust. Running them through the emery removed this rust. It wasn't to sharpen the needle, it was to clean it. Storing your needles in real wool because of the natural lanolin was also part of good maintenance. Today's needles are plated and don't rust. Running them through the emery removes the plating roughening the needle and leaving it open to rust. Just the opposite of what you wanted. It is still good practice to use natural wool to store your needles, though.

Now, how do you choose the "right" size of needle for your project? Well, the snappy answer is whichever one gives you the ease of work you need and are comfortable. The following descriptions of most of the available needles will make your choice easier. Two things to consider when choosing a needle is the size of the fiber you will thread through it and the tightness of the weave of the base fabric. The needle is the tool that "opens" the fabric for the fiber to pass through. If you are using a fragile fiber or silk ribbon, you want a larger diameter needle to make the opening large enough for the fiber to pass through without shredding. If your fiber shreds at the eye, you probably need to use a needle with a larger eye. Needles also have a right and a wrong side. If you look at the eye closely, you will see one side is slightly larger and seems to be beveled. This is the side you poke your fiber through. Didn't know that? Neither did I until I did more research for this article!

Sharps and Betweens These are fine hand-sewing needles most commonly used by quilters. The betweens are shorter than the sharps and both have a small round eye. They are sometimes used for very fine embroidery or in a pinch for beading if your bead fits over the eye. Sizes range from 1 - 12.

Ballpoint These are similar to the sharps and betweens and generally used for hemming on knits. They are less common than the machine ballpoint needles but if you do a lot of work with fine fabrics, a pointed needle may cut the fabric rather than slide between the threads. In that case, a search for ballpoint needles would be worth your while.

Chenille This is the needle for funky fibers and ribbon embroidery. The needle is short and thick with a very sharp point. Use the size (diameter) that allows your fiber or ribbon to pass through your fabric without shredding. Just because you can thread the needle with the fiber or ribbon doesn't mean it will make a large enough hole in your fabric for the fiber or ribbon to "flow" through. Trial and error will determine the size you need to use for your particular application. Many times a larger needle than you think you need is what the stitching will need. Sizes range from 13 to 26.

Tapestry This needle is similar to the chenille needle but has a blunt tip. The eye is long. This needle will push the threads of your fabric aside rather than punch through them. Most often used on loosely woven fabrics but may also be used on those more delicate fabrics that you don't want to "cut" with your needle. Sizes range from 13 to 28.

Self-Threading These have two eyes. The top eye has a fine opening at the top to "snap" your thread into place. These are great for those of us that are "optically challenged". Their use is for basting patches to the foundation or for very fine embroidery.

Embroidery or Crewel These are medium length with a large oval eye for multiple strands of fiber or wool threads. The shanks are finer than on chenille needles. Use them for fine crewel, silk ribbon, shadow work and smocking. Sizes range from 1 - 12.

Milliner or Straw These needles have a small round eye, sharp points and are the same diameter from eye to tip. These are great for bullions or any other wrapped stitch as the wraps can be pulled over the eye easily. There are two size ranges: 15 and 18 are the largest, 1 - 10 are the smaller

Darner or Doll These are sharp pointed needles that are quite long and they have a long eye. Doll needles may be up to 6" long. Cotton darners are smaller than wool darners. Size 14-18 are wool darners, 1 - 9 are the smaller cotton darners.

Leather or Glovers These have a wedge-shaped sharp tip and round eye. They are a strong needle meant to be used on leather, suede, vinyl or other tough material. Sizes range from 1 - 8.

Beading These are fine needles and quite long. The tip is sharp and the eye is small and round. You may need a magnifier to thread these. Ask me how I know... Sizes range from 10 - 15. It may be possible to substitute a 26 or 28 tapestry needle for a beading needle in a pinch.

Bodkins This needle is large with a flat or round body, large eye, and blunt point. They are used to thread ribbon (as through lace) or cord or elastic through a casing (the ties on your "pouch" purse). They also come in a long plastic style with a large eye on one end and a thicker "handle" on the other and about 18" long. This makes them very useful for pulling cords through long casings. Size is 17F (flat) and 17R (round).

Upholstery This is a curved needle with a sharp point and a long eye. These are great for repair work on a completed piece of work such as a footstool, pillow, or framed piece (without glass on it of course).

Editor's Note: Don't forget my favorite needle the BIG eye quilting needle in size 10 and 11. At least I can see the eye on these.

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