Sewing machines: Beginner's guide to using a sewing machine Choosing the right needle and thread
Using the correct needle and thread is important to get great results from your sewing machine.
Sewing machine needles
Sewing machine needles come in different sizes. Confusingly, two systems of naming the sizes run side by side: imperial sizes go from 9 to 18, metric sizes from 65 to 110.
In both cases, the larger the number, the bigger the needle. You'll probably find that a packet of needles is marked with both the imperial and metric sizes.
You need to choose the right size needle for your fabric. Using a large needle on delicate fabric, for example, will cause visible holes and may cause problems such as the needle shoving the fabric down into the bobbin casing. You might also find that the stitches slip.
On the other hand, using a small needle on heavy fabrics can cause problems such as the needle breaking under the pressure.
Needle types for simple sewing tasks
There's a wide range of needle types to choose from, depending on what you're sewing:
- Universal The needle's point is slightly rounded for use with knit fabrics, but sharp enough to pierce woven fabrics
- Denim/jeans This type of needle has an extra-sharp point and stiff shank, which makes it suitable for stitching denim, heavy imitation leather or other densely woven fabrics
- Ballpoint This needle has a blunt, rounded tip that slips between fibres rather than piercing them. Use this needle for sewing coarse knits, lycra and other fabrics that tend to run if you snag them
- Twin needle Twin needles are constructed with two shafts on a crossbar which extends from a single shank. They're ideal to use for decorative stitching and creating multiple, uniform stitching rows. Two numbers are listed on the packaging; the first number represents the distance between the needles and the second number is the metric needle size.
Changing the needle on your sewing machine
Needles can blunt quite quickly, especially if you're sewing synthetic fabrics. Blunt needles will not only damage the fibres in your fabric, possibly snagging it, but will also cause skipped stitches and occasionally puckering.
The basic rule is to change the needle for each new project, depending on how much you used the needle for the project before. But it's always worth changing your needle before starting to stitch something made from expensive fabric – needles are cheap and easily replaced.
Our video guide to using your sewing machine takes you through how to set up your sewing machine.
Thread for your sewing machine
Types of thread
- Cotton Suitable for light to medium-weight fabrics which have little or no stretch to them. Cotton thread will not 'give', and the stitches may break if used on a stretchy knit fabric
- Polycotton This thread is usually labelled 'all-purpose' and is the thread you will see most frequently in fabric shops. It's suitable for all types of fabric and for both hand and machine sewing
- Polyester Most suitable for synthetic fabrics or fabrics with a lot of stretch to them. The finish of this thread, however, can appear waxy or shiny
- Silk Silk thread is more elastic than cotton, so opt for silk if your fabric has stretch to it. Use on very thin or delicately woven fabrics such as those used for lingerie or sheer garments
- Heavy duty Used for sewing projects that require extra strong and durable stitches, such as upholstery, using very heavy or stiff fabric.
Choosing thread colour
Choose a colour of thread that matches the most dominant colour in your fabric.
If you can't find a perfect match, select a thread one or two shades darker. Stitches made with a lighter shade of thread will stand out more.
Help with choosing your needle and thread
There are several places you can get advice on choosing the right-sized needle and thread for your sewing machine.
- Many sewing patterns recommend fabric, needle sizes and threads for their specific projects
- Ask for help from haberdashery staff when buying your fabric or pattern
- Check the instruction manual of your sewing machine as this will usually contain a guide to needle sizes and thread.