When I get a call from a customer complaining about a thread break, one of the first questions asked is, “When did you last change your needle?” It may sound defensive, but it is actually quite practical. The smallest, least costly element of a commercial embroidery machine can often have a gigantic effect on the results produced by a multi-thousand dollar machine. Of the many considerations an embroiderer must keep track of for success—including thread type, quality and type of substrate, digitizing, machine speed and tensioning, and production scheduling—choosing the correct needle and maintaining a fresh supply is high on the list of importance.
It may be small in size, but the relevance of an embroidery needle to the outcome of the embroidery is paramount.
Which to choose
The size and structure of the needle you choose for your embroidery project will depend on the type of thread you use, the substrate on which you embroider, and the density of the design; pretty much in that order.
The two most common needle points are sharp and ballpoint. A ballpoint is used on knits and lightweight wovens, and is the go-to needle in most shops. Compared to a sharp, it features a rounder tip, which finds its way between the fibers, so as not to damage or cause some knitwear to “run.” A sharp is used on densely woven fabrics such as denim or twill in order to cleanly pierce through the fabric. It is also a good choice for caps, especially at the seams which add multiple layers of fabric. A wedge point is offered for work on heavy, dense substrates, such as leather, suede or car upholstery. Some embroiderers prefer to use a sharp on leather, since the wedge point can cause more cutting of the leather than is desirable, which can result in a perforated line surrounding the design.
As embroidery projects become more unique and challenging, needle manufacturers have developed needles that offer extra strength and resilience. There are needles that are coated with a non-stick substance so that when using stick-on backing or other adhesives, the glue residue will not adhere to the needle and build up. For fabrics that may melt due to the heat build-up from the friction of a speedy needle, coated needles can be the answer. For projects where density and thickness is a concern, needles that boast titanium for added strength should be considered.
When good needles go bad
Maintenance and troubleshooting go hand in hand when it comes to understanding how something as small as a needle can have a great impact on your finished embroidery. The question is do you proactively set about swapping out your used needles for new ones on a regular basis, or wait for a problem to occur?
If you think of changing needles the way you change the oil in your car—in order to ward off major repairs and ensure smooth operation—you can measure your needle’s life span in length of time or stitches (as opposed to length of time or miles driven). Some embroiderers recommend changing your needle every 50,000 to 60,000 stitches. Others gauge by time, and will change needles after operating their machine for four to six hours. Of course, if you are embroidering on heavier fabrics, uneven surfaces, extremely delicate fabrics, or notice that your top stitching is beginning to look uneven, you’ll want to consider changing needles more frequently.
Let’s say that maintenance isn’t your thing, and you’re more likely to fix a problem once it occurs. Following are some of the most likely causes for problems and the best ways to get stitching back on track.
Needle breakage: It takes something solid to break a needle. This might occur if an item is improperly hooped and the needle hits the hoop frame, or if there is build up of cut threads and dust on the trimming knife that sits below the needle plate. Stitching a very dense design or over the center seam of a cap can also cause the needle to deflect so much that it hits the needle plate. Regular cleaning, proper hooping and choosing the right needle for each job will help. If the substrate you are embroidering is particularly bulky, try a titanium-enhanced needle for added strength. Also, make certain your needle is inserted in the machine correctly, and that it is a suitable size for the thread you are using.
Thread breakage: When the needle becomes old and worn, it can develop an unevenness, or even small burrs around the eye or in the front groove. You may actually feel them if you run your fingers from the base of the shank down towards the point. The burr shreds the thread as it passes through, causing breakage. Simply replacing the needle can solve this problem.
Uneven or skipped stitches: This could be caused by use of the wrong size needle; it may be too thin for the material you are embroidering, or if too thick, it can cause too much friction between needle and garment. Checking to make sure the machine is properly threaded and the needle is correctly inserted is the first step. Beyond that, unless the density of the fabric or design warrants it, always choose the smallest needle suggested so that it makes the smallest possible puncture in the garment. Working with fresh needles might also solve the problem since a worn needle can make itself known through skipped stitches.
Damage to substrate: If the item you are embroidering appears to be gathering adhesive residue, it could be due to excessive heat produced by the friction of the needle passing through the fabric at a very fast speed. Slowing the machine is one answer, but using a needle that is coated with a substance that prevents anything from sticking to it may be a better solution, and a good investment.
Anatomy of a needle
In order to best judge the importance of your needles, it helps to understand their anatomy and functions. Here we’ll go over the different parts of the needle, along with the purpose of each.
Shank: The thick, upper portion of the needle that is clamped into the machine. Needles for most commercial embroidery machines are round, while for semi-professional machines, one side will be flat. The round shank is more economical to manufacture, which can have a positive effect for commercial embroiderers, where bottom line pricing is often a must.
Shaft: This begins at the base of the shank and extends the length of the needle to the point. It is the diameter of the shaft that determines the thickness of the needle.
Eye: At the base of the shaft, this is the hole through which embroidery thread passes, from front to back. By securing the thread through the eye, the thread is carried down to the bobbin casing, in order to form a stitch. The size of the eye will vary with the type and size of the needle.
Groove: This indentation, at the front of the needle, is the channel through which the thread passes down to the eye. It helps to guide and protect the thread.
Scarf: Located at the back of the needle, just above the eye, its purpose is to allow the rotary hook to come near enough to the eye of the needle to catch the thread and create a stitch.
Point: The first part of the needle to come into contact with the fabric; it penetrates the substrate, moving the thread towards the bobbin, in order to form a stitch.
Finally, given that the needles you order for your embroidery machine were most likely manufactured in Germany or Japan, the markings or labels may not be clear in their meaning. Common marking from major needle manufacturers will help you quickly and easily identify the type of needle you require:
Ballpoint needles are designated: BP, FFG, SES, SUK, FG
Sharp point needles are designated: SP, RG. However, the lack of any code will often indicate that the needle is a sharp point.
Needles with a titanium coating for extra strength: PD, SAN 1, TN
Needles manufactured to keep residue from adhering: NIT, LP, CS
Needle sizes are provided in two ways: the European (metric) system determines the size by multiplying the diameter of the blade by 100. The system that has become standardized in the United States by the Singer Sewing Machine Company uses consecutive numbers. For convenience, needle packaging will reflect both measurements (see chart for reference). The most common needle sizes are:
65/9: This is a fine needle that is used for thinner threads on thin, lightweight fabrics.
75/11: The most commonly used size for general purpose embroidery.
Large eye needles will accommodate a wide range of thread sizes without needing to increase the size of the needle, and keep the hole you make in the fabric as small as possible. With a larger “target,” it also allows for easier needle threading.
With a better understanding of the important role your needle plays in your embroidery work, and how to determine what you need by sight, you’ll be able to take on more challenges and better existing jobs.