Machine Embroidery Needles 101

Know how to choose the right needles every time to ensure smooth production

By Shawne Randlett, Contributing Writer

On point: even in this age of digital wizardry, having the right needle for the job still makes all the difference in the world. Photo courtesy of Madeira USA

March 29, 2024

Understanding the differences between machine embroidery needles and knowing which needle to use for each project will go a long way in developing your skills as a proficient commercial embroiderer. Unfortunately, many beginning embroiderers have either been taught little, if anything, about needles, or they’ve labored under a certain amount of misinformation about them.

Needles aren’t difficult to understand once you learn the basics. However, they are a vital part of protecting the fabric you’re embroidering on and creating professional-looking designs. Many garments can be saved from ruin and many headaches avoided by knowing how to choose the correct needle.

This article will break down the two key elements you need to know to you pick the correct needle for your work every time you set up a new embroidery job on your machine. We’ll also provide you with some helpful tips on needle life and changing them.

Embroidery Needle Basics

The best way to understand machine embroidery needles is by recognizing they are classified by size and point type. All needles are specified according to one of these two characteristics and knowing both is vital to understanding how you’re going to use them. At the start of each embroidery project, you will need to decide what needles your project requires. You must choose both the size needed for the thread you’re going to stitch with and point type according to the kind of fabric being embroidered. Failure to make the right choice can leads to various issues.

Needle Size: Needle size refers to the thickness of the needle shaft. All sizes of industrial machine embroidery needles will fit in an industrial embroidery machine, because the shank (the part that goes into the machine) is the same. However, the shaft of the needle (the main part of the needle) is rated according to thickness.

Machine embroidery thread and needles

Different thread weights require different types of needles. Note the needle size designation in the upper righthand corner of the labels on these three needle trays, each of which holds 10 needles. The tray at right includes a set of 75/11 needles, the most common size. Note also, the “Large Eye” (DBxK5) designation on each tray. Photo courtesy of Madeira USA

The size markings are found on the label and are listed as a pair of numbers separated by a slash mark. The first number is a metric one based on a European standardization system from the 1940s and represents the size of the needle shaft in millimeters without the decimal point. For example, a number “90” needle indicates a 0.90 mm diameter needle. The second number is a U.S. needle system number originally derived by Singer that is now used industrywide.

Needles are made in various sizes to accommodate various weights, or thicknesses, of thread. In addition to allowing for thicker or thinner threads to pass through cleanly, the thickness of the shaft and eye determines the size of the penetration hole the needle makes in the fabric. This is important, because a thicker thread requires a larger space to pass through the textile without snagging and breaking. Likewise, a smaller size needle with a slimmer profile will create a smaller penetration hole for thinner thread. Small lettering and fine details look crisp and lie flat when the appropriate size needle is used.

Because embroiderers should choose needle sizes based on the weight of the thread they are using, and because 40-weight thread is the most common thread weight used in machine embroidery, 75/11 needles are the most common needle size used.  They are often packed with new machine starter kits or with 40-weight thread samples, because they are the most appropriate size for #40 thread.  Machine embroidery needles range from the very fine 60/8 all the way up to the very large 100/16.

Needle Point Type: Needle point type refers to the penetrating tip of the needle. For most machine embroidery, needles are classified as being either sharp or ballpoint.  Every needle size is available in either one of these point types.

Sharp needles have a pointed tip that is meant to pierce the fabric during the stitch penetration. Sharps should be used for heavy woven fabrics and heavy non-woven materials, like vinyl and leather. They create a clean hole in these kinds of stable textiles so that the thread can pass through unencumbered. Use sharps on substantial woven materials like heavy twill, baseball caps, canvas, heavy weight linen, denim, wool coating fabrics like tweed, and boucle, burlap and duck cloth. These fabrics will not be compromised by piercing with a sharp point, and embroidery done on them with a sharp needle will lie flat with a crisp appearance.

Machine embroidery needle point types

Different embroidery jobs and materials require different point types. Photo courtesy of Madeira USA

Conversely, using a sharp-point needle on lighter, less stable fabrics, like knits, can damage the looped matrix of the fabric. The continuous loop construction of knit fabrics is what makes them stretch in every direction and using a sharp needle on them will sever that construction, creating pulls, puckers and holes. Sometimes the holes made on a knit with a sharp needle will become immediately evident as soon as you unhoop, especially near the edges where upon close inspection they will appear as tiny tears. Other times, the holes will become obvious after the garment has been washed and worn a couple of times, at which point the damage will appear as pinholes that begin to unravel and widen in and around the design area.

To avoid these kinds of problems, ballpoint needles are recommended for knits and lightly woven fabrics. T-shirts, sweatshirts, polo shirts, waffle knits, undergarments, swimwear and performance wear are all examples of popular knit fabrics that require a ballpoint needle for embroidering on. Other examples of lightly woven fabrics requiring ballpoints include dress shirts, oxford fabric, light linen and muslin, organza, chiffon, taffeta, silk and lightweight cottons and cotton blends.

Ballpoint needles are made with a slightly rounded, polished tip that bypasses the fibers in the fabric as opposed to piercing or cutting them the way sharps can. The rounded, polished tip of a ballpoint needle pushes between the natural voids in the matrix of the fabric without severing the fibers. This keeps the integrity of the fabric intact during the embroidery process.

Using a ballpoint on a heavier woven is not recommended, because of the way bent (deflected) or broken needles can result. Additionally, the blunt end of a ballpoint needle will bruise and pull thicker wovens tighter as it tries to push through, resulting in damaged fabric and uneven stitching that fails to lie flat, as well as irregularities in the overall design.

Anatomy of a Machine Embroidery Needle

Everyone knows what a needle looks like, right? In fact, what looks simple is more complex than many think. There are good reasons why a machine embroidery needle is made the way it is. Here’s an anatomy lesson on the embroidery needle that will familiarize you with all the parts and help you gain a better understanding of what makes it special.

Diagram parts of machine embroidery needeles

The needles employed in machine embroidery decoration include a number of distinct, purpose-built features. Image courtesy Madeira USA

Shank: The thickest portion of the needle opposite the point, this is the end that is inserted into the machine and held in place by the needle bar. Needles can either have a round shank, which is cylindrical all the way around the circumference of the shank, or a flat-sided shank in which one side of the shank has been noticeably flattened. Round shank needles are made for use in industrial embroidery machines. Needles with a flat-sided shank are designed to fit home machines.

Shoulder: The shoulder is the angled transition from the shank to the shaft, or blade. Most machine embroidery needles feature a “normal” shoulder angle suitable for everyday stitching. Variations on the shoulder angle include the SAN1 needle and the KK needle series. The SAN1 needle features a softer transition between the shank and shaft, resulting in a slightly stronger needle with less chance of bending under stress. The KK needle’s shoulder is positioned much higher than a normal needle, and the shank above it is shorter. This keeps the needle shoulder from making contact with thicker materials, like leather, vinyl and 3D puff foam, for cleaner stitches.

Shaft (or Blade): This refers to the main body of the needle extending from below the shank to the point. The diameter of the needle shaft varies in thickness according to the size of the needle. The shaft contains the scarf, the groove, the eye and the tip/point.

Groove: Every machine embroidery needle has a groove running down the front of the needle. The top thread lies inside this groove as it passes along the needle, guiding it through the eye and through the fabric.

Scarf: If you turn your needle around in your fingers, you’ll notice an indentation on the back of the needle just above the eye. When the needle descends during the stitch cycle, this gap in the needle profile allows the rotary hook at the bobbin case to pass close to the eye so it can catch the thread and form a stitch with the bobbin thread.

Eye: The hole above the point of the needle, the top thread passes through the eye so that the needle can carry it down to form a loop with the bobbin thread and form a stitch. The size of the eye varies depending on the size of the needle. Needle eyes come in Standard Eye (DB X 1) and Large Eye (DB X K5) sizes. A Large Eye needle, as the name suggests, has an enlarged eye, is easier to thread and is the needle most commonly used by embroiderers. A Standard Eye needle has a smaller eye with thicker sidewalls. Some embroiderers choose to use these on specialized projects that require added needle strength.

Changing Your Embroidery Needles

How often should you change your needles? Obviously you’re going to change them out when you need to switch from ballpoint to sharp and back again. But how long can you expect to use your current batch of needles?  That depends on a number of factors. However, we strongly suggest the following guidelines.

Changing needles automated embroidery machine

Swapping out your needles in a timely fashion will mean less work in the long run. Photo by anatoliy_gleb – stock.adobe.com

Life Span:  Generally speaking, the average lifespan of a needle is about eight hours of continual running. Beyond this, the quality of your embroidery will begin to degrade noticeably over time. A good rule of thumb is to change out your needles as soon as the look of your stitching begins to suffer. Needles are not a high-cost item, and they can greatly affect the appearance of your finished work. You don’t want to run them so long they begin to bend and break due to overuse. The least expensive way to improve the quality of your embroidery is to simply change your needles regularly.

After Stitching the Tough Stuff: Tough, abrasive textiles will wear your needles faster. Once you complete a job stitching through things like canvas bags, baseball caps or nylon, make it routine to change your needles. Those sharp points have been working hard for you, and rough or thick materials will have dulled those points. Continuing to stitch with them won’t give you the sharp, clean look a fresh needle will. Pop in a set of fresh needles.

When You Just Aren’t Sure: Been away from your machine for a while and can’t remember what you stitched or the needles you used on your last project? Don’t risk it. Change your needles. A helpful tool to keep track of your needles is the Needle Tracker, a reusable, repositionable cling with spaces for keeping tabs on up to 16 needles. You can use this handy tool to keep a running record of every needle in each position, the size, the point type and the last time you changed it. Use a separate tracker for every head.

When it comes time to change out a needle, or needles, having the right tools for the job can be a huge help. The classic hemostat—originally a surgical tool—features finger holes like a pair of scissors and a set of tight clamping jaws for gripping and manipulating your needles in and out of the needle bar area of your machine. When using a hemostat, be sure and pay attention to the position of the needle when inserting it. Specifically, the needle groove needs to be carefully placed so that the groove faces the front.

Another great tool is the Needle Ease, a relatively new piece of equipment to the embroidery world that takes the guesswork out of needle insertion and placement. The key to the Needle Ease is a locking tip that holds the needle firmly as you place the needle into the machine. When the needle is correctly seated, you will hear a clicking sound, your signal that the needle is in its proper position. Using the Needle Ease makes much quicker work of needle changes. 

Shawne Randlett is currently the marketing content specialist for Madeira USA, after having previously worked for more than a decade as the product trainer for Madeira’s customer sales and service department. In addition to cutting-edge threads, backing, needles and bobbins, Madeira is a source for a wide range of accessories, including everything from shears and tension gauges to color cards and product displays.