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Time to sort out the confusing and mystical world of sewing machine needles...

I have been around sewing machines for most of my adult life and I still find sewing machine needle sizes and needle types so incredibly confusing!!!  I am going to share what I have learned and what you must know about sewing machine needles.  It can be a frustrating topic for beginners and veterans alike.  Let's work through it together...

For the vast majority of the items that I sew, I use a universal sewing machine needle.  However, I also tend to sew with basic cotton and polyester fabrics.  When you venture out into the world of exotic and exciting fabrics, it is very important that you change your sewing machine needle to match the fabric type you are working with.  In order to get even, consistent stitches in your end product, you must use the right needle!

Using the wrong sewing machine needle can be dangerous!

Sewing with an undersized or inappropriate needle can be dangerous, since needles can break and become sharp little projectiles!  I’ve heard of sewers having very close calls with broken needles flying into their eyeglasses or across their sewing space.  We need both of our eyes to sew our best!  Keep that in mind and please use the correct needle size.

Why all the numbers and fractions?

Sewing machine needles come in various shaft sizes and with different points.  The shaft size is labeled numerically.  However, each package is labeled with two numbers shown in a fraction.  For example, the universal needles that I currently use are labeled as 80/12.  Why the heck are there 2 numbers….I’m convinced it’s just to drive me batty!!!

In my research I have learned that there have been over a dozen modern conventions for numbering the size of sewing machine needles.  Thank the Good Lord that only 2 remain in common use today, the American and the European.  That is why there are 2 numbers!!!  Now that we have solved that mystery….

Consistency would be nice...

To continue the frustration, the two numbers are not always used in the same order….ugh.

The smaller number is the American and the larger is the European, just like shoe sizes.  Below are needle sizes (in American) and what fabrics they are intended to be used with.

I most always use a 12 or 14 universal needle, sewing mostly on cottons, linens and fleece.  I have not had any issues to date.

Sizes 8, 9 and 10- Very fine fabrics

  • Silk, chiffon, lace, organza

Sizes 11 and 12- Lightweight fabrics

  • Cottons, synthetics, spandex/lycra

Size 14- Medium weight fabrics

  • Velvet, linen, tricot, muslin, knits, fleece

Size 16- Heavy weight fabrics

  • Denim, leather, canvas, suiting
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Specialty Sewing Machine Needles by Type

The following are the most common sewing machine needles that you will come across, and what makes them “special”.


The term "universal" refers to the shape of the needle shank and length, used on virtually all domestic sewing machines.  The common feature is a flat face on the needle shank, ensuring appropriate insertion into the machine.  The term universal does not mean they should/can be used for all projects, but universally fits standard domestic machines.  I DID NOT KNOW THIS!  I guess that means I shouldn't be using universal needles for everything...


Intended for tightly woven cottons such as canvas.  Has a strong sharp point and slender eye.


Has a distinct triangular point, allowing the needle to make a large, clean hole in nonwoven fabrics like vinyl.


These needles have extra strong shafts and tapered points to penetrate multiple layers, without breaking or shredding the thread or fabric.

Microtex/ Sharps

Slender and more sharp than universal needles, this needle variety is used for fine woven fabrics.  They can also be used for quilting and applique.


Has a rounded tip and specialized eye to prevent stitch skipping.  They are to be used on fabrics with a significant amount of spandex, or stretch.


Rounded edges with a different needle taper are the hallmarks of this type of needle.  Intended for knit fabrics where the round tip will push the weave out of the way versus cutting through it.

Color Coded by needle type....but pick a brand for consistency!

I also learned that most needles (depending on the brand) are color coated according to their type and use. However, the color coding is NOT consistent across brands.  That’s ok, just pick a brand and stick with it and that won’t be a problem.  I have used Schmetz needles because that is the brand my mom and aunt have always used.  I have never had any issues with them and have been a loyal consumer.

The Schmetz Brand website has some really great printable PDF resources if you are looking for more information.

Schmetz Brand machine needle color coding:

  • Yellow- Stretch
  • Brown- Leather
  • Blue- Jean/Denim
  • Green- Quilting
  • Purple- Microtex

I know this is NOT a fun topic.  However, after investing some time in research, it isn't as confusing as I have made it out to be all these years.

It’s one of those things you just have to learn and do... like multiplying fractions and eating green beans, two of my least favorite things.  But after you get it done, you can feel accomplished and do something fun, like start your next beautiful sewing project!

Be safe & stay well,

Jen J