Needle Knowledge

Needle Knowledge

We asked you what you wanted to know about needles, and the Paper Pieces team had questions too! We gathered up our questions and sent them to Colonial Needle- the makers of our beloved John James Needles! Our questions were kindly answered by the amazing Judy Moore Pullen- accomplished quilt maker, designer, writer, lecturer, and retired educator. Here's what Judy has to say!

1. How many hours of sewing is a needle good for?

9-10 hours sounds good for the life of a sewing needle, depending on the fabric.  You may want to change the needle if using it exclusively to sew on leather, metallics, heavy denim, or canvass.  Also, consider periodically checking the needle for burs if sewing on very fine fabrics like silk, and voile.  Periodically sew on a scrap of very fine fabric for clean stitching.  

2. What's the best needle for whip stitching?

The best needle for whip stitching depends on the thread weight and the fabric on which you are sewing.  A tapestry needle is dull and would be ok if you are sewing on loosely woven wool fabrics.  If you are sewing on felted/shrunk more tightly woven wool, use a chenille needle.  It is sharp and ore easily pierces the fabrics.  However, if you are whip stitching cotton to cotton, consider a sharps needle.  

3. What’s the best thread for hand-sewing?

The very best threads for hand sewing as well as machine sewing are  Presencia!  Presencia Threads are 100% long-staple 3-ply Egyptian cotton, even the finest 60-weight.  Remember: just like us with each birthday cake, our number gets bigger and we get FINER, so the bigger the number the FINER the thread and hand-sewing needles. 

4. How should we store and discard our needles?

The best way to store needles is in a swatch of 100% wool or in a wool pincushion filled with wool lint from the dryer after the wool has been felted.
The best way to discard needles is in a pill bottle with a child-proof cap.  You also might consider inserting them into a pincushion just for discarded needles and using them later to hang small pictures on the wall. 

5. What is the best pin cushion filling?

The best pincushion filling is wool.  When wet wool from the washer is dried in a dryer, remove the wool before completely drying.  Save the wool lint from the dryer lint thingy and stuff a wool pincushion.  The lanolin in the wool helps keep needles sharp. 

 6. What is the difference between Sharps needles and Straw Needles?

Sharps needles are shorter thanStraw/Milliners needles.  Sharps are generally stronger, longer, finer, and do not bend as easily as Straw/Milliners needles. My favorite is John James Signature Collection Sharps and Milliners.  They are strong, do not bend, and are so sharp that they easily pierce rather than push or distort the fabric.  

 7. Why do some needles curve/bend?

Quality needles are manufactured of the finest quality steel, and therefore resist bending too much.  An exception: straw needles are preferred by hand stitchers because they do bend and conform to the stitcher's fingers.  

 8. Is there truly a "right and wrong" side of the needle eye?

There is a right and wrong side to the eye of a needle.  The eye is punctured into the shaft of the needle, creating a minuscule difference in each side of the eye.  When having difficulty threading a needle, turn the needle around and insert the thread into the other side of the eye.   Hint:  I place a piece of white fabric on top of my pincushion which allows me to better see the eye of the needle.  Place the pincushion at eye level and beneath a good light source,and stand the needle upright in the pin cushion.  Cut your thread straight across, moisten the cut end, and pinch, do not twirl the wet cut end of the thread.  Since your needle is secured upright in the pin cushion, you now have both hands to insert the thread and grasp the cut edge on the other side of the eye.  If this does not work.  Turn the pincushion around, NOT the needle.  Repeat cutting, moistening, and pinching the thread.  

9. How can I prevent my needles from losing their finish?

The lanolin in wool helps needles stay sharp, so store them in a wool-filled pin cushion or a swatch of wool.  

Do you have any tips for sharpening my needles?

I have never heard of sharpening a needle.  Just go ahead and invest in the best you can:  John James Signature Needles are my favorites!

Thank you Judy, for getting straight to the "point" and answering our questions! Keep your "eye" out for the needles Judy recommends- we'll be looking for them too!



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What size needle do you use? I see that the John James needles come in different sizes. I found some sharp needles, but they’re hard to manipulate due to the short length.

Susan Carpenter

Super! You’ve even answered questions I didn’t know I had yet! Thank you!

H.J. Kas

Thank you so much for the information about needles. It was very useful.


Thank you for the needle treatise. You can clean and sharpen the needles with the emery strawberry. I used to embroider in summer with no AC; the emery cleaned the corrosion from sweaty hands.

Karen Scribner

Thank you for a very informative and interesting article on needles.


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