Sewing Machine Needles Explained

Have you ever wondered what all those colours and numbers on sewing machine needles are for?
Do you struggle to decide which needle is the best choice for your current project?
Is there a Universal needle permanently on your machine because you just don’t know what else to use?

Then read on for an explanation of the “coding” of sewing machine needles and how to choose the right one for every project.


Sewing machine needles will either have one or two coloured bands just below the shank (that’s the thicker bit at the top) or the whole shank will be one colour. Unfortunately, to make things a little more confusing, different needle brands use different colours to denote different information. However the systems of two bands below the shank or the whole shank coloured always point to the same type of information.

The first three needles in the photo below use the two-band system:
– the upper band tells you the type of needle
– the lower band tells you the size of needle

And the needle on the far right of the photo is using the coloured shank system.

As I said early, different brands of needles use different colours, meaning a quilting needle from one brand will have a different colour to another brand. With this in mind, it’s hard to list all the colours because it gets rather confusing so I would recommend finding a chart for your preferred brand. But always keep in mind that the upper bands shows the type of needle and the lower band shows the size.


Happily the numbering system of needles is much more universal. The numbers tell you the size of the needle and are written in two parts e.g. ?? / ??. Both numbers actually give you the same information; one shows the European number (most commonly between 60 and 100, increasing in 10s) and the other shows the American number (most commonly between 8 and 16, increasing in 2s). Depending on where you purchase the needles may mean that the order of those two numbers vary but, as I said earlier, they actually give you the same information. The bigger the number, the heavier the fabric with which it is intended to be used.

The numbering sizing is usually stamped onto the shank of the needle as you can see from the photo below.

Generally speaking the following numbers would be suitable for these types/weights of fabric:
100/16 – heavy – denim, canvas, upholstery etc
90/14 – medium – linen, curtain fabric, wool etc
80/12 – medium – quilting cotton, shirting etc
70/10 – light – cotton lawn, voile etc
60/8 – very light – delicate silks, organza etc

Types and their uses

Universal: although the most commonly used needle type, the name doesn’t refer to the relevant fabric/project but more that this is the essentially the “base” needle design which has had no alterations made to suit specific uses.

Quilting: stronger with a tapered point so the needle can go through the layers of a quilt without breaking the thread or fabric

Top Stitch: very sharp point with a large eye for heavier top-stitching threads

Embroidery: large eye for thicker thread

Ball point/jersey: needle end isn’t as sharp and slightly rounded so the needle pushes through the weave of the fabric rather than cutting/stabbing through

There are other needle types too for specific fabrics and thread types (their use is pretty clear from the name) e.g. denim, leather, metallic etc.

Full disclosure…

I use a 80/12 Universal needle for patchwork piecing even though it might not be the perfect choice.
I use a 90/14 top stitching needle for free motion quilting, the size of the needle helps it get through the quilt layers easily and the large eye helps with thread wear/breakage during quilting.


My biggest top tip for not getting confused by your needle selection and keep track of what you are using is to keep it organised. Although the information is there on every needles, it can be hard to read and/or a little confusing (especially if you buy different brands) but if you keep your needles organised so you know without even looking closely what type of needle you are putting into your machine then you’ll overcome a lot of confusion and difficulties.

The little plastic case that most needles are sold in are good for keeping needles stored and organised (plus they have the type and size printed on the box!) but if you are anything like me you might end up with loads of these tiny boxes dotted all over the place and, perhaps even more importantly, you won’t know which is the “current” needle in the box and which are still brand new.

PatternTrace have just released a fantastic needle storage box and I was lucky enough to receive a sample to test out. With the storage box you receive a selection of stickers so you can choose how to label each section yourself, and each section has a little fuzzy circle that you can use to hold your current needle so it doesn’t get mixed up with the brand new ones…that’s a real game charger for ensuring you are using the best quality of needle for your projects.

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