Thursday, August 20, 2009

New Sewists Thursdays - Needles and Thread!

I still remember the first time I made something and it worked...both for my Barbie doll and for me. I remember the feeling of accomplishment and how empowering it felt. I knew that there wasn't anything I couldn't make if I put my mind to it! I also remember the awe (my own) and others when they realized that I had created something with my two hands. I was 11 years old and that's when I fell in love with this artform called sewing.

So it is very important to me to encourage new sewists! And in that vein we are going to step away from the technique questions this week and discuss some basics. Because believe it or not I've received quite a few basic sewing questions...

The first questions are from Theresa. She asks...

1) Thread - What type of thread is best for garment sewing? Quilters use 100% cotton thread for quilting because the thread will break before the fabric rips which is preferable as the repair is easier. Does this same theory apply to garment sewing? Does the type of thread depend on the the type of material?

Whew....this is a post unto itself! But since we are keeping it basic and assuming that you are just beginning to sew, I would recommend either a 100% polyester thread by Mettlers or Gutterman for garment sewing. To me these are better quality threads than Coats and Clarks and produce a superior sewn seam. (say that 3x!) However, if Coats and Clarks is all that you have available, by all means use it. I started out sewing with C&C and I made great garments using it.

I would, however, strongly caution anyone from buying and using the thread in the bargain bins! Gutterman and Mettlers use long fiber technology to ensure an even and optimum thread quality. The thread in the bins have short fibers, can be really fuzzy and doesn't feed evenly in your machine. Thus causing a lot of lint to accumulate in the crevices of your sewing machine, as well as, the thread to constantly break. It may be a cheap alternative but remember the old saw that you get what you pay for!

Threads Magazine did a great article recently called, "How Thread is Made and How it Affects Your Sewing." It's in the September 2009 issue and it's chockful of wonderful information on the process of creating thread along with how to choose the right thread for the job. There are three memorable points:

1. Don't match thread to fiber content

2. Don't rely on size alone when selecting the best thread for your project.

3. Do match your needle and thread

and finally a match the color of your thread to the colors in your project!

If you don't have a copy of this issue, please get one! It will give you a greater understanding of thread and when & how to use it. BTW, there is also a great article on pressing while sewing in this issue also called "Learn the Right Way to Press as you sew!"

Should the bobbin thread be the same brand & type & color as the top thread? Does the quality of thread vary greatly with price?

Personally I find that I get a better stitch quality and seam when I use the same thread in the bobbin and in the machine. I rarely mix threads unless I need a different color for the top and the bottom of the garment. Now of course there are exceptions to this rule but we are going with the very basics here.

As for quality and price - please refer to the portion above about bargain thread versus regular priced thread! There is a difference!!!

2) Machine needles - I very rarely change my sewing machine needle 'cause I forget that it should be done. How often do you recommend changing the needle and what needle size is best for garment sewing?

Ohhhhh I'm getting ready to seriously burst your bubble. Please, please, please change your needle IMMEDIATELY! I change my needle after every project. Especially since I don't sew the same type of fabric from garment to garment. You want to achieve the best stitch quality so you need to use the right needle for your fabric. Also during the course of sewing a needle can get nicks, the point can become dull or the needle can develop burrs...these conditions will affect the stitches your machine another reason to change your needle often.

As you may or may not know, needles come in sizes. Each size is to be used with a specific fabric type. The smaller the number of the needle, the finer the fabric.

Then there are also different types of needles:

Sharps - have a sharp point for piercing fabric - comes in sizes 60/8 through 120/20 and used for heavyweight or densely woven fabrics. Also good for decorative topstitching.

Universal - has a somewhat rounded tip for piercing fabric - comes in sizes 60/8 through 120/20 - used with all types of fabric

Ballpoint - has a rounded tip and used primarily with knits.

Twin or double needles - Are two needles attached to one shank and usually has a distance between the two needls from 1.6 to 6mm. These are used for decorative stitching and hems.

There are also Wing, Topstitching, Denim/Jeans and needles for stitching on leather.

Needle sizes:

For a wonderful explanation of needle sizes - what the numbers mean and what types of fabric they should be used to has a great article about it here. If you want a chart that you can print out and put near your sewing machine - try this one. And finally a few tips from the book, "The Experts' Book of Sewing Tips & Techniques."

Coats & Clarks recommends the 8-hour rule. They suggest that a good sewing machine needle is only good for about 8 hours of sewing and should be changed after 8 hours.

C&C also recommends keeping your needles clean by removing fabric finishes that can build up on a sewing machine needle resulting in skipped stitches. To clean the needle use a cotton ball with oil, detergent or a cleaning solvent. Sew a line of stitches on a scrap piece of fabric before using the "clean" needle in your good fabric to remove any leftover residue.

*Personally I've just used a little alcohol on a cotton ball to remove any fusible interfacing or gook from my needle and this has worked fine. But that's what I do!*

C&C also advises you to discard any needle that is less than perfect because you don't want it to snag your fabric.

Finally can I add some "Carolynisms"

1. Keep a supply of Universal needles in all sizes on hand so that you never run out in the middle of the night.

2. Keep thread in a dust-free environment to prevent lint issues as well as maximizing it's shelf life.

3. Thread does have a shelf life. If your grandma gives you some thread from 25 years ago, check it carefully because it may cause problems in your sewing machine.

4. Discard needles carefully and if you happen to break one while sewing, make sure that you retrieve all of the pieces from your sewing machine. One small piece or shard can do some serious damage to your sewing machine.

Okay that's it for today! I really hope you've learned something or at least you will pick up the Threads Magazine referenced. The floor is now open...any comments, suggestions or questions are welcomed! Also if you have another reference (internet, book or magazine), please feel free to share it. Personally I believe the more information shared ~ the better!

Next week for New Sewists Thursdays - there will be a guest blogger who will do a two-part series on "How to Fit." Since September is National Sewing Month, some of the topics featured for New Sewists Thursday will be on picking a pattern for your size, some more fabric information - of course! - and another detailed post on a technique.

As always...more later!


  1. I'll add one more thing to your change your needle after every project. Clean out your bobbin area at the same time. Makes a big difference in performance of your machine. I too keep a complete selection of machine needles on hand so that I will be able to change my needle often.

  2. Great post! I'll leave you with a couple of thoughts.

    I usually change the needle and do a clean up right before I start the project. That way I know the needle is fresh and the correct size for what I'm sewing.

    Linda Lee of the Sewing Workshop always recommends natural fiber threads for sewing, either silk or cotton. She says this the stretch inherent in poly threads is more likely to create puckers while the natural fibers won't. Also, the natural fiber thread "melds" better with the fabric for a softer seam. I confess, I usually still sew with poly.

  3. Thank you for referring to sewing as an art form. It made me feel like an artist!

    I use a can of compressed air (the same as you would use to clean your computer keyboard) for keeping my sewing machine free of dust and thread debris. It works like a charm.

  4. I just wanted to say "thank you" for taking the time to do these posts. I am not "brand new" to sewing, but I still have LOTS to learn. These tidbits of info really do help me out. Love your blog, and your masterpieces :) (btw on my way out the door to get the magazine)

  5. I'm like Carrie above - not new to sewing but have lots to learn still. I enjoy these posts and am looking very forward to the "fit" series.

  6. Carolyn, THANK YOU! This information is great. I do have sewing machine needles on hand and will make a habit of inserting a new needle with each new project.

    The "Carolynisms" are WONDERFUL. You should compile them and create a booklet.

  7. Having a good supply of needles is so important. I can't imagine how frustrating it would be to have to stop sewing because I ran out of needles. I usually stock up when JoAnn's is having 50% off the notions wall. I also recently discovered microtex needles. I love them and use them almost all the time. They are very sharp and come in all different sizes. I usually don't use them for stretchy fabrics but they are great for woven.

    Thanks Carolyn for all this great basic info!

  8. Thanks for the thread tips. I have been wondering about thread lately, so your post is very timely.

  9. I love the Barbie doll story. My Grandmother taught me to hand stitch a skirt (gathered w/ waistband) and shirt (facings and darts)for my Barbie when I was about 10 or 11. I was hooked on sewing from that moment - what magic to take some scraps of fabric and see it turn into real clothes!

  10. Those are some fantastic tips and great information - thank you for sharing!!!

  11. You are sooo right about changing needles! We had a student in one class who hadn't changed her needle at all - and she had owned her machine for a year! Yikes! She couldn't understand why her tension wasn't right and her machine was skipping stitches! It is amazing the problems that can be caused by an old/bent/blunt needle.

    I agree with cleaning the bobbin area each time also - except, as someone who sells sewing machines, I have been told to advise owners not to blow into the bobbin mechanism (to get rid of fluff) for 2 reasons - 1. it pushes all the fluff back into the machine workings, and 2. your breath is moist and moisture can cause rusting. I use a small attachment on my vacuum cleaner after I have flicked the brush around.

    Just my 2 cents worth, your new sewists posts are very informative :-)

  12. Hi Carolyn. I'm another new sewist and just wanted to add my heartfelt thanks for putting in the time and effort to create this series.

  13. I don't think about my needles, either, and I'm very certain that's wrong. I did buy the bargain collection of Guterman's thread based upon your Atlanta Thread recommendations, and it is beautiful. I have been inspired to sew by this lovely thread, and that's a lot to ask of thread!

  14. I am also not new to sewing, however want to thank you so much for the work that goes into these posts. It is wonderful to learn something new no matter whether we are a new hand to sewing or have been doing it for ages.

    If any other Australian sewers are here, Australian Stitches has printed a number of articles on pressing and needles and if you like I have the indexes for Volumes 12, 13 and 14 on my blog which you can download to your PC.

  15. My mother used to buy the bargain bin threads (10 and 15 cents a spool) and then fuss about the tangling, knotting and breaking that was going on. She was all the while blaming it on her "new" machine! When I used the same type of thread years later to do some hand sewing, it behaved the same way. That was when we threw away all those "bargain" spools of thread. The only bargain about it was the price. Nothing else was worth what we had paid. It provided much more aggravation, wasted more of our time and was not good for the machine or our fabric. If it caused experienced sewists frustration, what was it doing to discourage new sewists?

    So, all that to say, great post Carolyn. I agree!

  16. I'm with Tamara...I love microtex needles. Sandra Betzina has been featuring them on her web videos and they do make a difference on slippery fabrics and edge stitching. For those of us who love Mettler poly and have used it for over 35 years....if there are puckers...just slow down a little. I use C&C thread for basting by hand as it rips out easily and breaks and shreds for removal if you stitch over it later in your final seams. If you can break thread easily by pulling on it...don't put that in your garment! When selecting thread I have always told my students to go one shade darker than the fabric for when the lights hits it as in top-stitching or button holes, it can look lighter and reflect back a cheaper look.Caroline you are such a gift to new sewers...God Bless You!
    And what do you think of Project Runway tonight?????

  17. Good post - I know it took a while for you to put this together. These are things I say over and over again in my class. There's so much to know about sewing needles sometimes I think it's confusing a new sewest. But we learn in baby steps and we never stop learning or teaching ourselves new things about our art. Heck - after over 35 years of sewing I'm still learning..we never stop learning.

    So - can't wait to hear your review on Project Runway and the All star challenge. I think it's going to spark us after a slow summer of sewing.

  18. Thank you Carolyn for this great post. As a new sewist,I didn't know I should be changing my needle after every project, although I use ballpoint for knit but I usually use my other needle forever, until they break. Thanks for this info, really appreciate. Have a lovely weekend

  19. Hey Ms. C!

    Just wanted to tell you Thank You for doing this series. For new sewers (like me) this is like the holy grail of info!

  20. If you have a big stash of thread, some aging, sit down one night in front of the TV and one by one take each spool and give it a yank. If the thread breaks, chuck it. It should not break with a simple yank. It's either rotten, cheap or both. I threw out half my stash last winter doing this but my frustration level has definitely decreased.

  21. Thanks for this marvelous post, Carolyn. As a beginning sewist, I need all the help I can get. I was wondering if I could ask you a favor. I just started my own sewing blog, Teen Seamstress. I was wondering if you would mind giving a beginning sewing blogger a hand in getting some readers. Would I be rude if I asked you to link to me or mention me if you get a chance? It would mean a lot to me-I've been a longtime lurker in the sewing blogoshpere, and now that I have started blogging I want to become a member of this digital sewing circle. My site is If you could give me a helping hand, that would be great! I feel so bad blatantly self-promoting here, but you're so nice and supportive of beginning seamstresses, and I thought that supportiveness would probably extend to beginning sewing bloggers as well. Thank you for being such an inspiration and writing such a wonderful blog!

  22. Thanks for the great tips! :) Keep up the great work! :)

  23. When it comes to thread color matching (other than black or white), I don't usually go for a prefect color match because I find if I go down a shade for the thread its easier to see stitches if I have to rip, especially with a tiny stitch length.

  24. The article in Threads was very informative and I went into my sewing and all the bargain threads I'd purchased now are used exclusively for baste stitching.

    Now, if only I can remember to change my darn needle.

    Thanks for a great post.

  25. OMG my thread and needles are ancient - off to to a big dump....


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