A sewing needle is a long slender tool with a pointed tip. The first needles were made of bone or wood; modern ones are manufactured from high carbon steel wire, nickel- or gold plated for corrosion resistance. The highest quality embroidery needles are made of platinum. Traditionally, needles have been kept in needle books or needle cases which have become an object of adornment.
A needle for hand sewing has a hole, called the eye, at the non-pointed end to carry thread or cord through the fabric after the pointed end pierces it. Hand sewing needles have different names depending on their purpose.
Needle size is denoted by a number on the packet. The convention for sizing is that the length and thickness of a needle increases as the size number decreases. For example, a size 1 needle will be thicker and longer, while a size 10 will be shorter and finer.
Types of hand sewing needles
These come in 10 sizes, ranging from No.1: very heavy to No.10: very fine.
- Sharps are needles used for general sewing. They have a sharp point, a round eye and are of medium length. The difference between sharps and other sewing needles can mainly be seen in their length.
- Embroidery needles, also known as Crewel needles, are identical to sharps but have a longer eye to enable easier threading of multiple embroidery threads and thicker yarns.
- Betweens or Quilting needles are shorter, with a small rounded eye and are usually used for making fine stitches on heavy fabrics such as in tailoring, quilt making and other detailed handwork.
- Milliners' needles are longer than sharps, are useful for basting and pleating, and are used in millinery work.
- Easy- or Self-threading needles, also called Calyx-eyed Sharps, have a slot for the thread, rather than an eye.
Special purpose needles
These needles come in various sizes so numbering will differ from the needles described above.
- Ballpoints have a rounded point and are used for knitted fabrics. Sizes 5-10.
- Beading needles are very fine, with a narrow eye to enable it to fit through the centre of beads and sequins. They are usually long so that a number of beads can be threaded at a time. Sizes 10-15.
- Bodkin. This is a long, thick needle with a ballpoint end and a large, elongated eye. They can be flat or round and are generally used for threading elastic, ribbon or tape through casings and lace openings.
- Chenille needles are similar to tapestry needles, but with large, long eyes and a very sharp point to penetrate close weave fabrics. Useful for ribbon embroidery. Sizes 13-26.
- Darning needles have a blunt tip and large eye, similar to tapestry needles, but are longer, with a yarn darners being the heaviest with very large eyes to thread yarn. Various types, with sizes ranging from 1-18.
- Doll needles are long and thin and are used for soft sculpturing on dolls, particularly facial details. Size 2.5"-7" long.
- Leather needles, also known as Glovers needles, have a triangular point for piercing the leather without tearing it. Used on leather, suede, vinyl and plastic. Sizes 3/0-10.
- Sailmaker needles are similar to leather needles, but the triangular point extends further up the shaft. Used for sewing thick canvas or heavy leather.
- Tapestry needles have a large eye and a blunt tip. They are used for working on embroidery canvas, even-weave material and other loosely woven fabrics. The blunt tip allow the needle to pass through the fabric without damaging it. Double ended tapestry needles, with the hole in the middle, are also available for the convenience of embroiderers who work with fabric mounted in a frame. Sizes from 13 (heaviest) to 28 (finest).
- Tatting needles are long and are the same thickness for their entire length, including at the eye, to enable thread to be pulled through the double stitches used in tatting. Tatting needles should not be confused with tattoo needles and would be very ineffective at the task.
- Upholstery needles are heavy, long needles that can be straight or curved. Used for sewing heavy fabrics, upholstery work, tufting and for tying quilts. Curved needles are used for difficult situations where a straight needle is not practical and are also used in fabric box-making. Heavy duty 12" needles are used for repairing mattresses. Straight sizes: 3"-12" long, curved: 1.5"-6" long.
Needles in prehistory
A variety of archaeological
finds illustrate sewing has been present for thousands of years. The Romans left elaborate traces of their sewing technology, especially thimbles
and needles. Even earlier Stone Age
finds, such as the excavations on the island of Öland
at Alby, Sweden
, reveal objects such as bone
needle cases dating to 6000 BC. Needles were also found just above an ash layer dated to 40,000 years ago at the Kostenki
site in Russia.
Native Americans were known to use sewing needles from natural sources. One such source, the agave plant, provided both the needle and the "thread." The agave leaf would be soaked for an extended period of time, leaving a pulp, long, stringy fibers and a sharp tip connecting the ends of the fibers. The "needle" is essentially what was the tip end of the leaf. Once the fibers dried, the fibers and "needle" could then be used to sew together skins and other items used in a cloth-like manner.