The Free Motion Quilting Project: Much Ado About Needles

Friday, October 29, 2010

Much Ado About Needles

One of the suggestions from last week when I was feeling dumb really struck a cord and I've been thinking about it a lot.

A few commenters mentioned the need for more information on needles and thread. Specifically on how to choose which needles to use with which threads and for which situations.

Now, I must say from the first that I'm probably the worst person in the world to be writing about this because my opinion on needles and thread would probably make most other quilters cringe.

Or cover their ears.

Or run away screaming.

Here's the truth: I haven't used anything other than Universal 80/12 needles since 2005.

I don't use different needles for piecing. I don't use different needles for quilting. Yes, it's shameful to admit - but I actually use the same needles for almost everything.

Of course, now that I've admitted that, I've probably just flushed my credibility down the drain.

Professional "experts" are supposed to have hoity toity expensive advice, like to only use gold embossed, impossible-to-find needles that cost more than my son's new shoes.

Frankly, I don't have the money and I don't have the time to mess with funky needles. I just want to sew and quilt and I don't want to think about what needle is in the machine, the exact age and stitch history of said needle, and if it could be considered old enough to be thrown away or not.


So I piece, applique, and free motion quilt all with a Schmetz 80/12 Universal Needle.

Here's the important bit: I change needles about 2-4 times a month, depending on how much I'm using the machine.

I personally believe that changing needles regularly is far more important than the type of needle you use.

Needles can become bent or burred, and are often the culprit behind breaking threads and stitch issues. Changing needles more regularly can dramatically improve your stitch quality and your frustration level with your machine.

I should know this from experience - the machine I had growing up had a total of 1 needle change every 5 years. To say it straight - that machine stitched like hell - and that is not an exaggeration!

Now as for threads and needles, the reason why I love the Universal 80/12 is because they work great with both cotton and polyester threads.

For piecing I typically use Gutterman or Mettler cotton thread. For applique I'm now mostly using Isacord, and for free motion quilting, I use Isacord exclusively.

I like being able to use one type of needle, especially on the Horizon, because I can quickly change threads and go from piecing to quilting to applique without having to change needles.

Now there are a few situations I've found that do warrant a potential needle change, but most involve playing with weird threads and really weird situations.

The most common is metallic threads. Whether it's for applique or free motion quilting, unless you're couching the metallic thread on top (meaning it's not going through the needle), you really should use a Metallic Needle.

I've never experienced anything that makes me scream at my machine more often and with more exuberance than metallic thread. While I love them, I truly do, I have a strong suspicion that metallic threads really don't like me very much.

And that is probably due to my use-only-one-type-of-needle thing. Once I've broken thread about 10 times and am seething with anger, I finally go dig up my pack of metallic needles and - Viola! - stitching magic is back in action.

Keep in mind that my opinions on needles is based on my personal experience and is probably due to my economical mindset more than anything else.

My honest opinion is that no one, not me, not your mom, or your next quilt teacher can tell you what needles will work the best for your machine in all situations.

The best thing you can do is try a few different types of needles and experiment, have fun, and try to find needles you can use daily, or for specific tasks like piecing or quilting.

Once you figure out that type of needle, keep the other types on hand just in case you pick up a finicky type of thread, or have an odd situation that your daily use needles doesn't work for.

Let's go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. I restarted my quilting end of 2008 by purchasing a Janome 6500. I too exclusively use their needle, Organ but in different sizes because I have issue with FMQ. For thread, I use Superior So Fine.

  2. Finally somone willing to state their own opinion!! I have to agree I have no idea about needles and will be taking you up on the thread suggestion since my last attempt at FMQ I had enough lint to sandwhich another quilt!! Thank you so much for all you do and that you speak your mind it is hard to find someonw in the lime light so to say that only speaks of their sponsors!!

  3. Hi! Leah,

    Good to have a run down on needles and threads, I don't think you have lost your credability I do much same as you and know few others who do likewise. Heartly agree!

  4. Reading this post - I must say that I'm really in love with you!I'm a beginner in quilting and I follow your blog for long time because I have been learning so much from you...xox...
    Until this post I felt guilty that I think as you in this matter of needles and threads. From now on I won't!
    Thank you, dear Leah from your sincere advices!
    I hope to be able someday to buy one of your wonderful product about free motion quilting.Unfortunately, shipping to Europe from USA is doubles the price of the product, no matter which, general speaking...
    Anyway, Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  5. If you always use the same weight thread, there's no need to change your needle size. I go up to 90/14 for 40 wt or 30 wt thread and I use 80/12 for 50 wt. I did go to a finer needle for 100 wt silk, it kept breaking in the larger needle.

    If you find that metallics are shredding in 80/12, just go up a size. But I agree with you, if it's working, don't change it.

  6. Leah - I just love your way to use needles! Some weeks ago I was going to teach some ladies. One of them asked: "Which needle du you use?" I said;"The one, that is already in my machine!" It is such an nice and relaxing way to work!

  7. Although not a quilter, but I do use free motion quilting stitches, I change my needle for every project. Recent machine servicing and was told to change needle after every 8 hours sewing... which is about what I am doing. I also thoroughly clean out my machine after every project, may be a quick brush in between if needed. My machine is 20 years old, purrs along, and I think it has a lot to do with these two absolutes. There's something satisfying about starting a new project with a nice clean machine and new needle, ready to go!

  8. Funny, I use a topstitch needle for pretty much everything. The larger eye works well for my machine. When I remember, I switch to a sharp for quilting, and I do have different sizes, but for me a topstitch 80 is my 'universal' quilting needle!

  9. Thst's the BEST advice I've ever read about needles. Frankly, your honesty is refreshing. I also think that changing your needle is important and I'm going to try using just the #80 for everything now. It truly can be stressful trying to remember what's in the machine!

  10. LOL. I feel much better. I use 70/10 sharps for both piecing and quilting. Why change needles if you don't have to?

    I bought a case of 22 packages that has lasted me several years. It's probably time to restock.

    Only other needles I use are embroidery needles for my embroidery machine.

  11. woohooooo!!
    This is such music to my ears. I am always getting withering looks when I take my machine to a course, or get into one of those 'deep' discussions over my needle choice for xyz fabric with whatever thread.

    I like to use an Organ 80 or 90needle as I find them less expensive than Scmetz and they still do a great job. If really pushed to the edge by a fussy thread I use a 14 topstitch - either Schmetz or Organ. That has always done the trick. As for changing needles - I do it when the machine starts to feel a bit funny - or plays up and everything else has been ruled out. Oh - and when I run over a rouge pin and it gets all smooshed.

    I have taken a leaf out of your book and now use Isacord thread for free motion ( and sometimes piecing if I forget to change it- with no apparent ill effects) - wow that stuff comes in some funky colours - and it is cheap!!! Quality and cheap - that is a rarity!

    So - thanks for giving my the confidence not to want to go and hide in the corner next time someone gives me 'the look' when they see the needle in my machine or wants to play Quilting Top Trumps.

  12. Thanks for the refreshing dose of common sense. I think much of what we read/are told springs from a desire to sell as much merchandise to as many quilters as possible. I like your attitude MUCH better!

  13. As a sewing teacher I get this question all the time and when starting students off I give them a topstitching needle ( which is often the same build at a metalic needle)..this works in 90% of all projects.. if skipping becomes a problem then move on... I will admit to changing needles much more often on my longarm but it gets a hard workout and purrs with a new needle :)


  14. 80/12 needles are the most universal, but I use sharps for piecing. It's helps to keep my machine from "eating" those first few threads when I start a new seam, but I don't use "starters" or "enders" either. The other size I keep on hand at all times is 90/14. I use a lot of YLI & King Tut quilting thread and those threads are just too big for an 80/12 eye. My rule of thumb, if the auto needle threader won't thread the needle, the needle is too small.

  15. I'm a landscape quilter, which can present some different challenges, compared to conventional quilting. Having to put the needle through several layers of fabric and dried glue, I've discovered the Schmetz universal 80/12 sometimes does the job and sometimes not. My machine is a an old Viking Husquvarna. I finally got the manual out. Voila! It said for freemotion work, use a Schmetz STRETCH needle. On my current landscape quilt, that's working like a dream. Doesn't mean it will on the next, though. I do always use Isacord thread, so that's a constant. I have also had some good luck with a Schmetz Microtex needle.

  16. A tip on using metallic thread--years ago I didn't know Schmetz made needles for metallics, so I used my universal needle. The thread kept fraying and breaking. Then I read a hint somewhere. Run a very skinny line of Sewers Aid (liquid silicone in a little plastic squeeze bottle)down your spool of thread before sewing or winding the bobbin. Voila! Problem solved. There was no more shredding or fraying. My project went like a breeze after that. Do make sure your needle hole is large enough for the metallic thread to pass through easily, though. I think I had to go to a 90/14 for what I was doing at the time.

  17. I am an advid machine quilter also,I also purchased a Janome 6500 last year in sept,I love the machine, however I had issues with the lose thread (uneven) stitches on the bottom of my quilts , I thought it was the threads, until I went back to the shop and told them my problem and I ended up buying a Bobbin Holder for Free Quilting and hand-look quilt stitch .For thread I like simlpicty the best, embordery needles work for me

  18. I usually use a 80 or 90 Schmetz Universal needle. I also like Schmetz quilting needles that I only buy if they're on sale. I like them only because the eye of the needle is bigger and easier to thread. So Fine Thread from Superior Threads is my favorite quilting thread. If you use high quality thread (no matter what manufacturer), it makes life much easier and you don't need all the fancy needles. Discount thread isn't a bargain when it doesn't run through your machine smoothly and breaks all the time.

  19. Thanks Leah for your honesty and for debunking the myth of the "needle police!" It does reinforce my commitment to not be paralyzed by thinking there is just one "right" way of doing things. Experience and the end results will be the best thumbs up for what works for us. But with that also comes a necessary willingness to try different approaches to get better results and to commit to regular scheduled new needles. I have found a metallic needle to work best with metallic thread, but then again I'm also guilty of deciding to hand quilt certain motifs with metallic thread, thinking I'll avoid frustration, only to find that hand quilting with metallic thread is equally as tricky as using the machine.

    I've purchased a gigantic size of a daily pill dispenser to organize my machine needles. I organize by size and can write on the clear pill holder each size inside. Has seven slots, one I keep for needles waiting to be disposed.

    One of your great suggestions on the blog is to keep a diary of what threads work with what needles.

  20. Yeah, it's good to have someone give me permission to do what I already do! LOL! I just keep trying different threads and needles until I find something that works. If it takes me a long time to figure that out, I write down the right combo somewhere and hope I can find it when I need it.

  21. First off, thank you for asking for suggestions and then responding. I really appreciate that.

    The last few time I have quilted I wanted to use a varigated YLI thread, but a solid color Superior threads cotton-poly (I think) blend. I had such an issue with thread breakage that I almost gave up. I played with tension, with slowing down my movements, changing needles. I did almost everything I could think of to make it better. I finally switched to using the same thread top and bobbin. Are there any tricks/hints when using two different threads, or will this always be a problem between different weights and materials in the threads?

  22. I tend to just stick with the same sort of needle, it makes it easier and besides I am a bit lazy as well. Also makes it easy to remember what sort of needle to get. Cynical me, also thinks that the manufacturers are mainly interested in making money with all their different types of needles. Love your blog, I am a new Horizon user also so have been very interested in your thoughts on the machine.

  23. Needles and Thread! Two things that still have me baffled! I'm glad to know that I'm not crazy in trying to figure why I should use one needle for this and another for that. I like things simple. Thanks for making choosing needles simple!

  24. I am with you, I change my needle frequently and use the 80/12 as well, it works.

  25. It is so nice to come home from work and read your latest blog while I have a cup of tea and relax.
    I appreciated your comments about needles. I do about the same as you with the choice of needles. Sometimes my choice is the needle remaining in the package. If I do not have metallic needles, I have used top stitching needles with good results. I change my needle with each new project, more often if I start hearing a popping sound when the needle pierces the fabric, a sure sign that the needle has a barb. I also clean and oil my machine after every 2 bobbin refills. This keeps it humming. I keep empty pill vials to put old, dull, or bent needles & pins in. A safe way to dispose of them.
    Leah, I love the home page and the display of 100 filler designs on a page. A very easy way to quickly look up and review a video.

  26. When piecing or quilting you are primarily using one kind of it makes sense that you don't need to have a lot of different needle sizes. However if you also do garment and craft sewing with many different types of fabrics, you really need the right size needle for that fabric. Universal 10/12's just don't cut it for denim or for organza!

  27. Hi Marie - Actually I started using Universal 80/12 when I was sewing garments and used many different weights and types of fabrics from denim to stretch velvet to slinky rayon to organza.

    The overall rule is just to try stitching on a scrap of fabric and if your machine eats it or breaks a needle, change to something different and see if it works better.



  28. How refreshing to read your post on needles and thread. I have been sewing since I was thirteen and quilting for probably 35 years and I, too, don't change my needle very often. My Bernina, a gift for my 60th birthday, is 22 years old and sews like a dream. Doesn't seem to be too fussy about the thread or needles. Wonderful to read that there are other quilters out there that think as I do. Cheers - Carol

  29. P.S. I failed to mention I love your blog and videos! Good job, Leah.

  30. Leah, thank you for telling us what needles you use. I appreciate your sharing this information with us. You speak from experience and it costs us absolutely nothing.

    I have learned so much more from you than from all the workshops on FMQ that I have attended and those workshops were taught by quilters whose names all of us would recognize. I cannot thank you enough!

  31. Leah, good for you. Thanks for sharing what works for you, essentially giving permission for other quilters to feel more comfortable using what works for them.
    Happy quilting!


  32. you are so funny - thanks to your blog and all your fabulous tips I am now FMQing. I also use the same needle when piecing and FMQing - why not?? If it aint broke why fix it? It's a waste to change needles when they're still good. I found that after one smaller project a higher quality needle (organ) worked better in my machine (Janome) than a brand new cheaper needle straight out of the package (singer)!

    I still can't seem to figure out why my machine won't do left turns - I can't stitch to the left in a straight line for very long or the top thread breaks or all balls up in the back. This happens only when I'm using a poly/blend thread in the top and Aurifil in the bottom..

  33. Thanks! I really thought it was ridiculous to change a needle so often as what they said (I forget now what it was). I have used a top stitch needle for free motion quilting, but don't really notice any difference. The thing that makes the most difference to me is having the bobbin area clean of lint. I can tell right away if I need to clean it out.

  34. Thank you so much for your post! I was secretly hiding the fact that I used one needle from my quilting teacher. It worked at the time so I kept using it. It's a relief to know that I'm not the only one. I also wanted to mention that I LOVE your blog. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge! Awesome!

  35. This made me laugh. Just last month a couple of us in our guild researched and shared a lot of info about needles and thread choices, and provided a ton of samples etc... and I was feeling really out of depth because I rarely change my type of needle. At this point I use 75/11 almost exclusively and also feel that having new needles as needed is more important! I have only recently discovered metallic needles and it reopens my eye to playing with fancy threads again, but for almost all piecing, quilting, sewing decorative or sewing practical - the needles all come from the same package of 75/11 organs I love. lol, thanks for giving me hope that IF I am plebian, we are a strong and fierce group!

  36. I know I'm commenting on a really old post and I'm sure you have found metallic threads that work for you - but Yenmet and the Filtec glisten are really strong and have transformed my opinion on metallic threads x


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