When you're standing at the great wall of notions in the store, how do you know which needle and thread to pick for your project? Here are four of the most common combinations, plus a few tips to help you decipher the product labels.

Having the right tools in the kitchen helps make cooking easier, right? The perfect scoop and cookie sheet help you turn dough into awesome cookies. The same is true for sewing-the right needle in your machine and a proper thread choice can help you turn fabric pieces into a successful project.

Deciphering Labels

When you are beginning to sew, the number of needle and thread options can feel overwhelming. How are you supposed to choose when there are multiple variations, each designed for a different task? When trying to figure out what's best for you, package labels are a good first reference.

Machine-needle packages are marked with two key pieces of information:

1. TYPE (referring to the point of the needle)-such as sharp, denim, universal, ball point, jersey, etc.

2. SIZE-such as 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, etc.

The two numbers separated by a slash indicates needle size. The number on the left of the slash is the European size; the number on the right is the American size. Regardless of which number you reference, the important thing to remember is that the larger the numbers, the larger the needle. Lower numbers indicate finer needles. (This is true only of needles for sewing machines; hand-sewing needles are the opposite.) The type of fabric and the type of thread you will be using should guide your choice of needle size. A good rule of thumb is to choose the smallest size needle that pierces your fabric easily. A needle that is too big can leave holes in delicate fabrics. A needle that is too small can shred the thread or cause the needle to break.

The misstep most beginners make when choosing thread is thinking that the only consideration is color when fiber content and thread weight also are important. In a store, thread often is sorted first by manufacturer, then by type or usage. Sometimes different types are in different displays, and sometimes they're in the same display sorted by row. Confusing? Yes. The thing to do is to check the top or bottom of a spool for the thread fiber content -polyester, cotton, or all-purpose (usually a cotton-polyester blend).


The thickness or weight of threads also varies widely. There are lots of details you could learn, but for starters keep this in mind: For most assembly sewing, an all-purpose-weight thread is desirable. Avoid using rayon (shiny) or hand-glazed (heavyweight) threads in your sewing machine. They aren't meant for constructing seams.

Now that you know how to decipher the labels, let's talk about four common needle and thread combinations. Armed with this information, you should be able to breeze in and out of the fabric store, buying just the right supplies.

General Purpose Sewing (80/12 Universal Needle and All-Purpose Thread)

When you don't know what variety of fabrics you'll want to sew on next, this is a good combination. The slightly rounded point of a universal needle is sharp enough to pierce woven cotton fabrics, but not so sharp it will damage knits. It comes in sizes ranging from 60/8 to 120/19-but a reasonable starting point is the 80/12 size. Assorted needle packs that include two or three different sizes often are available. All-purpose thread is a good general sewing thread that is readily available and comes in oodles of colors.


Precision Piecing or Topstitching (70/10, 75/11, or 80/12 Sharp Needle and Cotton, Polyester, or All-Purpose Thread)

Sharp needles have a slim, (you guessed it) sharp point that easily pierces cottons, microfibers, and silks, resulting in better penetration through the fabric and fewer skipped stitches. Sharp needles come in a range of 60/8 to 110/18 sizes, but a 70/10, 75/11, or 80/12 is a good place to begin. Match your thread to your fabric, pairing cotton with cotton, or polyester with synthetic fibers.


Jeans/Denim (100/16 Needle and Polyester Jeans Thread)

Choosing the right needle and thread when sewing on denim can eliminate most of the headaches that occur when working with this heavyweight fabric. Using a needle that is too small or thread that is too lightweight are the most frequent causes of broken needles or skipped stitches. A jeans needle has a heavy-duty blade designed specifically to pierce extra-thick woven fabric. Sizes generally range from 90/14 to 110/18, but the 100/16 is a good first choice. For thread, at the fabric store look for polyester thread labeled "jeans." It is heavier in weight and comes in the most common colors used for jeans-gold and blue-gray.


Knits/Jersey (80/12 Ball Point and Polyester or All-Purpose Thread)

Ball point needles are made especially for sewing on knits, such as T-shirt fabric and jersey. The ball point won't damage or break the fibers as it pierces the fabric. Ball point needles also come in a range of sizes, from 70/10 to 100/16. When sewing with a knit fabric, remember that if the fabric stretches, your seam needs to stretch, too. If your sewing machine doesn't have a stitch designed especially for knits, try stretching the fabric slightly as you sew. Then when the fabric returns to its natural state, the stitches will be a bit closer together and will allow for a bit of give.


Needle and Thread FYI: There's one more question to answer when dealing with needles and thread. When should you change the needle on your sewing machine? The answer is NOT when your needle breaks! Rather, treat yourself and your machine to a new needle after every 8–10 hours of sewing time. It is important to change the needle frequently as needles dull with use. If your needle strikes a pin or the machine bed, it can develop a nick or burr that can tear your fabric. Change your needle often and you'll be happier with your results!