Forgive us the sewing pun, but today’s blog post is about needles and that title just seemed too clever to pass up! As with many aspects of heirloom sewing, there is such a wide selection of needles that it begins to get confusing! Chenille, milliners, darners, betweens, and many more…what does all of that mean? We asked our good friend Cindy Foose to educate us a bit on some hand-sewing-needle terminology.
Needles are sized by number. The higher the number, the thinner the needle. If the needle is too thin, the thread following will fray due to being pulled through too-small holes, but if the needles is too thick you will have gaping holes in your fabric that don’t “heal” on their own. Historically, needles have been made from bone, ivory, stone, gold, silver, and steel. Nowadays, needles are made of carbon steel wire coated with copper and then coated with nickel. Each set of needles is made from the same reel of wire to ensure that all of them are the same.
Let’s talk about some of the different kinds of needles.
Tapestry: these needles have a large eye and a blunt point. The tip is blunt because these needles are made to slide between the fibers of a cloth, not pierce it. These are commonly used for needlepoint and cross stitch.
Chenille: these have a large, elongated eye and a sharp point (to actually pierce the fabric this time). The shape of the eye packs the thread fibers together to allow it to pass through the fabric without abrasion. Some common uses are smocking with 6+ strands and smocking with ribbons.
Darner: these have a wide, elongated eye with a long shaft that begins narrow and expands to the eye. These are commonly used for general smocking.
Milliner (also called Straw): these needles have a long shaft which is the same diameter from their point to their tiny eye. These were originally used in hatmaking (as y’all can probably tell by the name) but today they are commonly used in bullions, French knots, and embellishments.
Crewel (also called Embroidery): these have an elongated eye, a medium shaft, and a normal sharp point. They have a variety of uses. They’re your “everyday” needles.
Sharps: these ones have a small eye, a short shaft, and a normal sharp point. The short shaft of these cuties allows for excellent control. They are designed for hand and finishing work.
Betweens: these are the needles with the VERY short shaft, enlarged eye, and a normal sharp point. This short shaft allows for quick, even stitching. They are a favorite of quilters, tailors, and professional seamstresses.
The correct needle can make or break your sewing project. There really is no such thing as a “universal” needle-it always depends on what you are making. Whenever we learn all these details about the different elements of heirloom sewing, we value them so much more! Speaking of value…did you know that in 1850 in the country of Sudan you could trade needles for a wife? They must have valued their needles too!