We are fortunate today to have access to many different types of needles with different finishes. Traditionally, needles are nickel-plated, but some stitchers swear their platinum- or gold-plated needles make all the difference in stitching. Stitchers can choose between petite (or shorter) needles and the standard length needles.
The following is a brief description of just some of the various types of hand-sewing needles available. In general, needles are sized with the larger number being the smaller size and the smaller number being the larger size. For example, a size 20 tapestry needle is thicker and longer than a size 28, which is shorter and finer. Try a variety of brands, types, and sizes to determine which ones you like best.
Sharps are medium-length needles. They are the most commonly used hand-sewing needles. They have a sharp point and a round eye. In needlepoint, they are used to pierce the canvas threads.
Betweens are shorter needles with a rounded eye, used for detailed handwork, such as fine stitching or tailoring. Betweens in sizes 7 to 12 are also referred to as quilting needles. These needles work well to pierce canvas threads. The smaller betweens—sizes 11 and 12—are also used for beading on fabric.
Crewel or embroidery needles are identical in length and thickness to sharps but have a longer eye for easier threading with thicker embroidery threads. Again, these can be used to pierce the canvas threads.
Milliners or straw needles are similar to sharps except they are longer. They are most commonly used for basting and millinery work. They are extremely useful in making bullion knots since they are straight up and down and do not get fatter at the eye, thus making them easier to pull through a bullion knot.
Tapestry or cross-stitch needles have a longer eye for easier threading with thicker embroidery threads. They have blunt tips, which push aside the fabric threads rather than piercing them. They come in standard length or petite. This is the needle most commonly used in needlepoint and cross-stitch.
Chenille needles are the same as tapestry needles, but have a sharp point for embroidery on closely woven fabric. These are frequently used for ribbon embroidery on fabric.
Beading needles are made from very fine wire and have very narrow eyes in order to pass through the holes in a bead. These come in either a long or short length with a point.
Tatting needles are long and have the same thickness for their entire length. Needlepointers sometimes use them to make very long bullion knots.
Appliqué needles are very fine, short needles for hand appliqué and sewing on delicate fabrics.
Upholstery needles are heavy, long needles that can be straight or curved. Needlepointers use them when a heavier needle is needed. The curved ones can be used to assist in fixing missed stitches after a piece is finished.
Determining the Correct Size Needle
To decide what needle to use, pass the needle through an unstitched hole in the canvas. If the threaded needle enlarges the hole, the needle is too big. If the needle drops down through the hole too easily then the needle is probably too small. However, at times you may want the needle to enlarge the hole, such as if you are stitching with a delicate thread such as angora or if you are doing pulled threadwork. If the needle is too small it will squeeze the needle through the eye and cause excessive wear. Using a needle that is too small with stranded threads can make them more difficult to lie flat.