A needle in a haystack is an English idiom that refers to an object (or a person) that is difficult to find because it is lost, mixed in, or buried within a much larger space, mass, crowd, or group of some other objects (wikipedia.org). Today we take the needle for granted. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to come by, but that wasn’t always the case.
Some people say the greatest invention man made was the wheel. Prior to the modern version, primitive man (and woman) used awls and needles made of long bone fragments (or large thorns) to punch holes in the hides and then laced them together.
The first improvement was the use of bronze and then steel. We are so blessed to be stitchers in this era because we can obtain high-quality needles for relatively little money. Stitchers from prior centuries paid high prices for their needles, so they were well maintained.
Click here to view a wonderful summary provided by Colonial Needle Company detailing the process for manufacturing a Mary Arden sewing needle.
How needles are made (excerpt from the link above):
- The raw material is high quality steel coil which is drawn down to the required size.
- From the coils the wire is straightened and cut to the length of two needles.
- Each length of wire is pointed at both ends.
- Pairs of matching dies stamp the eye impression in the center of the wire.
- A hole is punched though the two eyes at the center.
- The wires are broken into two separate needles.
- The waste metal around the sides of the eye is ground off. Cheeked
- The waste metal from the top of the eye is ground off. Headed
- So far the wire has been soft, but it is now hardened.
- It is tempered to ensure the correct amount of spring in each needle.
- The needle is scoured which both cleans it, makes it completely smooth and highly polished.
- The needles are usually nickel plated unless a special coating or finish is required.
- Finally every single needle is inspected by eye before being packaged for sale.
The “anatomy” of embroidery needles:
- Shaft: The shaft of the needle is the narrow part of the needle that makes up the bulk of the needle body. The shaft diameter also determines the gauge, or size of the needle.
- Groove: The groove of the needle can be seen while looking closely at the eye of the needle, and its purpose is to guide the threads by creating a nook or space in the needle for the thread to lay neatly while passing through the fabric.
- Eye: The eye of the needle is the hole in which the threads we are using should pass through. But if you’re like me (Ryan), this simple step can cause much frustration! Especially when trying to thread blended fibers, like metallic/cotton strands that contain different weights and materials. You can use a needle threader for those fibers that are prone to splitting or dividing (Embroidery Needle Threader).
- Point: The point of the needle is the part we are most familiar with when we’ve dropped or misplaced our needle and find it unexpectedly (ouch!). There are different points of needles which define their uses that we will explain later.
Q. I am always confused by what size and type of needle I should use for which stitching project.
A. This is a wonderful question! While researching we learned there wasn’t just one answer. The basic guideline is that your needle should be large enough to properly fit the thread(s) width, but not so large that it distorts your fabric or canvas.
The size of the needle is determined by the diameter of the shaft (as stated above). As a general rule of thumb, the higher the size number, the smaller the actual diameter. This, of course, has some exceptions, but for those needles used commonly (i.e. for counted cross stitch, Hardanger, canvaswork, etc.), this is an acceptable guide. Also, taking this rule of thumb into account, another easy tip to remember is: the higher the fabric count, the higher the number of needle size.
For example, when working on 32 – 50 count fabric, you would use a size 26 – 28 tapestry needle, when working on 8 – 14 count fabric, a size 20 – 24 tapestry needle should be used. Higher count = higher #size needle! Pretty simple!
- Here are some general guidelines for sizing:
- 13, 14, or 18 count canvas: Size 24 tapestry needle
- 24 count canvas: Size 26 tapestry needle
- 14 (28 count) – 16 count fabric: Size 24 tapestry needle
- 18 count fabric: Size 26 tapestry needle
- 32 count and above: Size 26 or 28 tapestry needle
The type of needle used is also dependent on the type of fabric you are working on or embroidery you are stitching. To be quite broad, you can classify needles into two categories: blunt and sharp.
Blunt needles are used in embroidery work that is done on fabric that is not tightly woven. Tip: If you can see the holes in your fabric easily, you should probably use a blunt tipped needle! Types of embroidery that employ the use of blunt needles include Hardanger embroidery, canvaswork and needlepoint, counted cross stitch, pulled thread and drawn thread work, and huck and Swedish weaving, to name a few.
Sharp needles are used when you need to pierce the fabric to allow your threads to pass through. Embroideries that require a sharp needle are Brazilian embroidery, traditional Blackwork (for piercing the thread and fabric fibers while creating reversible pieces), silk ribbon embroidery, Crewel, stamped cross stitch, smocking, and other types which use tightly woven fabric.
There is so much information on the types, sizes, and uses of needles that it would not all fit here. For more information about needles and needle sizes, click here to visit Colonial Needle’s website for more information.
Q. What is the difference between a plated needle and a regular needle?
A. A plated needle should have a long life, not tarnishing from finger oils as quickly. The gold- and platinum-plated needles seem to glide easier through the fabrics.
Q. How do I keep my needles sharp?
A. You can use Emery to sharpen your pins and needles. Emery is a mineral used to make an abrasive powder. Most of us are familiar with the emery board or emery cloth. Natural emery has been mined for over 2000 years on Cape Emeri on the Greek island of Naxos. (wikipedia.org) Many of us remember the strawberry shaped accessory that was filled with emery. Many stitchers use their fob patterns to create matching emery cushions.
Finished emery options:
Kits to make your own:
- Hardanger Embroidery Emery Cushion Kit
- Authentic Emery Packet – for polishing needles
- White Emery – for polishing needles
Q. How can I keep track of my needle while I am stitching?
A. Number one rule: Do not store your needles stuck in your fabric. Many of us leave our needle tucked in a corner of our stitching thinking we will return to the project soon. Then something happens and we don’t get back to it and the humidity gets to them and they tarnish or rust and mark the fabric. So what are some options?
Needle minders will keep your needle handy as you work. They are magnetic and can be placed anywhere on your working fabric so when you aren’t stitching, your needle will stay in place.
- Our collection of pewter needle minders can be found here if you need a strong and attractive needleminder
- And last but not least, click here to view the beautiful and unique needleminder designs by Kelmscott designs
Alternatively, if you are doing a large project with lots of threads, like a Fractal, you might consider a system like Annie’s where you can pre-thread your needles and keep them organized.
Q. Is there a good way to keep them stored?
A. In the 1500-1600’s needles were not plated and tended to rust quickly. Pins and needles were stored in small cases called “emeries” which held loose emery powder. (http://www.sizes.com/tools/emery.htm)
Throughout the last few centuries, men have carved needle cases to store the precious needles his wife needed to make and repair clothing and household goods. Depending on the region the cases might be of bone, ivory, or wood. Many of us store our needles in handmade needlebooks. It was also popular to provide customers with manufactured needlebooks with advertising on them.
Today we have numerous options available that will protect and prolong the life of our needles:
Decorative and practical needle boxes:
Needle Case Patterns and Kits
Q. Cindy Clark purchased a needle about 25 years ago in New England that had a tiny round ball on the point so it separated the fibers instead of piercing them. Do we know what it is called?
A. In researching your question, we found that there are needles manufactured for sewing machines that have the ball-point end. They are used for sewing on fabrics like polyester so the machine doesn’t snag the fabric. The function of the “ball point” tip of the needle is to delicately and smoothly push aside the loose fabric fibers to allow the sewing threads to pass through easily. Tip: Never use ball point needles on tightly woven fabrics as they could tear the fibers and pull them in the process, creating uneven, irregular embroidery. For those fabrics it is best to use a sharp needle.
We also had a customer write in describing some plastic or steel sphere-tipped needles that are used for hand sewing crocheted or knitted garments. The ball at the point of the needle prevents the point from splitting the yarn fibers making it easier to slip it between the yarn strands.
Strange But True
The Japanese tradition Hari-Kuyo (Hari, meaning needle) is an ancient Buddhist ritual celebrated annually on February 8th to pay an homage to all the needles and pins that were used or served to their expiration during the year. The tradition includes sticking your used needles into a sambo (navel orange), and all your broken needles into a soft material (usually tofu or konnyaku jelly) to “thank” them for all their hard work, and the ceremony is performed to recognize that all living beings and objects have a spirit.
Although traditionally celebrated in Japan at Buddhist temples, in our findings we discovered a Hari-Kuyo celebration right here in the states. Needleworkers from the Wool & Willow needlework shop in Shaker Hts, OH honored their loyal and wounded needles through this authentic memorial. Anne from Wool & Willow let us know that this is their third year performing the ceremony. What a tradition! Click here to visit the Wool & Willow website to see pictures from their Hari-Kuyo service!
Another interesting wives’ tale involves suspending a needle dangling from a piece of thread over the belly of a pregnant woman to determine the gender. If the needle swings in an oval or circular motion, the baby will be a girl, but if the needle swings in a straight line, the baby will be a boy! Who knew needles were so mystical and fascinating?
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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