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Sewing needles fall into two basic categories: hand needles and machine needles. Hand needles are themselves categorized as being for general hand sewing, needlecraft, darning, or heavy-duty sewing. Machine needles are categorized by their size, their tip, their purpose, and the material they’re made to handle. There are also specialty needles.
Hand Sewing. General hand sewing needles fall into five basic categories. Sharps are of medium length and have a round eye. These are the most common hand needles and work for most fabric weights. Calyx-eye needles differ from sharps in having a slot, rather than an eye for the thread. Betweens for quilting, ball-points for knits, and milliners or straw needles for basting and hat-making are three specialized types of general sewing needles.
Needlecraft needles include four specialty needles. Crewel or embroidery needles have a long eye to hold multiple strands of embroidery thread. The larger chenilles are made for embroidering with yarn, while tapestry needles, in the same sizes, are heavy needles with a blunt tip, designed for needlepoint and tapestry. Long, thin beading needles are made with beading and sequin work in mind.
Darning or darner needles, used for darning and mending, come in three styles. Cotton darners work for fine cotton or wool thread, while double longs are longer and better for larger holes. Yarn darners are longer and heavier still, used for darning with yarn.
Heavy-duty sewing needles have three distinctive styles. Glovers needles are short with a round eye and a wedge-shaped point that can pierce light-weight leather. Sailmakers needles, sometimes called leather needles, are similar, designed for canvas and heavy leather, but with a longer point. Curved needles, sometimes called upholstery needles are available in several lengths, and serve well for projects involving furniture and braided rugs.
Machine Sewing. The most common machine sewing needles for standard running stitch are universal and ballpoint needles, the latter for knits and the former for use with most weights of woven material. Stretch needles, jeans or denim needles, and leather needles are all fashioned to work well with the materials named. Embroidery and metallic needles are each designed for use with specific thread –- embroidery floss and metallic thread respectively. Quilting needles are used for quilting, top stitch needles for top-stitching, and serger needles for serging.
There are several specialty machine sewing needles worth mentioning. Wing or hemstitch needles are used for repairing heirlooms, attempting to make the machine work look similar to handwork. Twin and triple needles are both used for decorative stitching.
When you sew with a machine, make sure you know the right sewing needle sizes for different fabrics. If you use the wrong size, especially a needle too small for the fabric you are using, it could easily break. This comes from personal experience, and the resulting needle replacement can get expensive.
It's always a good idea to use the right needle for the job. I get lazy and just use a sharp for needlepoint, sometimes, which works fine - but every stitch pricks the skin on my finger. After a day or two of stitching, the skin is rough and painful. Blunt needles are a much better choice.
One good tip I've learned in the last year or so is to change your sewing machine needle regularly, particularly before starting a new project and/or when working with delicate fabric. The point dulls and gets bent, and your work will be much cleaner and faster if you use a sharp needle.