Tag Archives: Sewing needles

Needles

I ordered longarm needles the other day. It was so easy to do that I could take for granted the availability of sewing needles. But needles have not always been so common.

***

Last summer a needle was found in a cave in Siberia. It was a little more than 7 centimeters long (about 3″,) made of bird bone. It is the oldest complete needle found and was made some 50,000 years ago. The maker was not homo sapiens, or even Neanderthal. It was Denisovan, a contemporary species of hominid! Other ancient needles have been found in places ranging from southern Africa to China to eastern Europe.

***

Elias Howe, an inventor of the sewing machine, developed the needle with the thread hole at the pointed tip. According to legend, “He had the idea of a machine with a needle which would go through a piece of cloth but he couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work. In his dream, cannibals were preparing to cook him and they were dancing around the fire waving their spears. Howe noticed at the head of each spear there was a small hole through the shaft and the up-and-down motion of the spears and the hole remained with him when he woke.” This dream led to his contributions to the modern sewing machine, circa 1845.

***

By 1847 with the introduction of specialty machinery, more than 50 million needles were made each week in the Redditch district of England. These needles were for hand-sewing tasks, and Redditch still specializes in them. (I’ve been looking for information about needle production in the US during the 1800s, but so far haven’t found any.) During the US Civil War, sewing needles became hard to acquire by Southern civilians. The North’s blockade kept most imported supplies from reaching southern ports. Soldiers’ uniforms and bedding took priority for the supplies that could be purchased or made. The lack of needles for civilians meant that repairing old clothing and bedding was difficult, if not impossible.

***

On the American frontier, settlers faced deprivations of many kinds. In 1855 the community of Pass Creek Canyon in Wyoming was visited by a peddler named Aaron Meier. He brought his wares to the remote settlers, including fabrics, tools, and candies. But the item they needed most was darning needles, as it had been months since the last one broke. With Christmas coming, the Jewish peddler made a gift of all the needles he had to the women of the community. Aaron Meier later founded Meier and Frank department stores in Portland, OR.

***

While England still dominates the production of hand-sewing needles, Germany makes the majority of machine sewing needles. Groz-Beckert and Schmetz are two brands you may know. Here is a fascinating video by Schmetz showing how needles are made.

***

Needles are not scarce anymore in the US. There is no reason not to replace them when they’re due. When a needle is dull, it needs to punch its way through fabric layers, making a popping sound. When it is sharp, it doesn’t make that noise. In addition, your machine motor needs to work a little harder with a dull needle, and you may hear the machine laboring.

Experts recommend changing the needle every 8-10 hours of sewing (machine time, not cutting, pressing, and pondering time). That may not sound like a lot, but if your machine stitches 1,000 stitches per minute, that’s actually about a HALF MILLION stitches! While you’re stitching, you may sew through several layers of fabric and batting, and occasionally hit pins. (I do!) Your needle takes a lot of abuse.

Take a look at some great photos by Schmetz Needles USA of a needle that looks sharp. Once magnified with increasing power, you can see the burr on the tip. A dull needle doesn’t do your machine or your project any good.

And please dispose of your needles carefully. I use an empty yogurt cup with a hole poked through the lid. When I get rid of needles, bent pins, and dead rotary cutter blades, they go in there. And the cup is always safely out of reach of children!

Taking Care of Things

Speaking of taking care of things, how long has it been since you’ve

* changed your machine needle?
* changed your rotary cutter blade?
* wiped the lint and gunk off your cutting mat and table?
* wiped down your ironing board?
* cleaned your iron?
* cleaned the lint out from under the machine needle, around the bobbin case?
* had your machine serviced (if it needs that from time to time)?
* wiped off your sewing surface?
* swept or vacuumed for lint, threads, and errant pins?

This is the small stuff of maintenance. I tend to put off changing my rotary cutter blade, but I’m always glad when I go ahead. It is safer and I get better cutting. (See my post on rotary cutters for more information.) 

I love cleaning up to start a new project. Fabric from the last one gets re-stashed, and any odd notions get put away. I wipe the cutting table and vacuum the floors. Usually I wipe off my sewing surface, too, but in truth I don’t always remember. The cleared, cleaned surfaces make me feel good about beginning something new.

As to the needle, when it’s dull it needs to punch its way through fabric layers, making a popping sound. When it is sharp, it doesn’t make that noise. In addition, your machine motor needs to work a little harder with a dull needle, and you may hear the machine laboring.

Experts recommend changing the needle every 8-10 hours of sewing (machine time, not cutting, pressing, and pondering). That may not sound like a lot, but if your machine stitches 1,000 stitches per minute, that’s actually about a HALF MILLION stitches! While you’re stitching, you may sew through several layers of fabric and batting, and occasionally hit pins. (I do!) Your needle takes a lot of abuse.

Take a look at some great photos by Schmetz Needles USA of a needle that looks sharp. Once magnified with increasing power, you can see the burr on the tip. A dull needle doesn’t do your machine or your project any good.

And please dispose of your needles carefully. I use an empty yogurt cup with a hole poked through the lid. When I get rid of needles, bent pins, and dead rotary cutter blades, they go in there. And the cup is always safely out of reach of children!

Does your machine need maintenance? Last summer I had my main DSM serviced for the first time. It cost less than $100 and assured me everything is in good working order. But basic maintenance begins with you and is easy to do. (Consult your machine’s manual. If you don’t have a copy, you may be able to find it online.) As with a dull needle, a dirty machine, clogged with lint, makes the motor work harder. The extra work sounds different. You may not be able to describe the difference, but you can probably hear it.

Maintenance you can and should do includes cleaning the lint out of the works. A soft brush may have come with the machine. If not, small, soft make-up brushes work well. Cotton swabs and tweezers may come in handy, too.

Remove the foot, needle, and face plate. Take out the bobbin. You may want to remove the bobbin case, too. Again, consult your manual. Use the brush to loosen and grab lint around the bobbin case, in the feed dogs, and around other surfaces. The cotton swab and tweezers may help, depending on where and how your mess is lodged. Some manufacturers recommend using compressed air to remove built-up lint gunk. Others warn against it. Please check first.

You may wonder if and how to oil your machine. Many modern machines have self-lubricating parts and don’t need oiling. Others have simple routines recommended for oiling regularly.

Your machine’s manufacturer probably has a recommended cycle for shop maintenance. Consult your manual or dealer for advice.

How often should you clean? That will depend partly on what thread you use (some is lintier than others) and on your fabrics and/or battings. As a quilter, I rarely care what color of bobbin thread I use while piecing, and I sew until it runs out. I clean every 3-5 times I change my bobbin. If I’m changing the bobbin and the mess is evident, I clean.

(A DSM is a domestic sewing machine, as opposed to “commercial” sewing machine or long-arm.) The long-arm bobbin case gets brushed out more often, usually each time I put a fresh bobbin in, and depending on the project more often than that.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Taking care of things now can make your quilting more pleasurable, improve the quality of your projects, and even save you money in the long run. Seems like a pretty good investment to me!

What maintenance routines do you follow? Are there other basic routines you recommend? Let us know in the comments. And don’t be afraid to respond to each other, too. We’re all friendly here!