Finding the right needle size in the Haystack pt.2

Note: see previous entries on thread and needle sizes pt.1).

Common Needle Systems
The needle system defines the other two critical dimensions (the diameter of the shank and the distance from butt to eye) and roughly defines the type of blade, including the eye and point. Most sewing machine needles are 2 millimeters across the shank, but there are some important exceptions. The butt-to-eye distance varies significantly between needle systems. One long groove or two, scarf shape, eye size and shape, and the overall length and taper of the point below the eye are all part of a needle system definition. The point shape at the very tip of the needle usually is identified by some letters in addition to the needle system name. However, it is not unusual for a special point shape (leather piercing, especially) to be categorized as a different needle system, with a different name or number.

Now, I have some bad news. No one is going to make any sense out of the names for needle systems. They are just chaos. The best I will be able to do for you is 1) list some of the common systems, 2) give some common-sense advice, and 3) provide some references to more comprehensive lists.

“Will it work in my machine?” is the basic question answered by the needle system name. Sewing machine manufacturers design a machine for a particular needle system, and that’s that. Or at least it should be. There are at least two reasons why it isn’t. First, the most common industrial lockstitch needle system in the world, DBx1, doesn’t have a fixed shank diameter. The heavy-duty sizes (Nm 120 and up) of this system have larger shanks than the rest of the sizes in the same system. So it’s possible that you can’t physically insert a large size DBx1 needle in a machine designed for DBx1. I just checked and that’s the case for my Juki DDL-8700.

The second reason is that there are lots and lots of equivalent needle systems! Some of these equivalent systems are identical to each other, other than their system names. Other equivalent systems are designed slightly differently to perform better in certain sewing situations. So you (or your sewing contractor) can’t just limit yourself to the one specific needle system specified by the machine manufacturer. That system may not be sold (under that system name) in your part of the world, or there may be an equivalent needle system that is actually better for your particular application (e.g., embroidery, knitwear, vinyl, microfiber, leather). Also, for historical reasons, several needle systems are limited to a particular range of sizes. Larger or smaller sizes of the same needle design were put into different needle systems.

In the table below, I have listed many of the most common needle systems. There are probably another half-dozen “common” systems one could expect to encounter in a well-equipped shop, and I’d appreciate feedback about what I have overlooked. There are literally hundreds of other needle systems in use, some of them only in one model of one type of specialty machine. So this table is by no means comprehensive. Even the lists of equivalent system names are nowhere close to comprehensive. One could probably collect 20 different needle systems equivalent to either DBx1 or DPx5. Later on, I have a couple of supplementary sections listing common needle systems for leather and for embroidery, so those are not listed here.

Common Needle Systems Chart (pdf 28 kb)

This table obviously doesn’t list all the differences between the needle systems. For example, TVx3 (more commonly known as UY128GAS) and DPx17 have the same critical dimensions. However, TVx3 has long grooves on both sides of the needle and is designed to work with chainstitch and coverstitch loopers, while DPx17 has a scarf designed for lockstitch rotary hooks. The DCx1 and DCx27 are pretty similar, but differ in scarf and groove details; each apparently doesn’t work in machines designed for the other type.

Can you put an industrial needle in a household machine or vice-versa? The DPx5 and HAx1 have very similar critical dimensions, and both are designed for use in zig-zag machines, so you might be able to get away with it in a pinch. The DBx1 and HAx1 have the same length, but the smaller shank of the DBx1 means that HAx1 probably won’t fit in single-needle industrial machine (definitely won’t in mine) and the DBx1 won’t be properly located relative to the hook in a household machine. So don’t even try swapping DBx1 and HAx1.

Some recommendations:

  • As a DE, ignore this topic entirely. While choice of thread material, size and construction is largely your responsibility, for both structural and decorative seams, needle system choice should be left to your sewing contractors.
  • Know the recommended needle system for each of your machines.
  • Learn some of the equivalent needle systems, and their intended applications.
  • When switching needle systems, confirm the timing of your machine with the new needles. Not all equivalent systems are identical to one another.
  • Consult an experienced sewing machine mechanic. Better, consult more than one.

For much more comprehensive tables of needle system equivalents and dimensions, I refer you to any of:

  • DOTEC’s 16-page table. This site also has well-illustrated technical information about needles on other pages.
  • Sicama’s needle system list
  • HillOb’s needle system list. Much of the text on this site is in Polish, but that won’t interfere with reading the dimensions, the English descriptions of typical applications, or looking at the diagrams.

I don’t know why, but I got the most detailed information on this topic from Asian and Eastern European websites. There is an international standard that should be bringing order out of chaos, but I don’t know which, if any, of the naming systems was influenced by ISO 8239:1987 Sewing machines needles — Fitting dimensions — Tolerances and combinations (4pp)

Having waded through this swamp of needle system numbers, I wondered where they came from. Reading between the lines of the more complete catalogs, the ABx123 numbering scheme comes from the Japanese industry. The 12×123 numbering system is apparently known as the Singer “universal system”, but Singer also uses four-digit catalog numbers which are usually given as SY1234. Two- and three-digit numbers seem to come from European manufacturers like Pfaff and Durkopp-Adler. The 29-something numbers apparently came from the blindstitch and specialty segments, maybe Lewis, originally. The UY123 numbering system seems to come from Union Special, although they apparently didn’t use the UY prefix themselves. B12 numbers are from Rimoldi. I don’t know where the MY1234 numbers come from, and I thought Canu was a Canadian national standard but couldn’t find any evidence for that. And, of course, there are massive numbers of exceptions to all of the above. If anyone has references to documents that define the Japanese and Canu systems, I’d appreciate them.

We are usually offered a choice between “regular” and “ball-point” needles. However, the industry recognizes five different weights of ball point and there are many special point shapes for piercing hard-to-sew materials like leather or solid plastics. And like everything else to do with needles, there is no agreement on the names for these various point shapes. The following table covers the most common points.

Needle Points Chart (pdf 20 kb)

The sharp point is used for operations where it must pick up just a single thread (blindstitching), for sewing tightly woven fabrics (like microfibre or very fine cottons), and where a decorative seam must be absolutely without deflection. The Schmetz Microtex needle has this sort of point. As you might expect, this is the easiest point to damage.

The normal point is just that. It is the most common point shape for lockstitch operations on woven fabrics, and is not restricted to that combination. It is supposed to be sharp, but not so keen a point as the sharp point.

The extra fine ball point is the “universal” point. It can be used effectively with either woven or knitted fabrics. Groz-Beckert recommends the extra fine ball point for all chainstitch operations and for microfibre fabrics. In smaller needle sizes, there is not much difference between the normal and extra fine ball points.

The fine ball point (about 1/10 of the blade diameter) is used primarily with knitted fabrics, to prevent needle damage to the fabric yarns. It can be used on all but the tightest woven fabrics, too. The medium ball point (about 1/5 of the blade diameter) can be used either with knits or with elastics (either woven or knit). The heavy (1/3 blade) and extra heavy (1/2 blade) ball points are used almost exclusively with power-net, elastics or very coarse, loosely-knit or -woven fabrics.

I found wildly conflicting recommendations for materials containing bare (unwrapped) elastic threads. Groz-Beckert recommends the extra heavy ball point, while Schmetz recommends the sharp point. You must experiment to find out which works best in your application.

The blunt or stub point (which is a very fat cone shape) is used for button sewing with the theory that it will correct needle-to-hole alignment rather than punch through the button body if the initial alignment is not correct. However, not everyone agrees with this theory, either. Groz-Beckert recommends their extra fine ball point for button sewing, explicitly disapproving of the blunt point.

The triangular, diamond, and wedge points are all intended for piercing solid materials rather than woven or knit fabrics. They differ primarily by the shape of the hole they make, and this can make a significant difference in the appearance of the stitching. In a two-needle machine, it may be desirable to use both LL and LR points to get a symmetric stitch look. There are lots of specialty variations on piercing points, including some with grooves down to the point to guide the needle thread to one side of the hole or the other.

Don’t confuse the S for extra fine ball point with the S for in-line wedge. What? You expected them to be sensible and pick non-conflicting symbols?

There is more to point shape than the very tip of the needle. For example, most machine embroidery needles are shorter from the eye to the tip than ordinary needles. This lets embroidery machines move the fabric for a large fraction of the needle-up time, and supports “puffy” embroidery without snagging existing embroidery with the descending needle. Quilting needles have the opposite modification, being longer from the eye to the tip than ordinary needles.

Another subtle design features gives needles intended for knits a narrow, straight-sided taper directly from the tip back to the eye. Ordinary needles have a more rounded taper which is thicker toward the tip than knit needles. This lets knit needles move yarns aside with less needle deflection and penetration force. Knit needles sometimes have blades one size smaller than standard, with standard sized eyes.

Modifications of this type are usually considered part of the needle system design rather than the point style, but really they go hand-in-hand. Groz-Beckart has a number of illustrated product brochures on this page dealing with needle selection, especially point choice.

Needle Systems for Leather
Leather needles (more generally, cutting/piercing needles) are often identified by using one of the piercing point symbols with a normal needle system. For example, 16x257LR. However, it is not unusual for the same needle to have an additional needle system name that only applies to the piercing point version. This additional needle system name might or might not use the piercing point symbol.

Needle Systems for Leather Chart (pdf 15 kb)

Needles for Embroidery
Embroidery and specialty thread needles differ enough from standard needles to be given different needle system names. Generally they have larger eyes to protect decorative thread. A shorter point, often designated by a K suffix to a needle system name, is another variation. And some special machines with raised needle plates take needles with shorter shanks and longer blades, but the same overall butt-to-eye distance, often designated by a KK suffix.

Needle Systems for Embroidery Chart (pdf 20 kb)

Sales documents were pretty useful sources of information for this section. The two I used most heavily were:

  • A fairly comprehensive Organ brand brochure from Diamond Needles, a major US distributor. Where the text of the brochure says “one size larger”, that’s not accurate. It should say two Singer sizes larger.
  • A document on large eye needles from Azuma of Tokyo.

I also noticed that the embroidery trade seems pretty aggressive about putting training materials together for machine buyer and operators. There really isn’t any similar effort made by the “general” sewn products trade.

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  1. Thanks, Stuart. My head is swirling. My favorite part is this: “as a DE ignore this topic entirely.” Whew! I had no idea there was all this complexity to needles.

    Just confirms my suspicion that I do not want to run a shop. I’m one of those people who wants to cry “help” when anything mechanical fails. No patience with machines nor figuring them out.

    Thank you for all the information and the time it took you to write the posts.


  2. John Rebrovick says:

    Another great job, Stuart, tackling the equivalent of the Theory of Relativity in the sewing supply business.

    We at SouthStar spend an unbelievable amount of time trying to riddle through customers’ needle requests. Here are some basic practical tips to complement Stuart’s excellent survey course in needles:

    1. Permanently tape, staple, glue or engrave the needle information on each of your machines and keep your needle boxes in the drawer until you reorder, including any variations you may use from time to time (like ball point, diamond point, etc.). (And don’t put some other machine’s needle boxes in there!) Have this info ready when you call to order more, including the brand of needle. Although system specs are the same among brands, the grade of metal used, mfg. techniques, scarf styles, etc. can make a difference.

    2. Do not buy a used machine without getting the needle information from the previous owner.

    3. Don’t assume that service manuals or reference books will tell you what needle system to use in what machine. Sewing machine mechanics will often adjust a machine to whatever needles they’ve got on hand (e.g., by raising or lowering the needle bar to accommodate a needle system with a different length). So that goes back to point 1; order what you know works.

  3. sfriedberg says:

    Thanks, John! Now I can go rest my aching brain and weary eyes for a while.

    Given the nature of this section, I have probably made some errors. I’d appreciate corrections or recommended additions from readers who didn’t find what they were looking for.

  4. Hi Stuart: I only wish I had done my research years ago. This is an excellent explanation for why we shouldn’t feel so lost when it comes to finding needles for customers not knowing their needle system. We have a great needle inventory but my staff has not been able to get their arms around this subject. It’s easier for sewing machine technicians because the needle choice has relevance to producing solutions for sewing machine performance problems. I’m letting them read this article and then I’ll give them the 3 basic needle groups before moving them along to the more esoteric options.

    I am going to look for “Needle in a Hay Stack part 1”. Thanks!!

  5. Nancy says:

    I just purchased a used juki DDL 555 in the manual it says the needle size is DBX1 = 11~18. So does this mean I have to look for needles that are a DBX1 and they will work?

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