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When is a Needle More than a Needle?

By Addy Harkavy (addy@TheExperimentalQuilter.com)

Before launching into a discussion of needles, I'd like to remind all that choice of needle is a highly individual matter. So take these highly subjective results with a grain of salt!

Let me start by mentioning that I have been hand quilting for many years, take small stitches, put a lot of stitches on the needle, put a lot of force behind the needle, and have large, strong hands. I suspect that most, if not all, these factors influence needle behavior.

Testing needles is easier if we think of them in the following ways:


Is the needle stiff enough to take the force you put behind it?


Is the needle flexible enough not to break when pushed; how much does it bend? Does bending eventually make needle unusable?


Is the needle likely to snap? Or does it bend so much that you need to change needles frequently?


How easily does the needle glide through fabric or sandwich?

Needles were tested in Soft Touch 100% bleached cotton batting and polyester.

Brands tested for quilting: Hemmings 9 and 10; S. Thomas 8.9.10, J. James 8,9,10, 12, Clover 8,9,10,12, Piecemakers 8,9,10,12, Foxglove Cottage 8,9,10,12.

All needles performed acceptably in polyester, though some bent sooner than others. Breakage was not as much a problem in poly as in cotton.

Some overall findings on betweens (quilting needles):

The smaller sizes are thinner, less rigid, and more likely to bend. Some needles break before they bend; others bend beyond utility but do not seem to break before they become unusable. I found all size 8 betweens too long and too thick (for me). Their thickness seemed to compromise glide through the sandwich. Most size 9s were acceptable; any would work OK for me if that's what I had on hand. Overall: Foxglove Cottage, J.James, and S.Thomas had the least "drag"; Hemmings was in the middle; Piecemakers and Clover had the most (except the size 12 Clover).

Overall: Size 12s were very thin, very bendable, and most bent quite a bit before breaking. My record, however, with the Piecemaker 12 needle in the Soft Touch batt was 5 minutes before it snapped in two. It lasted about 15 minutes in poly. The Clover size 12 was extremely flexible and bent fairly rapidly in the poly batt but stayed usable for some time. It bent almost immediately and was unusable in the Soft Touch cotton. Clover 10's are a bit long for my taste but less flexible and were adequate in both batts. In general, I did not find that size 12 needles were the best choice for all-cotton batts (in my hands).

On to J. James and S. Thomas. Of the two, I preferred the J. James, but the needles performed similarly. S. Thomas is only available up to size 10, so I could not compare it with the J. James 12. The J. James 12 is tiny, somewhat flexible, and performed fine in polyester. The J. James and S. Thomas 10s were both ideal for the Soft Touch cotton; both were rigid enough to push through the sandwich with sufficient tensile strength that they were unlikely to break. Both bent after a while, but it took much more time for them to become unusuable.

For some reason, Hemming's size 9 and 10 betweens just don't seem to glide through the fabric as easily as did the J. James and S. Thomas, but they performed well in both batts. I did, however, find that they seemed "thick," which may have accounted for their seeming not to glide as well. These needles are quite rigid. I did not snap them, which suggests good tensile strength.

Finally, the rest of the Piecemakers and Clovers were adequate in poly batts and so-so (not up to the J. James or S. Thomas) in the cotton. In cotton batts, J. James and S. Thomas 9 and 10 betweens performed quite well, with little difference between the two.

And I've saved my personal favorite for last. The Jeana Kimball Foxglove Cottage needles performed well in both batts. The size 12 between didn't cut it at all in the all cotton (too flexible; bent it on the second stitch!) but was fine in poly. The size 10 was the best in the cotton batt because it resisted bending for two full hours of quilting and did not become unusable until the third hour. It gave me tiny, even stitches, even when slightly bent. It was awfully good in poly batts, too. The 8 and the 9 are fine all-purpose needles; good glide, rigid, high tensile strength. Of all the betweens tested, the Jeana Kimball Foxglove Cottage ones seemed to glide the most easily through the quilt sandwich.

Since this test was done, I have used the Jeana Kimball Foxglove Cottage size 10 between to hand quilt Hobbs Organic batt. Aside from the fact that the stuff is the easiest to hand quilt of all the cotton batts I have tried, a single Foxglove Cottage size ten between actually quilted an entire baby quilt! It bent some but was usable, and it did not become too dull to use. Stitch length was about 12/inch.

I have less to say about applique because I used to pick up just any sharp and use it. Then I got more selective: it had to be a small sharp. For applique, the J. James and S. Thomas glide nicely through fabric; the Piecemakers applique needle is long, and it's very nice. Clover 12s are thin and have always given me satisfactory results. But . . . the Foxglove Cottage needles really won me over. The size 8 is much too big for applique (though some use it for quilting!) but is the best basting needle I've ever used. And the size 11 Foxglove Cottage straw needle suits me perfectly for invisible applique. It glides easily through fabric, is very flexible and eventually bends, but it stays usable for me for quite a lot of applique. The size 10 Foxglove Straw needle is also a very good general-purpose applique needle, but the 11 seemed more suitable for intricate work. Both the 10 and the 11 were really nice for needle turning because they gave plenty of needle length to play with (grip, whatever).

In terms of piecing, I tried the J.James, S.Thomas, Clover, Piecemakers, Hemmings, and Foxglove Cottage sharps. No surprises here. J. James and S. Thomas performed beautifully and had good glide through the fabric. The hemmings were next and performed adequately. The Clovers and Piecemakers, though good, seemed to glide less smoothly. The Foxglove Cottage needles were again my favorites.

Of course, in a pinch, I'll pick up almost any needle and wield the thing, just so long as it's smaller than a telephone pole and sharper than a knitting needle!

Copyright 1997, Addy Harkavy



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