As I’ve been writing my raglan tee series, I kept thinking, but wait, there’s a lot of basics that I’m not covering like: what are the best needles for knits? It’d be really nice if you could pop one needle in your sewing machine and use it for every project.
But at the end of the day, fabrics are different, and different types, means different needles. So let’s walk through what are the best needles for knits, what each of them is good for, and when you should pick one over the other.
Sewing Machine Needle Basics
Knits are not in the same camp as woven fabrics. If you closely at a woven fabric (especially a loosely woven one), the threads come together at 90 degree angles. Regular machine needles are meant to punch through the fabric to make a stitch. They’re sharp!!
But knit fabrics are a little different. Knit fabrics are made instead with a series of loops that all interlock together. Those loops give the fabric it’s stretch that we all love to wear. What happens if you use a woven needle for knits? You get skipped stitches, snags (like you’d get on pantyhose!), or especially on spandex knits, no stitch at all. So what needles do you use? Here’s a little chart:
Sewing machine knit/stretch needle chart
| 70/10, 80/12, |
|General purpose for knits. They have special ball points|
that slip between the loops instead of
punching holes in the fabric. Great for sweater knits or lacey open weave knits.
|Stretch||65/8, 75/11, |
|A must for highly stretchy knits. They’re made a little differently|
than ballpoint needles to prevent skipped stitches on knits with spandex
|Universal|| 60/8, 65/9, 70/10, |
75/11, 80/12, 90/14
|Universals can be used for wovens or knits. Knits with less stretch often do well |
with universals, but test on a scrap first to see if you can get a good stitch
|one size||For hemming on knits. Makes 2 rows of parallel stitches on the right side |
and a zigzag on the wrong side which builds in stretch needed for knits
How to pick the best needles for knits
There’s a little bit of trial and error that you’re going to have to live through when you’re looking for the best needle for your next knit fabric project.
There’s a certain amount of experimentation you’re going to have to do here. It’s not a bad idea to buy several different knit needles to get a feel for them. Here are some good rules of thumb for choosing a good needle for a knit fabric project that’ll fuel your knit sewing explorations.
Less stretch=universal or ballpoint
Lower stretch knits like ponte or sweatshirting are not as fussy as other knits when it comes to picking the right needle.
Universal knits or ballpoints work really well on these. Cotton knits also do really well with universals and ballpoints as they’re usually not ultra stretchy.
If you’re getting skipped stitches with either a universal or a ballpoint, go for a stretch.
Sweater knits are a great candidate for sewing on a regular machine. I’ll go so far as to say, keep these knits away from a serger unless you really love stretched out wavy seams! Ballpoints are a great choice especially for sweater knits with loose open structure.
The ballpoint needle will safely slide in between the loops and make a nice clean stitch for you without damaging the fabric or getting weird snags.
More stretch=play it safe with a stretch needle
The day I discovered stretch needles was a really really good day. Up until that point, I was sewing with universals, well universally.
Sometimes this worked, and other days, it was Struggle City. Either my stitches would skip, or not make a single stitch. I spent hours being really, really frustrated. Then I read More Fabric Savvy by Sandra Betzina where she recommends stretch needles for knit fabrics. Man, that was a gamechanger.
And when it comes to more stretchy knits like ITY, rayon jersey, 2 or 4-way stretch fabrics, and anything with lycra, a stretch needle will save the day.
Why?: The point on stretch needles is slightly different than regular ballpoints or universals and meant for fabrics with spandex/lycra.
Get pretty stitches on lycra with this tip
*Hint*: Narrow the width of the stitch for a better quality stitch. You can see, I get tunneling on the ITY and the swimwear fabric.
The narrower zigzag is nice and flat.
Double needle for hemming knits
When you go to hem knits, you can by all means keep using your same stretch, universal, or ballpoint needle, but a stretch double needle is another option.
A double needle makes 2 parallel rows of stitching on the right side of the fabric. This look mimics the look of the hems on ready-to-wear knits which is made on a coverstitch machine.
Coverstitch machines are wonderful things, but when you’re just starting out, they are absolutely overkill, and a double needle is more than lovely for hemming your knits!
Let’s quick talk about how to use a double needle for your knits.
How to use a double needle
To use a double needle, first you have to thread your machine with a second spool of thread. Both threads go through the tension disks just like you’d regularly thread up your machine. Then the left thread goes through the left needle, and the right thread goes through the left needle. From there you can stitch away!
You can use either a straight stitch for a double needle or a narrow zigzag. Wait, you can use a straight stitch with a double needle???
The thing about straight stitches + double needles
Yes, you can use a straight stitch for with a double needle, but you must do a test. Because knits are the stretchy, they need a stitch that has some stretch in it.
What stitches have built in stretch? Anything in the zigzag family. That little space between the zig and the zag lets the fabric move a little. When the fabric stretches on your body, the stitch can handle it. Put a straight stitch into a knit seam and you will get stitches that will pop.
With a double needle, it looks like straight stitches on the right side, but on the wrong side, you get a zigzag stitch between the two rows. This zigzag stitch builds in a little stretch into the stitch that knit fabrics need to have in a stitch. That being said…
Narrow zigzag for double needles
Stitches can still pop on a double needle hem. Do a test on a scrap of the fabric that you’re working on. You might be able to get away with a straight stitch double needle on a lower stretch knit. The French terry did great with the straight stitch.
For every other knit that’s stretchier than this very stable French terry (hint–that’s most knit fabrics!), use a narrow zigzag with your double needle.
Narrow the width of your standard zigzag stitch on your machine to 0.5mm, and keep your length between 2.5-3.0mm. Choose the longer length for thicker fabrics.
The stitch looks *almost* like a straight stitch, but you gain the advantage of that little bit of built-in stretch on the right side and the wider zigzag on the wrong side of the fabric. Narrow zigzags are one of your best choices for sewing seams on knit fabric too!
Don’t be afraid to experiment when you sew knits
So that should give you some general ideas for picking the best needles for knits. Remember that some fabrics are fussier than others, so you might have to test out a couple different needles and stitches to find the right combination.
And some might surprise you. I absolutely assumed that this double brushed poly was stretch needle only, but the universal and ballpoint needles did better! Who knew?
Never be afraid to grab a scrap of fabric and practice out your stitches!
Do you have a favorite needle choice when you sew with knit fabrics?
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.