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.

graphic with thread reading pin or share later
Pinterest image reading: How to pick the best needles for knits, flatlay of different knit fabric samples with stitching and needles for stretch fabrics

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!!

image of topstitch needles and scuba and stretch suede samples with skipped stitches and a sign saying "no!"
These topstitch needles are NOT for knits!
Scuba knit (top)
Suede knit (bottom)

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

NeedleSizeUse
Jersey/
Ballpoint*
70/10, 80/12,
90/14, 100/16
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.
Stretch65/8, 75/11,
90/14
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
Twin
stretch
one sizeFor 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

samples of sweatshirting and ponte fabrics with stitching and universal and ballpoint needles
Red sweatshirting with universal, ponte with ballpoint and universal needles

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=ballpoint

sweater knit sample with zigzag stitching with ballpoint needle

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

samples of swimwear and ITY fabrics with narrow zigzag and standard zigzag fabrics and a package of stretch needles
Narrow zigzag for the win! Standard zigzag not a great choice on ultra stretchy fabrics (see the tunneling!)

*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.

Double needle (top row), double needle with narrow zigzag (middle)
coverstitch (bottom) on French terry

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.

wrong side of french terry sample with twin needle stitching and coverstitch next to a twin stretch needle
twin needle stitching (top and middle rows), coverstitch (bottom row) from the wrong side on French terry

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.

French terry sample with straight stitching and narrow zigzag stitches both made with a twin needle
French terry + double needle

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.

sample of double brushed poly with stitches and stretch, universal, and ballpoint needles
stretch needle with skips! (left row of stitching) ballpoint (middle row), universal (right row) on double brushed poly

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?

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