Needles and Backing

How many times have you stitched a design only to find that the outline is a little off? Or, the design looks good and stitched off perfectly on a different fabric - What happened?

Maybe you also see that some of the stitching is not smooth and may have a few loops on the top of the stitching where the stitches didn't catch or lay just right -

The most likely culprits are the backing and the needle selection.

Even some professionally digitized designs will not stitch properly if you use the wrong tools for the job.

The needle and backing used go hand in hand to stitch the perfect design.


When choosing needles for your embroidery, there are different factors of the embroidery that need to be considered. First and foremost, what kind of garment or textile will be embroidered? Knits, velvet, leather, and linen are all very different in construction - knits are very porous (they have more holes in the weave) whereas leather is not. For example, if leather is to be embroidered, then we need to use a needle that has a different point to pierce the fabric easier. So, this is our first consideration. Secondly, what kind of thread is going to be used? Polyester, Rayon, and Metallic all have different properties as well as the weights of the thread. Even the thread manufacturers are all different. For instance, if we are using a thicker thread or a metallic thread, the needle needs to have a larger eye for easier passage through the needle.

What is a ballpoint and what is a sharp point? A ballpoint needle is more round at the tip and has less cutting action than a sharp point. Ballpoints are good for knits. The rounded tip separates the fibers rather than cut through them, which decreases the risk of damage. A sharp point needle has a sharp tip - it has more cutting action than a ballpoint. The sharp point is used for tightly woven materials such as canvas or denim.

The right size needle helps cut down needle breakage during stitching and protects the thread, which avoids fraying while stitching.

Common Needle Sizes:

  • 70/10: Mainly used for small detail work where there are sharp curves and density is an issue
  • 75/11: Most commonly used needle size. The diameter is not too big and offers sufficient needle strength for most embroidery work.
  • 80/12: Used for heavier fabrics such as denim, because it makes a larger hole in the fabric when it sews. Often used for stitching caps if frequent needle breaks are experienced with a 75/11. Because of its larger diameter, the 80/12 needle is stronger and more durable.

Needle Type Matters:

Ballpoint needles have a rounded point. They are designed to penetrate knit fabrics by pushing the fibers aside rather than cutting or puncturing the fabric. They do less harm to the fabric -- materials such as knits will not run or have holes created when stitched. Ball Point needles are intended for fabrics such as jersey, interlock, pique and knit sweaters. Ball point needles are used with knit and delicate fabrics.

Sharp Point needles are designed to pierce through the fibers of the fabric with a cutting or puncturing action. They are best used for tight weaves, canvas, denim, towels, caps, nylon satin and other coated, thick or sturdy fabrics. Sharp needles are used with woven fabrics.

Wedge Point needles are primarily used with leather and similar goods. The wedge shape reduces friction while piercing the leather. Wedge point needles have a cutting edge to penetrate non-woven materials.

Changing the Needle:

Changing the needle often is a good idea - Just because it punctures your finger and draws blood doesn't mean that it is still useful.

Change a needle during the once-a-week maintenance. For example, on week one change needle one (on every head). Then, on week two maintenance - change needle two and so on and so forth. So, in turn you will be changing each needle once every 12 weeks (for a 12 needle machine).

Backing and Backing Weight Matters:

Backings matter - Think of getting the fabric stabilized to that there is no stretch without making it too stiff.

Backing Types:

Wash Away Backings
may provide some stability during stitching but they will not keep the design stable after laundering - and the design will stretch. These are great for providing that little extra stability needed for stitching but not the bulk that would be added for thicker backings. Wash away backings are normally used as topping on fabrics such as terry cloth, corduroy, and cotton pique. This is also commonly referred to as Solvy.

Melt Away Backings melt into pellets and are great when you cannot lauder the item - But they are only thin sheets of plastic and will dissolve in some dry cleaning solvents. They are to be used as topping only as with wash away backings.

Tear Away Backings provide some stability during the stitching process and are great when used with the correct fabric. Using a tear away backing that is heavy weight on a thin item will cause the item and embroidery to be rather rigid looking.

Cut Away Backings are just as they suggest - they are cut away after stitching. This type of backing provides a more stable base for items such as knits or fabric with a slight stretch to them - Sweatshirts, thin denim or canvas etc....

Poly Mesh Backing are great for thin knits and can add stability without bulk This know as a cutaway backing. Most people think that this type of backing is more comfortable to wear.

Iron ON Backing (Fusibles) are great for knits to hold the knit in place, but make sure that the iron-on backing will be enough for the knit fabric after washing. Many of these are similar to a tear away than a cutaway.

Peel and Stick Backing (or otherwise known as "sticky backing") considered a tear away backing that is used with hard to hoop garments and specialty framing systems.

Gauge the weight of the backing and the layering that you need on the garment. Also keep in mind the fabric type, the weight of the garment to be embroidered, and the stitch count of the design. Using multiple layers of backing is very common.

When possible, test stitch the design on the same fabric to get the backing needed as well as check the design for flaws. Remember there are TWO kinds of embroiderers - Those that test stitch and those that really wish they had.

Some examples of the proper needle and backing are continued below.

A golf shirt of 100% cotton or 50/50poly blend will use:
70/10, 75/11 or 80/12 ballpoint needle so that the threads in the fabric are pushed aside rather than the fibers of the fabric being pierced which might cut the knit.

You also need to stabilize this with one layer of a good quality cut away or poly mesh backing to keep the fabric stable during stitching AND keep the design stable during and after laundering.

If your knit fabric has a slight pattern or is a pique knit, you may want to add a layer of wash away as a topping for better registration during stitching.

Remember to cut around the backing, leaving a little bit of excess around it so that you don't cut the stitching by trimming too close.

Stitching should look good after washing if backed properly.

A T-Shirt knit is hooped with the same backing. However if the knit is thin you may want to use a couple of layers of lightweight poly mesh so that the stability is there without the bulk that would be added if you used two layers of cutaway or with a heavy cutaway.

Using Different Needles and Backing:

Coated Fabric (Raincoat material or waterproof material - ie: nylon)
75/11, 80/12 Sharp needle to pierce cleanly through the fabric 1 Layer of Light to Heavy Weight Tear Away - Since there is little stretch with this fabric you don't need more than one layer of Tear Away

Fabric with Nap or Wale:

  • Corduroy - 75/11, 80/12 Sharp to pierce through nap of fabric 1 Medium cutaway and 1 layer of wash away Topping. The Wash away provides a smoother stitching surface for better stitch placement where the corduroy ribbing is.
  • Terry Cloth - 75/11, 80/12 or 90/14 Sharp (remember towels are thick) Tear away so that you can have clean edges on the back of the towel and wash away on the top to keep the terry from poking through the stitching. Sometimes embroiderers will use a light plastic material on top (dry cleaning bags) because this type of material does not wash away after laundering.