Why are embroidery needles given random size numbers?

Have you ever wondered why a tapestry needle size goes up as the sizes goes down? And have you ever wondered why a size 24 needle is the same size as a size 8 sharp needle and a size 3 quilting needle?
Probably not. But following our video on how cross stitch needles are made, and our history of the cross stitch needle; I have. So I looked it up, and trust me when I say this; its not easy to find the answer.

gold cross stitch needles

How are needles sized generally?

Simply put, until the 1940s they weren’t sized at all. Each brand of needle provider came out with their own size guides, some based on width others based on length. Somehow people struggled through without much problem, until sewing machines were invented. Each sewing machine manufacturer standardised their sizing, however they all standardized differently. Each stating that theirs was the best way of sizing needles. Suddenly, issues were arising as manufacturers were suggesting a needle size that wasn’t uniform and people hated it.
Soon a group of needle makers came together and made their own system, which was so popular other manufacturers quickly had to adapt to their system.
machine sewing needle labeled
The system they picked was based on the way the machine sewing needle was constructed. Unlike a tapestry needle the machine sewing needle has a hole right by the tip. This means that the end of the needle is the largest point. The width of this needle in hundredths of a millimeter was now known as the size, in NM or Number Metric. So a NM 130 needle has a width of 1.3 milimeters.

That’s great, but we use tapestry needles.

However, hand needles have a very different structure to a machine needle and so this system couldn’t be copied. Here in lies the issue. All those needle manufacturers that missed out on the machine needle sizing came up with their own systems for hand needles. They went around and asked other manufacturers to use their needle size system for a specific type of needle in exchange to use anothers system for a different type of needle.
The method most chose (we’ll talk about excepctions in a minute) was wire guage thickness. In this system the higher the number, the more the wire is pulled. However, much in the same way the needles had issues with sizes, so did wire (and it still does) which is why no needle size matches another.

The exception to the rule

I said above that there were exceptions to the rule of higher the number, smaller the needle. In an interesting turn of events, knitting needles struggled on the sidelines whilst the needle size war was going on, and no one ever settled on a size. As a result in the UK the larger the number the smaller the needle, but in the US the larger the needle. Most now use milimeter thickness, however Japan uses a system of increasing numbers meaning larger needles, before then changing to milimeters at 7mm wide. This means they have both an 8mm needle, and a size 8, which is only 4.5mm thick.

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