Setting Yourself Up for Sewing Success – Part 1

A couple of years ago I put together a class in response to seeing many sewists struggle because they didn’t know the things I’m about to talk about. Even if someone took a sewing class, more often than not things like thread weight, needle types, bias and ease weren’t covered. If you don’t know this stuff odds are your setting yourself and your project up for trouble if not failure.

I do think it’s better when this outline is accompanied by my talking it over, but in the interest of getting this information out there I’ll post my outline here. Because it’s long (8 pages) I’ll do it in parts. The following is the first part (Intro, Thread, and Needles):


Who is this class for?

  • Self-taught sewists
  • Beginner sewists
  • Anyone who ever had something go wrong while sewing and couldn’t figure out what was causing the problem.

Class Goal:

  • Students should walk out of this class understanding basic sewing concepts that will set them up for success in their future projects.

This class assumes you will be using a sewing machine. However, many of the concepts covered in this class also apply to hand sewing.

This class deals with woven fabrics only – no knits.


Thickness & Weight

            The higher the number, the thinner the thread.

Most of the threads you will use for garment sewing use weight (wt) to refer to thread thickness. Thread weight is determined by the number of kilometers of thread that it takes to weigh 1 kilogram.

Common thread weights:

  • 60 wt. Often marketed for fine sewing or as bobbin thread for machine embroidery.
  • 50 wt. This is basic sewing thread. This is the thread you will use the most.
  • 40 wt. A thicker thread. Often used for decorative stitching, machine embroidery and machine button holes. If you need to sew canvas consider using this weight thread.
  • 30 wt. This is often sold as top stitching thread. You could also use this thread weight on tent canvas.
  • 12 wt. Often sold as decorative topstitching thread.

In addition, there is 100 wt. thread (I’ve only seen this in silk), that can be used for sewing fine silk, voile, or lawn fabrics.

When you are buying thread for your project, pay attention to the weight/thickness of the thread, not just the color.

  • You may need to buy 2 types of thread for your project ( e.g. one for the seams and one for buttonholes).

Thread Quality

Lint: A non-obvious consideration when buying thread is how fuzzy the thread is and how much lint it will throw off as it flows through your machine. Check out this article showing threads under a microscope: .

  • If you find that your machine is getting gummed up with lint quickly, thread is tangling in the bobbin area (i.e.“birdnests”), thread breaks, stitches are not forming correctly, you may want to switch to a smoother, less-fuzzy thread.

Clean your bobbin area frequently. Lint buildup can cause problems with your stitching and can eventually damage your machine.

Deterioration: Thread does not age well! Air and sunlight will cause thread to rot. Thread should be stored inside some sort of container (at least a drawer) and away from sunlight. Old thread may break or cause you trouble. Think before you use thread of a questionable age, and test.

When threading your machine, always do so with the pressure foot up.

  • When the pressure foot is in the raised position the tension disks are loosened, allowing for you thread to pass through the machine correctly.


Parts of the Needle

In general, needles are characterized by 3 factors:

  • The thickness of the needle,
  • The size of the eye (the hole through which the thread passes), and
  • The shape of the needle point.

In general:

  • The thicker the fabric, the thicker the needle
  • The thicker the thread, the larger the eye

Needle Types

Needle type is determined by the shape of the point and the size/shape of the eye.

Common needle types for sewing seams on woven fabrics:

  • Universal – has slightly rounded point
  • Sharp – sharp point; good for silks
  • Jeans – sharp point and larger eye; good for thick fabrics and threads, or quilting
  • Topstitching – Larger eye

If you want to use a 40 wt machine embroidery thread for decorative stitching, try using an Embroidery needle. A topstitching needle can work as well.


            The higher the number, the thicker the needle.

For most of your sewing, you will use a size 80 needle. A size 80 is good for medium to heavy weight linens, all but coat-weight wools, light to medium weight cottons, etc.

However, there is a general rule of thumb that you should try to use the smallest needle size possible. This is because you don’t want to poke unnecessarily big holes or damage your fabric.

Try using a 70 or even a 60 sized needle for sewing fine silks, linens, or cottons, such as handkerchief-weight linen, voile, lawn, organza, or batiste. Remember to use a finer thread, such as 60 wt. cotton or 100 wt. silk.

Consider using a 90 or larger size needle on heavy canvas, twills, and coat-weight wools.

If your needle breaks, try moving to a bigger needle. If your thread shreds, try a larger-eyed needle.

            Using the correct combination of thread and needle is one key to sewing success!

How to test thread/needle combos: Needle Slide test:

  • Cut about 18 in of the thread you plan to use. Take the needle you want to try out of its package and thread it with the thread you just cut.
  • Hold the thread up, one end in each hand. Tip the thread at a 45 degree angle.
    • If the needle slides smoothly, then the eye of that needle is big enough for your thread.
    • If the needle hesitates at all to slide, then the eye is too small for your thread.

Start each new project with a new needle. If something goes wrong, the first fix to try is to change your needle.

2 thoughts on “Setting Yourself Up for Sewing Success – Part 1

  1. Thank you for the thread comparison link – it’s always fun to see the side-by-side photos. I’m now sewing on a 1949 Singer Featherweight, and I think thread choice may be much more critical. If my Elna ever cared, she never let me know. : )


    1. FWIW, my favorite thread these days for machine garment sewing is Aurifil 50 wt, 100% cotton. It’s not cheap, but a spool last a very long time. Quilt shops usually carry it, and there’s always online. And happy sewing on your Featherweight!


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