Hand-Sewing Needles for English Paper Piecing
I recently decided to do some research to make absolutely certain that I was using the best possible needle for my English paper piecing. For several years now, I've been incredibly loyal to Clover Gold Eye appliqué needles, enjoying how fine and smooth they are, while inexplicably overlooking that their spiky little eyes had a habit of tearing up my finger tips whenever I forgot to use a thimble. Added to this, I am a piecer who instinctively gives a slight tug after each stitch to make sure that it's definitely secure and this habit was not endured well by these needles; snapping in half and losing part of the needle, until my husband unwittingly relocated it with a body part, was a regular occurrence, often accompanied by incensed accusations of carelessness. So there was definitely some room for improvement (on the part of the needles and the wife).
Being a superficial creature at times, I began my research by going straight for the needle that was most aesthetically pleasing. Tulip Hiroshima needles come in divine cardboard packaging and the needles themselves are contained in tiny cork-stoppered glass test tubes, which will give those prone to flights of fancy all the propulsion needed to indulge themselves in delusions that they are in fact working in a sewing 'lab' rather than a room. As I took them from the packaging, my white lab coat and safety goggles may almost have been visible and the bunsen burner in my heart was certainly aflame with some ferocity.
I tried the piecing and appliqué needles, although in reality I'd very probably prefer the milliners needles. In terms of stitching, they were a pleasure to sew with and left my finger tips unpunctured and feeling springy, however, I did find that they bent incredibly easily over the course of an hour's sewing. As these Tulip needles are eye-wateringly expensive, costing £5.65 for just six needles, I'll be reserving use of them for high days and holidays...and those days when one's spirits just need the kind of boost that can only be brought about by a new lipstick or a beautiful test tube full of sewing needles. Tulip's presentation is, without doubt, the finest amongst sewing paraphernalia that I've ever encountered and I know from discussions with other sewers that many people use them as their staple hand-sewing needles, but because my own sewing technique seems to cause them to bend, for me they'll have to be more of a birthday or Christmas wish-list item.
Just in case you're wondering about different types of needles yourself, it's probably worth saying at this point, that most people seem to prefer a longer needle for english paper piecing (although that's not true of everyone), making either a milliners (also known as a straw needle) or an appliqué needle a suitable choice. Milliners needles are just like 'sharps' needles (commonly used for general sewing), but longer; appliqué needles also offer extra length while having a fine point to minimise how much the fibres of the fabric are pushed apart as the needle enters. For my own sewing, my latest research seems to suggest I'm better with a slightly thicker milliners needle.
Next, I trialled some John James milliners needles. From an aesthetic point of view, with their workaday black and yellow packaging, John James offers the least appealing packaging out of everything I tried so it pains me to say that it was love at first stitch. They glide through the fabric, leave my finger tips feeling sprightly and over many hours of stitching suffered no breakage and relatively little change in shape (the needles that is, although thankfully the same goes for my fingers). They cost a thrifty £1.65 for an envelope of 25 size 10 milliners needles and have the appealing heritage of being made in Redditch, England, a place steeped in centuries of needle-making history.
Hiroshima also has a history of needle production dating back 300 years and produces over 90% of Japan's needles. These details may seem irrelevant, but in the cases of both the Japanese Tulips and the English John James, I really enjoy using a product that has roots, uses traditional manufacturing processes and that has not been outsourced to China in a cost-cutting measure. John James themselves have been around since 1840.
I then turned my attention to establishing exactly which size of needle I really preferred and dispensing with my mixed pack, ordered three tiny envelopes directly from the John James website in sizes 9, 10 and 11 (for the uninitiated, the number on the needle pack refers to its size, often both length and thickness. Generally the bigger the number, the smaller and finer the needle. So a size 5 needle will be bigger and wider than a #10). Until this research, I'd had a habit of picking up whatever Clover Gold Eyes my local shop had in stock between a size 9 and 11, so I was keen to know what my ideal needle length would be. I spent a completely unnecessary few hours swapping over the needles as I sewed, because it was easy to conclude almost immediately that the #10s felt (to steal an expression from the mouth of Goldilocks) 'just right', with the #11s feeling just a bit too long and unwieldy and the #9s feeling just a bit too small. I'd imagine that what feels just right may well have a lot to do with hand size.
In the interest of thorough research though, I decided to also try out Jeana Kimball's Foxglove Cottage milliners needles as these were recommended to me by two sewers whose product recommendations are always excellent (thank you, Kerry & Lorena). I found these were almost identical to the John James needles and didn't bend too much while sewing. In side by side testing (I threaded one of each up and swapped between the two) though, the John James felt 'right' to me in a way that I couldn't actually pin down. The Jeana Kimball needles cost £3.25 for 16 - a little more expensive than the John James, but still very reasonable and the increased cost is possibly down to the packaging which, as it's more travel friendly, is very welcome (in this context, 'travel' doesn't necessarily involve leaving the house, but also refers to moving from one room to another or even shifting in one's seat and thereby upending all items not fastened down). The John James envelopes, which threaten to deposit needles all over the house, are a point of irritation and require constant vigilance on my part...(when I remember I will transfer them to a needle pot, but I'd wanted to keep them all their labelled packaging during my testing).
It's now about six weeks since I began this research and I'm aware that it may seem like a rather curious (and possibly completely obsessive) journey to embark upon, but I can't tell you quite how lovely it is to sew without punctured finger tips and uninterrupted by daily games of Hunt the Needle after one snaps in half and propels itself across the room, so I'd encourage you to embark upon your own research if you're not 100% delighted with your needles.
Ps. This post doesn't acknowledge the horror of the Trump election. But it feels necessary to say that I have not sewn on and trialled needles regardless. I have sewn on and trialled needles with a head whirling with thoughts or while having conversations about little else. I am sending cuddles to anyone feeling as horrified and stunned as I am - 2016 has been a shocker of a year between this and the EU referendum, hasn't it.
I hand sew with these lovely long needles that over time have a slight bend to them from use and magically never seem to snap. They are long enough to be able to hold them comfortably. My granny rescued a tin of them from a school that was being closed down when she was young, and thankfully there are masses of them as I do fear that they will one day run out!ReplyDelete
That's so lovely that you have needles with a history, that sew perfectly and that are free! I think you have the best possible combination, Kate. xDelete
Thanks for this post. I am a newcomer to the Tulip "test tube" needles and was a bit shocked by the price, but I do love them. I will use them sparingly. And as an American, I am feeling intensely the horror of the Trump election. Thank you for the cuddles ... we're going to need them.ReplyDelete
Yes, as he picks the people who will surround him, the need for cuddles only intensifies, doesn't it. It's really horrifying. I feel so sad about it. xxxDelete
Utterly obsessive and therefore fascinating! I have to say I think the Clover packaging pips the John James on ugliness - the yellow and black has a pleasingly old-school look by comparison! I have a large collection of ancient and very mixed needles acquired by osmosis or some other mysterious non-purchasing process... Great to know of these needles that are (relatively) locally made, good quality, AND reasonably priced! Also astonished to hear of you frequently breaking needles by hand! I did that once but I was trying to sew something to a rubber shoe sole. xReplyDelete
Have just visited JJ website and found that they sell the same Japanese needle threaders as Merchant & Mills - I bought a M&M-packaged one for £2.25 the other day, JJ has them for 63p+VAT!!!Delete
I'm so pleased it's fascinating as well as obsessive! Do you think so? I've always rather loved Clover's packaging, but now I'm looking at it objectively I can see your point - it's really not that different from the John James in terms of design.Delete
Yes, they did snap incredibly often, but in my (and their) defence I think they're only about 1/3rd of the thickness of the other needles I've trialled.
I'm so pleased you've found a cheaper source. I think packaging is an odd one as in some ways when a product is packaged beautifully, even though I may not be 'using' the packaging, it does seem to instil the item with an intrinsic higher value for me, because I'm partly buying into the experience, as well as the reality, of using it, if that makes sense. So with Merchant & Mills and Tulip, although I'm slightly scandalised by the price they add on, I can also see that I'm gaining something intangible from it that sometimes I'm happy to pay for...sometimes not - it depends on how much the mark up is, how expensive it is and how much the packaging adds to the experience. Do you feel the same at all? There's an equal case for something being instilled with a higher value for being able to delightedly think: AND it was a bargain, each time it's used. I have that with some things too, so I think I come down on both sides with things personally. x
Yes, after our election here in the Us, I thought about you and your welcome post on Brexit. Hope for the best and plan for the worst.ReplyDelete
Urg, yes. I think the dust is still settling on both and it's a terrible time of uncertainty, isn't it. But yes, ultimately we must always hope for the best. xDelete
PS I use a #11 John James Applique gold'n glide applique needle. I love these.ReplyDelete
Oh goodness, don't start tempting me into more research with words like 'glide'...Delete
Oh this is fascinating stuff! I shall get on to the John James website forthwith. I do all sorts of different bits of handsewing and am a bit lost when my favourite needle - that I use for most stuff! - goes missing. But I really should get my act together and get some more decent needles, but this is an area I've never really known much about!ReplyDelete
When I was planning my cycle tour in the summer (where I ended up at the F of Q and met you) I thought "Now, what of interest might there be in Redditch?" where I was going to be staying 2 nights. Quick google - a needle museum! How extraordinary and how appropriate! But sadly by the time I got my knackered self there I hadn't got the time or energy to go to the museum, but I shall go another time.
Now, off to the JJ website...
That's such a shame that you didn't get there, Lizzie! There's always next year though. Would you do that journey again or was the experience enough for this lifetime? xDelete
I'd do that journey again gladly, and can't wait for longer days and better weather to do some more touring!Delete
I have just started paper piecing and this post answered a lot of the questions that have been whirling through my brain about needles, thanks!ReplyDelete
I'm SO pleased! Thank you for taking the time to let me know that you found it useful, Fran. xDelete
My favorites are the foxglove cottage straw needles, so I was happy to see them at least on your list. I also like the JJ, but here, they are more comparable in price to the FC, and, as you well know, the FC are more attractively packaged :-)ReplyDelete
I have quit trying other (more experienced) people's favorites, because I always (very quickly) went back to my foxglove cottage straw needles and have tubes of every size to cover all of my hand sewing needs :-)
(I think you may have the size 9 and 11s backwards, though, as 11 would be smaller than a 9, I believe)
Oh that's interesting - I wonder if Foxglove Cottage do their numbering differently, as most needle manufacturers use the inverse numbering system, which is really non-sensical, so I can understand why a company may choose to do it differently. Gosh, that's such a shame that the JJ become so unaffordable once exported, isn't it. xDelete
Thanks for posting about the needles. I too love John James needles.ReplyDelete
And yes, 2016 has been a horror. Angry, lft-behind white voters. While I feel sympathetic toward them, I am outraged and dismayed that they voted to leave the EU and elected a dangerous moron (aided by your Farage...). Idiots and Morons as George Carlin used to say. Unf, we are all in their boat. I am so angry I can barely be civil to my Trumpette friends and neighbors
Yes, Farage is just frightful. I was lucky in that within my own social group and family there was virtually no polarisation of ideas (and as a community, mine voted overwhelmingly to stay as part of the EU) - that must be a real struggle to have to deal with your difference in opinions when you're still feeling so raw about things - I think I'd find that really hard too. Sending love. xDelete
I have just spent weeks on an EPP project. I have tried all of the above referenced needles while stitching it. I use milliners when appliquing and hand piecing and thought that would transfer to EPP. I found surprisingly that I liked a shorter sturdier needle for EPP. I found that the Sajou patchwork needle did it for me. The Sajou is a between or quilting needle I believe and it feels like a "beefy" quilting needle to me. I use a 12 Piecemakers when I hand quilt and the Sajou is sturdier. Thank you for your research and thoughtful explanations.ReplyDelete
Oh that's so interesting that you've said that as I have a pack of Sajous that a lovely friend brought back from Paris for me and I'm now kicking myself for not remembering to make them a part of my research. I will have to dig them out and do some trialling. The packaging is certainly beautiful, isn't it! Thank you for the reminder. xDelete
Such an interesting and informative post - much appreciated! Although I realize sewing needle preference is a very personal thing - just as with knitting needles - I can't help but feel a bit pleased that I happen to have a packet of JJ needles in my sewing drawing right now, ordered as a experiment and not yet opened :)ReplyDelete
Thank you also for your kind words re: the current situation in the US. A couple of days ago I reluctantly wrote my first-ever politically-related blog post, as I was immobilized by misery and unable to write about anything else til I lifted the lid just a little.
I've just read it and commented - I'm so sorry, Quinn. I hope you enjoy your needles when you unwrap them. xDelete
Have just unpacked some JJ needles I ordered. Haven't tried them out yet, and I am looking forward to doing so, but - I hate to tell you (and I was disappointed to find out as I too love to have something that's made in this country) - They are made in China!!! Although it does say "to Entaco's quality and specification ". And on one packet "assembled and inspected in England using needles made in China". I wonder how one assembles a needle!ReplyDelete
Gosh, Lizzie! I almost wish you hadn't told me. That's really depressing and I think that their website About Us section feels slightly misleading in view of that: https://www.jjneedles.com/about-us. What a shame. I hope you like the actual needles in spite of their dubious heritage. xReplyDelete
Needles are so very, very important. Always read what other think about them, but am missing my favorite brand in this post: Bohin. Hard to find in my country (The Netherlands) I bought loads of them in all shapes and sizes at the Houston Quilt Festival a few years back where they always have a large booth. They are sturdy, glide easily, do not bend and for those type of needles that need it, have very sharp points (have terrible experiences with John James needles 'on that point'). So if you can find them, try out a few types of Bohin needles, I am curious what you think about them.ReplyDelete
I've now ordered some to try them out - thank you! I agree - much harder to get hold of than regular needles.Delete
A very interesting post, Florence! I have tiny hands (my wedding ring is a size 3 1/4) and really prefer small needles for all hand sewing. Applique and milliner's needles make me feel like I'm trying to sew with a sword, lol. I've been using Big Eye Quilting Needles by Richard Hemming and Son for years. I can't remember if my pack was size 10 or 11, but I'm thinking it was 10. There were 20 needles originally and I'm now down to 2, but as I bought the pack about 15 years ago I think I'm doing okay :)ReplyDelete
I love the image conjured up by it being like sewing with a sword! That's wonderful! xDelete
Florence, I was so pleased to see your post - I have really missed reading your wonderful posts over the last couple of months. XReplyDelete
I was so touched to read your comment - thank you, Laura. xDelete
Florence, I think you could write about paper bags and I'd still find it interesting. I love how you write. I actually use a short stubby Clover gold eye, quilting needle (no 8) for all my EPP as well as my hand quilting. Might try an appliqué needle as I need to buy some new ones. I left my entire EPP sewing bag in the chemist and they thew it away after it wasn't claimed for 3 weeks.ReplyDelete
Great post, thank you! I hadn’t given much thought about the eye end of the needles which was an “ah ha” moment for me in terms of damage to my finger without a thimble. Doh! It now being 2018 I continue to live in a nightmare with the current president(won’t give him the respect of saying his name). Doing a lot of EPP helps me cope!ReplyDelete
what a lovely post and I even enjoyed the comment section, now it's 2021 and many years past when you first posted this!ReplyDelete
I have been on a mission to find the best needle for EPP AND thread for piecing, so I enjoyed reading about your experiment. Thank you!
I am in the U.S. and things are still crazy here politically, but at least we don't have T in the white house. Holding my breath he doesn't run again.
I know this post is years old, but I wanted to thank you anyway as I am shopping for needles for hand piecing, both EPP and regular, and your research was invaluable to me.ReplyDelete