Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hints for Threading Needles

Sewing by hand requires only a needle & thread, scissors & fabric, plus a bit of dexterity. But first, you have to thread that needle, which can present some challenges.

Over time, I have gathered tips and tricks for threading hand sewing needles. Most I learned from Grandma. Some tips are from stitching friends. When I teach hand applique, quilting, and embroidery, I learn tips from students. A few are gathered from the internet.

First tip:  Relax!
Suzy Mouse, Cinderella
Improve Your View
• Work in good light. My Grandma would say “you’re going to hurt your eyes.” Prevent eye strain.
• Close one eye. We all have a 'dominant eye.' A Certified NRA Sharpshooter, I know my right eye is better than my left.
• Thread needles when light is better, eyes are fresher, when you have more time or more patience.
• View the needle against a white background (or a light); it will be much easier to see the eye.
• Use a headlamp (like for camping) or a jeweler’s magnifier held on your head; some include a built-in light. 
• Inexpensive magnifying glasses are available in the pharmacy.
• Enlist a willing helper with better eyesight and/or patience.
• For hand quilting, thread several needles onto the spool without cutting the thread. Secure the thread end so the needles don’t fall off.

Reposition the Needle or Reposition the Thread
• Turn the needle eye around. Needle eyes are punched out by machinery, and the side punched into will usually be smoother.
• I push the thread INTO the eye. Try bringing the needle eye TO the thread instead.
• Make a clean cut on the thread – cutting on an angle will help.
• Hold the thread end “shortly” between your fingers so it will bend less.
• Flatten the thread end – especially useful for embroidery threads. Grandma taught me how to thread multiple strands of embroidery thread at once onto an embroidery needle. Fold the threads in half across the lower shaft of the needle. Pull the fold tight against the needle shaft. To flatten that fold, squeeze the fold tightly between two fingers of the other hand, as you slide the needle point away. Keeping the fold flat and holding it very shortly, push the fold into the eye, shown below.


Use a Needle Threader
• Needle threaders of various kinds are sold by Clover, Bohin, Fons Porter, etc. Some even have a light. Find one appropriate for your needle and thread. Every needle won’t fit in every threader, and every thread won't fit through every needle! I use one made of a old-fashioned simple wire attached to a holder. The wire is delicate, and cannot be forced with too much pressure, so keep a few on hand.
• Beverly Whitworth uses dental floss as a threader: “Fold the dental floss in half creating a loop. Insert the loop in the eye of the needle, put the thread in the loop, and pull through the eye of the needle.”

Moisten the Thread or the Needle.
• Grandma would often moisten the thread. That doesn’t usually help me, but sometimes it does help to adhere a fraying end. You don’t have to spit on it; you could just moisten your fingers; which I might do for threading machine needles. Sometimes moisture just swells the thread, so just recut it.
• Some people moisten the needle instead (carefully). That has never worked for me.

Beeswax, Thread Conditioners, etc.
• Wax the thread with beeswax, or slide it on Thread Heaven® thread conditioner and protectant, to make the thread a bit stiffer or behave better. These products also help prevent thread twisting. I just hold the project in the air and let the needle dangle to untwist unruly thread.

Buy Quality Products & Use the Best Tool for the Job.
• Find out where your needles are manufactured. Many are now contracted out and quality may suffer. Read the package. “Packaged in” does not mean “Made in.”
• The head (eye end) of the needle should not be rough or pointed, and the eye punch should be smooth. Thread fray and breakage can be caused by an imperfectly punched needle.
• Choose appropriate thread and needle. A student in my workshop was frustrated just getting started because she could not get her thread into her needle. She was sold a pack of needles and a spool of thread by a vendor who sent her off to class with poor choices. Although I provide needles and threads for sale in my classes, she had already spent her $$. I gave her a new needle and thread, so if nothing else, at least she learned about matching needles to threads.
• Switch to a different needle (shorter/longer, thinner/thicker, bigger eye, better quality) or choose a different thread. Sewing should be fun, not frustrating.
• Discard old threads if they are weak. Test them compared to new thread.

Consider how threads are manufactured.
• Hand sewing thread is inserted into the needle as it comes off the spool. However, thread untwists and wears as it travels through fabric. Some threads wear better if the end cut AT the spool is inserted into the needle.
• Hand quilting thread is heavier for a reason – the entire thread must travel completely through all three layers of fabric with every stitch. Machine quilting thread enters the quilt only partway, and only once each time along its length. Video How a Sewing Machine Works in Slow Motion by EverythingForYou.

Manage Short Tails and Avoid Re-threading

• As you sew, occasionally move the thread tail along the needle eye to avoid wear. As the thread becomes shorter, the tail can slip out of the needle and then you have to thread the needle yet again! Train your pinky finger to hold that thread tail.
• With very thin thread, make a slip knot on the needle eye. Video: How to Make a Silk Thread Knot by AngiesBitsAndPieces
  • With thick thread, if you can pierce the thread tail with the point of the needle, snag it and pull it up to the eye forming a loop (one of Grandma’s tricks).

• Park your needle safely -- When you park a working needle, leave the thread tail encased in the last stitch so the needle can dangle but not fall off. Store idle needles in a pincushion.
• When storing a threaded needle, knotting one end of the thread = 50% less chance of the needle falling OFF the thread.

Suzy Mouse - The Work Song
These are all the best hints I've got. Now go sew!

Keep Stitching!
Barbara M. Burnham
(c) 2017 Barbara M. Burnham. All rights reserved. Reproduction of any kind is expressly prohibited without prior written authorization.


  1. I fold the thread over the needle and place the eye over the fold. I don't have to look at the eye or squint to thread the needle, the needle almost threads itself!

  2. Wow, Barbara! What an excellent detailed article about needle-threading—the bane of my stitching existence. I can even have trouble with a needle threader. I thought I had attempted everything imaginable, but you may have given a tip or two that I haven't tried. Great post! Thanks!!

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