A needle mystery

If you follow my Facebook page, you may have read that I had some trouble ordering needles for kits. The John James website would not recognise my password, would not let me reset it because my username didn’t exist, and would not let me re-register because my username did already exist. In the end I rang them and a kind lady took my order over the phone. Sorted!

JJ sell their needles in various quantities – the usual blister packs you find in the shops, envelopes of 25 (more economical) and bulk buys of 1000 (more economical still, but for now definitely overkill for my scale of kit production). I tend to go for the envelopes. My immediate reason for ordering was the fact that right in the middle of putting kits together I’d run out of the one size needed for pretty much every non-Hardanger kit I produce (#7), so I ordered plenty of those, plus a few envelopes of other sizes (#3 and #10) to make the most of the postage.

Today they arrived. General rejoicing! And then I noticed that one of the envelopes said “002”.

An order of needles

Fortunately the #3 needles had very much been a “padding” order; I would definitely be using them, but I didn’t need them for the present run of kits. Even so, I thought I’d better ring JJ about it. The phone was answered by the same lady who had taken my order. I said the needles had arrived, and thanked her for sending them out so promptly, and then mentioned that one of the packets was the wrong size. “The number 2s?” she asked. It turns out the writing on the order had got smudged before she could put it together, and she couldn’t read the last size. She couldn’t get me on the phone and as I’d said the order was urgent she’d decided to send it out with her closest guess, which unfortunately turned out to be the wrong one. She promised she’d send out a packet of 3s to replace them, and told me not to worry about sending the 2s back, but just to pass them on to someone else if I couldn’t use them.

Very good service, you’ll agree. But then I thought I might as well check how different size #2 was from #3; after all, if they were’t too much bigger they would probably work. I took out a needle and held it next to one of my #3. It looked exactly the same. I remembered there was a size guide on the JJ website, and that some sizes of needles were actually identical – perhaps this was the case for #2 and #3? But no, it wasn’t; #2 should be the same as #1, distinctly larger than #3 and #4.

Needle sizes

And yet they looked the same. Unless I borrowed my husband’s micrometer I couldn’t be sure of the needles’ diameters, but I could easily measure their lengths. They were both 45mm long. Somehow the packet of size #2 I was sent by mistake for a size #3, actually contained size #3 needles. Perhaps sometimes two wrongs do make a right! I rang JJ to tell them not to send me the replacement packet, turned the 2 into a 3 on the envelope and tucked it into my needle box with the other size #3 packets. I love a happy ending smiley.

A needling question

Last year I talked a little about needles, and whether the very expensive Tulip ones were worth the extra expense. I also mentioned some between/quilting needles by Clover which I’d picked up in the Netherlands and which I really enjoyed stitching with. In my quest to find some more, I came across Clover’s black-coated needles as well as their more economical gold-eye ones, and tried those too – but in the end I came to the conclusion that neither the Tulips nor the Clover blacks felt that much smoother or more accurate than the ones I’d picked up back in the old country.

But some mystery surrounded those Dutch-bought needles. For one thing, I’d bought them in sizes #7, #9 and #11 – but when trying to buy some spares I could not find Clover #7 needles anywhere. Unfortunately I’d decanted the needles into little lip seal bags (like the more recently bought #10s in the picture below, but marked with the size only) and got rid of the original packaging, so I had no information about the dimensions of each size or anything else.

Clover needles, decanted

Husband to the rescue: with his micrometer he measured all three sizes, I made a note of them and contacted Clover. Clover denied ever having made #7 needles of any kind. (Incidentally, I also asked them why their #12 needles are actually thicker than their #10s, when it is pretty universally true for all brands that higher numbers denote smaller – both thinner and shorter – needles; they replied, “Our Clover needles doesn’t match its rule. Basically we try to fit the rule but some item could not do so.” If this makes more sense to you than it did to me, do enlighten me!)

I settled for some #8 and #10 needles, which were the closest I could find to the ones I had. And then an additional mystery arose: nice though these new needles were, the ones I originally bought in the Netherlands seemed rather nicer. Was this the gloss of nostalgia that an ex-pat sometimes applies to anything connected with “home”? Surely Clover’s Japanese factories wouldn’t send different needles to different countries?

It took a while, and some serious Googling of needle sizes, but eventually I found the answer: the needles I bought in the Netherlands are actually the German brand Prym…

So now I can tell you definitely: my favourite, go-to needles are Prym gold-eye betweens, #7 for 2-3 strands, #9 for one strand, #11 for beading. I picked up some more from Minerva Crafts and am now probably all right for needles for the next five years or so. But I may get a few more packs just to be on the safe side.

Prym betweens in two sizes

After all, needles are the most frequently used tool or equipment in our stitching. And one of the nice things about these ones is that they are even more affordable than the ordinary (i.e. non-black-coated) Clovers; with postage they come in at about 10p a piece, and if you can pick them up at a show or a shop they come to less than 8p a needle. Which means that, unlike with £1 Tulip needles, you need have no scruples about using a new needle for every new project, or even several needles if the project is a large and long-term one. And the feeling of stitching with a fresh needle is so satisfying it is a treat in itself.

An 8p treat that enhances your stitching and puts a smile on your face. What’s not to like smiley?

Needles

Over the past few months I’ve been trying out different needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends) and although some of them are definitely a lot more expensive than ordinary needles (like the Tulip ones Mary Corbet recommends smiley), because they are small items the actual cost is still affordable as a treat (unlike being a racing car fanatic and deciding to try out different engines, for example). But are these fancy needles really necessary, and do they live up to expectations?

We all know the needle book belonging to grandma or great-aunt which contains the needles with which she sewed her entire life, apparently with no detrimental effect on either herself or her sewing. On the other hand, it is possible to be too thrifty and to practice the false economy of trying to do fine embroidery with needles that have long lost their plating and are tarnished and rough and doing unmentionable things to your threads (especially silks). Don’t wait until the needle gets so weakened with use that the eye breaks and becomes a health hazard (yes, voice of experience).

But when you change your needle, does it matter what you change it to? If the size and the point (blunt or sharp) are correct for your work, does it make a difference whether it’s from a bargain basement box-of-25-for-50p or whether it is a Tulip branded one costing a frankly eye-watering £1 per needle?

I decided to find out. Normally I use John James needles bought in envelopes of 25 for all forms of freestyle embroidery, and gold-plated tapestry needles bought in bulk from Busy Lizzie (who no longer sells them) for Hardanger. These are probably a little more expensive than an unbranded assorted pack from the local haberdasher’s, but because I buy them in fairly large numbers they are still a relatively economical choice. And they have served me well over many years, doing the job they were designed to do. But various people (experienced stitchers all) singing the praises of Tulip needles from Japan made me decide to give them a try.

The first thing you notice when they arrive is the packaging; you have to do a lot of unwrapping to get at the needles! A well-presented (and colour-coded) cardboard box closed with a decorative tassle holds a glass tube with a cork stopper, which in turn contains the needles. It’s beautifully done, and unfortunately immediately made me wonder how much less expensive the needles could have been with less fancy packaging… Still, you’d expect a Cartier jewel to come in a velvet-lined, gold-stamped box, not an anonymous cloth bag, so perhaps it’s just all a sign of the quality and attention to detail.

Tulip embroidery needles come in a nice cardboard box Tulip embroidery needles in a tube with cork stopper Tulip embroidery needles

And how do they work? Very well. They are nice and smooth, and very sharp so they pierce the fabric accurately. But I’m afraid I didn’t notice the enormous difference in stitching comfort that some stitchers report (saying they can now stitch for much longer because the smooth needles put less strain on the hand), or that much of a difference in accuracy. Do I enjoy using them? Yes. Will I continue to use them? Yes, until I run out. But I won’t buy them again. The difference between the Tulip needles and my ordinary ones is simply not great enough to justify the difference in price.

Next up were Clover needles (incidentally also from Japan). I picked up some gold-eye between needles in the Netherlands some years ago, and have found them very useful; this was partly because they were the first between/quilting needles I’d ever used. I’m a bit hazy as to the exact difference between betweens and quilting needles, but they are both shorter than ordinary embroidery needles and therefore easier to use when you’re trying to manoeuvre in a small space (for example at the back of the work near the edge of the hoop). For smoothness the Clover ones compare favourably with the Tulip betweens, and at less than 15p each there is really no contest there.

Clover embroidery needles in their packages A Clover #12 needle on my fingertip

The black & gold ones are rather more expensive; they come in at about 23 of the Tulip needles. The black polish, which according to the description is grooved along the length of the needle, is meant to make it glide through the fabric more smoothly.

I tried some of them out on King Ethelnute (my nickname for the split stitch & gold project started at the medieval embroidery retreat) using two of the black & gold needles, a #9 quilting needle and a #10 between, both with a single strand of Silk Mill silk, doing split stitch. Oddly enough the #10 was more difficult to pull through even though it is significantly thinner than the #9. The #9 was very smooth to use, and pierced the fabric very accurately. I’ve got a whole pack of the #10 betweens so will try one of the others to see whether it was just this one needle being difficult! On the whole, however, I’m not sure the black & gold needles are significantly more pleasant to use than the standard gold-eye Clover needles, so unless further use changes my mind I will stick with the standard ones, which are very good indeed.

And what’s next? Well, I would like to try Bohin needles, made in France, which have also been praised for their smoothness, and possibly Piecemakers (from America). But for now I’m happy with the John James needles for everyday use, and the gold-eye Clover betweens/quilting needles for fine and accurate work.

PS On one of the online embroidery groups I’m a member of, someone asked (having seen the picture of the #12 needle on my fingertip) how you thread a needle that thin. Well, there are needle threaders (although for a needle that size you’d have to use a micro-threader) but so far I’ve managed with the method I was taught at one of the RSN day classes I attended: “bring the needle to the thread” instead of the other way round. Hold the very end of the thread between thumb and index finger, open up so that the end of the thread is just visible, then bring the needle’s eye towards the thread between your fingers, so that the eye of the needle is the only place that the thread can go when you open up your fingers further. It’s not easy to describe in words only but I hope it gives you the general idea. If you decide to give it a try do let me know how you get on with it!

Update – since writing this post I have found out that the needles I thought were Clover are actually Prym… You can read more about them here