Like any other sharpened metal, sewing needles will become dull with regular use. And so, just as a kitchen knife needs periodic attention to maintain its edge, your sewing machine needle will also need to be cleaned and either sharpened or replaced.
If your budget allows, replacing a dull sewing machine needle is preferable to sharpening it. No matter how carefully you try, it is difficult to maintain the exact shape and angle of the needle. And different sizes and types of needles have other peculiarities to consider.
However, if you’re in a pinch for time or have budget constraints, sharpening is possible. Before considering making an effort, examine your needle carefully for bends. Sharpening a bent needle is a waste of your valuable time.
A sharp needle is essential to the overall quality of the end product. This is especially true of visible stitches such as topstitching or the stitching around zippers or pockets. An unimpaired needle ensures smooth, even stitches and undamaged fabric.
How to Tell if Your Sewing Machine Needle Is Dull
- Noise: As a machine needle begins to dull, you’ll notice that the machine seems to be noisier than usual. You may also notice a distinct “thunk” each time the needle passes through the fabric. The noise is more easily discernible at slower speeds.
- Skipped stitches: A dull needle can throw the internal timing of the machine off just enough to cause periodic skipped stitches. While a damaged needle may not be the only reason for such an issue, it’s a logical place to start.
- Pulled fabric threads: A dull or damaged needle can grab at the fabric as it passes through, causing pulled threads and puckers along the seamline. Sharpening and polishing the needle can eliminate this problem.
- Rough feel: Once a needle is removed from the machine, it can be checked for dullness or rough places. Touch the needle to your skin to feel its sharpness. Try running a fingernail gently down the side of the needle. If your nail catches anywhere, the surface has become damaged or worn.
- Visible flaws: Use a magnifying glass to examine the needle for dullness or abrasions.
- Time in use: Needles become dull after around 8 hours of use. If you’re unsure, it’s a good idea to replace the needle after each project. If it’s any easier to remember, some say to change the needle after using three full bobbins of thread.
How to Sharpen a Dull Sewing Machine Needle
The life of a sewing machine or hand sewing needle can be extended a few times by sharpening. Sharpening is not a difficult or time-consuming process. However, it should be done with a gentle hand to avoid bending or breaking.
There are several ways to sharpen your needles. Some are more reliable than others. Be careful to avoid any but very fine grit surfaces. Remember that the length of the needle is vital to the proper functioning of your machine, so you must avoid grinding off too much.
- Emory Cushion
- Fine Grit Emory Board
- Toothpaste or Metal Polish
- Steel Wool or Sandpaper
Use an emery cushion
If you have ever owned the classic tomato-shaped pin cushion, you will recall the little strawberry attached to the middle of the top. That little berry has a purpose that is not often explained with the product purchase.
The strawberry is filled with one of several crushed or ground minerals for sharpening and polishing pins and needles.
Just poke the needle through the strawberry a few times, and you’ll be surprised at how well this traditional accessory works.
It’s probably the easiest and most reliable way to sharpen many pins and needles. It may not work as well on some machine sewing needles, but it will get you through as a quick fix in a pinch.
Use a fine-grit emory board
Most of us have an emery board or two wasting away in a drawer or cabinet. A fine-grain (800-1500 grit) emery board can be used to sharpen a dull sewing machine needle in much the same way a sharpening stone is used for a knife-edge.
Put a few drops of sewing machine oil on the emery board surface. Place it on a flat surface while sharpening your needle. Rub your needle along the emery board at a very shallow angle while simultaneously rolling it between your fingers to work evenly around the needle.
Polish the rough areas with toothpaste or metal polish
To remove any abrasive areas from the sides of the needle, use a small amount of toothpaste or metal polish on a soft cloth. If the polish begins to look gray, you know it’s working. Test the needle with your fingernail to ensure no roughness remains.
Use steel wool or sandpaper
Steel wool or fine-grit sandpaper can be used instead of emery. Place the sandpaper on a flat surface and use it as you would use the emery board. Steel wool can be used to simultaneously sharpen and polish the needle, but it may be a little more challenging to control the outcome. Remember to be gentle with an item as small as a needle. Removing too much material from the circumference will lead to breakage.
Keep The Needle Clean
Along with sharpening your sewing machine needle, it’s important to keep it clean. I have sewn costumes from material with glued-on sequins. The fabric left a build-up of adhesive on the needle that greatly impaired its function. Fusible interfacings or fabric sprays can also leave a residue.
If you suspect a build-up of any kind on your needle, remove it from the machine and clean it thoroughly with alcohol or goo-gone. Keeping your needle clean will extend the life of your machine by keeping it from working harder than it’s intended.
Lubricate With Soap
If your needle seems to be sharp but it’s still struggling through tough fabric, try rubbing some plain soap on the needle as lubrication. The soap won’t hurt the material and will ease the way through tough fibers or multiple layers. You’ll need to keep applying soap as it wears off.