The Quilt Maker’s Toolkit – The Topstitch Needle for Quilters and Tips for Solving Your Frustrations

Today’s post is a part of a series called The Quilt Maker’s Toolkit, showing and teaching about the products I use while I make my quilts.

There are no products in this series that I do not use and use often, though sometimes my opinions may change as I grow and move along in my journey of quilt making.  To view all posts in this series click here.




I don’t know about you, but there are times when I think my machine is a janky tyrant out to make my life so much harder than it could be.

We go through the steps:  re-thread, change the needle, clean the bobbin, maybe oil the machine, and still it doesn’t want to work correctly.  You get mad, bad words spill from your mouth and eventually your crying with tears spilling on your precious fabric.  Sound dramatic?  Maybe.  But don’t act like you haven’t been there.

What is wrong with my machine?  Is it the machine?  Maybe it’s the thread.  It could be, if you bought cheap thread.  If you bought from the quality brands like, Sulky, Superior, Aurifil, Coats, Mettler or so on, it’s NOT the thread.  The numbers for you to get a bad spool are just ridiculously low.

Before we get into dissecting what your problem could be, let me say this:  This post is for quilt makers only.


The Landslide Quilt Pattern

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About Machine Needles

Things every quilter will do well to know:

  • You choose the needle based on thread, NOT fabric (this is only true for quilters.  If you are using different materials, you will need to choose a needle based on that fact as well).
  • Needles come in a pack with sizes like 80/12 or 70/11.  The first number refers to the diameter of the shaft of the needle (the long skinny part), this is the European measuring system.  The second number is the US measuring system, it’s just a number given to a needle.
  • The shape of the eye and the point will decide what kind of needle this is.  For example:  universal, microtex, ballpoint, etc.
  • The higher number of thread you are using, the lower the number of needle you will need.

Here’s a handy chart I made to help you get the correct needle for the type of thread you are using.


The Topstitch Needle

Last month Superior Threads sent me a DVD that was more helpful to me than all the years of trial and error.  The DVD did answer some of my questions on thread, sure, but more than that it gave me a look into needles that I found so incredibly helpful that I’ve watched the DVD three different times to make sure the information was fully into my brain (I need things repeated over and over before I “know” it).  You can have this DVD too if you like, find it here (it’s free by the way).

Until I purchased my Juki, I used strictly Shmetz microtex needles.  After I purchased the Juki, I swapped to Organ needles since they were what Juki recommended.

After watching the DVD I’ve swapped to the “topstitch” needle, the brand doesn’t matter.  It’s this particular needle that I am most interested in.  I’ve been using it for almost two months now and I am sold that it is a better needle for quilt making.  Here’s why:

  • It’s sharp, but not so sharp that it cuts your fabric.  It only separates the fibers exactly how a quilter needs them to be.  I.E. no holes in your quilt that you can see through.
  • It has an elongated eye.  This is good for quilters because we are sewing at a high rate of speed, and our thread has room to play in the needle.
  • There’s a groove that runs the length of the needle.  Your thread can get all cozy within the groove and be protected instead of weakened.
  • The titanium coated version of these needles will last approx. 80 hours of sewing.

You can find the topstitch needle here on Amazon, or here at Superior Threads website.

My Testing

Last month, I tested SO MANY THREADS.  You can read that article here.  With all the flip flopping on different size threads, I kept having some difficulties.  When I changed my needle to the correct size needles ALL of those difficulties disappeared.

If you are finding that your thread is breaking or just not acting correctly, MAKE SURE that you are using the recommended needle for that particular thread size.

Here’s your checklist for when trouble arises:

  1. Are you using the correct needle size for your thread?  The numbers are engraved into the needle and then you can also check your thread size on your spool.  Use the chart I gave you above to know which thread and which needle you should be using.
  2. Is your thread threaded through your machine correctly?  Go ahead and re-thread to be sure.
  3. Is your bobbin inserted properly?  Re-do it just in case.
  4. Check your spool of thread.  Is your thread getting caught on the spool’s plastic?  If so, flip your spool upside down and try it that way or you can file any burrs you find on your spool (this is extremely annoying to me and such an easy fix by the thread companies.  I prefer when my spool of thread doesn’t have plastic on the top of it, particularly when I’m quilting).
  5. How long have you been using the needle?  Is it time to change it?  Change it if you think it’s been a long time.
  6. If you are still having trouble, it could be your tension.  We will cover this in the next section.
  7. When’s the last time you had your machine serviced?  Leave this as a last resort, but if you’ve tried all the things above, maybe your machine just needs a good cleaning or to be serviced.  Don’t skimp.  If you are a “several times a week” quilter, your machine should be serviced once a year.

The Thread Therapy DVD said that 95% of our problems are caused by thread, needle and tension.  Only the last 5% are caused by the machine.  It also discusses that there is no such thing as, “my machine doesn’t like that thread”.  There is only: are you using a good thread? do you have the right needle? and is your tension setting at the correct place?


Product Spotlight

Schmetz Topstitch Size 80/12 Machine Needles 5 countSchmetz #1792Schmetz Topstitch Size 90/14 Machine Needles 5 countSchmetz #1793Schmetz Topstitch Size 100/16 Machine Needles 5 countSchmetz #1798

Topstitch needles from Fat Quarter Shop.  Find them here.


The Little Miss Sawtooth Quilt (click for details)

Tension Troubles

Here’s a few things you might want to store away in your knowledge vault:

  • You have to change your tension at times.  You’ll change it for different types of threads and sometimes it will just get off kilter all on it’s own.  IT IS OKAY to play with your tension dial.  Your sewing machine manual even has instructions for doing so.  Don’t let your repairman tell you any different.
  • If you have bobbin thread showing on your quilt top, you need to lower your tension (turn to the left).
  • If you have top thread showing on the bottom of your quilt, you need to tighten your tension (turn to the right).
  • On a tension dial, it’s left is loose, right is tight.  On a push button, it’s the down arrow to loosen, and the up arrow to tighten.
  • Make small changes to begin with, sew a little, and if it’s still not right try again.
  • If you are sewing with a thick thread, you may need to loosen your tension.  If you are sewing with a thin thread, you may need to tighten.  Make these changes one or two clicks at a time, don’t increase or decrease the tension a whole bunch at one time.  Test in between small changes.
  • Keep a log.  In your log put what type of thread, needle and tension you are using when everything was working “right”.  This is extremely helpful if you ever find yourself frustrated.  If I don’t write it down, I don’t remember it.
  • Machines, even quilter edition sewing machines, have the average tension around a 5.  This setting is for sewists, not quilters.  On average, quilter’s need around a 2 setting for a 50 weight thread.  Even with some of our other threads, quilter’s tend to average a 2-3.5 on tension settings.  This average may vary by the type of machine you are using, but these numbers should be pretty close.
  • If you find your thread shredding, and you have the correct needle in, loosen your tension.  This should solve your problem.




The Sunset Quilt (click to purchase pattern)

More Quilt Maker’s Toolkit Posts


I hope you found this post helpful.  It’s hard not to be frustrated when things aren’t working correctly.  Take a deep breath and go through the checklist.  You can do this.  If you have tips or tricks of your own to add, please leave them in the comments section!  I have at times been beyond agitated with machine issues and almost always hit Google up for the answer.  I rarely find anything straight forward.  It’s so nice when we share our knowledge with fellow quilters who could be pulling their hair out!


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  1. Hey Melanie! This info is awesome, I love when you do these posts! So when youare talking about all of this, you are referring to actually quilting the quilt, right – not piecing? Just want to be sure i understand (newbie ?) i bought a really nice brand new Janome quilters edition sewing machine (8900 PQE) and ws having tension issues on EVERY kind of sewing. The recommended tension for most things is “Auto” ….anx i could notnuse that setting at all, or my bobbin thread was so straight i could almost pull it right out! I tried a bazillion tension settings and finally took a BIG OL’ breath and changed the bobbin tension looser and it fixed t!!!!

  2. I just found your blog this morning! Thank you for this most helpful and straight forward post. I am looking forward to putting your suggestions into practice.

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