needles 01

Well, that was a short break! – I just can’t stay away from blogging, it seems.

Not much has happend since you last heard from me. But I went shopping for needles, and I thought I’d show you what is inside my needle case these days.

The image above shows them all lined up. Not all are in frequent use, but most are. On the top are harness needles, followed by bookbinding needles. (I am going to talk more about them in a minute).The lowest row contains needles I hardly ever use: Those with the yellow eyes are embroidery needles some with sharp, some with blunt tips, an upholstery needle, -The curved needle on top is also an upholstery needle-, and to the right is a leather sewing needle which a triangular shaped tip with three cutting edges along the shaft.

Needles differ in their shape (curved or straight or something in between), in their thickness, length and the shape of the eye, and the shape of the tip.

These are the needles I mostly use:
needles 02

Up until recently I used almost exclusively John James bookbinding needles, just because they were the ones I got hold of and they sounded like the right thing to use. Bookbinding needles are made to punch through paper. The idea is that the bookbinder marks the position of the sewing stations on the outside of the signature and then looking with one eye on the outside, one one the inside, you can actually train yourself to “see” the mark on the inside. It requires some training to be done at sufficient precision and works best when the edges are trimmed afterwards. I learned to pre-punch my signatures later which gives (me) much more precise and desirable results. Pre-punching on the other hand takes more time, which is probably what makes is less desirable for a commercial bookbinder. Well, be that as it may, this is why bookbinding needles have a sharp tip.

Harness needles are made to sew leather in conjunction with a sewing awl. The awl punches the hole through the leather, and the needle passes the thread. Therefore the needle itself doesn’t have to be sharp, and harness needles have a blunt tip. This kind of sewing technique is employed with heavier leather, and pretty much the same size of thread is being used as for bookbinding.

Therefore, using harness needles for bookbinding can be a good idea: If you pre-punch your signatures anyway, there is no need for a sharp needle. On the contrary, a blunt tip helps prevent accidental holes into the paper.

I have been using John James needles since I first started out with bookbinding, some 12 years ago or so. And not a single one broke so far. I am not especially careful with needles, and I use(d) them also for stitching on leather. I read about other binder’s needles breaking and bending frequently, and wondered what I did differently. Mostly I though they were just binding more. But I do use them up. They do bend a little over time and when they are not completely straight I find them irksome to use. Also I am loosing them frequently.
Just last week I noticed I was down to 6 needles or so, so it was time to buy a new packet. I found a seller on ebay who claimed to sell John James, but not in original packaging (“because I buy in bulk and sell them on in smaller batches”). I had no problem with that – it was not even as if I had been looking for John James specifically. But when they reached me, they were smaller and thinner. And when I asked him directly, he admitted they are not original John James, because he was able to secure those cheaper ones. Aha. It turns out they are bent after first usage. So now I have discovered that it does pay to invest in quality when it comes to sewing needles, and at the same time, understood that I am not doing anything different from other binders – I just happened to have good needles.

I found someone who does sell the original John James in the meantime. While searching for them, I found vendors who carry John James harness needles, and I thought I’d give them a try, too. After reading a bit, I decided 1/0 was the size to try. I bought “John James size 1 harness needles”, which turned out, when they reached me, to be size 002. The vendor claimed 001, 002, and 003 were all the same size, and “size 1” always meant 001, or 002, or 003. Probably my mistake, but who came up with numbers 001 and 1/0 being used at the same time for almost the same needle?! In any case it was a lucky mistake: I love them! Numbers 1/0 and 2/0 which I also acquired are longer and thicker. All will have their use I guess. I was surprised and pleast that the small 002 needle holds NeL 18/3 thread with ease, better than the No. 18 bookbinding needles.
At the moment I am using the harness needles not for bookbinding but for sewing leather just like they are meant to. And it makes such a big difference! Up until now I have been using bookbinding needles for all leather sewing. That works well enough, but using the harness needles is much more comfortable!

Limp Leather Binding Kit
This is the kind of leather sewing I am currently making. – This one was still done with a bookbinder’s needle, though.

For some binding styles, straight needles won’t do, for example when incorporating a concertina into a Coptic binding. Some people prefer curved needles for all Coptic sewing. There are special curved bookbinding needles available, and I only used them once when attending a workshop where the teacher provided them. In the picture below you will see a curved upholstery needle which I never used for bookbinding; I just put it there for comparisson. I find the curved needles hard to use, they tend to twist and turn in my fingers while I try to use them. Early on I bent some needles to use them for this kind of job:
needles 04

These are the exact same needles I bent in 2008 for the first time. (Just to mention again that good needles last for a long time and are worth the extra penny.) It is really easy to do. You just need two pairs of tongs and a flame, for example from a gas lighter. Heat a point about 1/3 the length of the needle from the tip, and when it is glowing red bend the tip over to about or a little less than 45 degrees. It will cool down really quickly and is then ready to use.
needles 03

In the photo above you see an assortment of other needles. I bought the embroidery needles when I needed larger eyes for lacing in for a custom work about one and a half years ago (the last work I did in Germany), needed them immediately (no time to wait for a delivery to arrive), and the only needles I could find in a brick and mortar shop nearby were these. They served me well. I particularly like the ones with the blunt tip. I wouldn’t recommend them for sewing pages, though, since they slightly blulge at the eye and therefore make bigger holes in the paper than necessary – which is bad for long-term (or even mid-term) stability and doesn’t look nice when doing a visible spine binding.

The two needles in the middle, with the larger eyes are upholstery needles. They, too, have seen some use for lacing in, especially the larger one because it has such a nice long eye. – But they are unsuitable for sewing paper.
Further to the right is a leather sewing needle. I find it very interesting, unfortunately this is the only one in a set that I have left. I had a whole collection of these from very thin ones to this big version. They all have a triangular crosssection with sharp edges that can cut through leather – and therefore also through the skin of your fingers, so be careful! But they definitely were something special and had their use when sewing thinner leather. It was possible to sew it without prepunching with these needles. I will have to look for more of those in the future!

I hope that raised some interest in going to look around for more needles. Happy needle hunting!

5 replies on “Needles”

  1. I have used #2 crewel needles in place of bookbinder needles. I lightly sand the tip to take off the sharp end, and always pre-punch my signatures. Just make sure you never purchase needles made in China! The ones made in Europe are the best and last. I, too, use the bent needle for Coptic binding and was introduced to this in a Daniel Essig workshop and have used them ever since. I agree with you that the curved needle just rotates in my hand, so don’t use it.

    Thank you for your postings, they are always informative and a joy to read.

    1. Hello,
      your name sounds familiar. Have we met on the book arts forum, maybe? In any case, thanks for your comment. I read about others using a “crewel needle”, before. I do not really know the word, and my dictionary doesn’t know it either. but from what wikipedia says I assume it is just a different word for an embroidery needle? They differ from a bookbinding (and harness) needle in that the shaft of the latter is completely straight, does not get wider and is also not wider at the eye. Choose a needle as slim as possible, and you will end with holes in the signatures that are not wider than the thread that passes through. I think that since embroidery needles are readily available it is a good needle to start with. Have you tried a bookbinding needle? Maybe you should, just to see the difference. Putting on the thread might be a little difficult in comparison, but working with the needle and thread should be easier and more convenient.

  2. Hello,
    The #2 crewel needle is slightly thinner, and not as heavy gauge as a standard bookbinding needle. It also has a larger eye. The shaft is straight with the eye being the same size as the shaft. The larger eye makes it easier to thread waxed linen. I have taught a number of beginning bookbinding classes (mostly book arts, rather than traditional bookbinding) and I always have a large supply to give to the students for their use. For starting out, bookbinding supplies are not readily available except through mail order and this is a good substitute until someone really wants to get “professional” with their bookbinding. I have genuine bookbinding needles, but I really prefer my crewel ones.

    Crewel embroider is done with wool thread, rather than thin embroidery threads, and that is why they are heavier and larger than regular embroidery needles.

    My name may be familiar to you in that I have posted a few times on the Book Arts Forum over the years. I’m sorry this forum has not kept as active as it was a number of years ago. I still go there to check for postings, but they are few and far between.

    Thank you again for your postings.

    For the love of books,
    Dolores Guffey
    North Redwoods Book Arts Guild
    you can check out our web site and see our exchange books at:
    Click on “Flickr Photos” a number of my books are there

  3. So small is the book arts world. D. Guffey is a local friend and a founding member of the book arts guild where we live. She is also the person from whom I first learned about making bent needles.

    This is a wonderful post, Hilke. Very informative. I’d never heard of harness needles… lots to think about! Thanks for all this. Maybe some new needles will be just the thing to go with my beautiful new threads…

    And I’m very happy to see you are able to upload photos now! I hope this means you’ve managed to fix your blog after the evil upgrade. I’m so glad to see you’ve returned.

    1. I uploaded the photos to ipernity. I have not even tried to upload them to my server through wordpress. – I don’t want to spend my limited time on trying to fix software that is supposed to just work.

      Glad you liked the post!

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