Plenty of old sewing machines could still be working were it not for the lack of needles – the types that are no longer made. There are several ways to solve the problem, from hunting for the few remaining old needles to modifying modern needles or modifying the machine to take a modern needle type.
- What to modify – the needle or the machine?
- A substitute for 12×1 needles
- Needle reference chart
- The needle length and other characteristics
- Try the standard domestic
- The shank is too long!
- The things to check
What to modify – the needle or the machine?
Personally, I don’t think that modifying modern needles is a very practical solution because needles need to be replaced fairly frequently and I’d rather be sewing than grinding down needles. I think it is preferrable to modify the needle clamp so that it would take common modern needles – it is a larger job and needs to be done with care, but once done, you’re done! Swap the needles as often as you like. 🙂
Of course, modifying the needle clamp violates the original features of the machine, so you should be ok with that. As I am not a collector but a user of my sewing machinery, I think that small modifications like that are natural as they adapt the machine to modern times so that it can continue its working life rather than turning into an ornament. But other people will argue that I’m destroying sewing history. So be it.
A substitute for 12×1 needles
Perhaps the most common type of domestic needles that became unavailable, is 12×1.
These are thin needles without a shank “collar”.
I haven’t found any modern needles without a thicker shank, so there is no real candidate for direct substitution. Yet, a quick search comes up with several traders offering a 12×1 substitute that works on “most machines”. I wonder which machines are those since I haven’t found a single one. The substitute needles that they offer, are the common DBx1 industrial needles that have a shank diameter of 1.58mm to 1.63mm or even 2mm depending on manufacturer, which is all much too thick as you need just 1.04mm there. A thicker shank will simply not fit into the needle clamp!
Needle reference chart
So, if you are willing to modify the needle clamp to fit modern needles, which type do you choose? Since you can’t really try them on first, you need to make up your mind based on available measurements, and hope you’ve chosen wisely. 🙂
ISMACS compiled a brilliant spreadsheet with lots of needle types and their measurements, both for old and modern needles. It is the best starting point in locating a suitable substitute.
The first thing I do with this spreadsheet, is identify all those needle types that are readily available. “Standard domestic” needles are available online as well as in physical shops, they are flat shank needles of type 15×1, also known as HAx1, 130/705 or 2020. But many industrial needles are just as common and are easy to find online if not in shops, offered in boxes of 10 rather than 100, at good prices and with a quick local delivery. The most common type is DBx1 and its sister DBxK5 – these are round shank needles of the same length and proportions as domestic 15×1. They come in different sizes and with different point types too – sharp, light ball point, medium ball point and leather point. DBxK5 needles have a larger eye compared to DBx1 and are recommended for embroidery.
Industrial machines are specialised by nature, and it is not uncommon for them to take needles only of a particular point type or size. So besides availability of the needle type, it is also important to check whether it comes in different sizes and possibly with different point types, or whether it has sister types, like the DBx1 and DBxK5.
You’ll find several needle types satisfying these availability criteria, so how do you choose?
The needle length and other characteristics
First of all, the substitute needle must be no shorter than the old needle, or you won’t be able to clamp it. The important distance to check is “butt to eye” rather than the overall length (“butt to point”) because the shuttle or hook meets the needle above the eye, pretty much ignoring the bit below. So the eye of the needle must come to the right height for the machine to work.
The bit below the eye is also important, though. Depending on the machine, it either enters the hook and so must not be too long.
And then there’s the scarf – a cut-out just above the eye. Most needles have it, but some don’t, and some mechanisms have trouble catching the thread if there’s a scarf where none was expected. It is not the most important thing to match, but keep it in mind.
Point types have different identifiers with different manufacturers. Here are some from Schmetz and Groz-Beckert:
|R or REG||R or REG||universal||for woven fabrics and artifical leather|
|SES||FFG||light ball point||for most jersey, woven and any synthetics|
|SUK||FG||medium ball point||for loose knitwear and elastics|
|G||heavy ball point||for very loose knits|
|SPI||RS||acute round point||for microfibre wovens and knits|
|RG||small round point||fine knit, microfiber and fine wovens|
|LR||SD||point with a blade||for real leather used in clothing|
Here are common old needles that need to be substituted:
|Needle type||Shank type||Shank diameter mm||Butt to eye mm||Eye to point mm||Scarf|
|Jones Family CS||Round||1.73||34.1||4.5||no|
And here is a list of some of the needle types that make good candidates for substitutions in domestic machines, as seen from the UK (there are more options!). If you are in a different country, your situation may be different, so best review the ISMACS spreadsheet yourself.
|Needle type||Shank type||Shank diameter mm||Butt to eye mm||Eye to point mm||Scarf||Point types||Sizes|
|Flat||2.02||33.9||4.3||yes||Many!||60/9 – 110/18|
|Round||1.63||33.9||4.3||no||REG||80/12 – 140/24|
|DBx1||Round||1.6^||33.7*||4.3||yes||REG, SES, SUK, LR||65/10 – 110/18|
|DBxK5||Round||1.6^||33.7*||4.3||yes||Larger eye in REG, SES, SUK, LR||65/10 – 110/18|
|108×1||Round||1.6||36.8||4.6||yes||REG, SES||80/12 – 120/20|
|128×1||Round||1.75||34||5.51||yes||REG||70/10 – 120/20|
|149×7||Round||2||36.6||6||yes||REG, SES, SUK, SPI||70/10 – 140/24|
|135×17||Round||2||38.9||4.9||yes||REG, SES, SUK, SPI, LR||70/10 – 230/42|
^The shank diameter in DBx1 varies per manufacturer: Groz-Beckert and Organ 1.58mm, Schmetz 1.63mm, MUVA 2mm.
*The length top to eye in DBx1 also varies per manufacturer a little! Schmetz has 33.9mm while Organ has only 33.7mm. If you are trying to use DBx1 in place of old Jones needles, you must use exclusively Schmetz. No other DBx1 needle will work – the shank is too thin so it comes away from the hook too far, and the needle is too short so the eye is too high as well, see my separate post on Jones machines. If you can get 128×1 needles, use them instead.
Try the standard domestic
The most versatile needle type is the standard domestic 15×1. It comes with many different point types, varying in shape.
It also comes as twin or triple needles, with various distances between the needles. The needle sizes however only cover materials commonly found in the home – from light to heavy, but nothing extreme. So the needle sizes run from 60/9 to 110/18. But if you are looking to convert a domestic machine, this is exactly right because the machine would not be able to handle extremely thin or thick needles anyhow – not built for it.
No, you cannot make horse saddles on a Singer 12. Just because it’s a cast iron machine, it doesn’t mean you can punch through steel with it either. Don’t be silly.
So, the standard domestic needle looks like a really good choice for a substitution in pretty much any domestic machine. True. Except in those cases where it requires more drilling than you are willing to undertake or where the shank turns out to be too long.
How much drilling is too much depends entirely on the situation. Conversion from 12×1 to 15×1 involves serious drilling and grinding of the needle bar to make a new groove, and possibly also grinding of the needle clamp, in particular if the needle is forward-facing. If you have an unusal needle bar or needle clamp, you may decide that this is too invasive. Then it is better to choose a needle with a thinner shank.
The shank is too long!
On some machines the needle bar drops really low, so if you use a 15×1 or a DBx1 needle, the machine will try to thrust the shank through the needle plate which is not a good idea.
Such is the case with my Hengstenberg/Anker Wittler machine. Of course, 12×1 needles don’t have such a thick shank so the problem doesn’t occur there.
On other machines, and this is a lot more common, everything is fine when the foot is down, but once raised, the needle bar collides with the foot. It does not make the machine unusable but is rather annoying, as was the case with my Vesta-B conversion.
Both problems can be solved by raising the needle bar and/or choosing a longer needle, but not too long – the needle clamp or the top of the needle must not be smashing into the head on its way up. If you cannot raise the needle bar, the only way to go is to choose a longer needle and to extend the groove in the needle bar upwards to accomodate for it. And hope and pray that the top of the needle won’t be smashing into the head on its way up. 😛 If it is, you’ll have to drill out the needle bar channel in the head to allow the needle top to enter. Speaking of invasive modifications!
The things to check
But it does not always have to be that bad. 🙂 My Anker machine, for example, took 108×1 needles with only one modification – deepen the groove in the needle bar. Sometimes finding the right needle type is all that is required, so it is worth while to work your way through the ISMACS table and check with your local suppliers before resorting to drilling everything.
As you see here, I was lucky to find just the right needle for my Anker: 108×1. It is very similar to DBx1 but is longer, just enough to raise the shank so it doesn’t try to enter the needle plate in the lowest position, and it even still works with the foot up, even though on this machine the needle bar comes extremely close to the foot. The middle photo is a test in the highest position to make sure that the butt of the needle does’t smash into the head of the machine. Plenty of space there! 🙂
This needle only comes with two point types regular and light ball point. Is that enough? Well, light ball point is the new universal – take a good look at the table above. It is recommended for just about everything – for most jersey and all synthetics, and most of our fabrics are blended. And for natural materials and artificial leather there’s the regular point. So, there is no leather point for sewing real leather, and no acute ball point for the microfibres, then I guess I’ll be sewing those materials on a different machine. 108×1 comes in a good range of sizes, although not in the finest size 60 or 70, but I’ll just have to live with that. Vibrating shuttle mechanisms don’t do fine needles very well anyhow, so I don’t think I’ll be missing it.
And if I really want to use those other needle point types? Well, I could always try DBx1 or DBxK5 for that – they have the same shank diameter as 108×1, so will fit in the needle clamp. They even come with a special shortened shank – just the thing! – but I couldn’t find a local distributor for that variant.
Finally, if I really want more choice of point types and don’t want to use shorter DBx1 needles, I could always reconsider and move on to needles with 2mm shanks like 149×7 or 135×17 (and there’s more!) – this is a very popular shank size for industrial machines and those needles come with a ridiculous number of point types and sizes. I would only need to increase the groove in the needle bar by 1/4 of a millimeter (half of the difference in diameter), and probably also adjust the needle clamp.
This is the sort of conversation you need to carry with yourself to see whether your chosen needle is the right one. It’s better to go back to the drawing board a few times before drilling if you are not quite satisfied with the obvious choice!