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Choosing the right needles and thread

Make the wrong needle or thread choice and even the most beautifully designed marine fabrication project could fall apart, making these items fundamental to a successful outcome.

Features | September 1, 2022 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

Needles and threads are essential for keeping marine fabrication projects looking and performing their best, but their role is often taken for granted—until something goes sideways that is. When a thread or needle is wrong for the job or is of poor quality, the consequences can be aggravating—or even worse.

The correct choice matters

Choose the incorrect needle size and you might incur sewing machine errors such as jamming, skipped stitches and poor stitch quality, says Josh Goodyear, co-owner/lead fabricator for Top Stitch Marine Canvas, a Middle River, Md., full-service custom canvas shop that provides canvas, upholstery and flooring. Select the wrong thread, he adds, and you might be facing premature stitch failure and seam breakage.

But that’s not all. In addition to breakage and skipped stitches, a poor thread choice can lead to fraying, color failure or the color fading or migrating onto the vinyl, all of which can lead to higher repair costs, damaged reputation and loss of business for fabricators, says Ron Becka, product marketing manager for Quality Thread & Notions (QTN) Co., a Solon, Ohio, thread provider. 

Weaver Canvas used a Schmetz needle (NM: 125/size 18/DPx16D) and SolarFix® PTFE clear thread (2200CH/3-T lub, 2000 Denier) for this full-boat reupholster project. Top stitching was accomplished using a Schmetz needle (NM:125/size 20 DPX 16D) and SolarFix PTFE clear thread (3000CH/3-T lub, 2700 Denier). Photo: Weaver Canvas

Sewing machines add a new wrinkle when it comes to thread and needle selection, Becka continues.

“High-speed sewing machines and automatic multidirectional sewing machines used in more elaborate designs put more stress on threads,” he explains. “This can lead to ply separation, breakage and skipped stitches. Choosing the right thread, machine and needle can greatly lower the number of issues experienced.”

As for needles, according to Ron Russell, sales manager INH Quality Management for Groz-Beckert KG, a textile parts and needle manufacturer with headquarters in Albstadt, Germany, and in Fort Mill, S.C. (as Groz-Beckert USA), most fabricators do know the correct needle to use for the machine.

“But in many cases the size of the needle and point style aren’t considered,” he adds. “Usually I get calls when they have open needle holes and are having a wicking problem or skipped stitches due to sewing over thicker seams where material parts join, or frayed thread or other problems. These are just some of the problems that can indicate they’re using the wrong needle.”

This project consisted of a new bimini, new windows and an aft curtain. Top Stitch used Sunbrella® fabric, 40g Strataglass and black SolarFix® PTFE thread. Canvas is typically sewn with size 18-20 needles. SAN 5 and SAN 6 needles are used.

Needle advancements

For something so seemingly simple, needle technology is actually pretty innovative. Russell says the company is constantly working on needle improvements to ensure they can perform in any atmospheric condition without harming fabric or thread. Environmental friendliness is also factored in, as are high-speed sewing machines with more automation. 

One of the company’s newest developments is the Loop Control® process that helps eliminate skipped stitches. Russell describes this as “needle geometry for perfect loop formation for most of our lockstitch and chainstitch sewing needles.” Other needles offered include those with a dur finish, which extends the needle’s life and is environmentally friendly; and various SAN® needles, like those for boat-top construction, enclosures, mooring covers, etc. There are also needles for sewing polycarbonate and other difficult applications, and ones that help stop wicking, skipped stitches and offer gentle material handling. Most of the SAN needles have a titanium nitride finish for longer needle life.  

Goodyear uses SAN 5- and SAN 6-type needles with an RG point, a rounded tip that pushes the fabric aside rather than cutting through it, which he says reduces material damage when sewing and creates a cleaner stitch.

“The needles are reinforced, making them more stable,” Goodyear explains. “The increased stability reduces common problems, like skipped stitches, when sewing thicker material. They also have a larger eyehole, allowing the thread to pass more easily. We use a coated needle, which stays sharper for a longer period.”

This tan mezzanine seating was a from-scratch new build. Top Stitch used Sunbrella® Horizon™ fabric with brown SolarFix® PTFE thread, 1865 antimicrobial foam, and ¼”- ½” sew foam. A size 18 SAN 6 needle was used to minimize hole size. Decorative stitching is typically a 7mm stitch length. Photos: Top Stitch Marine Canvas

Weaver Canvas offers a full range of custom and OEM marine upholstery, canvas and boating products like bimini tops, enclosures, covers, cushions and more, says Chris Patterson, owner of the Wilmington, N.C., company.

He started the business in 2002, using the same needles as the previous owner. The company has experienced very few needle problems, Patterson says, adding he purchases “high-quality” needles from sewing machine suppliers, using size 18 for vinyl upholstery, size 20 for clear vinyl and canvas, and size 22DP for polycarbonate enclosures. Because things have gone fairly smoothly, “needles and needle brands are not something we’ve spent much time on,” he says.

Goodyear uses SAN 5 or SAN 6 needles for nearly every job. “They’re versatile and reliable,” he says. “And since we use PTFE thread on most projects, our needle and thread setup doesn’t change that often. [However] materials such as polycarbonate require larger needles with a tripoint tip. These needles are designed to punch and remove material while sewing, allowing the thread to pass through easily.”

Top Stitch undertook a complete redesign of this 340 Sundancer craft. It used a CNC-created hexagon pattern and applied that as an accent design for the project. Morbern vinyl, Spradling Silvertex® vinyl, ¼”- ½” sew foam and grey SolarFix® thread were used. Photo: Top Stitch Marine Canvas

Threads up their game

Patterson also favors PTFE thread for his marine projects, using 2000 denier 3T for general seams and 2700 denier 3T for decorative topstitching. The PTFE threads he uses are expensive but they perform well with his sewing machines, an important consideration, he says.

“They don’t all sew the same,” he says of threads. “We’ve tried different ones and have had trouble getting the machines adjusted to sew nicely with some of them.”

Goodyear says he uses PTFE threads for 95 percent of his work because of their high UV resistance and the fact that they won’t rot or weather—why he considers them “lifetime threads.” However, he does sometimes use polyester threads, citing their strength and affordability. “PTFE thread costs about five times as much as polyester and these costs can add up,” he says. Although polyester threads will break down over time from UV exposure, requiring restitching, these can be a good option for the boat’s interior where UV exposure isn’t an issue.

Aruvo thread from Fil-Tec was introduced a few years ago. The thread has a multifilament construction that makes it easy to use, with a sewing behavior similar to any standard marine or outdoor application thread. It is resistant to harsh weather, UV rays, chemicals, rot and mildew and comes with a limited lifetime warranty. Photo: Fil-Tec Inc.

“We use PTFE thread for upholstery as well, but the thread must be round,” Goodyear adds. “Certain brands of PTFE threads are square shaped when viewed microscopically. These types of threads shouldn’t be used because they’ll actually cut the material over time, causing seam failure.”

He commonly uses black or white threads on canvas projects since these work well with any color of canvas and keeps inventory stocking simple. Upholstery projects allow the company’s sewers to be more creative design-wise, so they’ll often choose a complementary thread color for decorative stitching. (They’ll also use a smaller needle size whenever possible to minimize the holes created from stitching.)

Freddie Groce, vice president business development, Industrial Threads and Yarns for Fil-Tec Inc., a Hagerstown, Md., provider of sewing thread and pre-wound bobbins, says black and white are still the most popular colors, although gray colors are gaining market share as are more vivid ones like orange and yellow.

Not too long ago, the company introduced Aruvo, a PTFE thread with a multifilament construction. The thread—which is resistant to harsh weather, UV rays, chemicals, rot and mildew—is easy to work with and is similar in sewing behavior to standard threads typically used in the marine and other outdoor environments, says Groce, adding that Aruvo is designed to last the life of the fabric and comes with a limited lifetime warranty.

Sunguard+ is a UVR bonded polyester thread, launched in 2020 by Quality Thread & Notions (QTN). The thread is more resistant to cleaning chemicals than the company’s original Sunguard thread, better withstanding stringent, COVID-inspired cleaning protocols. It’s intended for outdoor or interior applications where sun and weather exposure are moderate. Photo: Quality Thread & Notions

Becka says blues, grays and tans are in high demand, prompting QTN to launch four new stocking colors (toast, chocolate, sapphire and light gray) in its SolarFix® PTFE line, although the company also gets occasional requests for brighter colors, like reds, lime, yellow and orange. Designed for environments with a high exposure to sun, weather or cleaning chemicals, SolarFix has 18 stocked colors with custom color matching also available.

For embroidery applications exposed to sun, the company offers Vision, a UV-resistant polyester thread. And in 2020, the company launched its Sunguard+ UVR bonded polyester thread. According to Becka, this is “even more resistant” to cleaning chemicals than the original Sunguard thread.

 “This proved to be a timely solution to new cleaning guidelines that have emerged as a result of the pandemic,” says Becka. “UV and chemical resistance are becoming increasingly important since COVID has changed how people live. More time is being spent outdoors and cleaning practices have greatly increased.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a Seal Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.

SIDEBAR: Decisions, decisions

Marine fabricators should take several factors into account when determining what needles and threads to use, says Ron Becka, product marketing manager for Quality Thread & Notions Co. (Solon, Ohio). 

When it comes to threads, Becka says to consider:

  • How long will the product be exposed to sun and saltwater? Will it be covered when not in use or exposed? If unprotected for extended times, a UV-resistant thread is a “must.”
  • Will the product undergo frequent cleaning or exposure to chemicals? If so, select a thread with high chemical resistance.
  • What type of application is it and how much stress will be put on the thread and the fabric? Where there’s a high amount of tension on both, the thread’s strength is important.
  • Does the customer want accent or matching colors? If an exact match is required, look for threads offering custom color matching.

“Using the correct size and type of needle will help minimize seam leakage when using coated or high-engineered fabrics,” he says. “It’s best to use the smallest needle size possible to avoid leakage. It’s also important to use the correct needle point for the fabric you’re using.”

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