Issue 3: Welcome to the Machine

Needles and thread

The needle and thread combination is to your sewing machine what gasoline is to your car. Your sewing machine might be working fine but without the right type and size needle, things might not work out the way you want. So, let’s take a real close look at sewing needles to better understand what we need when we’re making a kite.

There are five major components to sewing needles.

1-The point:

Obviously the sharp tip of the needle. Although all needles seem to be pointy, different styles of points are available. If you take a piece of ripstop or Dacron to your sewing machine dealer, they will probably identify it as a micro-textile (very tightly woven synthetic material). There is a specialized needle point generally referred to as micro-tex; this is probably what the dealer will suggest. I personally prefer the universal point but you may want to try both to see which suits your machine the best. Each style of point has a different radius at the very tip; this radius will wear out after some use and the machine will start to skip stitches, to fray the thread and generally start going bad. Before bringing the machine to the technician, change the needle to see if it solves the problem. A worn needle has a tac tac tac sound that comes from the flat tip bursting through the ripstop, because this sound slowly appears as the needle wears out, we sometimes get used to it before we notice it. If you change the needle and the sound diminishes your needle was probably worn out. Throw it out before you use it again by mistake.

There is such a thing as a needle sharpener, some people swear by it. I personally do not believe in it.  Big needle companies spend a fortune researching the ultimate point for all the different textiles we might use and I don’t believe that the one sharpener can solve all the different problems.

2-The head of the needle:

Right after the point, the needle will start to get bigger in diameter very quickly. At its largest area is where the measurement number is taken, e.g., #14, this part of the needle dictates how big of a hole the needle will leave behind, this is very important to proper sewing. Too big of a hole will weaken the fabric, look messy and loosen the stitching. Too small of a hole will not allow the thread to be pulled back up by the machine to tighten the stitching. The result will be loose thread on the bottom of whatever you’re working on. I generally use a size #12 or #14 when I’m sewing ¾ ounce ripstop. I will go up to a size #16 when I’m sewing several thicknesses of Dacron reinforcements or heavy nylon webbing. The principal here is to again make a large enough hole to enable the sewing machine to pull the top thread tight; the more material the machine has to pull the thread through, the bigger the needle must make the hole. You shouldn’t really have to play with the tension adjustments on the machine.

3-The eye:

The eye is where you thread the needle. It must be big enough for the thread to go through freely. An easy test is to thread about 12 inches of thread through the needle before putting the needle through the machine and see if you can make the needle slide from one end of the thread to the other just by tilting the thread up and down.

4-The body:

The body is the longest part on the needle and has a channel running along its length. This channel is there to hide the thread as the needle goes through the material. If your machine (like most industrial machines) does not have a flat shank needle carrier to dictate the orientation of the needle, make sure the channel is on the side from which you thread the machine (most machines are threaded from the left hand side in, but some zig zag machines are threaded from the front).

5-The shank:

simply make sure you buy the proper size and type of shank to fit your machine. Most domestic machines use a flat-sided shank. Most industrial machines use a round shank and in different sizes. When you insert the needle in the needle carrier, make sure you push it all the way in or it will disturb the timing of the machine.

There are some specialty needles that are useful to kite making, for instance, if you can find Teflon coated needles, they’re a great help when sewing self-adhesive material. Kite Studio carries them.  Don’t skimp on needles, the difference in price between cheap needles and good needles is certainly not worth bothering with.


Good thread is an absolute must in kite making. I have known people who have sewn kites with natural fiber thread, packed their kites while they were still humid, opened them some months later to find their kites falling apart because the thread had rotten. We put several different stresses on the material we use to make kites, extended exposure to UV rays, high humidity and abrasion when sand rubs on the sail. A good quality thread will not only make the sewing easier, it will make the kite last a lot longer. I have found that nylon bonded thread size 33 is the best overall kite making thread. I worked for a stunt kite manufacturer for close to 10 years and saw this thread get more abuse from beginner flyers than one could ever imagine. I have seen the ripstop rip, the seat belt webbing noses get punched through or worn out, I have seen Dacron leading edges ripped, I have seen ripstop faded by the sun to an almost transparent fabric but I have never seen the thread fail.

You can usually find size 46 black or white nylon bonded thread at industrial sewing supply stores, but this is a little heavy and very limited in colors. The Kite Studio keeps a good stock of size 33 in over 30 colors. They also carry it in ¼ lb. industrial spools and in convenient 1 ounce spools. Just between you and I, they also have a great thread sample pack which I highly recommend. Finally, for those looking for that special look, they also carry 5 styles of variegated colors.

The nylon bonded thread has a high luster finish almost oily like, which helps the thread flow through the machine much easier and keeps the machine free of thread lint.

As far as I’m concerned, the nylon-bonded thread is definitely the only way to go.

Using color thread, remember that you don’t necessarily have to use the same color thread in the bobbin case. For example, when folding 2 thicknesses of ripstop over you might not have the same color on top and bottom. Matching the colors of the thread with the top and bottom of the kite is a nice finishing touch to custom kites.

That’s it for now; next time we will talk about different ways to assemble kite panels.

Take care,