Just as a painter uses brushes to achieve strokes and textures, a knitter uses needles. As your knitting years go by, your needle collection will grow. My collection is huge, from trying many different types in search of the best needle for the job. Needles are manufactured in a variety of materials, range of diameters and lengths. They also come as straight needles, circular and double pointed needles, and interchangeable sets.
Choosing needles, for the most part is personal preference and comfort, but the best needle, is the one that meets the needs of a particular project. It’s like when you buy the new kitchen tool, and you wonder how you ever managed without it. These are some basic considerations to keep in mind when choosing the right needles for your project: type or style of needle, material used to make the needle, the tips of the needle, and the type of yarn you are using.
Single pointed straight needles are readily available in 10”(25cm), 12”(30cm), 14”(35cm), and 16”(40cm) lengths. A 14″(35cm) needle is the most popular length. Single pointed needles come with knobs or decorative heads, and the longer lengths fit comfortably under your arm (not in your armpit) when knitting. My favorite are the 14″ or standard straights. You also have to consider the number of stitches that are on the needle, too many and you will struggle to keep them on the needle. Too few stitches on the needle, may require you to use a shorter length for comfort sake. Manufacturers are making shorter lengths at around 7”(18cm) marketed to children for easier manipulation. Straight needles are used for flat knitting, working back and forth to create pieces that are later sewn together.
Double pointed needles can range between 4″ and 9″, but are typically found in 6”(15cm) and 8”(20cm) lengths; sold in groups of 4 or 5. Points are at both ends, and are used to knit in the round, for items such as socks and gloves. I like the shorter ones for socks, glove fingers, and i-cord; making it easier to knit, than with a longer needle flailing in the air. For comfort, I like to hold the right needle in the crook of the thumb and forefinger when knitting with dpn’s. This position works very well with a small number of stitches, making the knitting less awkward.
Fixed circular needles are two short straight needles connected with thin nylon or plastic wire, and are found in the same materials as for straights. The common lengths are 16”(40cm), 24”(60cm), 32”(80cm). Shorter and longer circulars are available. They are used to knit in the round, creating tubular pieces that require no seaming. They are also used for flat knitting, simply knitting back and forth like straight needles; particularly useful for large numbers of stitches such as blankets, as the weight of the project rests in your lap. There are super short circulars for sock knitting, or other small projects. I find these very difficult to manipulate, and they cause pain in my hands. Two long circulars can also be used to knit socks, or a solo circular using the Magic Loop method. Sets of interchangeable circulars are popular these days. They include a variety of needle tip sizes paired with different cable lengths. Since the tips are not secured to the cable (screw on types or a “click” system), the joint may not always be smooth, and the yarn can catch or drag, especially with lace knitting, so purchasing high quality sets is important.
The common metals used for needles are aluminum, stainless steel, nickel and nickel plated. Aluminum needles are inexpensive and readily available. Stitches slide smoothly across metal needles, and the yarn slips easily off the tips for speedier knitting. Generally, as straight, metal needles get larger than 5mm in diameter, they are made of plastic or a plastic coated metal core, as they become too heavy to manipulate. High quality stainless steel, nickel, and nickel plated needles are more expensive, but the stitches slide even more smoothly than aluminum and are almost indestructible. They are less easily scratched and less prone to pitting than aluminum. Metal needles hold up best for the smallest of knitting needles used for making lace, as bamboo, wood, or plastic cannot be made thin enough without breaking.
Plastic needles are readily found, inexpensive, and come in a range of colors. They are the lightest of all needles, particularly in the jumbo sizes. Plastic needles of 4mm or smaller may bend and break with heavier fabrics. They are smooth, flexible, not as slippery as metal, and may warp. They are made solid or hollow. Some high end plastic needles have a steel metal core for reinforcement. Good quality plastic needles should be smooth and flexible. Cheaper plastic needles can be brittle and break. I like to use plastic needles with chunky yarns, as long as the tips are not too dull or blunt.
Bamboo needles appeared first in the marketplace followed by specialty woods such as birch, rosewood, and ebony. Bamboo needles are warm to touch and develop a patina over time from the natural oils in the hands and are quiet to knit. Knitting with bamboo and other wood needles is slower than with aluminum or plastic. Generally, slippage is less with bamboo and woods, but is desirable for certain pattern stitches, very slippery yarns, and individual comfort. The tips may break more easily with cheaper brands of bamboo needles. ChiaoGoo makes a great bamboo needle. Knitter’s Pride laminated birch needles are my favorite of the wood needles, as the stitches glide smoothly.
Casein and glass are two other materials used to make needles. Casein needles have an artificial look to them and are damaged by heat. Glass needles are often purchased as decorative items, and if dropped are likely to break. I think these are best sitting in decorative containers.
The majority of needles are round, but now there are square shaped ergonomic needles, relieving stress on the hands for carpal tunnel and arthritis sufferers.
The most important part of the needle is the tip, which varies with the material used and the manufacturer. The tips should be smooth, blunt, but pointy. Very dull and blunt needles make it difficult to insert the needle into a stitch. Never knit with damaged tips; they slow you down, snag the yarn, and work may be uneven. With intricate pattern stitches, the needles must insert easily into the loops without snagging or splitting.
You will also become aware of which needles are more suited to the variety of yarns available. Cotton doesn’t move as smoothly across a plastic or bamboo needle, as with a teflon coated aluminum or a stainless steel needle. Loosely twisted yarn will split unless the tip is smooth and pointy. Thicker, plied yarns work better with more blunt tips, as pointier types increase the chance of catching the plies. Smooth, twisted light weight yarns glide quickly and smoothly over metal needles. Thin or lace weight yarns are best knit with large needles, which must not be blunt; the needles must insert easily into the tiny loops.
Experienced knitters inevitably build up an extensive collection of needles. Not only think of comfort, but also choose the right needle by type, material, tips, yarn, and the project you are knitting. Try to move a little outside your comfort zone, and you may discover some amazing benefits for your next knitting project.