You Can’t Knit Without Needles!

knitting a sleeve with dpns
Knitting a sleeve in the round with double pointed needles.

Just as a painter uses brushes to achieve strokes and textures, a knitter uses needles. As you gain more experience, your needle collection will expand. My collection is huge, from trying different needle types and materials, in search of the best needle for the job. They come as straight, circular and double pointed needles, and interchangeable sets. All needle types are manufactured in a variety of materials, range of diameters and lengths.

Choosing needles is mostly a matter of personal preference, but the best needle is the one that meets the needs of a particular project. It’s like when you buy a new kitchen tool, and you wonder how you ever managed without it. These are the characteristics to keep in mind when choosing the best needles for your project: needle type, material used to make the needle, the tips of the needle, and the yarn type.

image of the variety of needle types

A – Laminated birch; B – Plastic with metal core; C – Metal; D – Bamboo; E – Laminated birch; F – Bamboo with flexible cord; G – Plastic; H – Metal; I – Laminated birch; J – Bamboo

NEEDLE TYPES

Single pointed straight needles are readily available in 10in(25cm), 12in(30cm), 14in(35cm), and 16in(40cm) lengths. Shorter and longer lengths than these are available. A 14in needle is the most popular length and my favourite. Single pointed needles come with knobs or decorative heads, that prevent the stitches from slipping off the end of the needle. The longer lengths fit comfortably under your arm (not in your armpit) when knitting. Consider the number of stitches you cast on, 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. Straight needles are used for flat knitting or working back and forth to form pieces that are later sewn together.

Double pointed needles (dpns) can range between 4in(10cm)  and 9in(22.5cm), but are typically found in 6in(15cm) and 8in(20cm) lengths, and sold in groups of 4 or 5. Points are at both ends, and dpns are most often used to knit small items in the round, such as socks and gloves. I like the short ones for socks, glove fingers, and i-cord, which makes for easier knitting, rather than working with a longer needle that tends to flail in the air. For comfort, I like to hold the working dpn in the crook of the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. This position works very well with a small number of stitches, making the knitting less awkward. In a pinch, dpns work well as a substitute for a cable needle.

Fixed circular needles are two short straight needles connected with thin nylon or plastic cord. The cord joining the needles should be flexible, and support the weight of the project. If the cord is too stiff, it will kink and cause problems. The common lengths are 16in(40cm), 24in(60cm), and 32in(80cm). Shorter and longer circulars are available. They are used to knit in the round, creating tubular pieces that require no seaming. They can also be used as though you are working on straights, by turning your work at the end of each row. This way of working is particularly useful for projects with large numbers of stitches such as blankets, so 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 my hands become cramped and painful. 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 cord or cable lengths. Since the tips are not secured to the cable (either a screw-on type or a “click” system), the joint may not always be smooth, so the yarn may catch or drag. Purchasing high quality sets with a smooth join is important.

Circulars work great for travelling, as they pack neatly in a bag, the work rests in your lap,  the needles won’t likely fall on the floor, and you won’t poke the person next to you.

MATERIALS

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. Plastic needles of 4mm or smaller may bend and break with heavier fabrics. Good quality plastic needles are smooth and flexible, but not as slippery as metal. Some high end plastic needles have a steel metal core for reinforcement. Cheap plastic needles can be brittle and break, or warp. I like to use plastic needles with chunky and bulky yarns.

Bamboo needles appeared first in the marketplace followed by specialty woods such as birch, rosewood, and ebony. Ebony is considered the top of the line for wood needles. Bamboo needles are warm to touch and develop a patina over time from the natural oils in the hands. Knitting with bamboo and other wood needles is slower than with aluminum or plastic. Generally, slippage is less with bamboo and wood, 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.

Wooden needles are manufactured in a variety of ways, including specialized methods resulting in very high quality ones. Laminated birch is my favourite because of its smoothness, and the way the needle feels in the hand. Note: You’ll find some bamboo and wood sizes are stamped directly on the needle, and overtime rubs off, so keep a needle gauge on hand.

Casein and glass are two other materials used to make needles. Casein needles are biodegradable and are coloured in a myriad of ways. They are lightweight, but are damaged by heat. Glass needles are often purchased as decorative items, and if dropped are likely to break. Their surface is smooth for knitting, but inflexible. I think these are best sitting in decorative containers.

Another new kid on the block are needles made from a carbon fiber composite. They are very strong, lightweight, and can be made in very small diameters.

The majority of needles are round, but square shaped ergonomic needles are available, relieving stress on the hands for carpal tunnel and arthritis sufferers.

NEEDLE TIPS AND YARN

The most important part of the needle is the tip, because it does most of the work in knitting. The tips should be smooth, blunt, but still pointy. Needles that are too blunt and dull, make it difficult to insert the needle into a stitch. With intricate pattern stitches, the needles must insert easily into the loops without snagging or splitting the yarn. Generally, you want sharper tips that are easy to insert into tight stitches, and benefit lacework and sock knitting. Blunter tips, typical of plastic needles work great with chunky and bulky yarns. Never knit with damaged tips; they slow you down, snag the yarn, and the work may be uneven.

With experience, you’ll become aware of which needles are most suited to the variety of yarns. Cotton doesn’t move as smoothly across a plastic or bamboo needle, as with a metal needle. Loosely twisted yarn will split unless the tip is smooth and pointy. Thicker, plied yarns work better with blunt tips, as sharper types increase the chance of catching the plies. Smooth and twisted, and lightweight yarns glide quickly and smoothly over metal needles. Thin or lace weight yarns are best knit with pointy, metal needles, which easily insert into the tiny loops.

Experienced knitters inevitably build an extensive collection of needles. Not only think of comfort, but choose the appropriate needle for a project by considering the needle type, material composition, and the tips in combination with the yarn. Try to move a little outside your comfort zone, and you may discover some amazing benefits for your next knitting project.

Some of my favourite needles: Laminated birch Knitters Pride Dreamz single pointed and double pointed needles have a smooth finish and don’t slow you down much; ChiaoGoo bamboo straights; Addi FlipStix double pointed needles, love the tips; Addi Natura Bamboo circular needles have one of the best pliable cords and a smooth join.


needle sizes

Note: This table provides the needle sizes in imperial (US) and metric systems. You may have some very old needles in English (UK or Canadian sizes (listed above), but knitting needles aren’t sized in these measurements anymore. You’ll also notice that there is no standard equivalent for some US sizes.

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