Tools of the Trade:
Every project—whether it has one piece or twelve—needs a darning needle. Larger and duller than your average sewing needle, darning needles let us weave in every single loose end of yarn, so that our projects are beautiful and ready for wear.
Often referred to as tapestry needles, darning needles are the unsung heroes of the knitting world. Are there different kinds of needles out there, and do the differences really matter? Yes.
Darning needles follow a numeric sizing system that is the opposite of knitting needles: The larger the number, the smaller the needle. Darning needles come in different materials, they have different kinds of tips, they have different-sized holes for the yarn to pass through, and they come in different lengths. Each serves a purpose.The Tips
Knitting needles have different types of tips, and so do darning needles. They run from blunt to pointed and can be either straight or slightly bent at the end. Shown at left we have a trio of darning needles from Accessories Unlimited, the Chibi Bent-Tip Tapestry Needle set from Clover, and the Bamboo Blunt Needle set from Accessories Unlimited (from left to right). All are typical of what you'll find at your LYS.
But when you're doing things that involve more of an up-down or side-to-side motion, like seaming two sides together with mattress stitch, a straight-tipped needle may be more comfortable for you. As with most needle issues, your best bet is to have one of each and try them all until you figure out which works best for you.The Eyes
Most darning needle sets include different sizes of needles with different-sized eyes to accommodate thicker and thinner yarns. These eyes can hold far more yarn than you think. The trick is simply in getting the yarn through that hole. Threading any kind of needle—darning or otherwise—can be a source of frustration for many people. Here's a simple trick for threading yarn onto a darning needle.
...and pull the pinched yarn through the eye. Presto!
While a snug fit is good, you don't want to force too thick of a yarn through too small of an eye. The abrasion of the eye against the fiber will gradually cause the yarn to wear thin and break. If you're darning a small end, there may not be too much of a problem. But if you're seaming an entire sleeve, you don't want to lose your end halfway through.
Larger darning needles such as the Bamboo Blunt Needle shown at left have begun to arrive on the accessory racks. While the needle looks interesting, I find its utility somewhat limited.
The needle's extra length is perhaps most useful for darning long ends of yarn into thick, heavy fabric like afghans. The needle's substantial girth makes it most appropriate for these bulky fabrics, yet the needle's eye won't comfortably accommodate extremely bulky yarns. Also, one of the needles in my set had a splinter that kept snagging the fabric until it finally peeled off, leaving the needle even rougher.
If these larger needles are better suited for larger projects in thicker yarns, you can correctly assume that smaller, shorter needles are better suited for smaller projects where you need to navigate tight angles—socks being the prime example.
If you're ever unsure that a needle is the right match to your fabric, here's an easy way to check. Simply hold the needle over your fabric, or slide it horizontally through one stitch. If the needle is as wide as a stitch is tall (as is the example in the above photograph), you should switch to a smaller needle. Ideally you don't want it to be any more than half as wide as the stitch is tall.
Don't forget to check the eye of the needle. Some darning needles widen at the eye end. If you force a large needle through smaller stitches, you run the risk of stretching the fabric and distorting the individual stitches through which you darn.The More the Merrier
Like reading glasses and coathangers, you can never have too many darning needles—because if you have enough, you may actually find a needle at the moment you need it.
I can suggest such reckless acquisitions because darning needles won't break the bank. But prices do vary.
Susan Bates offers a basic five-pack of standard straight-tipped needles for a mere $1.50. Bryspun Distributing sells sets of two larger bent-tip tapestry needles for $2.75, and Accessories Unlimited offers a trio of straight-tipped steel needles for $3.75. The ever-popular Clover Chibi needles shown here retail for between $4.50 and $6.50 (with the bent tips costing more), for which you get three needles and the cute plastic carrying case. I confess a particular fondness for the Chibi needles, which feel marvelous in your hand and last forever.
What you find at your LYS will be largely dictated by which gadget distributor they happen to use. Some go with Clover, others with Bryspun or Accessories Unlimited. These aren't the kinds of things you'd go out of your way to order online, you use what's available at your LYS.
My advice? Try them all, and be sure to test them with different yarns and in different use cases, and you'll discover what works best for you.