Tools of the Trade: Knitting Needles

The principle underlying knitting is simple: You use two pointed sticks to pull loops of string through one another. But which sticks — or needles, as we prefer to call them — you use has a profound impact on the finished project and your knitting experience as a whole.

A Little Background

Knitting needles are generally divided into three types: straight (with one pointed end), circular (with two needles connected by a nylon string), and double-pointed. Each has its purpose, its ideal use, its benefits and drawbacks.

Needles come in thicknesses from 0.75mm to 25mm. Most commonly you’ll find needles also marked with U.S. sizes that correspond to the metric numbers, but there are also U.K. sizes as well.

To make matters even more confusing, various manufacturers use different metric equivalents for U.S. sizes.

Get Your Gauge

Therefore, the first thing you’ll want to buy is a gauge card. These are usually made of plastic or metal, and they have holes punched in them that correspond to the standard metric sizes, with the U.S. equivalent for each size.

You’ll learn to rely on this essential tool, especially when the needle sizes rub off your needles.

Varying Materials

Needles are made of several types of materials. The most common are aluminum, nickel-plated aluminum, bamboo, birch, walnut, ebony, a milk protein called casein, and various plastics.

Don’t let anyone tell you there are “right” needles and “wrong” needles. Which type you use is entirely up to you.

Here’s a brief overview of the most popular needle materials on the market today.

Wood

Benefits: Lightweight, quiet, feel warm in your hands; slightly rough surface adds friction when knitting so you work more slowly and precisely, which is good for beginners or advanced knitters working on complex patterns.
Drawbacks: Can be harder to locate and relatively pricey, especially those made of more rare woods; may break or splinter; some people don’t like the slower knitting experience.

Bamboo

Benefits: Similar to wood needles, these are also lightweight and quiet; they feel warm in your hands and develop a beautiful patina over time; they are easily available in most shops; surface friction also slows your knitting speed slightly.
Drawbacks: Similar to wood needles, these can break or splinter at the tips, and many people don’t enjoy the stronger grip these have on yarns.

Aluminum

Benefits: Easily available in mainstream craft shops; inexpensive; smooth surface allows you to knit very quickly with minimum resistance.
Drawbacks: They make clickety-clack sounds while you knit, making it difficult to knit unobtrusively in public; surface can scratch and corrode over time; the metal can feel cool and unyielding, which some knitters — especially those with arthritis or carpal-tunnel syndrome — find unpleasant.

Nickel and nickel-plated aluminum

Benefits: The nickel plating makes the surface even smoother than aluminum, which translates into speedy knitting; extremely lightweight.
Drawbacks: Can be expensive; they make noise while knitting; and, as with standard aluminum, the unyielding nature of the metal can be bothersome for people with arthritis or sensitive hands.

Swallow Casein

Benefits: Ideal for knitters seeking a total organic experience, these are made of a natural, nontoxic milk protein; they are available in a full range of colors including bright pearlescent pastels and classic tortoise-shell patterns; they feel warm in your hands; their surface is smoother than wood but not quite as slippery as aluminum; they bend and flex gently and offer a quiet knitting experience.
Drawbacks: Even though they are made of totally organic materials, Swallow casein needles can look plasticky and artificial; because they are only manufactured by one company, availability can be limited. Since this was originally published in 2001, casein needles are, in fact, no longer commercially available. Hopefully someone will pick them up and resume production soon.

Bryspun

Benefits: Bryspun flexible knitting needles are made of a special plastic and are very popular for knitters with arthritis; they are warm and smooth to the touch.
Drawbacks: Many people find their grey color and plastic texture too bland; not every yarn shop carries them, so you may have to order online.

Pony Pearls

Benefits: Made of cellulose acetate, these needles come in a wide range of bright, cheerful colors and have a moderately smooth surface for quick knitting.
Drawbacks: Sizes 0-8 are reinforced with steel wire, which can jangle around inside the needle while you’re using it — I found this quite distracting; they aren’t as flexible as Bryspun but have more visual appeal.

As you see, each needle type feels different in your hands. That’s why it is so important to try them all. Don’t let one pair of disagreeable needles taint your knitting experience.

One Isn’t Enough

A common misconception is that you’ll only need one pair of needles in each size. The truth is, you can never have too many duplicate sets of needles. Not only do needles have a habit of disappearing, but they also like to stay in unfinished projects.

If you like to work on more than one project at a time, or if you like the freedom of being able to sort through your stash and begin a project at 3am, you’ll need lots of available needles.

Party Politics

Because they spend so much time in your hands, needles can quickly become as cherished as your favorite pen or piece of jewelry. Many knitters, once set on a favorite needle type, will defend it with the same vigor usually reserved for religious or political debates.

Some will touch nothing but birch, others cry, “Give me bamboo or give me death!” And many nickel-plated aluminium fans would rather switch to decaf than use any other type of needle.

You may find that you prefer several types of needles depending on your project. For example, bamboo when you want to slow down your knitting, and aluminum when you want to speed it up.

Staying on the Sidelines

If you’re just entering the knitting world, it’s easy to be swayed by one party over the other — especially if that party happens to control the needle stock at your local shop.

If that’s the case, it’s OK to begin with those needles. But don’t be afraid to visit other shops or order a few pairs online. They’ll ship in plain-brown wrapping so your local shop will never know!

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