Selection of knitting needlesThe quality of our tools and materials can make a huge difference to how we enjoy our craft. There is no doubt that finding the right knitting needles for you is a worthwhile investment in your knitting journey. New knitters encouraged to buy “good” needles are faced with a huge choice  and what can be a substantial investment. Having participated in many conversations about needles, I have also heard the disappointment when a new needle purchase wasn’t a great experience, and as a result I have been thinking a lot about knitting needles and what  makes the difference over the past few months. As a fundamental tool, the changes in and increasing range of knitting needles is one of the areas most new and returning knitters will ask about at some stage. It also is one of the areas where the “latest and best” can be a bit overwhelming. So I decided to try and write a bit of a guide for choosing needles based on my own experience and the experiences of other skilled  knitters.

I am going to tell you up front about what I prefer, but I am also going to break it down so if you are thinking about new needles you have some ideas to work with when choosing what is best for you. If you have had a less than successful needle purchase that has made you nervous about trying again, hopefully it will help you identify why those needles didn’t work for you and what to look for next time.

But to start with some disclaimers (TL:DR my opinion only, not trying to sell you anything):

  1. 1n New Zealand I am associated with Holland Road Yarn Company who (somewhat obviously) sell knitting needles. Some of the needles I will talk about you can buy from them, some you can’t. Tash (my daughter, who owns HRYC) and I agree on many things about needles and disagree about others – for instance she doesn’t like my favourite acrylics and has difficulty understanding why anyone would still use straights rather than circulars. That’s OK and its why I am writing this on my personal blog and not the shop one!
  2. I knit continental style with the addition of an eccentric form of knitting backwards when I am purling – this impacts on how I like my needles to be. Not everyone knits the same way and different needles will suit different people and knitting styles.
  3. I have the privilege of being pretty much able to afford any needle that takes my fancy. A number of the needles I talk about I have ordered from overseas – some where inexpensive, some weren’t  (I will comment as I go about that) Hopefully if you are on a tighter budget some of the thinking I share about why I like or dislike a needle may help you make a good buying choice.
  4. I have a lot of different brands of needles (see 3) but my collection is not exhaustive. There are still some I would like to try but over time I keep coming back to a couple of types that are favourites. Feel free to comment on needles you have tried that I haven’t covered.

At first I planned on writing two posts as, on reflection, it occurred to me that I prefer different needles for sock knitting to garment and shawl knitting and the available needle options are a bit different as well. However once I started to write I realised that even before we get to discussing needles there are a number of things to think about in terms of how and what you knit and the impact knitting can have on your hands. So this post will focus on that and then I will do a post on larger needle sizes (3mm up). The observant amongst you will notice this is the average  starting point for most interchangeable needles, followed up by one on smaller needle sizes and sock knitting. I am hoping that those of you with different experiences will comment so this can become a bit of a resource that can be linked to – rather than repeating much of the content in Facebook comments ;).

A touch of history

Knitting needles have a long history (in the hundreds of years) and have been made with a variety of materials. The majority of New Zealand (and Australian) knitters from a European heritage used similar tools to those they had seen in their family’s country of origin. Wire of varying thickness and length was used for both double pointed and single point needles (Number 8 fencing wire and an old New Zealand No 8 knitting needle are related). Most surviving needles from the 19th century (and before) are metal but wood, tortoiseshell and bone could also be used. In the the 20th century various forms of plastics came into the mix including my mother’s favourite – casein. The early circular needles many of we older knitters recall were typically metal or occasionally plastic with a clear plastic cable. While a fascinating story in itself, I am really just touching on the history of knitting needles here to highlight the potential for confusion as the market has expanded. For most knitters, even relatively new ones, up until 12-15 years ago the needles we associated with knitting were straight single pointed needles and double pointed needles (DPNs) in plastic or metal, with the occasional circular and some bamboo/wood options.

It wasn’t really until the so-called knitting renaissance in the last 15 – 20 years that we have seen the rapid development of circular and interchangeable needle options in a variety of metals, bamboo, woods, acrylics and even carbon fibre. The rise of the internet and the ready availability of online tutorials has also had a huge impact of how knitters knit – whereas once your knitting technique would be limited to your immediate networks – now a new cast on or cast off is only a You Tube tutorial away. For my purposes here I am going to talk about:

  1. Straights  –  a pair of single pointed needles that come in a variety of lengths from 25 cm (10 inch) through to 40 cm (16inch) with the typical lengths being 30 and 35 cm.
  2. Double pointed needles (DPNs) – depending on brand and size a set of four to six needles with points at each end. They also come in varying lengths, typically 10cm, 15cm and 20 cm.
  3. Circular needles – the tips on circular needles are typically two lengths  – standard and short. A standard tip is around 12 cm long and a short tip closer to 8 cm. As well as the length of the tip itself circular needles are measured by cable length from tip to tip. Interchangeable circulars are needles where you buy a tip and a cable separately with various designs for how they are connected. Fixed circulars the needle tips are permanently connected to a cable.

Having frequently spent time with new knitters or knitters wanting to expand their skills over the last nine years I am sympathetic to how confusing the range of needles available can be. I am also becoming a bit of a needle skeptic in that in our enthusiasm to promote new tools it is easy to lose sight of the end goal – which is comfortable, enjoyable knitting. My goal for these posts is that if you do decide to try some new needles you will have a clear goal in mind and that if you chose to stick with your current favourites you will understand why they are good for you but may not be for your friend.

Thinking about how you knit

There are many ways to knit (and purl) and whether you have learnt from a friend or family member, or taught yourself from books or YouTube – we all end up with our own individual style that is natural for us. If you are thinking about buying needles it is worth taking some time to watch yourself knitting to see how the needles sit in your hand and to think about the characteristics that your hands need to comfortably knit for sustained periods of time.

For me – the way I knit is continental with an element of lever style. If I am using long straights I will tend to tuck the needle under my arm, and in particular the way I purl is based on Shetland knitters who use a knitting belt. In the last ten years or so there has been a massive move to using circular needles exclusively and a consequent move away from straights. There are some serious advantages to using circulars for your hands and wrists, as well as for managing the numbers of stitches in the growing number of patterns for seamless garments; however it is worth noting that the fastest knitters in the world use straights or a knitting belt. If you are a committed lever knitter, transitioning to circulars for all your knitting may give you no advantage at all, and fortunately the companies producing gorgeous circular needles do beautiful collections of traditional straights in multiple lengths and materials.

While I knit faster on straight needles I have almost 100% transitioned to circulars however my transition means the circulars I prefer are influenced by my base knitting technique. So I suggest your first task is to really look at how you use your needles (videoing yourself might help) with particular attention to what the rest of your hand is doing while you knit.

Hand position knitpro acrylic long tip

My base technique typically stabilises the lower part of the circular needle tip with my third and fourth finger. For a needle to be comfortable for me to use it needs to be long enough for that to work. While when I knit it may look as if its all a small movement at my finger tips it is because of that stabilising factor. It  may seem like I am holding the needle very loosely but while I am knitting I am levering the bottom of the tip slightly with my little finger (to the degree that I have managed to break a finer wooden needle at the cable join).

hand holding short tip knitting needleA short tip doesn’t feel like it fits in my hand properly and I cant get a smooth knitting movement going because my little finger cant do its job.

Another factor that comes into knitting style and needle choice is how tightly you knit. If you knit tightly you can end up in a bit of a catch 22 situation – you are more likely to get tired hands but are also potentially more likely to break some of the more flexible needle options. It is also worth knowing that some knitters find their tension (or gauge) is looser when using circular needles. I know that is the case for me. If you typically knit to gauge with straight needles, and so don’t worry too much about swatching then its worth checking if you switch to circulars. And lastly there are a small group of knitters whose knitting technique seems to unscrew the join for the types of needles that use a screw in cable for the connection. Not surprisingly they can find interchangeable needles with this type of connection extremely frustrating. 

So if I knit faster on straight needles and my gauge is better – why do I knit on circulars? Because I also care about my hands and being able to knit comfortably for long periods at a time.

Caring for your hands

It is never a good thing when a craft you love causes you pain. Before I got back into knitting ten years ago I already knew a lot about knitting triggered pain from my mother and mother-in-law. Both of them have had issues with significant knitting related hand and neck pain. My mother’s hands are so damaged that she has difficulty with anything other than soft plastic needles, both straights and circulars and my mother-in-law also struggled with hand and neck pain while knitting in her later years.

There is good advice to be found about how to minimise repetitive strain injury from hand craft, however many new or returning knitters may already have a degree of occupational hand damage from working on computers etc. Having asked someone considering new needles if they lever knit, my next question typically is to ask if they have any issues with hand/joint tiredness. One of the most powerful arguments for using circular needles is that they take the weight of the garment off the needle in your hand – with most of the garment weight held on the cable in your lap there is less stress on your wrists and hands plus, to a degree, your neck and upper back. Most knitters can transition pretty quickly to using circulars for everything – with lever knitters being the special case.

For some knitters and their knitting style that will be all they need they can take their pick of the needles available – for others it is important to consider the material needles are made of as well. It has been know for some time that metal straight needles cause issues for knitters with arthritis in their hands. The main reason is the coldness of the metal followed by a lack of flexibility. A plastic straight needle with a wire core can help with the first issue but may not offer enough flex to resolve the second. There are knitters who struggle with metal straights who have no issues with metal circular tips but that is not true for everyone.

So what are circulars made of?

  1. Nickel, stainless steel and aluminium are all options – each having their own characteristics. Its worth knowing that some people are allergic to nickel needles. I will talk about this more in my next post but I can not use any kind of metal needle for long because the rigidity doesn’t work with my knitting style. My hands start aching and cramping after about an hour knitting with them.
  2. Bamboo, birch, rosewood, ebony, olive, laminates – the wood options are pretty endless. Unlike metal, wood is warm in your hands and has a small degree of flex especially at smaller sizes. As long as the needle itself is the right length I can comfortably knit with these for long periods of time BUT not all knitters with hand issues can – a bit like plastic straights with a wire core they may not have quite the flex you need.
  3. Plastics including acrylics – getting decent plastic/acrylic needles is more of a challenge but they are out there. Plastics are light and great for flex and warmth – they tend to have more rounded tips (or more fragile ones in the case of acrylics) and because they are generally seen as a low cost/quality option often don’t last as well.
  4. You can also get needles made of carbon fibre which I haven’t tried – from discussion I believe they sit between the metal and and wood for flex (please let me know in the comments if you have some and love them)

Of course straight needles and DPNs also come in all these materials as well.

The types of things you knit

So you have looked at your knitting technique and thought about how well your hands handle knitting. The third thing that can influence needle choice is the kinds of things you knit. This topic will be covered much more thoroughly in the subsequent posts but I wanted to include it hear to make a nice “rule of three” for buying needles.

One of the reasons my mother in law resisted changing from metal needles was she loved cable patterns and twisted stitches and she liked the points and stability of a metal needle. If you are considering in investing in a set of new needles it is worth trying a sample of the different things you knit a lot of e.g. cables, lace, colour work, plain stockinette. One of the reasons I have a wide selection of needles is I will switch depending on projects e.g a lot of lace calls for a sharper point at times than plain stocking stitch.

Fibre content also makes a difference as the different materials have different degrees of slip/grip which can affect the smooth flow of your knitting. You want your stitches to move freely on the needle but not so freely they keep slipping off. As of now I knit mainly with wool and wool blends which influences my choices but fibre content can also make a difference when it comes to needle preference.

Takeaways

So even before I get into telling you about different brands and types of needles, I hope you already have three ideas to base your choice on when you go to buy new needles. You will notice none of those three things have anything to do with price or brand.

  • How you knit – your knitting style
  • The comfort of your hands
  • The kinds of things you like to knit

If it all seems a bit overwhelming its not meant to be – my main concern is that before you make a substantial investment in a set of needles you are confident they will be as wonderful as advertised – for you!

My next post will look at mainly circulars in a range of brands and materials that I use for garment and shawl knitting.

If you think I have missed something critically important or made a mistake – please let me know 🙂

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6 thoughts on “So what’s the deal with knitting needles?”

  1. I hadn’t considered how much effect knitting style could have on your needle needs, looking forward to the next parts of this series. Personally I knit English style, and hold my little finger well out of the way of the needle to tension my yarn, so I love a short point circular.

    My mum and I both adore bamboo needles – she especially likes how they start to curve with use into a more ergonomic shape, even if it does foretell their eventual, splintery death!

    1. Thanks Leah. A particular brand of bamboo circular needles is on my list to try – I have an order half way completed with Anne as Wild and Woolly in London who recommended them. Might need to be an addendum to my post as it can take a while to get to Malaysia.

  2. Great start – I can’t wait to see what the other posts say.

    I have wooden interchangeables from 3mm up (Knit Pro), and Chiagoo metals for small sizes up to 5 mm. I love the feel of wood, but the metal ones are definitely better for lace, as I discovered this week. I went on holiday, so figured I’d put my shawl on wooden needles for the plane, and I’m not really loving it.

    Finally, I’d just like to say that reading about knitting throws off my crocheting tension!

    1. I think thats a combo a lot of knitters are using at the moment. I agree wood is not great for fine lace – am covering that in my next post. If I am swapping out for flying I usually go for acrylics as the point is a touch sharper.

  3. Oh my. I have been knitting for 40+ years. You use 2 needles and a ball of wool. It has got very complicated. Have just started with circulars but then I find I have to swap to dpns ( never gonna happen) or learn to magic loop ( maybe) when you decrease and no longer have enough stitches for circulars. I knit a lot of beanies and booties.

    1. And there is no reason that you cant keep knitting with 2 needles if that is what is comfortable for you. Circulars don’t make it any more complicated they just provide another option particularly if you are having problems with your hands as you get older or want to reduce seams.

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