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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 like 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, which we'll discuss -- category by category and vendor by vendor -- throughout this month.

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 develop rust 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.


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!


Talk about needles in our forums
Previous reader comments

"Your article was great. Thank you! I started out on aluminum needles. They are so slippery it made learning a challenge! I hate plastic needles because they grab too much. Now I am using Swallow Casein needles. They are a nice middle ground. Grab a little but still nice and smooth. The pearlized colors are great and I have to admit that was the sole reason I bought my first 4 pair. I find I don't like how flexible the long single points are. Because I am currently doing a lot of baby clothes right now I bought every size available of the 9" double point 5 needle sets. Love 'em! I too was warned about critters but my cats gave them a cursory sniff and walked away. Just to be safe though I keep them out of reach. One thing nobody ever mentions is that these needles have a strong chemically smell. Especially if they get wet (sweaty hands). I am a little concerned that the yaren will pick up the smell. Based on your article I suspect I won't like wood or bamboo needles because I don't like grab. Nevertheless I will try them because I'm just too curious not to. Besides... every needle/yarn combination is slightly different and as they say... variety is the spice of life! Happy knitting everyone!" Lisa, 9/7/2002

"In regards to your comments about aluminum knitting needles. Aluminum is a non-ferrous metal and therefore it does not rust as stated in your drawbacks." patsmith, 8/3/2001

"Great article! I just want to add that I always had trouble with gage until I discovered wood needles. With wood my gage is always right on. I've recently discovered the wicked extravegance of rosewood. What a wonderful feeling in your hands! Love your site, keep up the good work!" sjdtravelers, 8/27/2001

"You might add the Balene needles to the review. These are also casein needles. They had the most wonderful concave point and many knitters really loved them. The problems I had with them were breakage and bending. Living in a damp climate was enough to put a bend in some of my needles.

I normally use Inox, but have been using the Swallows on a project. I do like the feel of them, but the points are a bit blunter than I normally like. I've also been using the Regia double points, which are like the Inox double points. They come with wonderful sock shaped point protectors. Makes me smile every time I look at them.

Needles are your main tool and are a very personal choice. Don't let anyone tell you what kind of needle to use--always try them to see what works best for you." teri, 11/27/01

"I am happy that someone who's not out to sell them is doing a review of knitting needles. I have just one negative comment. You mentioned that aluminum needles can chip and develop rust. Not so. Aluminum doesn't rust. I do have some very old (pre-WWII ?), very fine double-pointed STEEL needles that have rust. But, as was once done with rusted sewing needles, the rust can be removed and the needles used.

My own personal favorite needles are the Boye or Bates colored aluminum needles. I have and use many other kinds of needles but still feel happiest using the same kind as the first pair I bought at Woolworth's as a child." jessica-jean, 5/15/01

"Enjoyed your needle article and the many comments made by your readers. I like many knitters use different needles based upon the project. One thing that I'd like to mention is that gauge can change (at least for me) depending on the material of the needle. That means a size 6 in bamboo will give me a different gauge than a metal size 6. My metal needles knit tighter. Anyone else experience this penomena?" uyvonne, 4/19/01


"The articles about needles are very helpful. I just got my first Addi Turbos. One pair straight and one circular. The straights are a bit heavy with the knitted fabric on them but the feel is great. Also got size 5 Pony Pearl dp's which I am using for stuffed mittens. I love it that a set is 5 not 4, and they have a nice balance. The work stays on the needles while in the knitting bag, which I can't say for all dp's. I'd have bought them even if they weren't bright orange." cphague, 4/16/01

"Which needles I use has more to do with what I am making. If I need dps then I like wood or bamboo like for socks and such. The dps have a tendency to fall out easy so the wood or bamboo stay in better. For circular I like the Inox Express, although I did recently buy a pair of Addi-turbos. I chose Inox because Addi's are usually too expensive. They are much faster and with circular knitting you don't have to worry about them sliding out as much. I had a pair of casein swallow straights that I loved for my dishcloths and the like, but some how one got broke and I can't find any to replace it. They are hard to find, but they do have a wonderful feel and are easy to use. I have ordered some Bryspun, but as yet have not used them. I will let you know." knithappy, 4/09/01

"Great article on needles! I just want to add that of the two kinds of bamboo needles I have found, the Addi-Naturas are much smoother between the needles and the plastic shaft. It's very annoying to have to work hard to push my stitches over that rough spot. The other brand I have tried is Crystal Palace, which is not as smooth at the join. I also just broke a pair of size 3 CP needles. They broke at the join, I was using a fairly tight gauge, but they're sort of expensive ($11) and I would like for them to last through more than 1 or 2 sweaters. I haven't used the Addi-Naturas long enough to know if they're stronger. Maybe bamboo is just prone to breaking in the smaller sizes?" Judy, 4/07/01

"Inox Express circulars-couldn't live without em'. My fingers fly with these needles. They're the best for Fair Isle projects, the stitches slide so smoothly down the needle with an even tension." neko, 4/06/01

"The needle article was very informative. I have been knitting for three years and love to collect different needles to try. I display them in my living room along with baskets of yarn. The needles sit in old pitchers and urns with circles of felt inside the bottoms to protect the tips. Everyone visiting makes very positive comments. My suggestion is to let everyone you know aware that you knit and would appreciate needles. You will be surprised by how many special gifts you get. It is so much fun to have someone pass along their grandma's needles when they know you will cherish them. Also, I haunt garage sales and thrift stores. I have found the most unique needles that way for pennies. Thanks again for the Newsletter!!" Missizzy, 4/06/01

"Wonderful article. Lots of basic knowledge that even long time knitters can learn from. And at last some reasons my DH can understand about why I need more than one set of needles in each size." terrileemp, 4/06/01

"I've knitted for thirty years without knowing there were so many kinds of needles--I'll keep my eyes more alert when I visit knitting shops. But I'm also absolutely committed to circular needles, even for 'flat' knitting, because they don't slide out and drop on the floor (especially useful in the car, on a plane, or in a concert or lecture hall!). It takes a few minutes to learn to manage the 'spring' of them, but I would urge anyone who hasn't used a circular needle on flat knitting to give it a try." Patricia, 4/06/01

"What a timely article. Although a long time knitter, I am just finding out that there is more than plastic, aluminium, and bamboo. I never realized they could make a differnce to the knitting experience and anxiously await your articles on specific types/brands." beemrlady, 4/06/01

"There are some beautiful hand painted needles and ones with decorative ends/knobs on different Websites. I love knitting with needles that are pretty as well as functional." panky51writer, 4/06/01

"Great needle overview! I am one of those knitters that picks the needle type to fit the type of knitting I am doing - and have all kinds of needles. You may also want to include some of the vintage needles which are now available through online auctions like eBay, Yahoo, etc. I have found that ivory is incredible for knitting those complex lace shawls, and the Bernat Aeros make a great overall needle choice as they are coated metal (not so much noise and chill but still good speed). I enjoy your weekly review. Keep up the good work." Melinda, 4/06/01

Excellent feedback! I will include info on older, more rare needles in the final week of April. Thanks for the kind words, everyone! - Clara

"I also enjoyed this article. One thing I've heard about swallow casein needles is because they are made of milk products, critters are often drawn irresistably to them. Anyone have any experience with this? I've picked them up to buy, then put them back several times because of this! Am I being overly paranoid?" itsajok, 4/06/01

"I found your article on knitting needles very interesting. I had a complete set of circular swallow casein needles but they didn't last long--the reason? My pets found them absolutely delicious and many a morning I woke up to find my knitting at my bedside and the needles eaten off. I assume it is because of the mild content." fmarrs, 4/07/01

"This was a wonderful, unbiased article. It would have been very easy to let personal bias into this piece, but you avoided it! It definitely whets the appetite to try some different needles." jcfdoldmedic, 4/05/01

"I live in a fairly small town and there is no specialty knitting shop here, so when I needed really thick needles to knit something that was going to be felted I found some dowels at the lumber yard, cut them into the right length, sanded them and shaped the ends into points - they worked great and were really inexpensive!" Ilse, 4/05/01

"Thanks for the info. I don't think I have ever had anyone explain the differences so well. And yes, I do have some I love and some I hate. I don't like the noisy aluminum ones but have used them when needed. I have some old "plastic??" crochet hooks from my grandmother that I wouldn't trade for the world. I didn't think about the warmth of them being an element of the pleasure of using them." newmoon, 4/05/01

"My needle of choice is thed Addi-Turbo circular needles. I use them for all my projects and, like you say, have more than one of each size. A knitter with more than one project on the go needs lots of needles." margdavis, 4/05/01

"I have a pair of yellow see-through knitting needles that have a red heart on the ends, that signifes the number. They were my mother's, who was an avid knitter. Were they from the Red Heart yarn people, or do you know their origin?" Etta H., 4/05/01

I don't know the history of these needles -- does anyone else? If you do, let me know and I'll post it here! - Clara

"Last week I saw a set of needles on ebay that had red hearts on the ends. They were noted as being from Ireland. Perhaps thats where these needles were from." Clare, 4/06/01

"I've read and heard that metal needles make a noise when used, but neither my addi Turbo circulars nor my beloved Inox double points make any noise... and I have sensitive hearing. (Though my needles' being quiet is consistent with my general personality trait of being a bit odd. Apparently my 'mileage really does vary' from that of others!)" Laura, 4/05/01

"Very interesting and informative article. My favorite needles are bamboo. There are times I use another type depending on the yarn and the project. Love your newsletter." J.T., 4/05/01

"This was my first newsletter and I enjoyed the article on needles. I am one of those people who have lots of the same size needles, most of them in unfinished projects. One of my constant New Year's resolutions--finish the unfinished!" gerryquig, 4/05/01

"I do not knit by hand to much now, because the machine is much faster. But, once in a while, especially when I go on long vacations to visit my daughter, I take my aluminum needles, 3mm. They are from England and they've been with me for the last 20 something years, and I love them. Usually I make one sweater. The rest of the time they rest in a drawer out of sight." Ellkeb, 4/05/01

"Thank you! Great article. I am just starting to branch out and try new needles. I really needed an explanation of some of the different types. I have seen them in the stores and online, but having no reference, was afraid to try some of them. Now I can judge for myself based the pros and cons." cairn65, 4/05/01

"I wasn't aware that there were so many different types of needles. I would really like to find some bamboo needles. this was a very informative article. Looking forward to the ones coming up. Thanks." Frances, 4/05/01

"This was an excellent article! I'm a 'once-in-a-while' kind of knitter and had never given much thought to the type of needles I used. This has been extremely helpful and I'm now anxious to try out various types of needles." Lynne, 4/05/01

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