How To Choose Knitting Needles
Are you starting a new knitting project? If so, one of the first things you need to do is choose the right set (or sets!) of knitting needles for your project. There are a few major factors to consider: the style, the size, and the material. All three factors should be considered for each new project, whether you are buying a new set of needles or choosing from your existing supplies. The purpose of this article is to discuss these three factors, describe different options for each one, and explain what might influence your choice between these options.
About Needle Styles
There are four basic styles of needles that you might need to use: straight needles, circular needles, double-pointed needles, and cable needles.
Knitting Needle StylesClick thumbnail to view full-size
This is the style of needles that most people envision when they think of Granny sitting in the rocking chair and knitting a sweater. There are two needles in the set. They are also called single-pointed needles, because each needle is pointed on one end and has a knob or some other kind of stop on the other end. The knitter works from the pointed end, and the stop is there to prevent stitches from sliding off the other end.
Circular needles have a long, stiff cord (usually made of some kind of plastic), and a pair of short needles—one attached to each end of the cord. Circular needles come in multiple lengths, anywhere from 12" from the tip of the first needle to the tip of the second, all the way up to 60".
When you're choosing a set of circular needles, the length is very important! If you use needles that are too long, you won't be able to join the ends after you've cast your stitches on; if you use needles that are too short, your stitches will be too crowded and will tend to slip off the needle points, resulting in a lot of frustration. Be sure to choose the right length.
Double-pointed needles (called DPNs) look similar to straight needles, except that instead of having a point on one end and a stop on the other end, the DPN has points on both sides of the needle. They are also usually a little shorter than straight needles, and come in sets of five or six instead of two.
Cable needles are used in the knitting technique called cabling. Cabling requires the knitter to take a few stitches off the end of the needle, knit into the stitches that come after the reserved stitches, and then knit into the stitches that were reserved. Cable needles are pointed on each end, like a DPN is, but they usually are hooked or have a notch that helps prevent stitches from accidentally slipping off the end.
What Style Should I Use?
The style of needle you use will depend on what you are knitting and what techniques you are using.
- Straight needles are used mostly for knitting flat pieces; blankets and scarves are some examples. Pieces of a garment, such as the front of a sweater, can also be knit flat if you intend to knit the other necessary pieces separately and sew them together at the end.
- Circular needles can be used for a technique called "knitting in the round". When you knit in the round, you don't knit to the end of the row and turn the piece around like you would with a flat piece. Instead, the stitches are arranged in a circle so that you are knitting in a continuous loop. This technique produces a seamless tube, such as a sleeve or the brim of a hat.
- Circular needles can also be used to knit flat pieces. You would simply have to turn the work around at the end of a row, like you would if you were knitting with straight needles, instead of joining the ends to create a circle. Using circular needles to knit flat pieces is especially helpful if you're knitting a large piece; after a while, the knitted material becomes heavy and it's hard to hold it all up while maneuvering the straight needles. If you are knitting with circular needles, most of the weight of the knitted work can be held in your lap, taking the strain off your arms and wrists.
- DPNs are primarily used for knitting in the round in cases where the shortest set of circular needles are too long. They can also be used as straight needles if only a few stitches are being worked. DPNs can also be used as cable needles, in a pinch, as long you are careful not to let the stitches slip off the ends.
- Cable needles are really only used for cabling, as previously described, or in any other technique where you need to hold onto a few stitches for a short period of time.
If you are knitting from a pattern, the pattern should recommend what style (or styles) of needles should be used. Beginners are advised to follow the pattern recommendations; more experienced knitters may read through the pattern and decide that they can substitute a different style of needle depending on the pattern's requirements and their own skill level. There are tips at the end of this article that describe possible substitutions.
Needle Size Comparison Chart
About Needle Sizes
Once you know what style of needle you need, you should next determine the size of needle you need. The term size refers to the needle's thickness, not its length.
Needles come in many different sizes, from the very thick to the very thin. The packaging of the set should clearly indicate the size of the needles it contains. However, be aware that there are a few different systems of measurement in use for needle size. When you're purchasing needles, be sure that you know what system of measurement is listed on the package. The three most common systems are the metric system the US system, and the UK system.
In the metric system, the listed size of the needle actually corresponds to the number of millimeters in the diameter of the needle. For instance, a 2.0mm needle is two millimeters in diameter. This correspondence naturally means that the higher the number of the size is, the larger the needle actually is; e.g., a 5.0mm needle is larger than a 4.0mm needle.
In the US system, the listed size of the needle does not refer to any actual measurement of the needle. However, the sizes are relative to each other. A higher size number means a larger needle diameter. A size 8 needle is larger than a size 7 needle, which is larger than a size 6 needle.
Just as in the US system, the listed size of the needle in the UK system does not refer to any actual measurement of the needle. Also, just as in the US system, the sizes are relative to each other in the UK system. So far, so good. But in the UK system, a higher the size number means a smaller needle diameter, which is the opposite of the US system. So in the UK system, a size 8 needle is smaller than a size 7 needle, which is smaller than a size 6 needle.
What Size Of Needle Should I Use?
The size of the needle you use is going to impact how closely knit the stitches are. This can impact the appearance of the finished work. For example, if you use thin yarn with very thick needles, the stitches will not be close-knit, and the finished work will contain visible gaps in the stitches. A pattern might do this for visual effect, but it is not very functional for many knitted pieces, so it is rather atypical.
More importantly, needle size will also impact the size of the finished work. If, using the same yarn, you knit 20 stitches on a pair of size 8 needles and 20 stitches on a pair of size 10 needles, the piece knit on the size 8 needles will be smaller than the piece knit on the size 10 needles. The amount of variance depends on a number of factors, from your personal knitting style to the exact type of yarn used.
For this reason, you need to be careful about the needle size you use if you're at all concerned about the size of the finished product. To determine the correct needle size, you should knit gauge swatches until you figure out which needle works for you. This is a bit of a chore, but it's absolutely essential unless you really don't care about the size of the finished product.
What is a Gauge Swatch?
Any good knitting pattern will give you a piece of information called the gauge. The gauge tells you that if you knit a certain number of stitches in a certain pattern, the resulting work should wind up being a certain number of inches in width. The wording is usually something like this: "4 in. = 20 st. garter". This means that if you're working in garter stitch, and you lay a ruler out across 20 stitches in your finished work, those 20 stitches should measure right at four inches.
A gauge swatch is a small piece of work that a knitter produces to check his gauge. If the pattern gauge is listed as "4 in. = 20 st. garter", the knitter will choose a set of needles, cast on 25 or so stitches, and knit in garter stitch until the swatch is about three or four inches long. Then, he will use a ruler or a gauge check and count the number of stitches in four inches of the completed work. If the number is exactly 20, then he knows that the needles he chose are the right size. If the number is not 20, then he will need to change to a different size of needles and knit a new gauge swatch to make sure the new needle size is appropriate. If the number of stitches in four inches on the first gauge swatch is less than 20, he will need to switch to a smaller set of needles; if it's more than 20, he will need to switch to a larger set of needles.
A gauge check is a useful tool that I would recommend to any knitter. This is a small, rectangular piece of plastic or metal that serves two purposes.
First, it has a small ruler on two intersecting sides. This is handy for measuring your gauge swatch so that you can count the number of stitches in a few inches of work.
Second, most of them have a series of progressively-larger holes, each marked with the size of a knitting needle that corresponds to the size of the hole. This is useful because not all needles are marked to let you know what size they are, but you can quickly and easily use the holes in the gauge check to figure it out. That's something you might need to do when you're trying to move up or down a size based on the results of your gauge swatch.
Gauge checks only cost a few bucks and they last forever. It's really a worthwhile investment.
About Needle Materials
There are a variety of knitting needles made from different materials. Sometimes, you may make your choice of material based solely on the fact that you already own the right size and type of needle, and you're not willing to pay for needles of the same size and style in a different material. But other times, such as when you don't own the size and style of needle you need, you will have this choice. The most popular and most widely-available options for knitting needle material are aluminum, plastic, and bamboo, though there are others.
The choice of needle material is largely one of personal preference. What one person likes, another person might actually find annoying. For example, bamboo needles tend to have higher friction, allowing them to "grip" the yarn better. Some people like this because they find that the yarn doesn't slip off the needle as easily. Other people dislike it because they feel the needle snags the yarn too much.
Here are some factors to consider regarding the most popular needle materials:
Aluminum knitting needles are quite readily available at most large hobby stores, especially for straight and circular needles. Aluminum needles are smooth and the yarn glides easily over them. This is great when you're accustomed to handling the needles and yarn together and are less likely to accidentally pull stitches off the end of the needle, but it can be frustrating for the beginner, especially if she is using a smooth yarn that only makes the gliding easier. Aluminum needles can also be a little noisy as they clack together during every stitch. You might not be bothered by the noise, or even find it soothing, but it might also irritate you or others around you.
Plastic is commonly used for double-pointed needles and some of the thicker straight needles. Plastic needles are not quite as smooth, so it's harder for stitches to slide off the needles inadvertently, which is a plus. However, they tend to be more flexible, and some people just don't like they way they feel in their hands.
Bamboo needles aren't as easy to find at large hobby stores, but they can be found in specialty needlecraft stores or ordered online. Bamboo needles have a better "grip" on the yarn than aluminum needles and probably even better than plastic, so they are well-suited as double-pointed needles and when working with smooth yarns.
The Size Is An Approximation, Not A Guarantee
Knitting needle sizes should be considered an approximation, not exact. Two knitting needles, both labeled "US Size 8", may not actually be the exact same size. The difference will be small, but if you multiply this small difference over hundreds of stitches in a blanket or sweater, it adds up. This is another reason why it is so important it is to actually knit a gauge swatch for every new project.
Needle Sizes Do Not Apply to Cable Needles
Cable needles don't come in the same side variety of thicknesses as the other needle types, since you don't usually knit with a cable needle. They do come in a few different thicknesses—stitches knit on a very thick working needle won't stay on a really thin cable needle, and you won't even be able to fit stitches from a US size 1 working needle on a very thick cable needle—but don't bother looking for cable needles in the exact same sizes as your working needles for a specific project. Just get something that, from visual inspection, appears relatively close.
You Might Be Able To Skip Cable Needles Altogether
Consider using a DPN in the same size as your working needles as a substitute for a cable needle. The danger here is that the DPN doesn't have the notch or hook that keeps the reserved stitches from falling off the end. If the stitches fit snugly on the DPN, though, you might find it's not a problem for you.
You Might Be Able To Skip Straight Needles Altogether, Too
Circular needles and DPNs are much more versatile than straight needles are, because they can be used for both knitting in the round and knitting flat pieces.
And For The Really Frugal, You Might Also Be Able To Skip DPNs
The primary purpose of DPNs is for knitting in the round when you want your tube to be very small. But it is possible to knit small tubes in the round using two pairs of circular needles. Step-by-step instructions for this technique are out of scope for this article, but are available in a number of online tutorials, such as the one here. Be warned, however, that you must be sure that the two circular needles are truly the same size. As previously stated, size is just an approximation and not a guarantee! Knit gauge swatches on each set of circular needles beforehand to be sure.