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My Favorite Knitting Needles - Finding the Right Set for My Projects

Updated on January 17, 2015

So Many Needles, So Little Time

When I first started knitting years ago, the sheer number of knitting needles made my head spin. Why are there so many sizes? Why are there so many types? I had no idea where to start, so I did what a lot of us do when we start out - I borrowed the materials from someone who gave up trying to learn knitting and made do. I quickly learned though that not only do I have a preference in needles, it was really easy to learn which types of needles and sizes I would need based on the project. As of today, my knitting needles table looks like I robbed a craft store. I have long straight needles, short straight needles, circulars, circular systems, and double pointed - and I am always buying more! If you are just starting out, let me share my journey with you to help you figure out a size 5 from a size 17 and what the heck the difference is between plastic, wood, and metal.

All pictures were taken by me - this is just a fraction of my knitting needles stash!

Choosing a Size

Does size really matter?

The short answer: Yes.

When I was first starting out, it took me forever to read a simple ballband on a skein of yarn. However, that's how I started to learn. I never worked project that required me to check gauge, and that's probably a good thing as I think that may have frustrated me beyond my limits. To begin, find a yarn that you love and read the label. It will tell you the size needle they recommend you use with the yarn. Simple! As you improve, you'll quickly realize that you may want a thicker or more lacey fabric. Or you might have to meet a gauge swatch. That's where sizing really comes in to play.

The bigger the number, the bigger the needle. This also means that the bigger the number, the bigger the stitch. If you want to knit something loosely or you are working with a chunky yarn, choose a larger needles. Another example is if you have to match gauge and your piece ends up too small. Go up one needle size and try again. One size is usually all it takes for me.

What size is this needle? Most modern needles will tell you right on the needle itself or on the packaging. You'll quickly notice that many show a size (Sz 6) and again in millimeters (4.25mm). These mean the same thing, but sizes are usually notated one way in a particular country. I'm from the U.S. where most patterns will call for a size 6 needle. Often in any country using the metric system, they will call for a 4.25mm needle. Again, they are the same thing. A needle gauge is a great tool to help in these situations as they measure gauge and keep track of both sizing methods for a needle.

How to Use a Needle Gauge

This will be your best friend. Promise.

If I had a needle gauge and knew how to use it when I first started, I would have saved myself a lot of headaches. This little piece of equipment is my saving grace. It not only helps with gauge, but it measures those pesky knitting needles that don't have the size clearly marked on them. This is especially troublesome with double pointed needles and they are almost never marked.

To use for gauge, knit up a swatch with your yarn and the recommended needles. I find a stockinette stitch is easiest to work with and measure. Lay the gauge over the knitted square. There is an open window through which you can see your knitting. Line it up with the start of a knit stitch and make sure it follows the rows. Then you can count how many stitches and rows per inch or millimeter. If you knit garments, this will save your life. Always knit a swatch!

To use for measuring needles, there is a row of perforated holes in the metal. Simply stick your needles through until you find the one that fits the best. It will tell you directly above or below what size that needles is. No more guessing! No more frantic searching for packages or holding them against similar needles! They are cheap and there's no excuse not to get one. Trust me, you'll be kicking yourself after you realize how handy they are.

Your Knitting Soul Mate

Simplicity Creative Group, Inc Boye Metal Stitch and Row Gauge Needle Check
Simplicity Creative Group, Inc Boye Metal Stitch and Row Gauge Needle Check

This is the one I use and that you'll find most often. It has both the row gauge and needle check that I wrote about above. Never be without one.


What Needles Do I Use to Knit Flat?

Most beginners start knitting flat pieces, but you'd be surprised by how many different types of needles you can use to do that. Technically speaking, you can use any type of needles, but I will review the two most common options.

Straight Needles: These come in long sizes (usually 14 inches long) and short sizes (9-10 inches). The length you choose will depend on how wide your piece is. If you knit something wide, always use longer needles. There's no need to bunch up your knitting and risk dropping stitches. However, if you knit something more narrow, I recommend going with a shorter needle. When you first start out, long needles can be hard to maneuver. Also, the added weight can be hard on the hands.

Why do some people knit flat pieces with circular needles? I'm so glad you asked.

Circular needles take the weight off your hands in a big way. when I first started, I was really intimidated by circular needles and didn't want to spend the money on them. That is until I knit my mother a large carpet-bag style purse. Knitting such wide rectangles was murder on may hands because the piece weighed so much. When you use straight needles, all the stitches - and all the weight - is on the needle and you have to hold it and maneuver it to knit every stitch. With circular needles, only a dozen or so stitches are on the actual needles at any time. The rest of the stitches get pushed onto the connecting cord. It sounds like it weighs the same and technically is does, but it repositions that weight so it can rest in your lap. Think about it like carrying a heavy bag on your shoulder by a thin strap. That's a straight needle. A circular needle is like widening the strap and carrying it across your body. It is much more ergonomic on your hands for heavy products and they knit exactly the same.

What should you use? It's up to you. My preference is to always use circulars for wide and heavy patterns, but I turn to my straight needles when swatching or knitting anything more narrow.

What Needles Do I Use to Knit In The Round?

Again, you have several options. If we exclude knitting a piece flat and seaming it, you have two main options: circular needles and double pointed needles.

Double Pointed Needles: Commonly abbreviated as DPNs, these small needles are tapered at both ends and are designed to knit in the round. Generally three or four needles are used to hold the stitches while an extra is used to knit. These are truly designed for smaller projects like hats, socks, and gloves and are still my favorite for tight spaces. I also like the simplicity of their design when working swatches that I may want to add stitches to either side or slip onto other needles. They can be intimidating at first since there are so many points trying to poke you at once, but they are your best bet for getting very small items done precisely.

Circular Needles can be used in a variety of ways as we have already seen. My favorite is working very large flat pieces and of course working in the round. Traditionally, larger tubes are knit on circulars like sweaters or cowls. However, many lengths are created for various projects. I prefer having a needle system on hand so I can pair the length of cord I need with the needle tip size without having to dig through all my circulars.

In addition, longer circular needles with flexible cord can be used to knit smaller tubes with ease, especially if DPNs are too cumbersome. The method is called the magic loop and it takes advantage of the unused cord between stitches to maneuver both needle tips.

Another fact to consider when using circulars aside form size and material is the cord itself. Before you buy, run your fingers along from the needle point, along the cord, and to the other needle. If your fingers catch on any sharp points, don't buy those needles. It will cause you grief every time your yarn snags. Also, the more flexible the cord the easier it is to work with. It can be hard to handle the needles or see a design when the cord is too stiff. Again, I find knitting systems to have the best of all worlds, but there are many "craft store" brands that have interchangeable systems now that work pretty well and are much more affordable.

The circular debate - who wins?

Do you duel with DPNs or circular needles?

Does the Needle Material Make a Difference?

Plastic, Wood, Metal - What's the big deal?

Technically, there is no big deal. All needles do the exact same thing. However, you may quickly find that YOU don't produce the same results when using a certain type of needles. Some people are like knitting machines and can produce the exact same stitch regardless of their materials and my hat goes off to them. I am not one of those people. Here are my experiences with the most common types of materials.

Wood: The most common wooden needle is made of bamboo, but there are several other types out there including some gorgeous rosewood needles.The most common things you may hear about bamboo, or any wood, is that it is easier on the hands. I think the texture makes it easier for my hands to grip, so I have more control over my work and can produce more even stitches. They don't make my hands sweat like metal needles can, so it's easier to work with them for longer periods. Bamboo is my go to for slippery yarns and most lace weights. However, if a yarn has too much texture or I have a pattern that requires cable work or drastic decreases, I find bamboo to have too hard of a grip on the yarn and it makes it harder to manipulate my stitches.

Metal: Aluminum is the most common, but you can often find older steel models and some mixed varieties. I think metal is on par with bamboo for me. Metal needles are great for speed as the yarn slips off the needle as fast as you can go. It is much easier to work with sticky yarns or yarns with a lot of texture for this reason. I also prefer knitting cables with metal. But again, if you pair a smooth yarn with metal, it may fly off the needles when you don't mean to.

Plastic: Most people will say that plastic needles are bottom of the barrel. While they are not my favorite, I would have to respectfully disagree with that statement. Their uses are limited in my knitting as plastic has a tendency to be sharp and snag yarn. However, the largest needles are typically made in plastic. This makes them lightweight and easy to move as the same needles in wood or metal may be too heavy. Specialty sizes are much easier to find in plastic. Plus, they also tend to be cheaper. Beware though, if it's a smaller needle it really is just a small plastic stick and they will snap and bend with too much pressure.

What floats your knitting boat? What is your pick of picks?

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So what's your take on the wide variety of knitting needles? Let us know below!

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