Knitting is a fibre art that requires the use of two needle tips at a time to create fabric out of yarn. Sounds simple… until you get to the yarn shop and see an entire wall covered in different needles. How to choose?
Single pointed Needles
These long needles are sold in sets of two; they have a point on one end and a stopper of some sort on the other end. They are available in lengths ranging from 8″ to 14″. These are used for flat knitting. When you knit with these, the weight of the item you are knitting ends up moving from the far end of one needle to the far end of the other. It makes the fine muscles in your shoulders work very hard. If you have or have had a shoulder injury, you may find that this makes you quite sore. I can only last about 10 minutes with these before I can’t take the pain any more. Circular needles are better for the weak-of-shoulder knitter. The other thing to note about these is that if your knitting is too much wider than a single needle width, you may risk having stitches drop off the needle when you set the work down. If it’s only a few stitches wider, a point protector placed on the tip of the needle will hold the stitches on.
Double Pointed Needles
These needles come in sets of either 4 or 5 needles that are pointed on both ends. These are typically from 5″ to 8″ long each and are used to knit in the round. You divide the stitches evenly among all but one needle. The last needle is then your working needle. Using that needle you knit the stitches off one other needle. The needle that you just cleared off becomes the new working needle. You continue in this manner around and around the project. This is how socks were knit for generations. To begin with it can feel very awkward working with so many needles and figuring out how to navigate around them as you go. Drawbacks include something called “laddering” as well as the fact you have 6 to 8 needle points where stitches can potentially drop. Laddering is a column of loose stitches that forms at the juncture of two needles. It looks like a ladder. It is the result of stitch tension being uneven right at the point where you switch between needles. This can be avoided by tightening the last stitch on the previous needle and the first few stitches at the beginning of the next one. You can prevent stitches falling off by using point protectors.
Circular needles are made up of two needle points and a cord that connects them. You can get them either fixed or interchangeable. Fixed needles have a set size and length that cannot be changed. The interchangeable needles allow you to switch out the cords and needle tips to whatever you need for the specific project you have in mind. Circular needles can be used for all types of knitting. They are available in a multitude of lengths. The smallest ones (25cm) have very short needle tips and cords to allow you to knit in the round on a single sock comfortably. These allow you to avoid any sort of laddering as the needle holds all the stitches. The next longer ones (40cm) are intended to knit hats in the round in the same fashion. Interchangeable needles allow you to set your needle up with as long a cord or combination of cords as you like. There are connectors that allow two or more cords to be connected. If you want to knit a blanket, you can make the cord long enough to hold all the stitches without fear of them dropping off. You don’t ever have to worry that you will be missing a needle when you pick up a project that’s been sitting for a while, both tips always stay attached. The weight of the project remains centered in front of your body at all times. You don’t get the stress on your shoulders like you do with single pointed needles. I can knit for hours (the longest I knitted in one stretch was 18 hours) with absolutely no shoulder pain when I use circular needles. I personally can’t think of any drawbacks… other than wanting to own all the gorgeous sets available!
What they are made of
Needles can be made of a number of different materials. Typically we see metal, plastic, acrylic, wood and bamboo. The material you choose is going to come down to the feel you like the best. A good yarn shop will allow you to try out needles in the store to see what you prefer.
Metal needles tend to be very smooth. If you have concerns about dropping stitches, these may not be the best choice for you. Also, metal needles can be a little bit noisy: click, click, click…. Would that drive you or the people around you crazy?
Plastic needles are generally in the economy range. They can be quite flexible, so you’ll want to check that before you buy them. It can be maddening to try to knit with needles that want to bend as you work. They do the job, but they don’t feel particularly nice.
Acrylic tends to be a little smoother than plastic. They usually are just grabby enough that your work doesn’t just slide off them. It has a different feel, some people really like them, some don’t. These can be colourful and funky… which makes them fun.
Wood needles are usually finished to make them smooth. They still offer a little bit of friction, more than the metal ones do. This means that the stitches don’t tend to simply slide off on their own. Wood needles feel really nice in your hands. Bamboo are just a little grabbier and are a good fit if you knit with soft tension.