Knitting needles come in a variety of materials and styles. Choosing which to buy is not so straightforward. We knitters develop strong preferences for certain types or even brands of needles. Not every needle type or material is just right for every project.
More than likely what you used when you first learned to knit were straight, or single-pointed, knitting needles. These are straight sticks with an end cap that prevents the knitting from falling off the non-working end. The end caps also counterweight the needle, improving its balance and feel in the hand. They are available in a number of lengths from 7” to 16”.
Double-point needles have points at both ends so you knit across one and then move on to the next as you work around the tube. They are also the oldest type of knitting needle. Double-pointed needles are depicted in a number of 14th century oil paintings (Rutt, 2003). They are most commonly used when knitting socks (when not using the “Magic Loop” technique on circulars), gloves/mittens, sleeves, and when decreasing at the crown when finishing hats.
Double-points come in lengths of 4”, 5” and 6” and longer. Choosing length depends on your project, hand-size and preference. They usually come in sets of four, five or six needles.
Circular needles are two needles joined with a flexible cable. The first US patent for a circular needle was issued in 1918, although in Europe they may have been used a little earlier (Wikipedia). When using circulars not only is needle size important (to meet gauge), but the cable length also must be appropriate for the project. A relatively short cable is perfect for hats, but not for a shawl. Your pattern will usually have recommendations for both size and cable length. You’ll also note that the length of the needle stalk changes as the cable length changes…shorter stalks attached to a short cable.
Many knitters use circulars even when knitting “flat” (working back and forth). Large items such as afghans and some sweaters get heavy as they grow. Using circulars for such projects distributes the weight across the cable and is less apt to tire your arms. Circulars are also more convenient when knitting while traveling on planes, trains, buses or when knitting in public at ballgames, in movie theaters (yes, I do that!) or any situation where you are in close quarters.
Circular options include not only fixed cables, but also interchangeable sets that contain needle stalks in a variety of sizes and usually 3 or more cables in varying lengths. Signature Needles just released their Convertible Needles where you can buy cables and stalks separately.
Needle material choices are even more varied and personal opinions even stronger.
Bamboo needles have a naturally organic feel that appeals to many knitters. Yarn doesn’t slide as easily as on metal needles. They are often a good choice when working with slippery fibers as the stitches are less likely to accidentally slip off the needles. Smaller size bamboos tend to bend easily and may even break with use.
Like bamboo, wood needles have that organic feel many knitters like. They have many of the same pros and cons as bamboo although some handcrafted or high-quality rosewood and ebony needles can be as smooth as metal.
Nickel-plated brass needles are sturdy, dependable and adaptable to a wide variety of yarns and stitch patterns.
Aluminum and steel needles are usually less expensive and widely available. They can feel “cold” and produce that much parodied “clicking” sound.
Plastic and cellulose acetate needles provide the warmth of bamboo and wood and offer the fiber grip that may slow you down if your hands sweat in warmer weather.
Knitters also face options regarding the needle tips. If a project calls for nupps or lots of K2tog, then a fine, pointy tip would be your best option. If your yarn tends to split than a middy or blunt tip would be best.
As with fiber, knitters are faced with a nearly endless selection when it comes to needles. Because it is so personal I encourage you all to discover what’s out there and have fun. I know that I smile every time I pick up my monogrammed (squee! Best Christmas gift ever.) Signature circulars and there’s no better feeling than that.
Whatever your choice, I leave you with this…light sabre knitting needles. Learn to make your own set here.