Choosing the Right Needles, Part 1

SweetGeorgia Superwash Worsted in Rosebud

SweetGeorgia Superwash Worsted in Rosebud

I’m a hoarder. Let’s get that out in the open right now. I hoard yarn, I hoard fibre, and I especially hoard needles.

After all — knitting is not just about the yarn, it’s also about the tools you use. If you want to enjoy your actual knitting, and not just the finished item afterwards, you need to know what kind of needles to choose so that you’re not grinding your teeth and causing stab wounds to anyone asking ”why on earth do you look so constipated whenever you knit”.

Having been a knitter for more than 20 years, and having found and tried a gazillion different needles, I have gathered a rather stupendous collection of them – all serving a different purpose, and all responding to different needs. I have four interchangeable sets, countless DPN’s and a ridiculous collection of various fixed circulars. I have my trusted go-to needles that I know will work flawlessly with a lot of knitting I do, but still I’m always on the lookout for something even more awesome.

Needle Collection

Needle Collection

To make things seem a little less fanatic and intimidating, there are basically four things you need to consider when choosing the right needles for your project: needle length, weight, material and pointiness. I have broken this rather content-heavy tutorial into two parts, so keep your eyes peeled for part two later this week!

1. Length:

The length of the needle makes a huge difference in how comfortably you are knitting. Your individual knitting style dictates how much length you need, since ultimately it’s a balance between having enough support from the needle while still not getting in your way, and that in turn is determined by your hand size, tension and so on.

If you’re looking into using double pointed needles (DPNs), you need to take a look at your knitting style. If you tend to hold your needles with your fingertips only, you can get by with fairly short needles. If you grasp them with the base of your fingers like I do, you need longer ones. DPN lengths generally start from 4” and go all the way to 9”, with most knitters preferring lengths somewhere in between (my go-to size is 8”). Baby socks and glove fingers, where you only have a few stitches per needle, are obviously easier to knit if you’re manouvering short needles.

Double-pointed needles

Double-pointed needles

With circular needles, you will want to consider the length of the needle tip (also known as the stem or stalk). I tend to like longer tips because they give me extra support at my pinky fingers, so most of my circulars have 5” tips. For smaller circumferences though, you will find that shorter tips make manouvering the stitches easier. So for hats, baby garments or other small tubular things, make sure that the tips are short enough so that the joints are not pulling and the cable can move freely. Many manufacturers offer the same needles with different stem lengths, so you can pick and choose what works best for you.

Circular needles

Circular needles

If you’re blessed with a particularly dexterous and delicate fingers, you can try the super short circulars intended for sock knitting. At my local knit night there are not one but two (!!) ladies who knit all their socks this way. My chubby fingers can’t get the hang of it, mostly because my Continental knitting technique relies on having the support from the longer stem length.

Super short circular needles

Super short circular needles

While cable length is hugely important with items knit in the round (my rule of thumb is at least 10-15% shorter than the garment circumference), it is surprisingly important with flat items as well. Too long of a cable, and your stitches will flip and curl as you’re moving them along. Too short, and you’ll end up with too much fabric in your palms to keep your stitches even.

2. Weight:

With knitting needles weight is everything. Ideally we all want to be able to knit for long periods of time without getting stress injuries or other kinds of strain in our hands. The weight of a single needle may not seem like a big issue, but carrying that weight while repeating the same motions to create a stitch thousands of times a day will multiply any subtle muscle effort in your hands to exponential proportions.

Metal needles, even if hollow inside, are inevitably quite heavy, which tends to become a problem with larger sizes. Wood, such as the laminated birch from Knitter’s Pride and Brittany, is more lightweight, bamboo being the lightest of all.

If you like using straight needles, needle weight makes a considerable difference, because you are already carrying the weight of the fabric on the needles. You don’t want to add any extra weight to that, so go for wooden materials whenever possible. The downside is that with smaller sizes wooden needles get more fragile to snapping, so it’s always a bit of a balancing act.

With circular needles the weight is not as crucial, since the bulk of the fabric is resting upon the cord and not the actual needle tips.

Circular needles distribute the weight

Circular needles distribute the weight

DPN’s, however, are the most vulnerable to needle weight. Knitting a sock can get pretty brutal if you’re manouvering five solid metal needles at the same time – not to mention knitting worsted weight sleeves in the round, and so on. Also, with DPNs you tend to have less stitches per needle, producing less resistance and therefore making dropped stitches or entire needles (and ensuing grunts, curses and throwing of various things) more likely. Personally, if I need to knit narrow tubular things with larger needle sizes, such as sweater sleeves as mentioned above, I grab a pair of long circulars and just Magic Loop my way through it all. Excluding the abovementioned metal needles, socks are fairly forgiving to knit with any kind of DPNs, since sock size needles are generally thin.

In the next post I will go over the remaining points to consider when choosing the right needles for yor project. Stay tuned!

  • Rebecca

    Great post, Liisa. I LOVE my little 9″ circs for socks and mitts. I first bought a pair years ago, tried swatching with them, and gave up on the third or fourth try because they required muscles that I hadn’t known were even in my hands. A year or so later, I tried again and am glad I persisted. It’s so easy to just go ’round and ’round. I’ll have to try my new continental skillz with them next! If it works, one day I just might blow myself away with the speed.