9 Knitting Needle Materials:How To Pick A Favorite Part 1
We get questions all the time about what kind of knitting needles to choose. The answer gets quite complex when we factor in types of projects, yarn, experience level, changing gauge over time, etc. To simplify the choice, let me tell you a little bit about a a bunch of needles and why you might have a preference.
First let me explain a little bit about what knitting needles actually do. In other crafts, like wood working or jewelry making, artisans use jigs. What is a jig, you ask? Let me tell you. A jig is a tool you use to make a large number of components precisely the same size and/or shape. If you are making a set of 10 dining room chairs, you’ll want to legs to be all the same length, right? And the chances of making 40 individual hand cuts precise enough? Slim to none. So a fine carpenter will build a back stop onto her table saw, line up all 40 piece of stock firmly against the back stop, clamp them all to the table so they can not shift, and make one pass with the saw blade. Voila! 40 identical chair legs. How about 1000 identical gold links to make a twisted chain? Use a metal rod of the precise diameter to make a jig. See how handy jigs can be to make a bunch of things all precisely the same? Oh, if only we had some sort of jig that could make all our knitting stitches the same diameter and uniform height. But wait…we do! Our jigs are called knitting needles and we use them for precisely the same reasons other artisans do. They even come in a variety of sizes so we can make a variety of precisely sized stitches. Clever, clever knitting foremothers to have invented such a wonderful tool.
The idea of a stitch jig, also called a knitting needle, is that we get as smooth and rhythmic as we can with our hands, and let the needles do the work of making the stitches all the same. The accumulated size and shape of our stitches is called gauge (number of stitches and number of rows per inch). The interplay between our hands and our needles determine our stitch gauge and, if the size and shape of our stitches change over time, it is almost certainly because of our hands, not our needles since our needles don’t change and how we move our hands may.
To help make the movements of our hands as smooth and uniform as we can, we can understand the properties of different materials, types and styles of needles, and choose accordingly. First, the big three…
This a pretty broad category all on its own. It includes aluminum, stainless steel, brass, powder coated, nickel plated, etc. In general, metal needles are inflexible and some folks find that they can cause hand fatigue. On the other hand, they also have less surface friction so your stitches will slide easily and quickly along the needle. If you want to knit for speed, metal is your friend and the slicker the better. Powder coated aluminum and brass are the least slick, stainless steel is in the middle, and nickel coated surfaces are the slickest and fasted of them all. Metal is also stronger than some other materials and can hold up to greater torque (which is force applied in an arc) and the weight of large heavy projects without bending or breaking. If you want to achieve a tight, firm fabric, like for a coat, you may want to use a slightly smaller needle than the yarn would usually call for to keep the stitches small and tightly packed. This will add to the force you need to use make each stitch. All that torque requires a strong needle. Holding the weight of an entire heavy Aran style sweater while you add the neck band can put a lot of weight on your needles and more fragile materials may not hold up to the stress. So, metal needles are what you want if you need speed and/or strength.
I can’t prove it, but I think wood was probably the material of the earliest knitting needles. Like metals, the wood used for knitting needles is also a broad category. Hard woods, soft woods, birch, rosewood, oak, pine, ash, etc., all have their properties. Also keep in mind, how or if the wood has been finished and with what. Wood, by its very nature, is more flexible than metal and this contributes to wood needles being, in general, not quite as smooth nor as strong as metal. It also contributes to wood needles being a little bit easier on the hands than metal. The wood will flex a little bit to conform to the hands, rather than the hands having to conform to harder materials. Weight, grain, hardness, finish and whether the wood is a single solid piece or laminated (which means many layers have been glued together before the wood is shaped into a needle) will all play a part in the strength and smoothness of knitting needles. The finer the grain of the wood, the finer it is sanded and the more satiny the finish, the slicker and speedier the needles will be. Finely finished rosewood needles may be comparable to powder coated aluminum for slickness and speed. Unfinished softwood will have much more surface friction and will be “grabbier.” Wood needles also need care and maintenance. Wood can dry out and the friction of yarn rubbing on your needles can rough up the surface. Oiling, waxing or otherwise conditioning your needles will keep them smooth and strong for a longer time.
Moving up the grabbiness scale, we come to bamboo. Bamboo plants are giant grasses rather than trees. They grow with such amazing speed that you can almost watch it happen with your naked eyes. Bamboo is considered an invasive weed in some places, but is so quickly renewable that it continues to be used for more and more things. While trees grow in more or less heavy, dense concentric circles in all their parts, bamboo grows with a lighter, airier, linear structure. Bamboo needles are easy on the hands since they bend and flex with our fingers and cause less fatigue with their own weight. But the surface friction is much higher. Bamboo is the grabbiest of all the surfaces. While this makes for much, much slower stitch formation and movement, it also helps keep stitches in place. When using a slippery yarn, like silk or viscose (also, by the bye, made from bamboo) or when starting circular knitting with very few stitches and many double pointed needles (like in the middle of a circular shawl) bamboo needles can help keep your stitches from sliding out of your control.
Metal, wood and bamboo are the most common and readily available, but they are not the only materials we can make needles out of. In our second section, we’ll be able to compare other materials to the big three.
Plastic needles are generally light weight, warm, and often super flexible. They are very easy on hands, especially in the smaller diameters, and are favorites among folks with arthritis and other sources of joint pain. They vary a bit in smoothness but are usually comparable to the slicker end of the wood needle spectrum. They require no care and feeding. They are not as strong as metal and don’t work especially well for high torque or heavy weight projects.
You may be tempted to class acrylic and plastic together because they are both synthetic materials, but their constitution and performance as knitting needles are quite different. Acrylic is more brittle and far less flexible than plastic. In the smaller diameters, they can snap in two with too much torque, though they can carry heavy weights. Acrylic needles are warm and light, and have a slight give to them that makes them comparable to wood with regard to hand fatigue. But, no matter how smoothly they are finished, they have a grabbiness comparable to bamboo. The best thing about acrylic needles is that they can be very, very pretty.
Ahh…ivory. Ivory is strong like wood, slick like metal, warm like acrylic, light weight like bamboo. The surface gets smoother from yarn passing over it. Ivory can dry out and should be waxed or oiled every now and again, but can last for years, decades, millennia even. The trouble with ivory? Well since the world has cracked down on hunting the animals that produce ivory, new ivory items are almost impossible to find. Which means that old ivory items are rare as well and very expensive. If you find genuine ivory knitting needles, try them out. If you don’t love them, send them to me!
Bone needles are medium weight, warm and slightly flexible so they are easy on the hands. When the surface is properly cared for, they can be as slick and fast as rosewood on the high end of the wood scale or brass on the low end of the metal scale. Bone is much more porous than ivory, and is much more likely to dry out and splinter so they need to waxed to keep them smooth and pliable. The materials, the bones of animals, are not as readily available or, rather, the availability is not taken advantage of by needle manufacturers.
Glass is heavy, brittle, and notoriously fragile. Glass knitting needles are inflexible and hard on the hands. They are strong enough to hold heavy weights, but do not tolerate high torque. And, though glass itself is smooth and satiny, glass needles have a surprising amount of drag. They are comparable to bamboo on the grabbiness scale. They can shatter if dropped and chip if banged against something hard. Why would anyone make needles out of glass? Because they are incomparably beautiful. If you love beautiful, fine tools, and if you can take great care not toss them around or put them in danger, they are delightful to look at and watch as you use them.
Hmmm…I don’t know what to tell you about what carbon knitting needles are made of. Carbon, obviously. But so is coal, and the lead in your pencil. So are diamonds. The best I can tell you is that the manufacturers call it a “high-tech carbon fiber.” Could be swiss chard for all I know. I can tell you the properties of carbon knitting needles. They are strong yet a bit flexible, light weight and warm. Because the material is fibrous in nature, they can split and shred like bamboo, especially in the smaller diameters. As a result, the tips are adapted with metal, usually nickel coated brass. They are easy on the hands, stand up well to heavy weights, perform admirable with high torque and have a smoothness comparable to the slicker woods. The join between the metal tip and the carbon shaft may be quite pronounced or so subtle as to be nearly undetectable. You’ll have to try one and see.
In addition to the material that knitting needles are made of, length and style of needle, sharpness of tip, and other factors can go into making a knitting needle so comfortable that your hands can make precisely uniform stitches. We’ll move on the Part 2, next week.