The size of the knitting needle or crochet hook that you use is crucial if you have any interest in replicating a pattern with precision or achieving a predictable fit. We alter our gauge (stitches per inch) by increasing or decreasing the size of our needles or hook to match the gauge listed in a pattern.
The only challenging thing about understanding hook and needle sizes is that there is no standard. Just as with more modern technologies, it’s hard for the amorphous world-wide group of individuals who decide what to call fiber crafting tools to agree upon a standard naming system (and stick with it). What any pattern calls a knitting needle or crochet hook of a certain size depends on several factors:
In what year was the pattern written? In what country was the pattern written? Which system was the pattern writer familiar with?
Use a knit-check to check what size a mystery needle is or compare sizes between two needles, and use the ruler on the edge for measuring your gauge.
The issue is even more complicated by the fact that manufacturers of knitting needles may decide on their own standard if they wish. For instance, we carry needles from both Addi and Knitter’s Pride here at Over the Rainbow Yarn. Addi calls a needle measuring 3mm in diameter a US 2, and Knitter’s Pride calls a needle of the same size a US 2.5. Perhaps Knitter’s Pride or an earlier company set out with the noble goal of differentiating between the 2.75 and the 3.0mm needle, which were both called US 2 previously?
For crochet hooks, there are two separate sizing systems – one for the very small hooks which are typically used with thread and made of steel, and one for the larger hooks which are typically used with heavier yarn and made of aluminum, wood or plastic.
Some needle conversion charts include more or different standards from this one, such as Japanese sizes, French sizes, or old American sizes versus new American sizes. Old American sizes (from the mid-1900’s) are similar to the dual-system used for crochet hooks: a 2.5mm is a Size 1, and larger needle sizes increase to 2 and then 3, etc., but smaller sizes (for steel dpns) have larger numbers beginning at 12 and going up from there, much like wire gauge sizes. Don’t get old American sizes mixed up with UK sizes, though; for the small sizes, they are close but not the same.
The chart below covers the most common sizes you’re likely to run into in the English-speaking world, and in some cases includes common naming discrepancies. You can use it to convert sizes from one standard to another. Of course, the best way to be sure you’ve got the size you think you have is to know the actual measurement of your hook or needles in millimeters.
Knitters often find it difficult to transition into crochet because it requires a different way of thinking about your fabric as a whole. It might be fair to say it’s less precise. It’s a little but wonkier. It’s also a little more forgiving, and I think it lends itself better to free-form experimentation than knitting does. Working only one stitch at a time gives you the freedom to put that stitch wherever you please – and there are about a million places one could potentially insert one’s crochet hook and pull up a loop. It can be hard to describe which loop you’re referring to when writing a pattern, and often requires some interpretation when you’re reading a pattern! Though there are a limited number of gestures comprising the basic crochet stitches, there are a mind-boggling number of ways that one could combine chains, single crochets, double crochets, and half-double crochets, depending on exactly which loops you decide to grab.
Crochet chart example from By Number 19.
Knit chart example from knittingobsession.com
I think the origin of most confusion pertaining to crochet comes down to this fact: crocheted stitches are staggered, rather than stacked atop one another in a grid formation. That is why many new crocheters find their early swatches biasing one way or the other, and that is why it’s hard to produce a crocheted fabric with perfectly straight edges. That is why knitting charts are drawn on graph paper, and crochet charts usually look more like hand-sketches, even when they’re produced by a computer.
But before you can experiment, you need to know the basics. To get you started, use the visual guide below to help you find your place in crochet.
We’re going to talk about yarn microns and softness, I promise. But first, we have to establish some standard of comparison. We’ve chosen the hair on your very own head as a place to start. Have you ever heard the term “hair shirt?” Apparently, monks in the middle ages would make shirts out of hair and wear them under their clothes as a subtle form of self torture. These were itchy and coarse enough to scrape the skin and cause minor bleeding. Yikes! If you run your hands through your own hair, you won’t find it so very unpleasant, but have you ever gotten a piece of your own hair caught on your eye? Or on your own tongue? Of course you have, and very unpleasant it is, too. And once you cut it, there is a sharp end that pokes into your skin in a nasty way.
What does this have to do with yarn and microns, you ask? Well, let me tell you. Since it isn’t pleasant or practical to make clothing or other fabric from our own hair, human beings began to consider using hair from other animals. Something softer and more comfortable. They looked around them and thought, “Horse hair? Nope; too coarse and not enough of it. Cow? Surely not. Goats? Well, their outer hairs are at least as bad as our own, but they do get a nice soft under coat in winter. Not much of it, but great if we can get it. Hmmm…maybe sheep?” And the rest is wooly history.
But that still doesn’t explain the whole micron to softness connection, right? Well, let me give you just a little bit more history and it will become clearer. When humans first started using sheep fleece for clothing, the sheep hair wasn’t as soft as we’ve come to know it. It was just a darn site better than horse or cow or human. These early sheep hair gathering humans began to notice that some of their sheep had hair that was softer to the touch than others. So, some humans started breeding soft haired sheep to other soft haired sheep and creating breeds with fine, soft wool.
As the breeds got established, even within breeds there could be variance. Just like human beings, sheep can have finer or coarser hair than their wooly cousins. The climate where they live, their diet, and how clean they keep can have a great effect on the softness of their hair. And if the softer wool was more prized, the breeders should be able to get a higher price for it, right? Of course. So, who gets to determine how much a particular fleece should be worth? Well, the buyers, of course.
But, rather than having each and every person who wanted to buy a fleece fondle each and every fleece available, experts with sensitive finger and a vast experience of wool would run a few lock through their fingers and give it a grade. Coarse, medium, fine, super fine, expialidocious, a fleece would get a grade, and price would be agreed between the seller and the buyer based on that grade.
Now we have microscopes and lasers that are capable of measuring the exact diameter of a single hair from an angora rabbit. The unit of measure is the micron, which is one millionth of a meter or 1/25,000 of an inch. Really, really tiny, right? Well, yes. And this is where the softness part come in.
This chart shows a human hair as the largest fiber at 70 microns, and an angora rabbit hair as the smallest at 13 microns. You can get a better view of it in our newsletter.
We are able to distinguish the size and texture of small things, but not infinitely small. There is a limit to the diameter of fibers that we can feel. As we noted above, a human hair is coarse enough, and sharp enough if cut, to be clearly felt. But sheep have hair that is thinner in diameter than human hair. Some breeds of sheep even more than others. As the diameter, in microns, of the individual hairs gets smaller, we are less abel to distinguish one fiber from the bunch of fibers. The feel starts to blur into a single sensation rather than a thousand separate ones. The more we experience this blurring of sensation of individual fibers, the more we experience it as soft.
There are other factors that determine softness. The length of the fiber, how curly or crimpy it is, how sharp the cut ends are, how tightly it is spun, etc, will all have an impact on how much we can feel an individual hair out a bunch of hairs. But the size of the hairs is the biggest contributing factor.
This is why we like to feel a yarn before we decide whether we want to make something that’s going to go next to our skin. You’re probably aware that some parts of the human body have more, and more sensitive, nerve endings than others. Fingers rank really high in the number and sensitivity of nerve endings. But fingers can’t tell you how something is going to feel on the underside of your chin. This is why we encourage you to gently run a skein of yarn against your neck or under your chin if you’re planning on making a cowl out of it.
Also keep in mind, it’s not just a marketing ploy to get you to value baby alpaca more than merino. Baby hair on any animal is going to be finer than on an adult. And extra fine merino is not a subjective assessment. It’s smaller in microns and, therefore softer.