9 Knitting Needle Materials:How To Pick A Favorite Part 1

Category: Yarn School

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…

#1 Metal

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.

#2 Wood

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.

#3 Bamboo

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.

#4 Plastic

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.


#5 Acrylic

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.

#6 Ivory

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!

#7 Bone

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.

#8 Glass

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.

#9 Carbon

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.


2 Kinds of Color Knitting: Stranded vs Intarsia

Category: Yarn School

You can add as much color to your knitting as you want.  Stripes are easy to figure out; you just stop one color and start another.  But what if you want to do something more complicated?  Well there are two basic categories of color work:stranded and intarsia.

Stranded color work is mostly what it sounds like.  You carry two (or sometime more, but let’s stick with two per round for this explanation) different strands of color along together and knit each stitch with one strand or the other in a pattern of your choosing.  When you are carrying two colors across the back of your work and only knit with one of them, the one you didn’t knit with leaves a strand hanging like a swag along the back of your work.  These little swags are called floats. There are methods of trapping the floats over long stretches, but, for the most part, stranded color work motifs tend to have small stretches for the floats to cross; not usually more than five or so stitches.

This method is the basis for several knitting traditions including Faire Isle (#1), Faeroe Island (#2) Scandinavian traditions from Norway (#3), Sweden (#4), and Iceland (#5) Baltic traditions from Latvia (#6) and Estonia (#7), Cowichan (#8) and Bohus (#9) to name a few.  Each of these traditions has distinct color patterning and specialized motifs that identify it as belonging to that tradition.  But the basic method is carrying strands across the back.

StrandedColorworkCarrying floats in front while working on the purl side of your fabric is challenging.  Stranded color work is best done in the round to keep the tension between the used and unused strands even and consistent.  This means that most of these color work traditions make common use of steeks (a technique of stabilizing your stitches, then cutting your knitting to make holes for neck, arms, etc.)

Intarsia color work uses only one color at a time and switches colors at the edges of shapes within a background field.  You begin a row with one color and, when you come to the place where the next color should be, you drop the old color and pick up the new color, making sure to twist them together where the sections join.  Each colored section of an intarsia pattern has its own ball or bobbin of yarn which is not carried across the back of the work.

This method is the basis of South American knitting traditions from Peru (#10) and Bolivia (#11), American Folk Art (#12),  Scottish Argyle (#13), and, very notably a whole passel of designers from the 1980’s  (#14) who had a penchant for bold contrasts and wild color combinations, and those sweaters we now call “ugly” and trot out for special Christmas (#15) parties.  (you know who you are *wink*)


Using separate balls or bobbins of yarn allows you to make larger, more pictorial motifs and gives sharper, more defined edges than stranded color work motifs which tend to blend more.  It also means that when you change colors, you leave the old color behind as you move along your row.  As a result, Intarsia is most often knit flat so that when you work back across your rows, you’ll come back to the colors you left behind right where you want them to finish the purl sides of each of your color sections.  Nifty, huh?

Neither technique is especially difficult.  Either way you work, you form the stitches the same way; pull a loop through a loop.  But the whole world of color opens up when you realize that you can choose with each stitch what color you want to make it.  Amazing!

3 Common Beginner Knitting Mistakes…And How To Avoid Them

Category: Yarn School

It won’t surprise you at all that we have customers come in every day asking for help with their knitting.  We love to oblige.  But there are a few common, one might even say universal rookie mistakes that it’s so easy to avoid, once you know what to look for.

#1 The Accidental Yarn Over:


When you knit a stitch, your yarn travels from the back of your work, around the back of the back needle, and naturally falls to the back.




When you purl a stitch, your yarn travels from the front of the stitch, around the front of the front needle and naturally falls to the front.


If your yarn starts in front of your work when you knit, an extra loop of yarn gets wrapped around your needle.  This extra loop is not anchored at the bottom to the row that came before.  It will increase your stitch count by one and leave a hole underneath it.  (NOTE: this extra loop is also called a yarn over and is the essential component of lace where you want the holes!)


The most common time for these yarn overs to appear is when you set your knitting down or put it in your project bag.  The working yarn can easily slip from one side of your work to the other and never cause a problem.  Then when you pick your work back up again, you don’t realize that the yarn is on the opposite side from where you want it and knit blithely on, only noticing rows and rows on that you have a hole and too many stitches.

To Fix It:  To avoid adding stitches and holes when you didn’t want them, just make sure that the yarn is in back when you are forming a knit stitch, or in the front when you are forming a purl stitch.

#2 The Accidental Short Row: If you stop knitting in the middle of a row, turn your work around and go back across the partial row you just knitted you have worked what we call a Short Row.  It makes the stitches you just worked two rows further on than the stitches you didn’t finish.




Like the yarn over, it will leave a small hole though the yarn over hole will be round-ish and the short row hole will be more like a vertical slit.  (NOTE: short rows are an essential component of sock heels and bust shaping where you want some parts of your knitting to be taller than others!)

The most common time for these short rows to appear is also when you set your work down in the middle of a row.  To avoid making these accidental short rows, always look at your work when you pick it up.  Find the working yarn and follow it toward your needles and find the stitch it is leading straight to.  This is the last stitch you worked.

To Fix It: Put the last stitch you worked, and the needle it is riding on, in your right hand and proceed to knit as you always do, confident that you are going the right way!


#3 The Backwards Stitch Mount: If you look closely at a knit stitch when it’s lying flat, you will see it has two legs.  When a stitch is on the needle, it is turned in profile and the right leg is closest to you and you knit into it from front to back.  But some times you can see or feel that there is something just…well, weird and funky about a stitch. It might feel too tight when you begin to knit it.  If you look closely at it, you can see that it is riding on your needle with its left leg closest to you.

StitchMount BackwardsStitchMount

Sometimes this happens when you are picking up stitches that have slipped off you needle.  Sometime it can happen if you wrap your yarn around your needle in a clockwise rather than counter-clockwise motion.  Either way, there is nothing to worry about.

To Fix It: Simply slip the stitch off the needle and put it back on so the right leg is closest to you.  Or, better yet, just knit it through the right leg even if the right leg is in the back.


These are the simplest ways to avoid rookie mistakes and really start to be the boss of your knitting!