Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What's Needling You?

When was the last time you took a serious look at your knitting needles?  We knitters tend to focus a lot on yarn and a little on the needles.  Just like a tool box, not every tool is appropriate for every project.  You've all seen the commercials where a clueless handyman uses a hammer for all jobs.  Sometimes we, as knitters, try to do the same thing.  Also like tools, we forget that our needles need to be maintained to keep them in top working condition.  In this post, I will examine the different uses and properties of knitting needles as well as organization and maintenance.

Needles come in a variety of materials.  Despite what some "well-meaning" knitters may tell you, there is no ONE preferred needle. - That is to say, one needle does not fit all.  Let's look at the different materials and their properties.
  • Bamboo - Bamboo needles are created from the Bamboo plant, which is a grass.  The stalks are hollow, requiring that bamboo be cut into thin slices and laminated for use in needles.  Bamboo is a nice, lightweight material with moderate grip.  It is a good choice for beginner knitters as the stitches have a lesser tendency to slip off of the needles.  Bamboo will take on a less grippy feel from the natural oils in your hands gliding over them over time.  Because the bamboo needles are laminated, every once in a while the knitter may notice an almost splinter-like protrusion near the tip of the needle.  Bamboo can be sanded lightly with an emery board or steel wool to prevent snagging.  Because Bamboo needles are from a plant source, the needles will swell and become misshapen if exposed to water.  Conversely, if not treated on occasion, the bamboo can dry out and cause more splintering, thus causing more yarn snags.  Many knitters report using wood treatment oils and even hand creams to condition their needles.  Just remember, anything you put on your needles could potentially soil your yarn.  Contacting the manufacturer is the best way to collect information on how to care for Bamboo needles.  However, many knitters simply condition their needles with items they use to condition wood on their spindles, spinning wheels, or around the house.  Other knitters suggest using wax paper or natural bees wax to condition the needles. Bamboo needles oftentimes have blunt tips, making them terrific for loosely plied yarns, as you won't poke through the plies, and for non-lace projects.  Bamboo is a little trickier in projects requiring a lot of lace detail or complicated decreases.  Bamboo should be stored in a dry place where it is unlikely to be exposed to sun, moisture, or other materials that may nick or splinter the wood.  
  • Aluminum - Aluminum needles are also a terrific lightweight choice. Unlike Bamboo, Aluminum needles are less grippy.  They have a mild grip and can be purchased coated or highly polished.  Aluminum needles are an inexpensive choice for those who prefer a metal needle over a wood needle.    Aluminum needles can be a tad tricky for beginners, but offer a smooth surface without the possibility of splintering.  Proponents of aluminum will point out that their lightweight feel, inexpensive price point, and smooth surface, coupled with the ability to find them in nearly every craft store, makes them the perfect all-around needle.  Opponents will point out that aluminum needles can bend easily, typically have blunt tips, aren't as warm-feeling in the hand as a wood needle, and make it easier for stitches to drop off the needles.  However, since aluminum is a good conductor of heat, as you are working with the needles, they will warm to your touch.  Many manufacturers of aluminum needles are also producing a pointier, lace tip option for those who prefer precision knitting instruments. Aluminum needles can be highly reflective, which some knitters point out can cause eye fatigue, especially in conjunction with a knitting lamp.  Because aluminum has a coating of Aluminium Oxide on top, it is very resistant to corrosion.  However, storing these needles with other metals can ultimately reduce their ability to resist corrosion.  Aluminum should be stored in a dry place, where they are unlikely to be bent.  They should not be stored with other metals or metal needles that are not aluminum to prevent corrosion.
  • Plastic/Plastic Derivatives - Plastic needles are a favorite of many new knitters.  Another lightweight and inexpensive material, plastic or plastic derivative needles are easily found at most large craft retailers.  Plastic needles have a mild-moderate grip and allow yarn to move over the needle with a small amount of drag, which is preferential for beginner knitters.  Proponents of plastic needles point out that they are warmer to the touch than aluminum, affordable, and not easily bendable.  Opponents will note that plastic needles have a blunt tip that is not conducive to delicate or intricate lace work.  Plastic needles can also warp in areas exposed to high heat or very cold temperatures.  Many knitters are concerned with the eco-friendliness of plastic needles due to the process used to make plastics.  Unlike sustainable bamboo plants and the natural abundance of aluminum, plastics are completely man-made.  Some manufacturers of plastic needles have turned to recycling as a means of producing a more eco-friendly plastic needle.  Plastics are easily cared for and require no special conditioning.  Some plastic needles can be stained by highly saturated dyes in yarns, but can be easily cleaned and stored.
  • Nickel-Plated - Nickel plated needles are the choice of many knitters who prefer a very slick surface.  Nickel-plated needles have a very smooth, non-gripping surface which allows the yarn to easily glide over the needles without drag or snag.  Typically not a good choice for a beginner knitter, as stitches can easily be dropped off of the needles, nickel-plated needles are terrific for seasoned knitters.  Because of the low drag, it takes less energy to knit and theoretically, less strain on the hands and wrists. Due to the high reflective material, some knitters note that nickel-plated needles cause eye strain, especially when used with a lamp. Nickel-Plating is typically used over steel or brass in knitting needles.  Plating is often used with malleable metals to create a smooth, hard, and corrosion-resistant surface.  There are two types of nickel-plating: electroplating and electroless plating.  Electroplating causes a smoother surface, but a more malleable needle with less corrosion resistance.  Electroless plating causes a non-magnetic needle with better corrosion resistance. Nickel-Plated needles should be wiped gently with a very soft cotton cloth or old t-shirt to remove oils after use.  They should not be stored in leather or plastic, which can cause tarnish and/or cause blueing due to oils and moisture.  It is recommended that nickel-plated needles be stored in fabric needle holders to prevent them for being scratched, which may cause the nickel-plating to flake, thus opening the needle to corrosion and to working improperly.
  • Hard Wood Needles - Rosewood and birch knitting needles (as well as many exotic woods) have become popular choices amongst proponents of wood needles.  As these needles are from a sustainable resource, they are eco-friendly and a popular choice for hand crafted, ornamental needles.  Many knitters with arthritis talk about the benefit of these needles due to their low-heat conductive properties - thus not draining the hands of heat and therefore (theoretically) not promoting stiffness and pain in arthritic hands.  Wood needles can be polished to an exceptionally smooth finish, but still retain more drag than a metal needle.  They often have blunt tips due to the simple fact that a pointier tip can be break easily.  Some manufacturers have remedied this by placing metal tips on the wood needles to provide a warm needle with the ability to knit lace.  Depending on the finish of the wood, the needles have a range of maintenance. Again, many knitters who use wood needles suggest conditioning your needles 1-2 times a year with wax paper, bees wax, or natural wax paste.  Wood needles should not be exposed to high heat or humidity, as the wood can either dry out or swell.  They should not be stored in a highly sunny place to prevent drying of the wood.  Wood needles should be stored in a dry place where they are unlikely to be exposed to moisture or nicking.
  • Stainless Steel - Like it's Aluminum and Nickel-Plated counterparts, Stainless Steel needles are smooth with a slick finish.  Lightweight and typically inexpensive, stainless steel needles can be an affordable option for those wanting a metal needle.  Like Nickel-Plated and Aluminum needles, Stainless Steel needles come in a variety of tip points to work projects from lace to garments.  Stainless Steel does not corrode, rust, or stain with water like ordinary steel.  Stainless Steel contains a passive amount of Chromium Oxide which prevents surface corrosion and blocks corrosion from spreading to the metal's internal structure. Stainless Steel comes in many grades and finishes.  As far as knitting needles are concerned, they are made in a common grade for manufactured items.  This means they are corrosion resistant, but not corrosion proof.  Stainless Steel needles are reflective and are noted to cause some level of eye fatigue by some knitters, especially when in use with a knitting lamp.  Stainless steel can be washed gently with soapy water, but should not be scrubbed.  No harsh chemicals or abrasive cleaners should be used to clean them.  They should be dried completely with a very soft cotton cloth.  Stainless Steel needles should be stored like nickel-plated needles: to prevent nicking or scratching of the material.  Storing them in a dry place, in a fabric needle holder is best.
Don't forget to take care of those circular needles.  The cables of those needles are easily prone to crimping, and becoming unjoined from the needle.  Some knitters have suggested using Armor All on the cables.  Just remember, whatever you put on your cables could soil your yarn!  Keep those circs away from sunlight as the cables could easily become rigid and brittle.  Also, store them as not to put added pressure on the cable join with the needle.  Many of us want to loop them up and store them, but many knitters suggest using fabric circular needle cases that hang as the best alternative.  Just make sure the the bulk of the circular cable is being hung, not just one small point on the circ.  This will help to reduce bending at the join and unnecessary strain.  Nothing is worse than having the cable come apart from the needle during an intricate lace pattern.  And remember - if conditioning the cable contraindicates the maintenance of the needle material, you must take care to hang your needles in a case that will keep the needle itself from touching the cable.

Hopefully now you know a little more about knitting needles, their properties, and how to store them.  So those of you who have a bunch of needles stored in a big box (you know who you are), it's time to get those needles out, sort them, maintain them, and store them properly.  Without good tools and the care of those tools, knitting can be a frustrating endeavor.  If you take care of your needles, you'll have them for many years and projects to come!



  1. I love bamboo needles. Not really a fan of the metal needles.

    1. Do you have a particular brand you prefer?

  2. I've just discovered Brittany birch needles. They are GREAT!

  3. Fabulous!

    I think the best thing you said is that there *isn't* one needle out there... it's personal preference! Of course, there may be some brands with a reputation of being more durable or whatnot... but what you choose comes down to personal preference and your knitting style.

  4. Now I feel all bad for mistreating my circulars...
    Maybe that's why my new acrylic needles chose to just snap on me yesterday while I was knitting a loose stockinette section?
    *walks off to check big box of needles*

  5. this was a nice read and very helpful. thanks for writing this up !
    i have had this pair of old wooden[possibly bamboo?] needles that came with a knitting book kit for almost a decade now and recently saw that it splinters very slightly at the ends, a close friend suggested i give them a brisk rub with a dryer sheet and surprisingly, it seems to help!

    personally i love the feel of bamboo needles. the best thing about them for me, next to a good grip on the project on it, is how much quieter they are to work with in a quiet classroom than the metal needles i have. god forbid i drop an aluminum needle on the hard floor of a meeting room !

  6. Great post--lots of good information! Personally I'm a big nickle-plated fan at the moment. But it wasn't always that way--I used to prefer bamboo, which I now find too "sticky." And I think interchangeable needle sets are a great invention.


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