The Different Types & Sizes of Knitting Needles
You don’t actually need to buy many items to get started with knitting, so it’s a very accessible craft. The essentials are simply yarn and needles. This page will go through the different types of needles you can buy, as well as the sizes they are available in.
If you are feeling overwhelmed about where to even begin with needles, buy a basic pair of straight needles first and go from there!
Photo of straight needles by Peacock Modern.
1) Straight Needles: Most people start learning with straight needles because they are all you need in order to learn how to cast on, knit, purl, cast off and do most other basic techniques, plus they are the simplest to use of all the needle types.
Straight needles are a pair of needles with a point at one end and a stopper at the other. Before I started teaching myself to knit, I thought that straight needles were the only type of needle in existence because they were all I’d ever seen people using.
The limitation with straight needles is that you can only knit flat panels with them, and can’t do ‘circular knitting’ on them. If you want to make hats, socks and anything that isn’t a flat panel of knitting and is instead tubular in shape, you will want to move on from straight needles.
Straight needles are available in many different diameters (see table below), but they are also available in different lengths, usually between 10” (25cm) and 14” (35cm) long – however you can buy shorter or longer needles too if you require them.
2) Circular Needles: Circular needles consist of two single pointed needles joined together by a flexible cable. They can be used for both flat knitting (by using them the same way as you would straight needles), as well as for circular knitting. Circular knitting is where you knit ‘in the round’ (see my page on circular knitting for more information) and allows you to knit seamless tube shapes. This is the method used when making 3D shapes like toys and hats.
You can start learning to knit on circular needles instead of straight needles if you prefer; however you may find the cable getting in the way if you are not making use of it. I would suggest starting with straight needles and then moving on to circulars, but it depends on what you would feel most comfortable with.
Circular needles are a better choice for flat knitting projects if the item being knitted is large - such as a blanket - compared to using straight needles. This is because the cable attached to circular needles is able to carry many of the stitches, and this allows much of the weight of the knitting to be rested on a table or on your lap rather than all having to be carried on the needles alone. It’s just more comfortable and less awkward with circulars when knitting a large item.
The needles are available in a range of diameters – the same as straight needles – but you also have to choose the cable length. Cables range from 12” (30cm) to 60” (152cm) long, although the most popular lengths are 24” (60cm) and 32” (80cm). The more stitches you’ll use in your project, the longer the cable you’ll need.
I personally have bought a set of ‘interchangeable’ circular needles, where a few different cable lengths and a wide range of popular knitting needle sizes are included and they can all be attached together in different combinations. This ‘mix-and-match’ set is quite an expensive option, but it does give you a lot of different size options. As a beginner I would recommend that you only buy circular needles as you need them to start with, rather than splashing out on a set.
Any knitting pattern should recommend the needle size and cable length you need to use for it, which is very helpful, especially for beginners.
Photo of circular needles by msmmumbles.
3) Double Pointed Needles (DPNs): These are relatively short needles that have a point at each end. They can be bought in packs of 4 or 5, although I would recommend always buying packs of 5 since then you can choose to use either 4 or 5 at a time. I made the mistake of buying several packs of 4 needles and then needing to use 5 for a project. That was annoying!
I have never seen anyone flat knitting with DPNs, although I suppose it is possible for small projects. However, you will likely only ever use them for circular knitting.
The reason for using DPNs specifically is that they can be used to produce small knitted diameters i.e. narrow tubular shapes. You will often see DPNs used for detail or relatively small-scale work, such as: adding small details to stuffed animals, adding fingers to gloves, knitting the tops of hats, or knitting socks.
If you end up not enjoying using double-pointed needles, it is possible to use circular needles to knit small diameters too. This does however involve learning a different technique; either the ‘magic loop’ technique, or a method that uses 2 pairs of circular needles together at the same time. As a beginner you don’t need to worry about this yet though, as these are optional extra things you can learn if you want to.
DPNs range from 5” (13cm) to 10” (25cm) in length, with the most popular sizes being 6” (15cm) and 8” (20cm).
Photo of DPNs by Tricia.
A Needle Size Conversion Chart:
This chart shows the range of U.S. and U.K. needle sizes available to buy, as well as what these size labels mean in terms of needle diameter, and what yarn weight is best suited for use with each of the sizes. I hope it helps you :)
Quality is quite an important factor when buying needles, especially when choosing wood/bamboo needles (because you ideally want a smooth surface) or when choosing circular needles (because you want a thin cable which joins very smoothly to the needles).
It can seem like an overwhelming choice when you are starting out, but just remember there are only 3 types of needle, and each is available in different sizes depending on the weight of yarn you are using and (therefore) how chunky or fine you want your knitting to be. You’ll get the hang of it, don’t worry!