Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to Buy Interchangeable Knitting Needles

It has been over a year since I wrote a blog post about my fancy shiny new set of Addi Lace Click interchangeable knitting needles. In that time I've done a ton of knitting and a fair amount of research on interchangeable sets so I decided it was time to put my thoughts down in one place for folks looking to purchase interchangeable needle sets. This article is not going to tell you what to buy but it will tell you what to think about before you purchase. Interchangeable crochet hook sets are also available but I crochet about as well as I water ski.

Keep in mind that you can also create your own needle sets by buying the cables and tips individually. The information below can be useful to help you decide whether a full set is right for you.

An interchangeable needle set consists of  multiple size needle tips that you can connect to separate cables to create circular needles. Most sets come with a variety of cable lengths. Other accessories available for purchase or included in some sets are cable connectors (to join more than one cable together to make a longer cable), stops (if you want to take the tips off a work in progress and leave them on the cable, you can screw a stop onto the end of the cable, keeping the live stitches from falling off), storage cases and cables or tips of additional sizes. For the purposes of this article, "Needle tip" refers to the part of the interchangeable set that you join onto a cable and "needle point" refers to the tapered end to the needle tip that is inserted into live stitch. "Join" refers to the mechanism that connects the tip to the cable.

Interchangeable sets, while cool, are not the right choice for everyone. Some reasons you might make the investment are...

  • You are tired of digging through piles of circular needles for the right size/length and then not having what you need
  • You want to shrink the physical space your needle collection uses (after all, then you have room for more yarn
  • You know what you like in circular needles and want a lot of it
  • You frequently under/over-estimate the cable length you need for a project and find yourself having to switch needles while knitting. And it irks you.
New knitters may be tempted by the simplicity of buying a needle set rather than individual fixed circs. Let's face it - needle sets are way cool. I won't tell anyone not to buy a needle set but reading through this article will help you make that decision.

Folks new to knitting will find that there are as many types of knitting needles as there are knitter. Needles can be found in a variety of materials. Some of the most common are metal, plastic/acrylic, bamboo and wood. No needle material is better than the other, honestly. In a pinch, any needle will do but most knitters have preferences that they develop over time. Many knitters (especially beginners) like a smooth but not slick surface, or even surfaces with a little bit of drag to reduce needles-slipping-out-hysterical-panic situations. Other knitters like their needles as slick as possible to increase their speed. Aside from surface and finish, different materials just FEEL different in your hands. Some knitters love the way wood warms to their touch and gives ever so slightly while some like the cool, light-weight firmness of metal. This is something you need to experiment with before investing in a needle set. Higher end companies like Lantern Moon and others also produce beautiful rosewood and ebony interchangeable sets.

Now that you've thought about your materials you've narrowed down your selection a bit. If you are interested in more than one material even after testing fixed circular needles but definitely want a set, you have two ways to go. You can create your own set by buying individual tips or you can choose your favorite material from a manufacturer that offers sets made of multiple materials. For example, you could buy the complete metal set you love from a manufacturer that also makes the bamboo you adore. In time you can add the bamboo tips to your collection and use them with the cables from your metal set. Knitpicks, Skacel and Knitter's Pride all offer multiple needle materials - I'm sure there are others as well! If you are going to try this route, test out fixed circs in both materials before buying a complete set.

Now let's get into the real particulars. These don't matter to every knitter but if you find yourself special-ordering your needles online because you can't stand X or Y about the needles available in your local stores, then you should consider what you like and dislike about the needles you use.

Tip Length
A first deciding feature among interchangeable needle sets is length of the needle tip. This relates directly to the comfort of knitting as well as to the complete needle length you are able to make with the cable. Most interchangeable needle tips range from 4.5" to 5" in order to be comfortable in the hand to most knitters. The downside of this length tip is that the shortest complete needle length yo can make is (usually) 24".

The knitters who have an issue with this are people who do the majority of their knitting on 16" or 20" needles. If this is your game, consider Addi Click Lace needles by Skacel. With 3.25" tips, they are specifically designed for smaller circumference knitting and come with cables that will join to make 16" and 20" complete needles. For folks unused to the short tip length of shorter cable needles, consider that many folks complain of hand pain from this tip of needle.

As I mentioned above "join" refers to the mechanism that connects the tip to the cable. This usually a screw on or locking mechanism. Some screw-on mechanisms come with a tightening tool - use it Every Dang Time. I'm not kidding. Even if you tighten them as tight as you can by hand, your cable can come unscrewed. Want to know the fun part? If your cable comes unscrewed while you are watching TV or otherwise distracted, you might not notice and keep knitting ... dropping your whole row. Keep in mind that this won't happen if you use the tool like you are supposed to. Don't let that scare you off ... one of my favorite sets of needles have a join like this. On the other hand, if you know that will irk you, seriously consider not buying a set that uses a tightening tool as part of the join.

Locking mechanism joins don't require a tightening tool. They remind me a bit of the locking join that connects the detachable mixing blade on a Kitchen Aide stand mixer. As long as you attach them properly, they stay tight. So why would anyone buy a set that comes with a tightening tool? The locking mechanism join is only found on certain needle sets. If those needles don't have the other features you want, you need to consider what your top priorities are.

Sharpness and Taper of Needle Point 

This is a fabulous comparison shot of needle tapers and sharpness as an example of how tips can vary(photo credit: Jillian Mellen). For some knitters, a needle is a needle. Nuff said. For others however, the right tip really matters. For those needle geeks out there who focus on the minutiae (waving my hand over here), this is an important part of choosing a set. I don't have comparison shots of all the tips out there but take a look at the variation within just these two brands...

These are all size 5/3.75mm needles. From the top:
Skacel Addi Lace (fixed circ shown - Addi lace interchangeable needles are made with the same point shown above but with a different finish than pictured)
Skacel Addi Turbo
Dyakcraft Darn Pretty Metal (Mountain Mist)
Dyakcraft Darn Pretty wood regular
Dyakcraft Darn Pretty Lace
The Long and Short of It
Before buying an interchangeable needle set, I highly recommend buying a fixed set of needles in the material/tip style/tip length you are considering and knitting a WHOLE project on them. Knitting a test swatch in the store is simply not going to give you the data you need to make an educated investment when choosing between sets. While you can easily resell an interchangeable needle set, keep in mind that many other people might dislike the same features you do ... leading you to take a loss in reselling (ask me how I know). While this won't give you information on how you like the join of a particular set, it will help you decide on other features. There is no perfect set, no best set out there ... but with some research you can hopefully find the best set for you.

**I am in no way connected or receive reimbursement/product/kickbacks/magic powers from any of the companies mentioned here. All products mentioned were purchased by me or by the fabulous chiquita who shared her pic, generally using standard shipping which I immediately regretted as it takes too flipping long.**