Knitting Needles- Plastic, Metal or Wood?
Knitting needles are the most basic tool you need for knitting. Today I will be discussing the different materials from which knitting needles can be made and the pros and cons of each. To start, let's look at plastic knitting needles.
Plastic is a synthetic material derived from (at least in part) petroleum products which is malleable when hot. I'm not sure when plastic knitting needles came onto the scene but I do remember seeing them when I was young. When I first started dabbling in knitting I bought a pair of gray plastic knitting needles which I retired when one bent.
The main selling point for plastic knitting needles is that they are cheap. If you are just starting out, or perhaps teaching a child to knit, then you may not want to invest in an expensive pair of needles. However, their price tag seems to be their only benefit.
Knitting with plastic needles can be rather annoying. Depending on the yarn and type of plastic the yarn may kind of stick to the needles and not move as freely as needed for consistent knitting. And as I mentioned above some can bend. Most people just don't like the feeling of knitting with plastic needles but that is a personal preference.
From an environmental standpoint, plastic knitting needles are not good because they are generally not environmentally friendly. They are derived from oil and do not biodegrade. It is also questionable whether or not they can be recycled. So from an ecofriendly standpoint I don't recommend buying plastic knitting needles.
Some say that knitting needles were first made from metal while others argue they were probably bone, ivory or wood. Either way, metal needles have been around for a long time and are still reasonably popular today.
Metal knitting needles are stronger than plastic ones and more durable. Many of my traditional or 'pin' needles are metal which I got second hand from my mother. She pretty much only knits in the round now so she gave me most of her regular needles. For the most part they work fine but there is one main drawback.
Metal needles are slippery. Even if you have a grippy wool yarn your heavy and slick metal needles can be prone to allowing stitches to slip off. Or the needle can slip out of the stitches as well. I find this particularly frustrating with double pointed metal needles when I am working with thin or delicate yarn. Also, I am not a huge fan of metal needles because they are cold and heavy. If you like working with thicker yarn (and therefore need thicker needles) the metal ones can get pretty heavy.
However, if you are knitting very tightly then metal needles can be advantageous due to their strength. If you knit too tightly with a size 1 or 2 wood needle you could possibly break it so under such circumstances metal needles might be preferable. Many people 'double up' with needles in certain sizes they use often. For example, size 6 is a popular needles gauge so I have a pair of double pointed bamboo needles in a size 6 as well as a set in metal that I can choose from depending on the type of material that I am working with.
From an ecological standpoint I have not heard much about metal needles. I doubt their manufacturing process is particularly ecofriendly but they can last more than a lifetime so on theory you could pass them onto your grandchildren. Some may be recyclable but I wouldn't count on it so from an environmental standpoint I would put metal needles somewhere between plastic and wood.
Wood or Bamboo
Bamboo is technically a fast growing grass but when shaped into knitting needles it acts very much like wood and is currently one of the most popular materials for the manufacture of knitting needles. Many people prefer wood or bamboo because of the feel of the material, warmth of the wood and the lighter weight. I also like wood or bamboo because it is grippy and creates just enough friction to hold onto even delicate yarns. I like bamboo needles best for double pointed needles because I've never had them slide out of my work like the metal ones sometimes do.
The drawbacks to wood and bamboo is that when you get down to the very small gauges the needles become more flexible and could break. Sizes 0 to 2 are basically toothpicks so you have to be gentle with them but the thicker you get the stronger they become. There is a point, however, when it because difficult to find wood needles in larger sizes. When I went looking for size 12 needles I could only find them in plastic.
As for being environmentally friendly, Bamboo takes they cake. As I mentioned earlier it is a fast growing grass and a great renewable resources. There are also some great companies out there making wood needles out of trees that have been killed by disease or lightning strikes and those are good choices for sustainability as well.
To review, each material has its own pros and cons. Plastic can be too grippy and is not ecofriendly but is inexpensive, durable and sometimes the only option for larger gauges.
Metal is very durable and great for knitting very tightly but is slippery and the needles can fall out of stitched that are not super tight. As for sustainability, I have not heard of any being manufactured in an eco friendly manner but they may be recyclable.
Finally wood and/or bamboo is a popular choice for many knitters because of the way they feel in the hand, they are just grippy enough and are the most ecofriendly, however, very small gauges may be prone to bending and breaking.
Really it comes down to what feels best for you. I recommend you go to an actual store to buy your first set of needles, play around with the different options and ask the staff (or other customers) what they prefer. Actually holding the different types in your hand will give you a good idea of which you will prefer. But if the internet is your only option then consider the pros and cons listed above. In a later post I will go over the different styles of needles (pin, double pointed, circular) and illustrate when to use each style. Until then...