What needles to use for your sock-knitting needs is very personal. It depends on how tightly or loosely you knit and what materials feel good in your hands. Basically, though, you need to make 3 decisions: needle size, needle material, and needle configuration.
Needle Size: Many people just go with the recommendation on the ball band of the yarn they’ve chosen, which usually suggests a US size 2 (2.75mm) needle. With apologies to all the sock yarn manufacturers, that’s just too darn big. Socks need to be knitted tightly if they’re going to last. That means that if you use fingering weight yarn, you need to get a gauge of at least 7 stitches per inch (unless you like holes in the toes). 8 or 9 sts/in is even better! Unless you’re a SUPER TIGHT knitter, you won’t be able to get that small of a gauge with a size 2 (2.75mm) needle. I generally use a US size 0 (2mm) needle, sometimes a US size 1 (2.25mm) if the yarn is on the thick side. In order to find YOUR sock needle size, I’m afraid you’re going to have to swatch. I’ll have swatching instructions later in the series.
Needle Material: Wood? Steel? Bamboo? Plastic (oh please no)? Bronze? I’ve seen and used them all. This is mostly a personal preference issue. I, personally, hate plastic needles for socks. They’re not strong enough and they suck. All of the others are quite nice! I usually suggest that sock beginners start with wood or bamboo. Wood/bamboo needles aren’t as slick nor as heavy as metal needles, making them less likely to slip out of the stitches on their own and thus making sock-newbies less nervous. Once you gain confidence, do experiment with metal needles. They can be delightful! Metal needles are also better for both very tight knitters and very loose knitters. Tight knitters like them because they let the stitches slip better and very loose knitters need them, because the slippery metal forces them to tighten up. Moderately tight to moderately loose knitters can choose whatever needle they like!
Needle Configuration: There are four ways to make small diameter knitted tubes (like socks). I’ll address each one briefly, but they really each need their own post. Even though almost all sock knitters (including me!) have one definite preference, I really suggest that you try each of the three “good” ways. You don’t know which you’ll like until you try them all (like ice cream – you have to try all the flavors before you know your “favorite,” right?), so I hope you won’t let my own preference influence you too much! And I welcome comments about your favorite method!
- 9″-long circular needles. Don’t use them. Period. I know some people like them, but they have some problems. First, the “needle” section is far too short – usually only just over 1″ long, which is just plain awkward to work with. Second, most socks are less than 9″ in circumference, which means that they’ll have to be stretched HARD around the needle, which will make the knitter unconsciously knit them too loosely. They just suck and they’re not worth it.
- 2 medium-length circular needles. This works extremely well for working 2 socks at a time, since there’s usually plenty of room for both socks. It’s a little tricky to learn, but once you understand the process, it’s fairly straightforward. For some knitters, using 2-circs helps prevent loose stitches (ladders) where you change from one needle to the other, though, to be honest, for some knitters, they make the ladders worse. Basically, the idea is that you knit half the stitches with the two ends of one needle and the other half with the other needle. For looser knitters, this is often a fairly easy method, though tighter knitters may become frustrated with pushing the stitches up from the narrower cable section of the needle up to the bigger needle tip section. Others will find the “flying spaghetti monster” aspect of all the dangling needles annoying.
- 1 long circular needle – Magic Loop. I find Magic Loop easier to teach than 2-circs, but the two methods are very similar. Choosing between them is purely a matter of personal preference. With the Magic Loop, the entire sock is on one needle, but a loop of cable is pulled out between the two halves and that loop maintained throughout the sock knitting process, essentially making the one circular needle function as two. Magic Loop has all the other pluses and minuses of 2-circs, but has two advantages. One is cost. Buying one needle is cheaper than buying two, obviously! The other is that with Magic Loop it’s a little easier for beginners to see where they are. The other is that there is no dangling “spaghetti monster.”
- The Old Classic – Double-Pointed Needles (DPNs). These are classic for a reason. It’s the easiest method to teach, the easiest to learn, and favored by the majority of sock knitters (about 60%, in my experience). They come in different lengths, and I find the 6″ length best for socks (and mittens). Tighter knitters prefer them because they don’t have to push stitches over the “bump” between cable and needle tip as on circular needles. Show-offy knitters like them because they look much harder to use than they are. They’re simple and basic. They’re also my favorite, so I’m a bit biased, and that’s what I’ll be using in the upcoming posts!
So? Want to know my favorite needles for socks? Mostly I use wood or bamboo DPNs. My current sock-in-progress is on size 1 Knitpicks DPNs. I also frequently use KA bamboo DPNs and HiyaHiya steel DPNs (available in sizes down to 000000). I also use KA and HiyaHiya circs occasionally. (KA and HiyaHiya needles are available through Yarnivore.) My husband (yes, he knits, too, and makes all his own socks) has a drool-worthy set of hot-forged bronze DPNs from Celtic Swan Forge and I’m hoping for a sterling silver set from them one day.