Knitting needles have certainly evolved over the years. I remember a couple of pairs of circular knitting needles of my mother’s where the cords were actually a thin braided or twisted wires. They had an awful tendency to snag the yarn — even skin if I wasn’t careful.
Hooks seem to have allowed their creators a little more leeway. See, for example, some of the hooks shown on Nancy Nehring’s blog, Lace Buttons. In a word, wow! (Did you notice the one mounted on a porcupine quill?!)
Needles and hooks have been crafted from an array of materials, including bone, steel, wood, tortoiseshell, ivory and walrus tusks. (It is a safe bet that the more “exotic” the source, the less likely they were used by the “common folks!”)
The “right” needle or hook is the one you feel most comfortable with AND get the correct gauge with. Brand of needle can affect your gauge. Further, your choice of hook or needle material may vary with your project. For instance, I like Bryspun’s flexible double point needles for knitting socks, gloves and the like, but they only go down to a US 2. For anything smaller, I use carbon fiber needles. For all other knitting, my favorite go-to needle has long been Addi Turbos – though I have needles from an array of manufacturers. When crocheting, I prefer aluminum hooks. I have an old set of Susan Bates crochet hooks that I have used for years. Your preference may also change over time – as you acquire either new skills or injuries. 🙂
So, what have been and are needles and hooks made from and what difference does it make?
- Plastic: A synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, and the like. Plastic needles and hooks are light and more flexible than the wood or metal needles. Many people with hand and wrist issues (e.g., arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome), prefer these. See, e.g., Bryspun’s flexible needles .
- Casein: A main protein present in milk and (in coagulated form) in cheese; used in processed foods and in adhesives and paints. Like plastic needles, these are lighter and more flexible than their wood or metal counterparts. See, e.g., Australia’s Swallow casein needles.
- Wooden: Though undoubtedly knitters of yore past crafted needles and hooks from wood, they became repopularized within the last few decades. I remember when Brittany’s wooden (birch) needles and hooks (made in California), became available; LYSs had trouble keeping their shelves stocked with them. Knitters and crocheters love the warmth of the wood and the muted sounds of the clicking needles. Many crafters prefer these needles and hooks because the stitches do not slip so easily, yet that frustrates other knitters and crocheters. 🙂
- Aluminum: These needles are smooth and fast. Boye (est. 1906) was the first U.S. manufacturer of needles and hooks and has long made aluminum needles. Newer to the scene (est. 2007) is Signature (pic at right from its website) which makes needles from aircraft grade aluminum. Their needles have become very popular. They are also rather pricey – three and four times the cost of their Boye counterparts.
- Bamboo: Lighter and more flexible than their metal counterparts, bamboo needles and hooks acquire a nice patina from use over time. Clover Takumi’s bamboo needles are easily found in craft shops such as Michael’s and Jo Anne’s. I saw a set of “my” Susan Bates hooks, though they are no longer made in the U.S.
- Glass: I am not sure who decided to make glass needles and hooks, but I don’t find them comfortable. (I imagine they would make handy weapons, though thankfully I haven’t had occasion to use them as such.) My theory is non-knitters buy them as gifts for their crafting friends. At least that’s how I came to have some. (Pic source)
- Carbon fiber: Basically very thin strands of carbon (thinner than human hair); they can be twisted together, like yarn; they can be woven together, like cloth; to make it take on a permanent shape, can be laid over a mold, then coated with a stiff resin or plastic. Carbon fiber needles are strong as steel needles but more flexible. Blackthorn was the first manufacturer of these needles.
- Celluloid: A transparent flammable plastic made in sheets from camphor and nitrocellulose. It was developed in the mid 19th century but discontinued from for making needles and hooks before World War II. Look for them on eBay.
- Bakelite: A thermosettin phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from an elimination reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. Developed early 20th century, it was used to make plastic needles and hooks that you can now find on eBay.
I would encourage you to try as many needles and/or hooks as you have the opportunity to try. Changing to a new type of needle or hook may seem strange at first, but give them more than just a cursory try out. You may end up having a new favorite! As to which are the right ones for you … well, that’s a very individual and personal choice dependent on your both your skills and preferences.