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Straight Knitting Needles
Most knitters start out knitting with straight knitting needles, also known as single points. These firm, straight needles have a point on one end and some kind of knob on the other to keep the stitches from slipping off that end of the needle.
These are usually the first choice of new knitters because they're available everywhere, they're inexpensive (at least in the most basic forms) and they look a little less intimidating than circular needles.
Straight needles -- and any other... needles, for that matter -- can be made out of many different materials, including aluminum and other metals, wood, bamboo, plastic, glass, and bone. Plastic needles are inexpensive and great for kids. Aluminum needles are also cheap, but they can be cold and make that irritating clanking sound when you work with them.
My preference -- which is completely personal, just as your choices will be -- is to use wooden or bamboo needles. They warm up in your hands, have a little flexibility and are quieter, and they just feel like a more natural product.
Straight needles can be purchased in a couple of different lengths, usually 9 or 10 inches and 12 or 14 inches, depending on the manufacturer.
Straight needles are great for small projects like sweaters worked in pieces, dishcloths, afghan blocks and hats and mitts worked flat. Some knitters don't like the inflexibility of straight needles or the awkwardness of holding a large knitting project on one needle. They can be uncomfortable to work with because you are holding the weight of the project more than the needle is.Continue to 2 of 4 below.
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Circular Knitting Needles
Many knitters love using circular knitting needles for a variety of different projects, even those that are worked flat. Circular needles have firm, pointed ends that are joined with a flexible cable.
Again, the needles come in a lot of different materials, and the cable length can vary widely, from tiny 9-inch circles for sock knitting to super-long 47-inchers for afghan knitting or working the magic loop method. Usually, you'll find them sold in lengths of 16, 24, 32, 40 and 47 inches.
Within... the genre of circular needles, there are fixed circulars and interchangeable needles, which usually come in sets with a variety of needle ends and several cables that can be attached to each other to make needles of different sizes with cables of different lengths.
If you like working with circulars it will probably be worth it to you to buy a set (or two!) of interchangeables so you have a variety of needles on hand at one time.
Circular needles tend to be a little more comfortable to knit with because the cable holds the weight of your knitting, putting less strain on your body. The fact that the cable holds all the stitches makes it less likely your stitches will fall off the needle while you aren't working, and the more compact movements you can make when working with them make them ideal for travel knitting.
It can be difficult to use them for some projects such as small-diameter knitting unless you use the magic loop or knit with two circulars at a time.Continue to 3 of 4 below.
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Double-Pointed Knitting Needles
Double-pointed needles commonly referred to as DPNs by acronym-loving knitters, are the ideal choice for knitting socks and other small circular pieces of knitting.
As the name suggests these needles have points on both ends. They are short and straight and made of the same materials you might find single-point needles made of.
As with other needles, you can find DPNs in a variety of sizes -- common options are 5, 6 or 8 inches. Some people like really short needles for some uses, such as shaping... the top of a hat, while others like the longer needles. It depends on the project and your preference what length of needles you will want.
Knitting with double-pointed needles takes a little practice, and some knitters never get over the feeling that they're knitting with a porcupine. But these needles are a good choice for small projects if you don't want to work with two circulars or do the magic loop method.
These needles are small, lightweight and somewhat portable, though there's always the fear of stitches dropping off one of the many needle ends.Continue to 4 of 4 below.
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The final kind of knitting needle you might come across is a cable needle, which is a tool that is used to hold stitches either to the front or the back of the work when forming cables.
These short needles can be straight or hooked like the one pictured, and are usually metal, plastic or wooden. They're inexpensive but they are a somewhat specialized tool, so if you don't do a lot of cable knitting (or can never find your cable needle when you need it) just use a DPN the same size or... slightly smaller.
You can also work small cables without a cable needle at all if you like adding a little adventure to your knitting.