Handmade: Gauging the difference between knitting needles

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

I noticed the difference the moment I placed them side by side. One was clearly larger than the other, but how could that be? I used the same yarn, pattern and needle size to knit both hats.

I was baffled until I thought of the one thing that could have made the difference -- the material of the needles I'd used. Both were size 7 , 16-inch circulars, but one pair was metal and the other wooden. That must be it, I thought!

To confirm my theory, I didn't hesitate to knit two more hats, using the same yarn (Red Heart With Love), pattern and needles. Once again, the hat made with the metal needles was noticeably larger than the one made with the wooden needles. Just the band, itself, measured about a half inch wider across, than that of the other hat. Therefore, when it's being worn, that actually translates into a considerably larger hat by an inch! Size-wise, I'd say we're talking about a L and XL -- big difference!

Hand-knitted 'hats for the homeless' by Jocelynn Brown.

As knitters, we know how important it is to check gauge, particularly when creating a garment or most accessories. It can sometimes be necessary to use a different size needle other than the one suggested in the pattern to achieve the recommended gauge. Depending on the tension of one's stitches, knitters are known to sometimes size their needles either up or down for gauge.

After months of knitting hat after hat, it wasn't until I happened to knit two of the exact same hats consecutively -- but with needles made of different materials -- that I became aware of what a difference the material can make in the size of the finished project!

I find metal needles create a slightly looser stitch than those created using wooden needles. Wooden needles allow for a much better grip, and do a better job of holding the working yarn in place when wrapped around the needle to complete a stitch, therefore, producing a somewhat tighter stitch. However, I do like that I'm able to knit much faster with metal needles because the stitches slide more easily. I also like the clicking sound they make, reminding me that I'm being productive.

As a creative way to unwind, I often knit beanies, and sometimes scarves, for the homeless. I spent the first three months of the year cranking out hats. I was on a role, but then as the weather got warmer, I put them away until now when they're greatly needed because of the cold temperatures. Since putting the finishing touches on each, I hope to deliver them by next week. 

This photo shows that the top hat, hand-knitted using metal knitting needles, is a quarter inch wider than the bottom hat, which was hand-knitted using wooden knitting needles and the same yarn. Because the metal needles are slippery, the weave is not as tight as that achieved using the wooden needles.

I knit the hats using a very basic pattern and several different yarns in wool, wool blends and acrylic. I adjusted the number of cast on stitches to the weight of the yarn for making an adult size hat. So far, the yarns I've worked with are Plymouth Encore, Premier Yarns Puzzle and Everyday, Vanna's Choice, Red Heart With Love, and Lion Brand's Wool-Ease and Scarfie. 

I always seem to like switching back and forth between metal and wooden needles, and because I was using several yarns, I thought the different hat sizes were solely due to the weight of the yarns, which varied from worsted to bulky. Well, needless to say, I was wrong.

Think how helpful it would be if patterns stressed not only the importance of checking gauge, but instructed the knitter on which needles to use -- wood or metal -- based on which were used when the pattern was tested. Imagine the time and frustration we could save! 

This photo shows all the materials and tools needed to hand-knit hats for the homeless.

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or