Knitting on a budget: Buying fewer needles

Knitting can feel like a ridiculously expensive hobby. I began knitting seriously when I was a uni student with limited disposable income, so I quickly learned that there are ways you can make knitting friendlier to your wallet. In this blog post series on knitting on a budget, I’m going to share what I learned in those early uni days and some extra tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Aside from yarn, needles are the one thing you definitely need when you’re knitting. The problem is that unless you always stick to one weight of yarn, you invariably end up needing needles of different sizes. If you decide to start knitting in the round there become even more things to buy - even though you may already have a set of straight needles in the correct size you then need a set of double pointed needles (DPNs) or circulars.

Because buying new needles is somewhat inevitable, taking advantage of sales and discounts is a good idea. If you haven’t already, check out the first post in this series on saving money when buying yarn - it covers how to find discounts and sales, and a lot of the bigger online yarn stores that I mention sell needles too. However, there are also a few ways you can cut down on the number of needles you need to buy in the first place.

First off, whenever you need to buy a set of needles in a new size, always buy circular needles and always buy a set that is 80cm/32" or longer. If you’ve never worked with circular needles before, they’re a type of knitting needle that have two tips that look like short knitting needles, and are joined together by a flexible (usually plastic) cable. When talking about circular needles, the “size” is the size of the tips (which is the same as the sizing for straight needles), and the “length” is how long the needles and cable are from tip to tip.

Knitting a flat scarf on circular needles.

Knitting a flat scarf on circular needles.

If you buy circulars in a long length, you can use them to make any project that needs that size of needle.

  • You can use them to knit flat patterns that use regular straight needles. Just treat the tips like two separate needles and pretend the cable isn't there. You'll never need to buy a set of straight needles again.

  • Using long circular needles, you can knit patterns that are flat but have a large number of stitches on them, like a blanket. If you tried to do this on straight needles, they'd bunch up so much that they'd start falling off the end of your needle. When you have a long circular needle, the excess stitches just flow onto the cable.

  • There is a limit on how short circular needles get - the minimum from most manufacturers is the 23cm/9” length. Because of this, when you use short circulars to knit projects that involve really small circumferences (like the toes of socks or the crown on beanies) you have to switch needles. You need either a set of DPNs or a circular needle with a really long length so that you can use a technique called the magic loop. If you buy a circular with a long cable in the first place you can just magic loop for the whole project.

I should note that circular needles are quite polarising. I personally love them. I like that you can use them for so many different things, and I like how streamlined they are compared to DPNs. However, some people loathe them for various reasons - the cable can get in the way of your yarn, the stitches can get a bit stuck when they move from the cable to the needle tips, and the magic loop technique in particular can be daunting when you start using it. But if your main aim is to cut down the number of needles you need to buy, going for long circulars will allow you to make the biggest range of projects with one pair of needles.

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The other thing you can do to save on needles is to invest in an interchangeable circular needle set. Sometimes knitting on shorter circulars really is more convenient, and sets come with a variety of tips of various sizes and cables in a few different lengths. The tips and cables either screw or snap together, and whenever you need a circular needle, you just put together the tips in the size you need and the cable in the length you need. This is a bit of an investment upfront, but if you're planning on knitting with a lot of different sizes and lengths it pays off very quickly. I’ve since upgraded but my first set was the Knit Pro interchangeable nickel set (sold as KnitPicks interchangeables in the States) and I loved it. They also have sets with wooden tips if that’s your preference. If you need a needle size or cable length that doesn’t come in the initial set, you can buy individual tips or cables to add to your collection.