To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, English-speaking knitters have everything in common, except knitting needles. Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. each have their own system for labelling knitting needles. When publication costs limited distribution of patterns to specific areas, this was not a problem. But today knitting patterns are available everywhere, so knitters need to know how to interpret and convert this information.
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In the U.S. knitting needles are labelled, 0 through 15, with zero being the smallest. In Canada and Europe, needles are labelled by their diameter in millimetres. The U.K. system uses whole numbers between 0 and 15, with 15 being the smallest.
There is only speculation on how the current labelling system evolved. The U.K. system seems to be based on standard wire gauge, where the bigger the number, the finer the gauge. In the U.S., there is no standard for knitting needles, but the sizes of first needles manufactured here matched the available die cutting tools, according to Brittany Needles.
Most knitting needles currently sold in the U.S. are identified with the U.S. designations and the metric equivalent on the packaging. In addition, many needles are stamped with the same designations. However some small diameter needles are not marked individually. For needles that are not marked, you can use a knitting needle gauge. To use the tool, slip the needle into one of the sized holes punched into the tool to determine the diameter. Most gauges have U.S. and metric sizes, and some include the U.K. system.
Knitters know that the size of the needle determines the gauge, or number of stitches per inch, of the finished knitted fabric. But many knitters do not know that there is not a one-to-one correspondence to the U.S. system and the metric system. For example, a U.S. needle size 1 could be either 2.25 mm or 2.5 mm.
You can purchase knitting needles made of many kinds of materials, wood, metal, bamboo, plastic, bone, glass. The material does not affect how the size is labelled.
Most contemporary knitting patterns include both U.S. and metric needle sizes in the instructions, regardless of the nationality of the designer or publication. However, there is a myriad of vintage knitting patterns that many knitters are recreating in modern yarns. These patterns may identify only one labelling system.
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