Crochet hooks, knitting needles, tension and gauge.

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Image shows the text: Does the material of your crochet hook or knitting needles affect your tension? Yes!
And includes a picture of 2 crochet hooks and 2 sets of knitting needles.
Hooks and Needles

What your crochet hook or knitting needles are made out of will affect your tension. Wood, plastic and resin hooks will give a looser tension, while metal will be firmer. I did a small experiment to look at the amount of difference that a hook of the same size but different material could create.

When I first started crocheting, I bought a basic cheep set of bamboo hooks on Amazon. I jumped into my first set of granny squares to make a blanket, and made several big squares. Then the dog ate the crochet hook. So I bought new metal ones. When they arrived I went back to work, and made several more granny squares. It wasn’t until I had a big stack of them that I thought to go find the original bundle to see if I had enough for the blanket. To my horror I found that the first set and the second set would never fit together. The first set were all significantly bigger than the second batch. I was heartbroken. No way I could put these squares together to make a blanket.

Image shows 2 pictures of the same blanket on a chair. in one, Odin the dog is also sitting on the blanket. The text reads:
The first blanket I ever crocheted, using the squares made on a metal hook.
I kept the wooden hook squares for some other possible project, until I was moving home to Ireland. I finally decided they weren't worth holding on to, and they went out in the bin
My first crocheted blanket

I had no clue what I had done wrong, and was still in those early days with little confidence in my crochet abilities yet, so felt quite knocked by the experience, like I was a ‘bad crocheter’. The one good aspect of the experience was that I spent a long time after that really focusing on having a neat and reliable tension, which has stood to me ever since, but it wasn’t until recently that I thought back to that experience and fully understood what happened. I had switched from a wood to a metal hook, and these will always create very different results.

The Experiment

Last week I read a blog post on Toni Lipsey’s blog ‘Crochet Gauge: What it is and why it matters‘ where she talked about how different hook materials cause different amounts of ‘drag’ and recommended using a hook of different material as an alternative to changing hook size. Yes! I thought to myself, that absolutely matches my experiences. But I have not seen anyone else give this advice. It led to so many questions. I began to search google for more information on this ‘drag’ effect she discussed, and found diddly-squat. Nothing. Nada. Empty space where information should be. So instead I decided to test it out.

Image shows 2 balls of cotton yarn, 2 balls of wool yarn and 2 crochet hooks
The crochet materials used

I made 6 swatches. Four of them were crochet, and two were knitted. I wanted to exclude any other variable that could impact my tension, so I looked for yarn in my stash that I knew to be consistent across colours. (With some yarns even a different colour can have a tiny difference in thickness due to the nature of the dies used). I wanted to use different colours for the different swatches just to help make sure I didn’t muddle myself up and confuse which hook I used to make each one.

Therefore, I picked out some Rainbow 8/8 by Hobbii simply because I had plenty of colours in my stash and I knew that the different colours would all work to the same tension. I also picked out some Sublime Merino Worsted to see if it produced similar results, or if different yarns were prone to different effects from hooks.

Image shows 2 balls of cotton yarn with plastic needles and a metal circular knitting needle
The knitting materials used

Then, I went looking through my crochet hooks and knitting needles. I have so many hooks, but they are all of a similar type, so I found that I didn’t have the perfect set up for this experiment. In an ideal world I would have had 3 hooks and three sets of knitting needles to compare – metal, wood and plastic or resin. And they would have been of similar quality. In the end I had to settle for a comparison between metal and wood for the crochet hooks, and metal and plastic for the knitting needles, as I did not have a plastic or resin hook of the right size, nor did I have any wooden knitting needles.

I usually use the same trusted range of hooks and needles, so my choice of alternatives was rather limited, which may have impacted this experiment. Those wooden hooks came free with a magazine a few years ago, as far as I remember, and they were terrible. I’ve had other wooden hooks that were much nicer to use (until the dog ate them). And the less said about how I ever ended up with a set of plastic straight knitting needles the better!

Why would crochet hook or knitting needle material matter?

Why would a wooden 5mm hook or needle give a different tension to a metal 5mm hook or needle? This is what I wanted to understand, and just couldn’t find an answer on google. As I was making the swatches, I began to see the effect quite clearly, however.

The wooden hook and plastic needle both created more drag than the metal equivalents. This means that the yarn moved more slowly along the shaft of the hook or the knitting needle, and caused the stitch to stretch out more and become bigger. When working on the metal hook or needle, the parts of the stitch slid together more quickly.

The Results – hook and needle material matters!

With all the swatches, the tension was different. The effect was much more dramatic with the crochet swatches, but still present with the knitting swatches.

Crochet swatches in cotton yarn

Test reads: A wood 5mm hook gives me 12 stitches by 7 rows over 10cm/4 inch in this yarn. A metal 5mm hook gives 14 stitches and 8 rows for a 10 com/ 4 inch square.
pictures show 2 swatches under a wooden swatch gauge showing those results.
Crochet results in cotton yarn

The first set of swatches I made were crochet using the cotton yarn. Making the swatch with the wooden hook felt like a punishment. It was nothing but catchy, scratchy, tuggy awfulness. Making the swatch with the metal hook felt easy and pleasant. The size difference between the 2 swatches was dramatic. The wooden hook was very much slower and more painful. It made a far bigger piece of fabric in the end with loose open gappy stitches.

Knitted swatches in cotton yarn

Image shows 2 knitted swatches shown under a swatch gauge. One swatch is yellow, the other cream. 
The text reads:
Does knitting have the same results?
The swatch knitted on plastic needles gave 15 stitches by 14 rows. The swatch knitted on metal needles gave 17 stitches by 15 rows.
The knitted swatches

The knitted swatches also showed a difference in tension and gauge. However, this was much less dramatic than with the crochet swatches. This may be because knitting is less prone to this effect. Knit stitches don’t have as many yarn over needle/hook motions to potentially become dragged out by resistance from the needles.

But it’s also worth noting that the plastic needles I used for the experiment were very different from the wooden crochet hook. It could possibly be that if I had used a plastic crochet hook made of the identical plastic to the needles, I would have had less drag than I did with the wooden hook.

Crochet swatches in wool yarn

As mentioned before, when I made the crochet swatch in cotton yarn on the wooden hook, it felt awful, and was hard work with the yarn splitting and dragging.

I wanted to see if other yarns reacted to hook materials differently. So I repeated the crochet swatches using some merino wool. And the first thing I noticed was that the wooden hook became much less horrible to use. It was perfectly acceptable and I could have sat and crocheted a garment with that wool on that hook, although I still felt the tension was too loose, and would have swapped down for a 4.5 for a nicer fabric.

The wool yarn was, in theory, the same weight as the cotton yarn, but as can be clearly seen, produced much smaller swatches. At the risk of being one of those designers who goes on about this *all the freaking time*, this is why its important to check a gauge swatch before starting a project, especially if using a different yarn from the recommended one. It might not work up the same at all!

What can be learned from this?

Which are best?

Tension or gauge is affected by many things, and the type of crochet hook or knitting needles used is just one of them. But clearly, they can have a big impact. If you don’t want to change hook size or needle size to match a gauge swatch, or if 2 different hook or needles sizes leave your swatch wrong in 2 different directions, its worth trying different hook or needle types as well.

Which kind of hooks or needles are ‘best’?

There is no right answer to that question! It depends on the individual knitter or crocheter, what they like, and what their preferences are. We can look at speed, comfort, ergonomic risk, the environment, and other factors, but they wont give us a clear winner.

Speed

The less drag on the crochet hook or knitting needles, the faster it is possible to work. So metal hooks and needles tend to be the material of choice for those who like to work quickly and get as much worked up in as little time as possible.

Comfort

Metal can be hard on the hands, but metal hooks can have lovely handles made from rubber or a whole range of other materials.

Wood can feel exquisite to use. I moaned about the nasty wood hook I used for this experiment, but still miss some of my early wooden hooks that were a true pleasure to hold and work with.

Plastic to me will always feel yuck, and cheap and nasty and fake. I would not opt for plastic unless there was no other choice. It just feels ‘wrong’ in my hand. But for those who are used to it, it may be the one that feels exactly ‘right’. Because comfort is very much a personal preference. Expensive resin hooks are still mostly plastic resin (although plastic free resins are slowly coming onto the market). My experience with a resin hook was of something that cost far too much, but felt cheap and fragile in the hand.

Hand and join safety

On the one hand, a metal hook is the firmest material with no give to it, so working with a metal hook or needles can cause most stress on the joints.

On the other hand, more movements are required for plastic or wood, which puts a different strain on the hands, wrists elbows and shoulders when knitting or crocheting. The right hook or needles is probably the one that is most comfortable for that person, but this is another thing that can be worth considering.

Sustainability

As yet more floods and cyclones hammer the world, it’s always worth a quick thought for climate change, and the sustainability of our choices. From that point of view, plastic is bad. But what’s good? Hard to say. A metal hook with a polymer handle still has lots of plastic, as that’s what the polymer clay is made from. Other handles have their issues, but I simply couldn’t manage the discomfort of a metal hook without a handle. Wood is renewable, but only if we plant trees to replace the ones we chop down. In short, there can be issues with everything, but it can be worth thinking about, even if the final choice is still one of ‘less harm’ rather than ‘perfect’.

Other reasons – real life

I love the feel of a good quality wood hook, and want to invest in a set of nice wood handled interchangeable needles some time when I can finally afford them. (My birthday is in July, if anyone is inspired to get me a nice gift *grin*).

But all my regularly used ones are metal. Why? Because 50% of dogs hate the feel of metal in their mouth. That’s something I learned while training Odin to be my assistance dog, and he is one of the metal haters. I had to tie rope handles to my keys and other items when teaching him to bring them to me. My metal hooks are safe from chomping. Now hes a much older dog, wood ones are finally starting to be an option again. But for several years Odin chewed every wooden stick I owned, from crochet hooks to knitting needles to wooden spoons.

Repeating the experiment

There was surprisingly little information about this topic that I found on line for knitters or crocheters.

If you have read this far, you are probably a knitter or crocheter who is a bit bored and wanted something about your craft to read. If you are interested in doing your own blog post on the topic, that would be great, as your information could add to what we know. Please consider adding a link back to this post as the source of your idea.

If you wanted to do something for a school or college project, you could do something like I did but make it a bit more formal. You will note that in this blog post I had an ‘introduction’, then I explained what I did (that was my ‘methodology). Then I said where I learned what I already knew (that was my ‘literature review’ even though it was only one article). I gave the results of the experiment, (results) and a discussion of them (discussion) and now we are on the last part of a typical research report (suggestions for further research).

To make this a better project and learn more, it would be helpful to use a wider range of knitting needles and crochet hooks, and a wider range of yarns. Perhaps get a few different volunteers to make up sample swatches. That way we could end up knowing more about the average tension difference for a typical knitter or crocheter from different materials of hooks and needles.

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By Ciara

I learned to knit as a young child, and came to crochet much later in life when I could no longer knit. Sharing the joy of crochet with sustainability and slow fashion in mind is a passion

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