Knitting with Circular Needles: The Basics

Knitting with circular needles is a skill that can make your knitting faster and more productive—if you use them wisely. Let’s learn the best uses of circular knitting needles and how they differ in use from straight needles.

What are Circular Knitting Needles?

Circular needles have two points held in opposite hands, like straight needles, but those points are joined by a flexible cable.  By choosing a cable length similar to the distance around a project, the knitter can knit a seamless tube by knitting around and never turning the work.  Before the invention of the circular needle, knitters working in the round needed to place stitches on double-pointed needles—as many as needed to hold all the stitches in a round.

When are Circular Needles Used?

Circular knitting needles with a long cable are used when a project requires too many stitches to fit on a straight needle, such as a blanket or a large shawl.  The knitter can turn the work at the end of a row and use the circular needles just like straight needles.  Circular needles distribute the weight of a growing project more evenly, reducing fatigue on the hands and arms. 

For knitting in the round, circular needles must be the right circumference for the project.  Instructions for sweaters and other projects in the round will usually specify the cable length needed, e.g. a 24-inch needle for the body of a sweater or a 16-inch for a neckline.  For projects that decrease, the knitter may need to switch to needles of a shorter cable length or to double-pointed needles as the work shrinks. Using a cable that is too long will stretch the stitches and distort the gauge of the project.

What Knitting Projects are best for Circular Needles?

Colour knitting projects such as Fair Isle designs is best done in the round on circular needles because the right side always faces the knitter.  This means in stockinette stitch there is no purling.  Since many knitters find it challenging to purl while carrying two colors, this is a plus!

Striped scarves make a good first project in circular knitting.  Use a small cable length to make an appropriately sized tube. Make the color changes by knotting yarn ends together and keeping all the knots inside the tube as it is knit.  There is no need to trim or darn in the yarn ends, as the ends will be hidden inside the tube of the scarf.

Some of the best for Circular Knitting Needles:


Final Tips:

Several manufacturers offer interchangeable needle sets with tips in all common sizes and cables in different length. Having such a set allows you to build the exact needles you need for a project. If you work with a variety of patterns and yarn weights, such a set could be a good value.

Use a stitch marker to mark the beginning/end of the round.  Without a marker it can be hard to tell where that point is!

Consider circular needles when travelling.  Your work will take up less space than long, straight needles would.

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