Circular knitting needles are relatively new to the knitting tool kit, I say relative since knitting has been around a while… Circular knitting needles started showing up after World War II. They are basically two short knitting needles attached with a soft, pliable cable between the ends. The knitting needle part is made just like regular knitting needles, using the same kinds of materials and the same diameter sizes. The cable between the needle ends is connected securely to each end and can vary in length. Let’s walk through all the reasons why circular knitting needles are useful!
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Why do I want you to use them?
There are a few reasons circular knitting needles are better than straight knitting needles (in my opinion of course):
1) Straight needles force the knitting project to go to the ends (capped ends, opposite of the pointy ends) of the straight needles, meaning the weight of the entire project takes turns going from the left needle to the right needle. This is extremely tiring for your wrists and more likely to cause injury. Plus, you’ll want to knit less if your wrists get tired just from doing a few rows.
The cable on a circular needle holds most of the knitting project weight, so it rests in the center of your body between your hands. Your wrists are less likely to be strained or tired out quickly.
2) They’re always attached, less likely to lose one! As a forgetful, clumsy person who is always dropping and losing things, to me this is MAJOR!
3) You don’t end up poking anyone else with your needles nearly as much as with straights. The long straights go rather far away from the center where your hands are knitting. I always felt like I was going to maim someone when I used them, including myself.
4) The long straights tend to get stuck on other nearby things, like the scarf you’re wearing or the skein of yarn you’re using.
5) Circular knitting needles allow you to knit flat or in the round, meaning you can make cylindrical shapes without seaming them up. It makes projects work up faster if you don’t have to ‘assemble’ them after knitting.
Ummmm…. It is hard to come up with any disadvantages…. The only thing that comes to mind is that they have connection points which make them weaker than a solid needle. But this is expected like anything else that is made of more than one material and connected instead of a whole piece. Other than that – and the fact that you look kinda cool, like a favorite Aunt or Grandma, clicking away with long straight needles – I don’t know of any!
Sizes & Cable Lengths
Sizes (diameter, which is how needles are sized on patterns):
The diameter of the needle tips are available in just about the same range as straights. Of course there are three types of sizing: metric, American, and British – why can’t the world’s knitters get their act together? Ok, so it really is just us Americans who go against the tide… not cool.
I’ll reference American sizing because that is what I’m used to and it’s the easiest to find in U.S. stores. There is the itsy-bitsy Size 000000 which is only .7mm wide all the way up to larger ones, like size 50 which is 25 mm! They go even higher up to 65 but become harder to find in the super small and super large sizes. The basic range you will find easily, in most stores are sizes 0 – 15.
Cable length matters. When looking at circular needle packaging (again, I’m referencing U.S. sizing), you’ll see a length in inches after the needle size. For example: Size 6 20”. The size 6 refers to the diameter length refers to the length of the circular needle(s) if you lay the needle out flat and measure from tip to tip. The typical lengths are sizes: 8”, 16”, 20”, 24”, 32”, 40”, 47” and 60”. This measurement may be off by a little bit between brands, sometimes a half inch or inch. Not to worry.
The MOST IMPORTANT THING TO THINK ABOUT with circular knitting needle length depends on the final circumference of your knit in the round project.
We do not want the stitches to be stretched apart, they need to be close together so that the needles can work together and the tips need to be able to cross over each other a few inches to make the stitches without issues. If you have your stitches stretched out too far, you are putting stress on the yarn, your hands and the needle, which will affect all three over time. And it SLOWS YOU DOWN big time. So, this translates into a simple ‘rule’, the circumference of your project needs to be a few inches larger than the length of your circular knitting needle.
Needle Tip Lengths:
Another specification to get you confused. So sorry. The needle tips themselves can come in different lengths as well. This isn’t usually part of a pattern’s instructions, it is more of a personal preference. Sets can come in a different range of lengths.
I personally prefer needle tips that are a little bit longer, like 4 inches or more. There are some needles tips that are smaller, but I find them harder to control since my hands tend to rest on the cable too, instead of just the tip. It might just be that I have massive hands?? Maybe not massive, but definitely not in the general lady size range 😆 So if you pay attention to the needles for sale, keep this dimension in mind.
Just like straight knitting needles, circular knitting needles can come in a variety of materials like:
-Wood – like laminated Birch
-Nickel Coated/ White Bronze Coated – Brass
They each have their advantages and disadvantages. Listed here are the modern materials available, older more primitive versions were made of whatever could be found, like bone, ivory, tortoiseshell or wood.
PRO: Wood is good for a beginner, it grips most yarns well. Beginners often struggle trying to keep yarn on the needles, especially when trying to pass from one needle to the other. They can come in amazing color combos, really beautiful to look at! They are not cold to your hands (this sounds like it is of little importance, but as someone who is usually cold, I like when things are not cold upon touch). Wood is good for slippery yarn like cotton and linen, it grips enough to control it better.
CON: Wood needles can splinter on the absolute tip of the needle after a lot of use. Unless you gently sand it down, it will snag yarn and slow you down. Sometimes it is too grippy for other yarns like wool or alpaca, stitches do not want to easily transfer from one needle to the other.
PRO: Bamboo is also good for a beginner, like wood it grips most yarns very well. Bamboo needles are good for more slippery yarns as well. They do not splinter as easily as wood. Very lightweight and smooth. Not cold on your hands!
CON: They do not come in amazing color combos. It is very grippy and you may find it annoying to knit animal based yarns. They can splinter, but it takes a LOT of knitting before that will happen.
PRO: Yarn slips off of aluminum tips more easily than bamboo or wood, making it a great material for knitting animal based yarns which tend to have a rougher, grippier texture.
CONS: They are cold to the touch. Although you can knit faster with aluminum than bamboo or wood, it is not as fast and smooth as nickel-plated metal.
NICKEL-PLATED or WHITE BRONZE PLATED BRASS or STEEL:
PRO: These are the smoothest needles and make the fastest needles especially for grippy fibers. They don’t snag the yarn. They are dreamy, this is of course my unofficial, personal opinion. They are one of the most popular types sold across the globe which tells me that they are well loved. They feel nice, sturdy and expensive.
CONS: They are a little cold to the touch. If you are using less grippy yarn like cotton or linen, the yarn wants to just fly off the needles. Even grippy yarns want to slip off easily, making it good for a speedy knitter, not a beginner who is just trying to get yarn from one needle tip to the other needle tip.
PLASTIC : I’m sorry, but NO!!!!!
PROS: Cheap. Warmer to the touch than metal. Nice looking colors? That’s all I got…
CONS: SLOW! SLOW! SLOW! No matter the fiber content of your yarn, it is mis-er-ab-ly sloooooooow. I do not recommend them to anyone. I was gifted a set a while ago by a well-meaning Mother. But they were just awful. Sorry MOM. I mean no disrespect to anyone manufacturing them, but they just were clunky, kinky and just cheap feeling. I really don’t like saying anything negative about anyone’s products or projects or ANYTHING for that matter, but seeing as I’m your guide to all things knitting, I feel the need to share my honest opinion.
For more information on fiber types, see this post about yarn.
What should I look for in a circular knitting needle when buying?
After considering the material based on your skill level and yarn choice, here are the important bits. Check where the needle meets the cable, it should be smooth and strong. The cable should be relatively flexible. It will become more flexible over time. (If they are super coiled, you can dip the cable only into warm water and this will help them relax) You do not want one that looks like it has been or would kink. We want a smooth curve, no right angles. Beside sizes, materials and cable lengths, you also have the choice of fixed or interchangeable needles.
Fixed or Interchangeable
What do these terms mean in reference to circular knitting needles?
Fixed needles are not able to change the tips or the cables. So if you buy a size 6 20” needle, it will always be that size. It is fixed, can’t do anything with the parts of the needle, they are permanently attached. They are reasonably priced so that if you need one random size for a project, it will not add too much to the total project cost. Unless of course it is size 1000 and 92”! I’m just kidding, I hope there is no such size!!!
Interchangeable needle sets allow you to change size and needle length. An interchangeable set will have multiple sets of 2 of the same size needle tips and different cable lengths. At the ends of the cables and the needle tips are matching screw/screw holes to attach tips and cables in any number of arrangements. You’ll use the same size tips as your pattern calls for and then use an appropriate cable length.
They are much more flexible convenience wise but more expensive up front. If you think you’ll keep knitting it makes a good investment. If you were to calculate all the different combinations you can create with them and then bought all of those configurations as individual fixed needles, it will be way less expensive.
When you start knitting patterns that need to FIT someone – not just scarves and dishcloths that don’t have to be exact, you will need to check your knitting to make sure you are getting the right number of stitches and rows to match your knitting pattern. Don’t worry about this right now, its technical name is “Gauge”. If you are working on project and you can’t get the right ‘gauge’, you’ll likely have to switch needle tip size.
If you have an interchangeable set, you’ll just switch out the tips. If you have only one fixed needle bought specifically for that project, you’ll have to either get it the car, go to a craft store and buy a new one OR go online, order one and wait for it to arrive. This is one of my favorite reasons for going with an interchangeable set. When I want to start something, I want to start it. This makes them incredibly flexible and CONVENIENT!!! (Finishing something is a whole other story, please don’t bring it up)
I have a whole bunch of fixed needles that I bought a while ago when I didn’t want to buy a larger, more costly set and then I received two interchangeable sets. Thanks, MOM! I really only use the fixed if they happen to be the exact size I need, and even then it’s a ‘maybe’. I am all about convenience, if I have my interchangeable set and don’t have to go across the room to get my fixed out of the cabinet, I’m going to use the interchangeable.
For how convenient they are, I do find them to be just slightly less sturdy than the fixed. To be completely honest, I have broken a couple of my interchangeable cable lengths over the years, right where the cable connects to the screw hole attachment thingy. I have no idea what it’s called, just bear with me. The company that made my sets happens to send replacements at no charge so I was able to keep my set intact.
How to Use Circular Knitting Needles for:
Yarn builds the fabric up in a zig-zag fashion. The work is turned when you get to the end of the row of stitches. You turn your work just like you would with straight needles. The yarn travels from the left needle to the right needle during the working of a row. Then you turn the whole project around so that the stitches you just knit are on the left side again. There’s nothing more to it.
This is an oversimplified view of a scarf:
Yarn forms fabric by spiraling. Instead of turning your work, the work is connected together in a round, spiral shape. Just like soft ice cream is filled into the cone. You work the yarn from the left needle to the right, since it is connected, you just keep going up and up. Until you get into more complicated techniques (like short rows), you shouldn’t have to turn your work. There is a small ‘jog’ where the rounds meet each other.
Other methods to do round knitting using circular knitting needles:
-Magic Loop – Using a super long length cabled circular needle you can make smaller round parts by manipulating the cable and needle tips. Very handy for making two socks or identical items at a time. We can talk about this later, much more advanced topic so I don’t want to overwhelm you. You WILL get there, just need to take a bunch of steps first!
-Two Double Circular Needles – Can be done just like the Magic Loop method, just using two sets of circular needles that are have the same needle tip diameter.
Another way to do circular WITHOUT Circular knitting needles:
-Double Pointed Needles (DPNs) – this is the original method of knitting, the first needles were double pointed! DPNs are smaller length, double pointed needles. There are 4 or 5 in a set (5 is always better!) and the yarn is still worked from the left needle to the right… You just have more needles to hold. It is the most efficient way (in my opinion) to do very small round pieces/parts like glove fingers.
Here are my favorite circular brands and styles, based on skill level:
Beginner – Fixed Circular:
From Amazon: Clover Brand Fixed–Bamboo Circular Knitting Needles
From Knit Picks: Fixed Circular Knitting Needles
For Intermediate/Advanced – Interchangeable Sets:
From Knit Picks: Metal Interchangeable Circular Knitting Needle Sets