Here’s How to Knit with Circular Needles both Flat and in the Round

Do you struggle with double-pointed needles (DPNs)? You can knit just about anything and in almost any way with circular needles

Using circular needles

If you hate seaming your knitting, you may have considered learning how to knit in the round, a process also referred to as circular knitting.

According to my email, many knitters would love to learn to knit in the round. Or they’ve tried, often with double-pointed needles (abbreviated as DPNs), and they struggled.

Once you start investigating circular knitting, you’ll find 4 methods of circular knitting.

  1. Using DPNs, a method I reviewed in a three-part DPN series.
  2. Using one fitted circular needle–that is, matching the length of the circular needle to the circumference of your project.
  3. Using two circular needles, so that half of your project is on one circular needle, and the other half is on a second.
  4. Using one long circular needle, a method known as Magic Loop.

Many knitters learning to knit in the round begin with DPNs, which is why I created the “how to knit with DPNs” series. However, after posting part of the series, I received an email from a reader who declared that she vastly preferred using two circular needles.

“They are much easier to hold, to use, and to work with,” she said. And many knitters agree with her.

Still other readers disagree and believe that using DPNs are less confusing than circular needles, especially for beginners. That’s why I posted the three-part series.

However, I must confess that I far prefer using circular needles. I like using two, but I like Magic Loop even better.

But even though I offered these tutorials, especially for beginners at circular knitting, I do prefer either two circular needles or Magic Loop. Of these two, my own preference is Magic Loop (though I know many others prefer the two circulars).

So let’s talk circular needles!

What You Need to Know about Circular Needles

Circular needles are a pair of needle tips that are joined by a cable. This cable marks one spectacular feature of circular needles: they never become separated, so you don’t need to worry about losing one. (Unless the cable breaks. Rare, but sadly it does occasionally happen.)

According to the website Webster’s Knitting Needle Notions, the circular needle was probably invented just after World War I. A US patent was filed in 1918, but an earlier patent may have been filed in Europe. Before this time, all knitting needles were straight. (In case you’re wondering, DPNs were invented sometime in the 12th century!)

Circular needles are sized in two ways. First, there’s the size of the tip. Just like straight or double-pointed needles, circular needles are sized by how wide they are. They are sized by number in United States or United Kingdom configurations, or by millimeter in metrics. For example, a US size 8 needle is a UK size 6, or 5 mm.

The second way circular needles are sized is by the length of the cable. The cable length is measured from one tip of the needle to the other, not just by the cable itself. The most common sizes are 16 inches, 24 inches, 32 inches, 40 inches, and 47 inches. You may find variants; I have seen 20 inches, for instance, and I actually own a few sets of 60 inch circulars.

Shorter circular needles tend to be used either to knit hats or for flat knitting.

Wait, you can use circular needles for flat knitting?

Yes, you can, and in fact I prefer using circular needles for flat knitting. You use them exactly in the same way as you use straight needles; just knit back and forth instead of joining the stitches in the round.

I love using circular needles this way for two reasons. One: they’re quieter. You never drop part of a circular needle, and you never lose half of it — so no shouting “Where is my other #6 needle?” Two: the cable holds the weight of the stitches and keeps that weight off of your own hands and wrists.

Like other kinds of needles, circular needles are made from a variety of materials. They can be metal, wood, or plastic.

Knitting with Circular Needles

The most obvious way in which circular needles are used, of course, is to knit around the needle in a circle. This link shows how this is done.

I never use circular needles in this way, though. Why?

Number one, I have a terrible time deciding what length of needle I need for my project.

Invariably I wind up using a needle that is either too short or too long. When your circular needle is too short, the stitches tend to bunch up a lot and become really annoying to work with. When it’s too long, the stitches stretch too much, and knitting becomes difficult if not impossible.

Number two, knitting in the round this way inevitably forces me to have to redistribute stitches every now and then.

In theory, stitches should move smoothly and merrily around a circular needle as I knit. In reality, they always seem to stubbornly remain in place unless I physically push them away from and toward me every so often. (Am I the only one with this issue?)

One final reason is that if I’m making something like a hat that requires decreasing, eventually I have to exchange the circular needle for DPNs. This is because eventually there will not be enough stitches to fit comfortably around the needle. Then the switch must happen.

It isn’t a difficult process, just one I’d rather avoid if I can.

For me, knitting with two circular needles or one via Magic Loop eliminates these problems. For two circular needles, you need only a reasonable amount of length (over 24 inches per circular should be enough for most projects). For Magic Loop, you need just one needle that is at least 40 inches long.

If you’re interested in knitting with two circular needles, be sure to check out this post!

And with both 2 circulars and Magic Loop, you will not ever have to switch to DPNs, even if you’re decreasing. You’ll find that miniscule numbers of stitches can in fact be knitted with these methods.

(However, if you are knitting an I-cord, you’ll find it much easier to use two DPNs. You will soon grow very weary of sliding your I-cord in progress from one end of a circular needle to another. Don’t ask me how I know this.)

So circular needles can be used for any kind of knitting you want. You can start using them for flat knitting, and then move toward circular knitting.

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  1. Really enjoyed this article about circular needles. I’ve knitted quite a few blankies (baby as well as adult size) using 2 circular needles. I just plug the “back ends” of the needles with a round of cork cut from a winecork so stitches stay on board.