Kristin’s Top Tips for Knitting with Circular Needles
Why use circular knitting needles:
Circular knitting needles can be used for both knitting in the round and knitting flat in rows. The needles are sized the same way as straight needles and double pointed needles; however, they are also categorized by the cord length. I prefer circular knitting needles for almost all of my projects because I feel like the weight of the yarn is supported on the circular cord instead of my wrists and is physically easier for me than working with straight knitting needles.
Circular knitting needles are NOT circular, but rather short needles connected to a flexible cord in the middle, allowing you to work your knitting in rounds. You can also use circular knitting needles for working flat in rows, and circular knitting needles are even superior to straight needles when you are working a large number of stitches flat in rows.
Circular knitting needles are measured from tip to tip, including both the needles and the cord for the length measurement. The circular measurements cover in a wide range of sizes from 12 in (30cm) to 60 in (150cm). Most common sizes are 16 in (40cm), 24 in (60cm)and 32 in (80cm) circulars. There are other less common sizes but here I am focusing on the common sizes.
Not all circular knitting needles can be used for every knitting pattern or project. Generally speaking, you want your in-the-round project to be just slightly larger than the circumference of your circular knitting needles for a relaxing experience. If your stitches and gauge circumference are less than the circular length, it will cause you to pull too much on your stitches and affect your gauge, or not even be possible at all. This does not apply to working flat in rows on circular knitting needles.
When to use various sized circular knitting needle lengths:
12 in (30cm) circular knitting needles: This size works great for swatching, and for smaller tubes such as baby hats, socks, stuffed animals, fingerless mitts, mittens or small pouches. Working in the round on very short circulars can feel cumbersome, especially if you have large hands. Some people prefer to learn other techniques for smaller projects worked in the round, like double pointed needles, working with 2 longer circular knittings as once or magic loop technique (one larger set of circular knitting needles). Learn a step by step magic loop technique tutorial HERE
16 in (40cm) circular knitting needles: This size works great for swatching, and for small tubes such as hats, sleeves and baby sweaters and other baby sized garments.
24 in (60cm) circular knitting needles: This size works great for bodies of adult sweaters.
32 in (80cm) circular knitting needles: This size works great for adding a perimeter edging in the round to a shawl, scarf or afghan. And it also works well for larger projects that are generally worked flat, such as afghans, large shawls, and other big projects that require many stitches per row.
What types of circular knitting needles to use:
Circular knitting needles come in a variety of materials, similar to straight and double pointed needles and crochet hooks. You can find plastic, resin, bamboo, wood and metal needle tips and even the cords can come in a variety of materials including plastic and metal. I suggest using bamboo or wood as a beginner because the natural materials will help you slow down and keep your stitches secure. Metal is a great finish when speed is your goal.
You can browse the bamboo knitting needles I like to use in my Amazon Shop HERE
Addi Click Interchangeable Knitting Needle Sets are my favorite interchangeable circular knitting needles. They have the most secure joins that are also snag-free joins! You can learn more about this set HERE
Circular knitting needles come with permanently attached cord and needles vs. detachable and interchangeable needles:
How to calculate the longest circulars you can use on a project:
To calculate the longest length of circular knitting needle you can use for knitting in the round, follow these easy steps:
- Divide the number of stitches you will be knitting by the stitch gauge (sts/inch) to find the circumference of the knitting.
- Choose a circular knitting needle length that is slightly smaller.
For example, let’s say you have 75 stitches to knit in the round, and your gauge is 3 stitches per inch. Divide 75 / 3 = 25 inch circumference. I would suggest to use 24 in circular knitting needles for this project.
Even easier math would be to reference the finished size stated on the pattern. If you are making a sweater with a 36 in bust circumference, you would want to use a 32 in set of circular knitting needles. And if the sleeves are 12 in circumference, you would want to use a 16 in set of circular knitting needles.
How to calculate the shortest circulars you can use on a project:
To calculate the shortest length of circular knitting needles you can use for knitting in the round, follow these easy steps:
- Generally speaking for average weight yarns (#3 dk to #4 worsted) you can accommodate at least 2.5x the number of stitches as the circumference of the circular knitting needles’ length. * This number is less for bulkier yarns and more for finer yarns.
- You want to subtract the needle lengths from the circular cord length for determining the total length first. This is a good safety measure for two reasons: you want to be able to hold the needles without stitches under your fingers while you work, and when you need to set your work down so that the stitches aren’t so close to the edge they might fall off of the edge of the needles.
For example, let’s say you have 300 sts to knit in the round or flat in rows, and your gauge is 3 stitches per inch. Divide 300 / 3 = 100 in circumference. 100 inches / 2.5 = 40 inches. 40 inches / 2.5 = 16 inches. 16 inches of circular cord length plus the length of 2 needles (4 in each) would be 16 + 2(4) = 24. I would suggest to use a minimum of 24 in circular knitting needles for this project.
Summary of Choosing the Right Circular Knitting Needles for your Project:
- You cannot use a circular knitting needle length that is longer than the circumference of the tube you are knitting, if knitting in the round.
- You cannot use a circular knitting needle length that is too short to accommodate the number of stitches you have on the largest row/round of your project.
- It is ok to use a variety of lengths of circular knitting needles in one project, if the number of stitches fluctuates enough to comfortably fit on different length circulars. For example, a top down shawl may begin with 5 stitches on the first row but end with 400 stitches on the final row.
Kristin Omdahl is the best-selling author of 20 knit and crochet books; TV personality from Knitting Daily TV and Knit and Crochet Now (PBS); curator of gorgeous, exclusive yarns and products; and producer of an award-winning Youtube Channel. Browse through thousands of tutorial videos or join Kristin for a LIVE daily show for 30 minutes weekdays.
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