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Needle Notes:
Demystifying Circular Needles


arrow Check our circular-needle buyer's guide


Circular needles aren't actually circular -- they're made up of a long strand of nylon cord with two short needles attached at either end.

Because each end has a pointed needle, you don't have to stop at the end of a row and turn your work around. You can simply join the ends and keep on knitting around and around and around until you run out of yarn or your garment is finished, whichever comes first.


Why Go Circular?

Circular needles have two major benefits. First, by knitting in the round you can produce seamless garments. Second, because you never turn your work around, you don't have to alternate knit and purl rows to achieve a stockinette stitch.

Ergonomics

Another major plus for circular needles is that the bulk of the weight of your garment sits on the nylon filament, which usually rests comfortably on your lap.

The needles will carry only a portion of your working stitches, thus putting significantly less stress on your hands and wrists. With straight needles, all the weight is on the needles, causing greater wrist stress.

Check Before You Buy

When shopping for circular needles, it is extremely important to note the length of nylon cord between the needles. It can range from 6 to 40 inches.

Think about the circumference of what you'll be making. If you're making a small child's pullover, for example, you'll need a shorter cord. If you're making an adult-sized pullover, you'll need a longer cord.

There's nothing more frustrating than being stuck with the wrong cord length. If you are, don't try to stretch your work to fit a longer needle, no matter how tempting this may be.

Also, be warned that the shorter cord lengths often mean shorter needles. If possible, try holding the needles in your hands to see if you can use them comfortably without your hands cramping.


Flat Alternative

You can use circular needles for flat knitting as well as circular. Simply turn the work as you would while using straight, double-pointed needles. You don't need to worry about stitches falling off the needles either.

Stitches generally won't slide from plastic filament to needle without your help.

Discrete and Portable

Circular needles have no "oars" protruding from either side, as do single-pointed straight needles. You can knit comfortably in confined spaces such as airplanes, commuter trains, and concert halls. As an added bonus, you never have to worry about dropping a needle!

Creative Possibilities

Because they have two ends from which to access your work, circular needles give you added flexibility in single-row color combinations on flat pieces.

You can slide a finished row to the other end of the needles and begin a new color, then pick up the original color in the next row without having to cut any strands.


Not All Roses

A common problem with circular needles is that the nylon filament can come disconnected from the needle. Because you need a strong, smooth, flexible connection, it's impossible to fix a broken cord.

Instead of throwing away the needles, make a stitch holder out of the needle and cord that are still connected. Simply wrap a rubber band multiple times around the end of the filament, which will keep your stitches from falling off.

Fewer Faces

Because they require a bit more engineering than standard straight needles, circulars are mostly manufactured by the large-scale needle companies. I have yet to find any truly unique handcrafted circular needles.

The most common materials for circular needles are bamboo and aluminum, although you can also find a small selection of rosewood and ebony circulars.


Know Your Options

Now that you know more about circular needles, let's take a look at some of the most popular needles on the market. This list is by no means exhaustive, so don't fret if your favorite needle type isn't on the list. Just let me know and I'll add it!

arrow Check our circular-needle buyer's guide

Discuss needles in our forums
Previous Reader Comments

"I LOVE circulars, particularly since I fly a lot. First, I can get them through the security checkpoint (I use bamboo), where straight needles are taboo. Second, I don't bump my fellow passenger as I would with straight needles. My sister taught me a trick I don't see listed: Pour some hot water over the filament and presto! They straighten out! Much easier to use that way." mstroupe, 12/26/01

"I also store my circular needles (and dps) in plastic bags....but mine have ring binder holes punched into them and fit into a Bass Pro Shops "Worm" bag, the type that fishermen use to store their plastic worm lures. There are also lots of pockets for other things...ring markers, row counters, bobbins, point protectors, etc." sab, 8/16/01

"Years ago a veteran knitter gave me a wonderful tip using circular needles. I've found it so helpful, I think it's worth sharing. When you're knitting sleeves, a common problem is that they end up slightly different in length or tension. If you make both sleeves at the same time on circulars, using separate balls of yarn and working them back and forth as on straight needles, you'll always have sleeves that are evenly matched in all respects. I learned this trick as I was starting my second sweater 20 or more years ago, and since then, I've never been disappointed in the sleeves I've made." beth1011, 7/25/01

"I store my circular needles in plastic ziplock bags. Even the smaller size bags work well and you can write directely on the bag what size and length or use a gummed label stuck to the outside of the bag." mbritton, 5/16/01

"I am very happy with your review of knitting needles. My favorite circulars aren't mentioned. I love my Boye NeedleMaster. So much so that, when I discovered ebay last year, I bought three or four more sets. Since I prefer knitting very large one-piece blankets (not to be confused with smaller afghans!), I love the possibilities offered by combining cables to make the length of circular I need for several hundred stitches for a really big bed cover. Since my first NeedleMaster bought in 1968 or so, I have never had a problem of tip/cable separation." JessicaJean, 5/10/01

"I also use only circular needles. This past weekend I purchased the smaller 12" circular needles for myself--the ones made in Japan. When I started using one of them, I realized something was wrong. The needle marked size 6 was only a size 5; the size 4 was a size 3 and the size 3 was too big to be a size 2 but it was too small to be a size three. I don't know if anyone else has had this problem or if it was only the needles I purchased. I'd be intetested in knowing if others had the same experience." gerryquig, 5/10/01

"After using circular needles for years I have a hard time using straight needles. They are so much easier to use than straight needles especially when working in the car or tight spaces." Karen H., 4/24/01

"You have more control over your project with circular needles than straight needles. For a novice stitcher I feel it's best to start them out on circular needles." jayce1005, 4/22/01

"I store my circular needles in a 3-ring binder. Put the loosely coiled needle and the card with the size number in a gallon ziplock bag, punch holes where needed in the side of the bag and insert numerically in the binder. I also keep my double pointed needles in the same binder--since I often need both (for example, when doing the sleeves on a sweater)." sstan82366, 4/22/01

"Storing circular needles has recently become much easier. Meg Swansen sells something called The Circular Solution for under $20.00 I think. This is a long piece of heavy canvas which is folded at the bottom and then channels are stitiched into it at about three inch intervals. The top is velcroed so that it will hang over a sturdy plastic hanger. The channels are labeled with the smaller needles going in the top channels. So the number three channel for example can hold all your number three circulars from 10.5" to 32" or whatever. I probably didn't do a good job of describing it, but it is wonderful!" jtcorra, 4/20/01

"Re circular needles: For those of us whose purls are looser than our knits, using the detachable points on circular needles allows us to knit with one size and purl with a smaller needle. I find circular needles preferable for all the reasons stated in your message." Simonit, 4/20/01

"Clara, I don't think I would be knitting today if I didn't have circular needles! Everything you said is true and makes handling so easy!!" Marilyn, 4/20/01

"After overcoming my fear of the circular needle, I don't use anything but. In fact, when I need a certian size needle that I don't have in circular, I dread having to do anthing on a straight needle. I found a kit in a craft catalog that has all sizes needles from size 1 thru size 17. The 'points' are seperate and you pick out the size line/string you need and just screw them in place. The lenghts of the line are 12in, 18in, 24 in, 36in, and 42in. The lines are made of a flexible wire and are very easy to work with. The kit is an investment, but when you stop to think that you never have to buy another pair of needles, it is worth the price. The kit also come with an order form so you can order extra cables of other sizes." Mark, 4/20/01

Patternworks has two such circular needle sets, one from Boye and the other from Plymouth. To see details, click here.

"I've found a great way to store all of my pairs of circular needles. I have all of them hanging from the clips on pants hangers. It works great and the filament sort of straightens itself out to a perfect arc from the needle's own weight. It makes them great to work with. I needed a good way to store them, better than all in their own little plastic bags and this works great." Erica, 4/20/01

"Circular needles are a problem to store, but I've developed a method that works well. In gallon-size freezer-weight plastic bags, I group needles by size -- but sorted so that they can be distinguished easily. Sizes 1, 4, 7, and 10 are together; 2, 5, 8; 3, 6, and 9. Each bag is labeled, so I don't need to check the size against a gauge when I'm pulling a needle out. But I am careful to double-check the size when I put them back. I store the plastic needle bags in a plastic tub with other knitting tools." Patricia, 4/20/01

"I think circular needles are great... When I first learned to knit, working the pearl stitches was hard and the 'scarf' I was working on looked discouragingly terrible. Then my aunt introduced me to circular knitting and I made my first sweater, an Icelandic. It helped me master the knit stitch. I was hooked and just went on from there." katbucci, 4/20/01

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