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.
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 generally ranges 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.
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!
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.
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, with the exception of the glass needles from Sheila and Michael Ernst. If you’re curious and unafraid of using a few power tools, read this tutorial on how you can make DPNs yourself.
The most common materials for circular needles are bamboo and aluminum, although you can also find a small selection of rosewood and ebony circulars, as well as those made from carbon fiber composite or plastic.