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Circular needles

One of the first knitting books that fell into my hands - I'm one of the lucky ones - was Knitting Without Tears by Elizabeth Zimmermann. She called circular needles her "particular pets" and provided us with pattern after pattern for seamless sweaters made on circular needles.

Since then, I've done most of my knitting in Norway where traditional two-color stranded sweaters are worked in the round, then sewn and cut for the front and arm openings [known as "steeks" to American knitters... Norwegians just call it finishing a sweater].  As a result, I have exactly 1 pair of straight knitting needles, of which one is a US size 5 and the other a US size 8. The one time I tried, on a whim, to buy straight needles in Norway, I was told they were no longer selling them since there wasn't any point to using them.

Circular needles arrived on the scene early in the 20th century and eliminated the need to employ multiple sets of long double-pointed needles to knit in the round.  But circular needles aren't just for knitting circularly. Anything that can be knitted on two straight needles can be knitted back and forth on circulars just as easily and with less shoulder and wrist strain. When working flat with circulars the weight of the knitting slides around the connecting tube, closer to the knitter's center of gravity, rather than out to the sides in the pendulum fashion of working with straight needles.

Most circular needles are constructed to have non-flexible ends that look like any other knitting needle at the pointy end, then taper to a connecting tube of plastic. The length, which is measured from tip to tip, ranges from 12 inches, which I'm particularly fond of for making socks and mittens, up to an enormous 60 inches which I assume could be used to knit an entire bedspread in one piece, if you were strong enough to hold it up.

For sleeves, caps and the bodies of children's sweaters, I use 16-inch needles. 24 to 32 inches are good lengths for the bodies of most adult sweaters. The most important thing is that the work has to be able to slide easily around the needles. For this reason, you'll want to make sure the length of the circular needles is somewhat less than the circumference of whatever you're knitting. Keep in mind that the first rounds of knitting circularly are usually a little awkward because of the nearness of the cast-on edge to your hands.

That said... it will likely be necessary to employ double-pointed needles for sleeve cuffs [before increasing] and cap crowns [during decreasing]. There is no set rule for when to change to double points; whenever the stitches stop sliding easily around on the circulars is the proper time to change. And while it is possible to have too many stitches for any given circular needle, the number of stitches you can fit is surprisingly high, especially with thinner yarns. When you find your stitches so scrunched up that it's difficult to manage them, run out and get yourself some longer needles.

After casting onto circular needles, lay them down on a flat surface and be sure that the bottom of the cast-on stitches are all lying on the inside of the circle.

When you have lots of stitches on the needle, this can be a difficult, but is nevertheless crucial. If you begin to knit with stitches that spiral around the circular needle [in other words, are "twisted"], there's simply nothing you can do about it except rip out and start over once you realize the problem. A few rows on, you'll see a pronounced twist in your work. Really -- rip and start again.

"Joining" is just a fancy way of telling you to attach the first and last stitch you cast on so that you'll be knitting an uninterrupted tube. First, arrange the cast-on stitches so that they are evenly spaced along the length of the circular needles. Make sure that the stitches are close to the tips of both ends with the working yarn coming from the stitches on the right-hand needle. Insert the right-hand tip into the first stitch on the left-hand needle and voila! you've created a tube.

When you knit in the round, it's a good idea [and often essential] to mark the beginning of the round by slipping on a stitch marker before you join your work. Sometimes a pattern will call for an additional stitch marker to be placed at the end of what would have been a flat row [think of where the side seams would be, if you were working flat]. You'll find this point of reference especially important when it comes to shaping, changing colors or working any other design feature.

To make the joining point a bit neater, try the following:

  • If you're using a long-tail cast on, make sure you make the slip knot so that the knot gets tighter when you pull on the tail rather than the working yarn.
  • Cast on one more stitch than called for in your pattern; when joining, slip the extra stitch from the right-hand needle onto the left-hand needle and knit them together [see below].

  • Use the cast-on "tail" to go through the bottom of the first cast-on stitch before weaving it in on the inside of the knitting.

To knit back and forth with circular needles, simply cast on and treat the two ends of the circular needles as you would two straight needles. After casting on, simply turn the work and work back over the last cast on stitch. When you reach the other end, switch the needles so that you're holding them in the opposite hands and continue on with the next row. This is great for knitting on the road -- you can't drop a needle when it's attached to your work!


If there are any knitting techniques you're especially interested in seeing here, write to Theresa.

If she doesn't know how, she'll be more than happy to try to figure it out!