Circular Knitting Needles – Remember These Important Points

What are circular needles?

Fixed circular needles are two short straight needles connected with a thin nylon or plastic wire, and are found in the same materials as for straights. Interchangeable circular needle sets are popular. These sets include a variety of needle tip sizes paired with different cable lengths. The point at which the straight needle joins the wire must be smooth, or the yarn will catch or drag.

Circular needles can either be used to make seamless, tubular pieces or used for flat knitting, that is working back and forth as for straight needles. They are great for projects with large numbers of stitches; the weight of the stitches is supported in the lap, and evenly distributed. When using circulars to make tubular pieces, the knitting progresses by “rounds” instead of “rows” – referred to as knitting in the round.

Generally, circulars are not my favorite needle, but I prefer them for certain projects, such as blankets knit back and forth, or making a seamless turtleneck. I prefer straight needles for structured garments with many pieces, like a jacket. I use double pointed needles (dpns) for small projects, rather than very small circulars; at shorter lengths I find dpns easier to manipulate.

Casting on and joining your work.

Casting on stitches to a circular needle

It is important to choose the proper cable length for the piece. The circular needle length must be smaller than the circumference of the piece; short enough so that the stitches aren’t stretched when joined. For example, when knitting a turtleneck collar, the circular should be short (16in/40cm) and not longer.

  • Cast on the required number of stitches as you would for straight or flat knitting, distributing the stitches evenly around the needle.
  • Place a marker after the last cast on stitch, and slip before the first stitch of each round. If you don’t clearly mark the beginning of the round, pattern changes, like switching from knit to purl stitches will occur at this point, and the progression will be uneven if not clearly marked.
  • In preparation for joining the first round, once all the stitches are cast on, lay the circular on a flat surface with the bottom edges of all stitches facing the center. All stitches must be aligned in the same direction or they will be twisted. Twisted stitches can’t be adjusted without unravelling the piece. A twisted knit fabric doesn’t lie flat.
  • Hold the needle tips with the last cast on stitch in right hand, and the first cast on stitch in the left hand. Insert right needle into first stitch, and knit, pulling the yarn tight to prevent a gap. Work around the needle until you reach the marker. One round is complete. Slip marker and work the next round. Tip: Every joining stitch or the first stitch in round must be pulled tight to avoid gaps or a ladder effect.
  • Key point when knitting in the round is that the right side of the fabric always faces you.
(Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework)

Transferring stitches from circular to straight and straight to circular.

If you have been knitting a garment in the round, the sleeves are likely to be worked on straight needles. When transferring stitches, simply take the straight needle and work in pattern across the required number of stitches. The rest of the stitches may remain on the circular or divided up and placed on holders, to be worked later.

To transfer from a straight to circular needle, just take the circular and work in pattern across the stitches on the straight needle.

Is it necessary to make a gauge swatch on circulars?

Your gauge when knitting in the round on circulars may differ from that on straights, especially in stockinette stitch. When working stockinette stitch in the round, every row is knit, and never purled. Knitting is slightly different from purling so the gauge on straight needles differs slightly from circulars. Honestly, I have never found this to be a problem. A different technique must be used if you want to make a swatch on circulars (you could use two dpns). You knit every row, but the yarn is cut after each row is knit, then the stitches moved to the other end of the needle to begin a new row without turning your work. This is tedious, wasteful of yarn, and likely unnecessary. I would just do a swatch on straights, checking your gauge at regular intervals.

How to measure your knitting on circulars.

Measuring knitting length when working in the round is tricky. Lay the piece as flat as possible, and smooth out the fabric hanging from the needle portion of the circular. You could slip one half of the stitches to a thread or slip one half of the stitches to another circular before measuring. Measure from the base of the centre of the needle (or the centre of slipped work) to the lower edge. Remember when the gauge is accurate, measuring confirms the numbers.

Binding off from a circular needle.

I prefer to bind off stitches from a circular with a straight needle. I find if the circular is used, you reach a point where the work may stretch as you get fewer and fewer stitches on the needle. Simply use the straight needle to bind off, pushing more stitches onto the left needle as you work across.

When you want to switch to a circular needle.

Many pattern instructions are written for flat knitting using straight needles. For flat knitting, your work is turned each row; the alternate sides (the right and wrong sides) face the knitter. The key point to remember when knitting in the round, is the right side is always facing you. This means you are always working right side rows. Using a circular needle in patterns that call for straights affect stitch pattern rows, and the instructions are read differently as described in the following information.

Basic Stitch Patterns in the Round

Because a knit stitch and a purl stitch look different, to get the wrong side rounds to look correct on the right side, work the stitches “opposite” of what you would do in flat knitting.

  • Stockinette Stitch – knit every round. When knitting stockinette stitch on straights, you knit one row, then purl one row. In the round, the purl row (wrong side) is knit – the opposite to flat knitting.
  • Reverse Stockinette Stitch – purl every round.
  • Garter Stitch – knit one round, then purl one round.
  • Rib Patterns – repeat the same round on all rounds. Remember when working in rib on straights, you knit the knit stitches, and purl the purl stitches. In the round, they are set up correctly. For example a k3, p1 rib on straights would be worked k1, p3 on the wrong side; in circular knitting, repeat k3, p1 – the opposite. Note: Make sure you maintain the full pattern repeat. In this case, a four stitch pattern repeat (k3, p1); the stitch count is divisible by four. See below.
  • Seed Stitch – is a broken rib pattern. For an even number of stitches, k1, p1 across on round one; p1, k1 across on round two.

Dealing With Pattern Repeats

If the instructions are written with stitches outside of the pattern repeat (multiples plus extra stitches), these extra stitches balance out a pattern on straight needles, and aren’t necessary when knitting in the round. You will have to add or subtract them from the total number of stitches to calculate a multiple of the stitch repeat or full repeat. Any stitches that come outside the main pattern repeat, before or after an asterisk (*) in the instructions are omitted.

Read Backwards

For written instructions, work the right side rows as written. Reverse the wrong side rows by reading them from right to left (backwards) and working the stitches opposite. For example, a wrong side row reads: k4, sl 1 knitwise, k3, p3. The round would be worked as follows: k3, p3, sl 1 purlwise, p4. I recommend writing out wrong side rows to alleviate confusion.

For charted instructions, read all rows from right to left. In summary, the key to rmember is that the right side is always facing you when working in the round; work the stitch opposite to what you would for wrong side rows in flat knitting, and read written pattern instructions backwards for wrong side rows.

This information should give you more confidence when using a circular needle.