Circular needles are a lot of fun to work with. They allow you to make bags and sweaters without seams, as well as other fun projects. But most patterns assume that people know how to work with circular needles, which can be intimidating for people who don't.
What Are Circular Needles?
Circular knitting needles can be made of most of the materials that straight knitting needles are made of: bamboo, metal, plastic and resin are the most popular materials. Two hard tips are joined by a flexible cord that holds most of the stitches.
Circular needles can be bought in a fixed format, meaning the needles are permanently fixed to the cord, or they can be purchased as part of an interchangeable system, where the tips can be taken off the cord and exchanged for larger or smaller needles. Interchangeable needles can be purchased separately or in a set that includes many different sizes of needles and cords.
Circular needles can commonly be found in US sizes 3 to 15. You can buy different lengths of cord depending on the circumference of your project. Common lengths are 16, 24, 29, 36 and 40 inches. Different manufacturers may make other lengths such as 11 or 34 inches. The pattern you are planning to knit should tell you what length as well as what size circular needles you need.
Getting Started with Circular Needles
The process of casting on is the same with circular needles as it is with straight needles. If you're knitting a project in the round, the pattern will say something like "join stitches in round, being careful not to twist stitches."
There are several different methods for joining a project in the round. Some people simply knit the first stitch very tightly, so that there won't be a gap between the first stitch and the last stitch in the round.
Before I learned to do it the way I do it now, I'd cast on an extra stitch, slip that stitch onto the left-hand needle, and then knit the first stitch and the last stitch together before starting the pattern. That's a fine way to do it, too.
The way I do it now is to slip the last stitch (that is the first one cast on) from the left-hand needle to the right-hand needle, and then lift what';s now the second stitch on the right needle (the last one cast on) over the first stitch and onto the left needle. Then pull tight and start knitting with the stitches that are on the left-hand part of the needle.
So what about that "being careful not to twist stitches" part? That's easy to handle as well. Before you make your join, make sure that all the stitches are facing the same direction. That means all the little loopy bits from casting on the stitches should be on the inside of the circle made by the circular needle, without twisting the edge. Then you can make the join and knit as your pattern lays out.
If you don't do this correctly, you'll notice pretty quickly because your knitted tube won't be straight. Unfortunately, the only way to fix a twist like this is to rip it out and start over, so make sure you get it right the first time.
Place a stitch marker on the right-hand needle before you start knitting but after you make the join if you are crossing stitches. This marks the end of the row, which will help you keep track of your pattern.
Working Patterns in the Round
When knitting in the round, you are knitting on the right side of the fabric all the time. That means you'll need to alter your basic pattern stitches to get them to come out right.
A lot of circular knitting is done in Stockinette Stitch, which is great because all you have to do is knit every row. To make Garter Stitch, instead of knitting every row you'll need to knit one row, purl one row. For Reverse Stockinette, you purl every row.
Other pattern stitches can be worked in the round, but these are the most common stitches you will come across. Patterns that are designed to be knit in the round usually will be written so you don't have to think about the fact that you're always on the right side, but some will say something like "knit in Stockinette (knit every row)" to remind you of what you need to do.
Knitting Flat on Circular Needles
You can also use circular needles to knit something flat. This is especially helpful when working on big projects like afghans, wraps or throws. A circular needle will hold the stitches a little better and make it easier on your body because the needle holds more of the weight of the project.
Knitting flat on circular needles is the same as working on straight needles. Do not join in the round, just cast on and knit. Knit from the left needle to the right as usual, and when you get to the end of the row, switch hands just like you would in knitting with straight needles.