We are massive fans of circular needles here at The Yarn Queen. In fact, we’re such big fans they’re our everyday needles!
They’re ergonomic, they respond to the shape of the item you’re knitting, and they hold so many stitches! But if you’re new to circular needles, you may have lots of questions about them. Here is everything you need to know about circulars, so you can love them as much as we do.
Firstly, what is a circular needle? It is a pair of needles, with the two ends joined together by a flexible cable. They come in two basic flavours: fixed and interchangeable.
Knitting flat with circular needles (or, why we don’t have straight needles)
There are two ways to knit a fabric – flat and in the round. When you knit flat, you create a piece of fabric with two edges, and you knit backwards and forwards from edge to edge, turning at the end of each row. One row will be on the right side of the fabric, and the next row will be on the wrong side of the fabric.
When you knit in the round, you create a tube and knit a constant spiral of stitches to extend the tube. You will always be working on the right side of the fabric. One of the most common myths around circular needles is that you can only use them for knitting in the round.
However, you can use circular needles for any project where you are knitting in the flat and usually use straight needles. You simply swap the two needles between your left and right hand at the end of each row as you normally would!
So, why would you use circular needles for knitting flat?
- If you are knitting something with a lot of stitches, you need somewhere to keep them. Straight needles only have the length of the needle to keep your stitches. But a circular can be, if required, much, much longer. That 300 stitch baby blanket or shawl is much easier on a circular when you are not trying to bunch all 300 stitches up against the end of the needle.
- The weight of your work falls into your lap, not suspended from the straight needle and sticking out to the side, so it reduces strain on your shoulders and wrists.
- If you are knitting something with some shaping, the cable allows the work to settle nicely into its shape without strain.
When using circulars for flat knitting for the very first time, it can feel a bit intimidating. But ignore the cable and treat the needles the same as you would treat straights, and you will be fine! Once we tried circulars, we were hooked on the benefits and have never gone back to straights since.
We know some folk see “circulars” in a pattern and decided that they can’t use that pattern because they don’t want to knit in the round. But that might not be the case! So have another look before you move on. It could very well be that the pattern is knitted flat, but the designer is a fan of circulars needles. Instead, look at the making up instructions – see if there is any seaming. Or check the description if it specifies whether the item is made in the flat or round. Then if knitted flat, you can either make it on straight needles or perhaps you could try out circulars and see what you think.
Fixed circulars versus interchangeable circulars
Fixed circular examples
Fixed circulars, like the ones you see above, have the needles and the cables permanently joined together.
The advantage of fixed needles is that the joint between the needle and the cable is much smoother, which can make for a smoother knitting process. Also, as interchangeable needles need to allow room at the join for a reusable joining mechanism, like a screw, they often can’t go as small as a permanent join. This means some sizes in some brands may only be available in fixed sizes.
Interchangeable circular examples
Interchangeables allow you to separate the needles from the cables so that you can combine different needles and cables in configurations of your choice.
The advantage of interchangeable needles is flexibility. Depending on what you are making, you may wish to have a different size cable (see below for more info on circulars and measurements). If you have three different pairs of needles and three different cables, you can combine that to make nine different configurations. To get the same options in fixed circulars, you would need nine individual pairs! So interchangeable needles are more flexible. That can save you money if you need a lot of configuration options.
Measurements for circular needles
All knitting needles, regardless of type, have a key dimension – the needle’s diameter. They all also have a second dimension – the length of the needle. Circulars add a third dimension – the length of the cable. Some brands also add a fourth dimension for interchangeables only – the size of the connector. What do all these dimensions mean for circulars?
The diameter of the needle
This is precisely the same for circulars as it is for straight needles and (combined with your tension) determines the size of the stitches you make. In New Zealand, the diameter is usually given in millimetres. However, depending on your country, you may use a different measuring system specific to needles.
The length of the needle
For straight needles, the length is usually somewhere between 20 and 35 cm, with longer needles having more room for higher stitch counts (although you will still struggle to get 300 stitches on the longest!). However, for interchangeable circulars, most brands have two lengths. Something along the lines of 10 cm /4 inches and 12 to 13 cm/5 inches.
Fixed circulars often don’t give the needle length as part of their information and may vary the length based on the overall size – for example, the 23 cm fixed circulars have much shorter needles than longer fixed circulars. Because you also have the cable’s length, the length of the needle has much less impact and becomes more of a matter of personal choice and comfort, unless you are working with an overall length of about 40cm or less. In this case, you will want to use the shorter needles; otherwise, the cable will be too taut to use the needles effectively. Different brands present different lengths in different ways.
Our brands present them like this:
Hiyahiya Circular Needles
Knitpro Circular Needles
The longer needles are sold as regular needles. The short needles are sold as “short” or “special” needles. The length isn’t specified, but the regular needles are roughly 12.5 cm/5 inches and the short are roughly 10 cm/4 inches.
The length of the cable
For most brands, the cable’s length, as stated, includes the needles’ length and is, therefore, the overall length. Interchangables usually come in increments between 40 cm and 150 cm, while fixed circulars may be available in even shorter lengths, as short as 23cm. If you need more length, most brands of interchangeables have connectors that allow you to join cables together.
That’s useful if you are working on something like Stephen West’s Slipstravangazna shawl with over 900 stitches on the last row! If you are knitting flat, the cable’s length is largely irrelevant. However, we would generally recommend using the smallest cable that will accommodate all your stitches so that you don’t have to deal with surplus cable getting in your way. If you are knitting in the round, the length is far more important and will be influenced by what you are making and your chosen knitting in the round technique.
Because the cable length given includes the needle length, and for interchangeable needles, these lengths can vary; these are also presented differently by brand.
Cables are labelled with two lengths, one for each needle length.
All cables are sized on the assumption that you will be joining them to regular needles, except for the 40cm cable, which is sized on the assumption you will be joining them to short/special needles. Of course, you can mix and match. This will affect the overall length of a small amount.
The size of the connector
This is only relevant for interchangeables, and only for some brands. Interchangeables all have a connecting mechanism, often a screw, at the end of the cable and needle. For the needles to be interchangeable, this has to be the same size on all needles and cables. However, some brands have a couple of different sizes of connector (for example, different sized screws), so you need to join a needle onto a cable with the matching size connector.
In our brands, they work like this:
Knitpro Cable Connectors
Knitpro cable connectors are entirely interchangeable as they have only one size connector. However, they also don’t have interchangeable needles below a 3mm diameter, as that is the smallest size that will work with their connector.
Hiyahiya Cable Connectors
There are three different sizes of connector – mini, small and large. You need to ensure that your cable and needle have the same size connector to join them.
Some adaptors allow larger needles to be connected to a smaller size cable to extend your collection’s configuration options.
The advantage of a variety of join sizes is that Hiyhiya offers interchangeable options down to 2mm, much smaller than many brands. The larger needles don’t have as sharp a step down to the cable, helping manage your tension.
Circular needles are the excellent knitting tool you never knew you needed
Circular needles aren’t just a speciality tool. You can use them to create nearly any knitting project. They make it easier to knit because they move your knitting’s weight from your wrist to your lap. They hold so many stitches, and if you use an interchangeable set, you can expand the cord as long as you want. And they respond well to whatever shape you are trying to create. Give them a try with your next project! We bet you’ll love them as much as we do.
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