We have all done it. Stood and looked at a wall of needles, overwhelmed by all the options. The first step in choosing what needles to purchase (besides consulting your next pattern) is to understand the different types of needles and their uses. Already we have talked about single pointed and double pointed needles. Lastly, we’ll discuss circular needles.
Circular needles are two rigid needle points joined together by a flexible cable of varying lengths. The packages they come are labeled not only with the needle size, but also the length from needle tip to tip. Circular needles are quite versatile. Despite the name, they are not only used for circular knitting such as seamless sweaters, hats and cowls, but can be used to knit flat items such as afghans and scarves and and seamed items. Circular needles come a wide array of lengths from 8-60 inches. The needles 20 inches long and less have shorter rigid sections to be flexible enough to form a circle and some find this can cause hand cramps. Needles longer than 20 inches generally have a rigid section of 5-6 inches which many find more comfortable to work with.
When choosing the length of circular needle to purchase keep in mind that it should be smaller than the circumference of the knitting when knitting in the round. Circular needles can comfortably hold up to 40% more knitting circumference than their total length in the shorter sizes and as much as 50-60% more circumference than the total length in the longer sizes. Generally a slightly crowded circular needle can be knit faster than one that is a near match in length to the circumference being knit. Some projects may require the use of several different lengths at various points in the knitting process. When knitting flat on a circular needle the length is not important as long as it can accommodate the full width of the project.
There are also two methods of knitting smaller circumferences on circular needles instead of dpns. For the two circular method one half of the total circumference is knit as though flat on each of two circular needles. If knitting only one item at a time using this method one can use needles as short as 16 inches though many prefer 24 inches. If you are new to the two circular method using two different lengths and/or two different needle materials can make it easier. You may need a slightly longer length if you are working two items at a time such as two socks or two sleeves.
The second method is called magic loop and involves pulling excess cable out at the half way point in the circumference and working one half of the circumference at a time. For the magic loop method the 40 inch length is generally recommended, though some may use a 36 inch. As with the two circular method you may wish for a longer length if you are working two items at a time.
Summary of Lengths
- 8-12″ are short lengths sometimes used for sleeves, mittens and socks, more options are available in these lengths now, the needle sections are quite short and some find using them can cause hand cramping, others love them.
- 16-20″ are often used for the body and brims of hats or the bodies of baby and children’s sweaters, for many companies these lengths have shorter needle sections than their longer counterparts and some find the short length less comfortable. These lengths can be used for knitting socks, mittens and legwarmers when using the two circulars method if you are knitting them one at a time, though most prefer 24″.
- 24-30″ a common size used for child and average women’s sweater bodies as well as baby and lap blankets, for most companies these sizes (and up) have a bit longer needle portion that many find more comfortable, the 24″ length is often preferred for knitting in the round on two circular needles and is required if knitting smaller circumference items two at a time such as socks.
- 32-36″ a common size used for many adult sweaters as well as shawls and some baby and lap blankets, the 36″ length is considered the shortest possible length to use for the magic loop method of knitting in the round, a 32 or 36″ is a good length for knitting slightly larger items two at a time with two circulars such as sweater sleeve.
- 40-46″ this size is the preferred size for magic loop knitting, it is also a good length for lots of afghans or plus-sized sweaters with body circumferences of 48″ and up
- 60″ is most often used for large projects such as blankets or shawls that are knit in the round and thus have a large outside circumference.
As you can see, each type of knitting needle has its purpose. Some types are a bit more versatile than others, but ultimately the best needle type for you is the one you most enjoy working with for the types of projects you like to knit. Once you have the needle type narrowed down you still need to decide upon the needle material. Come back for a discussion on needle materials soon.