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How to know when to use circular knitting needles

Knitting with circular needles is growing ever more popular. Most associated with knitting in the round, circular knitting needles are extremely versatile and can be used for most knitting patterns if you wish. This guide covers when you need to use circulars and the advantages they have over straight needles, so you can choose the right needles for your project.

When should you use circular knitting needles?

Knitting in the Round  e.g. socks, gloves, some sweaters etc

Knitting in the round means knitting a 3D tube shape instead of a flat piece of fabric. This method is used for knitting socks and gloves. It’s also very popular for knitting hats and sweaters, but there are lots of knitting patterns to knit those flat with straight needles if you prefer.

You need either a circular knitting needle or a set of 4-5 special short straight needles called double pointed needles (DPNs) to knit in the round. But only a circular needle will work for knitting items with a large circumference in the round e.g. the body of a sweater. Read more in my circular needles vs DPNs guide here. 

Learn how to knit in the round with a circular needle in my step by step beginners guide and video tutorial.

You’re limited to only knitting flat pieces with a pair of straight knitting needles. Of course, you can still create all sorts of 3D shapes by seaming flat knitted shapes together. For example, you can make a tube with straight needles by knitting one long flat piece and then stitching the left and right edges together.

You need either a circular needle (left) or a set of DPNs (right) to knit in the round
You need either a circular needle (left) or a set of DPNs (right) to knit in the round

Knitting a large piece of fabric e.g. a one piece blanket

If you’re using straight needles, you can only fit a certain number of stitches on a standard 12-14 inch knitting needle. This limits the width of what you can knit.

So if you want to knit a blanket in one piece, you’ll need to use a circular knitting needle instead, with a long enough cord to accommodate all your stitches.

Common 32 or 40 inch (80 or 100 cm) circular needles are popular lengths for knitting small to medium size blankets. But you can get extra long cables up to 60 inches (150 cm) for larger blankets.

Vogue Knitting – The Ultimate Knitting Book says you can knit a piece double the width of your circular needle. So you should be able to knit a blanket up to 80 inches wide on a 40 inch circular for example. It could be more comfortable to use a slightly longer cable instead so your stitches have more room though.

Can I use circular needles instead of straight?

Yes. In fact, you can knit any pattern for straight needles using circular needles instead. You still knit everything flat and won’t need to make any changes at all to the pattern. You can work flat, knitting back and forth in rows, with a circular needle the very same way as with straight needles.

If you have only ever used straight needles, you may think using circular needles looks strange and complex. When I first got back into knitting as an adult, I showed up at a local knitting group with my straights to find the majority knitting with circulars. It all looked so alien to me. I couldn’t get my head around it at all! 

TIP: If you find circular needles confusing, imagine your straight knitting needles have a bit of string connecting them, like a child’s mittens. That’s all a circular needle is. See my circular needles for straight needle knitters guide.

So circular needles are versatile and can be used for traditional flat knitting as well as knitting in the round. You can use them to knit almost anything. I still use double pointed needles (DPNs) for knitting very small circumferences in the round e.g. glove fingers or small toys or ornaments. But otherwise I knit everything with circulars. They’ve changed my life!

5mm interchangeable circular knitting needle from KnitPro / Knitter's Pride
A 5mm circular knitting needle with short needle tips connected by a long cable. This one is interchangeable, meaning the tips screw off so you can use the same tips with different cable lengths & easily change needle size too.

Advantages of circular needles vs straight needles

While regular straight knitting needles are the most well known & widely available, modern circular knitting needles have many advantages. Here are 7 ways circular needles make knitting easier.

Having learned to knit as a child, I knit on and off for 15 years on straight needles. But once I finally gave circular needles a go, I was an instant convert. I now use my beloved interchangeable needles for almost all my knitting because of all the benefits circular needles offer.

Should beginners use circular knitting needles?

Beginners can learn to knit using circular needles, but it’s more common to learn to knit with straight needles for the following reasons.

  1. More beginner knitting learning resources use straight needles (classes, books, video tutorials etc).
  2. Straight needles are more widely available. There are usually cheaper options for straights too.
  3. There’s only one type of straight needles so they’re easier to buy. Circular needles have complications like cable lengths or whether they are fixed or interchangeable.

Circular needles are a relatively modern invention, whereas straight needles have been around for hundreds of years. So it makes sense that there are more resources available for straight needles.

Circular needles have many advantages, so I’d definitely encourage beginner knitters to experiment with them sooner rather than later. By trying both straight and circular knitting needles, you can find out which you prefer before you spend lots of money buying different knitting needle sizes.

If you’re keen to learn to knit on circular needles from the off, check with local and online classes to ensure they can cater for this before booking.

Would you be interested in a free learn to knit with circular needles video tutorial? Let me know 

I hope this guide has helped explain how to know when to use circular needles. While many knitting in the round patterns or making one-piece blankets requires circulars, you can knit many projects with either straight or circular needles. It’s often just down to personal preference. So I encourage you to try both type of needles to see which you enjoy using most.

Got any questions? Do you prefer circulars or straights? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.

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