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Does knitting needle length matter?

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Knitting needle size or thickness matters a lot, but what about the length? Knitting needles are not all the same length. Here are the reasons why. Plus how to choose the best needle length for your knitting projects. 

Why are knitting needles different lengths?

Knitting needles come in different lengths to cater for knitting different size projects and also personal preferences. You need much longer needles to knit an adult sweater than small items like toys or baby clothes, because you need to fit a lot more stitches on your knitting needle. 

Project size aside, some knitters prefer to knit with long straight needles that they can tuck under their arm as they knit. Others find shorter needles much easier to manage. 

Is it better to have longer or shorter knitting needles?

The ideal knitting needle length depends on the size of what you are making.

Standard length straight knitting needles (13 inch approx) are suitable for a wide range of projects including adult sweaters. You could also use these full length needles to knit small items like toys, decorations and tiny baby booties. But it’s more comfortable to use shorter knitting needles when making small things with a low stitch count.

If you are using other types of knitting needles (circulars or double pointed) instead, the optimal length also depends on the project type. See below for more info.

Straight knitting needles in standard 13 inch length (top) and shorter 10 inch length (below)
Standard length 13 inch straight needles with shorter 10 inch needles, ideal for beginners, below

What length straight knitting needles do I need?

Standard length straight knitting needles (also known as single pointed) are 12-14 inches (30-35cm) long & work well for most projects. 

If you’re a complete beginner learning to knit, slightly shorter 10 inch (25 cm) knitting needles are ideal. They’re easier to hold and control while you are getting the hang of making stitches. You can still learn to knit fine with longer needles, it just feels a bit more awkward and cumbersome at first. Don’t worry, it’s not just you!

10 inch straight needles are also a great choice for knitting small pieces like toys and baby clothes. While you can of course still knit these with standard length needles, it’s much easier to knit things with fewer stitches on either shorter single pointed needles or even double pointed needles. It’s amazing the difference a few less inches makes.

There are also shorter 7-8 inch (18-20 cm) knitting needles for children usually made from lightweight plastic. These are easier for small hands to manage but grown ups might like using them too.

At the other end of the scale, you can get extra long 16 inch (40 cm) straight knitting needles, which can be used for knitting wider items like afghans. I recommend circular needles for knitting one piece blankets & other large pieces instead though. It’s much handier and easier on the wrists too. I’ve more blanket knitting tips here.

What length double pointed needles do I need?

The most popular double pointed needle lengths are 6 inches (15cm) and 8 inches (20 cm), but lengths can range from 4-10 inches (10-25 cm).

You need 5-6 inch double pointed needles to knit socks and gloves. You use longer 7-8 inch DPNs for knitting larger items in the round like hats.

A set of 6 inch double pointed needles is suitable for most small to medium projects. I’m partial to Knitter’s Pride / KnitPro Symfonie wooden DPNs. They’re lovely and smooth to knit with.

I find shorter 5 inch DPNs the most comfortable for working in the round. They’re a nice manageable length without long pointy ends sticking out everywhere. But when you get to the wider parts of a sock or glove, the stitches get very crowded and can easily drop off. So 6 inch long double pointed needles work best overall and are the most versatile length.

Sets of 5 inch (top), 6 inch (middle) and 8 inch (bottom) double pointed knitting needles
5 inch (top), 6 inch (middle) and 8 inch (bottom) double pointed needles. 6 inch work well for most projects.

Does the length of circular knitting needles matter?

The cord length in circular knitting needles is all important. If you are knitting with circulars in the usual way, your circular needle length must be less than the diameter of your knitting.

In contrast, if you’re knitting small items in the round using the modern magic loop technique, the longer the cable the better. 

How do you measure the length of a circular needle?

You measure the length of a circular needle by laying it out flat and measuring the full length from one needle tip end right across to the other needle tip. So the circular needle length is the combined length of the cord and the 2 needle tips, rather than just the cord length.

That’s why a 40 inch cable for interchangeable circular needles is a good bit shorter than 40 inches. The idea is that when you screw your needle tips on to the cord, your circular needle will measure 40 inches in total.

What is the best length for circular needles?

The best length for circular needles depends on what you are knitting. Circular needles come in a wide range of lengths from a  tiny 6 inches (15 cm) to a massive 80 inches (200 cm).

24 inch (60cm) circular needle (centre) with a longer 40 inch (100cm) circular outside it.
A 24 inch (60cm) circular needle shown inside a longer 40 inch (100cm) circular

The most common circular needle length is 32 inches (80 cm) which is quite versatile and useful for knitting both flat (back and forth) as well as in the round.

If you’re doing conventional knitting in the round with circular needles, the golden rule is that you must use a needle shorter than the circumference of what you’re knitting.  

So a 32-40 inch (80-100 cm) circular needle works best for knitting a sweater body in the round whereas a 16 inch (40 cm) length circular is usually used for knitting a hat.

A circular needle can be used for knitting up to twice its width according to Vogue Knitting – The Ultimate Knitting Book (page 115). So you could use a 32 inch circular needle to knit a sweater right up to a 64 inch chest. Using a longer cable would still be preferable at larger sizes because your stitches would be less crowded on your needle.

If you’re using the modern magic loop method to knit small circumferences like sleeves, socks and gloves, the longer the circular needle the better.

Magic loop works by having a long loop of cord hanging out each side of your knitting. If your circular needle is too short, these loops won’t be quite right. They need to be quite long so that they don’t stretch or distort the stitches beside them. I find 48-60 inch (120-150 cm) circulars work best for magic loop knitting. I’ve sometimes made do with standard 32 inch (80cm) length circulars, but the magic loop technique works much better with very long cables.

Curious about magic loop knitting? Check out my circulars vs double pointed needles guide.

Magic Loop knitting in progress
Magic loop knitting in progress with a 40 inch (100cm) circular needle

Change circular lengths with interchangeable needles 

If you get into knitting with circular needles, you’ll need various lengths depending on the project. You may need to mix different cable lengths on the same project too. For example, knit the body of a seamless sweater with a 32 inch circular, but switch to a much longer cord to knit the sleeves with magic loop. Or perhaps you’re knitting a shawl flat with circulars, and prefer to use a shorter circular near the start when there are fewer stitches.

This is one reason why I highly recommend interchangeable circular needles. Fixed circular needles have the cord permanently attached, so you need to buy a circular needle for each length you need. But interchangeable needles let you remove the needle tips. So you can easily switch needle sizes and cable lengths. Pretty neat, eh?

Interchangeable circular knitting needles are a similar price to fixed circulars, but they work out much better value in the long run. Instead of having to buy multiple circular needles in different lengths, you buy just one pair of needle tips and attach different length cables to them as needed.

I love my KnitPro symfonie wooden interchangeable circulars (known as Knitter’s Pride Dreamz in the US). I’ve been slowly replacing my straight knitting needles with different sizes of these, project by project. If you’ve never used circulars I’d encourage you to give them a try, because you could be missing out too. Find out more in my circular needles guide here.

I hope this post has helped explain why knitting needles come in different lengths & which needle lengths work best for straight, circular and double pointed needles knitting. If you’re still confused about anything, just leave a comment below and I’ll try my best to help.

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