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The 3 types of knitting needles explained (with pictures)

Think of knitting needles and you see 2 long pointy sticks, right? But there’s actually 3 different types of needles you can knit with. As well as the classic long straight knitting needles for knitting flat pieces, there are shorter double pointed needles for knitting small items like socks in the round. Finally there’s circular knitting needles, which can be used to knit almost everything. 

Straight knitting needles are used for flat knitting

13 inch (top) and 10 inch (bottom) straight knitting needles
Standard 13 inch straight knitting needles (top) with shorter 10 inch straights, ideal for beginners, below

Straight knitting needles are the most common type. Most people still learn to knit using straight needles today.

Straight needles come in pairs. Each long needle has a knob at one end at a pointed tip at the other. So they’re also known as single pointed needles.

If you’re a complete beginner, a pair of 10 inch size 8 US (5 mm) straight knitting needles is ideal for learning to knit.

You use straight needles to knit back and forth in rows. You alternate between knitting right side rows and then turning your work to knit a row on the wrong side. 

This method is known as knitting flat, because you end up with a flat piece of knitted fabric. You can knit 3d objects by joining multiple flat knitted pieces together though. For example, to knit a sweater with straight needles, you make 4 separate pieces: the front, the back and 2 sleeves. Then you seam them together to turn your flat knitted pieces into a sweater.

An alternative approach is to knit 3d shapes as one piece instead. This is called knitting in the round, but you need to use either double pointed needles or circular knitting needles for this. You can’t use straight needles to knit in the round.

Double pointed needles (or DPNs) are used for knitting in the round

Double pointed needles (abbreviated to DPNs) are short rods with pointed tips at both ends. They usually come in sets of 5, but sometimes there are 4 or 6 needles instead. 

Sets of 5 inch (top), 6 inch (middle) and 8 inch (bottom) double pointed knitting needles
Sets of 5 inch (top), 6 inch (middle) and 8 inch (bottom) DPNs.

Double pointed needles are most often used to knit smaller accessories, like socks, gloves and hats, in one piece.

Instead of having all your stitches on one long straight knitting needle, you divide your stitches among 3-4 double pointed needles instead. By joining the first and last needles together, you knit a tube shape instead of a flat piece. This is called knitting in the round.

When knitting in the round, you knit round and round in rounds rather than knitting back and forth in rows. The right side of your work always faces you. This means you can do stockinette or stocking stitch by just doing knit stitches without any purl stitches. Perfect for mindless TV knitting.

Circular knitting needles can knit almost anything

A circular knitting needle is a single piece with short pointed needle tips at each end connected by a length of smooth plastic cord.

A 24 inch circular needle shown inside a longer 40 inch circular knitting needle
A shorter 24 inch wooden interchangeable circular knitting needle (inside) with a longer 40 inch metal fixed circular needle (outside)

You need to use circular needles to knit wider pieces that won’t fit on straight needles like one piece blankets. You also need them to knit large circumference items in the round e.g. modern seamless sweaters or scandi style colorwork yoke sweaters knit in one piece.  

Circular needles have soared in popularity in recent years. Many modern sweater knitting patterns are designed to be knit in the round seamlessly. 

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

Another attraction is magic loop knitting, which lets you knit smaller items, like socks, in the round using a long circular needle instead of double pointed needles.   

While circular needles are most associated with knitting in the round, you can also use circulars to knit back and forth in rows. So you actually never need to use straight knitting needles at all if you prefer circulars.  Find out more about when it’s best to use circulars & the advantages of circulars over straight knitting needles.

TIP: You can always use a circular needle instead of a straight knitting needle, but not vice versa.  

It’s still best to use DPNs for knitting tiny circumferences, e.g. glove fingers or small toys or decorations, but you can use circular needles for knitting everything else.

I highly recommend every knitter tries both circulars and straight needles, to see which they prefer. Much comes down to personal preference and needle choice can make a big difference to how much you enjoy your knitting.

Fixed vs interchangeable circular needles

Interchangeable circular knitting needles have separate needle tips and cords so you can mix and match as needed
Interchangeable circular knitting needles have detachable needle tips and cords so you can mix and match them

Finally, it’s useful to know that there are 2 types of circular knitting needles: fixed and interchangeable.   The standard fixed type have a set length and size, like all other types of knitting needle. But interchangeable circular needles let you separate the needle tips from the connecting cord. So you can easily switch needle sizes and cable lengths. It’s pretty nifty.

Instead of having to buy a separate circular needle for every size and length (and store oodles of long dangly needles) you just need 1 pair of needle tips for each size, a few cheap cords & you can mix and match as needed.  

I hope this guide has helped explain all about straight, circular and double pointed knitting needles, so that you know which is best to use for your projects. Got any questions? So you prefer straights or circulars? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.

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