When starting a project, knitters always start by choosing either his or her yarn or pattern. No matter how comfortable a pair of needles feels to a particular person, the size and type of needle tends not to influence a project decision. Of the three main types of knitting needles (straight, double-pointed, and circular), circular needles are the most versatile and useful for most projects.
Straight knitting needles are most common for small- to medium-sized projects, beginners, and for knitters who anchor one needle for stability. The two most popular sizes are ten inches and fourteen inches, with the longer needles able to accommodate a larger number of stitches. Double-pointed needles are just as they sound; they have a point at each end of the needle to allow for knitting in the round. Double-pointed needles are excellent for making i-cords and any project requiring a very small number of stitches, like napkin rings.
Circular needles actually give the knitter the best combination of straight- and double-pointed needles. It is basically just one long double-pointed needle, but instead of a straight stick, there is a flexible cable in various lengths which connects the two ends of the needle and allows you to knit by using each end at the same time. This means that not only can circular needles be used for knitting in the round, but they can also be used for “flat” knitting or back-and-forth knitting while holding a very large number of stitches. If a pattern note says something like, “piece is worked flat on circular needles to accommodate a large number of stitches,” the pattern is telling you that it calls for too many stitches to be comfortably squished onto straight needles.
Projects that require circular needles will usually also mention what length cable is needed in the pattern instructions. This is important when a piece is being knit in the round, but if you are knitting flat, you can use any circular needle larger than the recommended length in the instructions. Because of this, you can use pretty much any circular needle in place of straight needles.
Circular needles come in several sizes ranging from just nine inches to well over forty inches. Shawls and afghans, for instance, may call for a forty-inch circular needle because your project may have hundreds of live stitches at a time. The smallest needles are usually reserved for knitting socks, and the knitter will either use one circular needle or, more commonly, two of the same size to be used just like double-pointed needles.
Another benefit of circular needles is that unlike straight needles and double-points, circulars can be interchangeable. Sets are available to interchange the various cables with different-sized needles, eliminating the need to purchase every size of every needle you may need some day. These kits are available through various companies including Knit Picks and Lion Brand Yarn.
Circular needles have more uses than just tubular knitting and flat knitting. By learning different ways to use them, you can become a very versatile knitter! For instance, when knitting socks, a circular needle can be used as a stitch-holder for your idle stitches while you knit your heel flap, and because of its longer length and flexibility, accidentally pulling the needle out of the stitches is less likely. The Magic Loop technique is also a great way to use a very long circular needle to make a very small tube, such as a baby hat or tube socks.
Other great uses for circular needles include holding a provisional cast-on row to knit in the other direction at a later time, and holding two pieces next to each other before seaming together.
While there is some flexibility in choosing which knitting needles a knitter will use for a project, circular needles are often an option simply because they are the most flexible choice, both physically and logistically. They can be used just like straight needles by turning work at the end of a row, and then each point is used like one straight needle. The flexible cable also offers many more uses than just the act of knitting. Even if you prefer straight- or double-pointed needles, a circular needle is a great tool to have in every knitter’s bag because of its versatility.