white bulky yarn on circular knitting needles

Knitting in the round – an introduction to circular knitting

You may have heard the terms flat knitting and circular knitting and wondered what they mean, or maybe you are well aware of what circular knitting is, but you have not yet dared to attempt it. Then this post is for you. I will introduce you to the knitting needles that we use when knitting in the round (the other term for circular knitting), how it works, and how to cast on and finally, I will point you to a hat tutorial that’s the perfect project for your first time knitting in the round.

Don’t worry, like most things in knitting, it’s easier than it looks.

What is flat & circular knitting?

two panel image showing flat and circular knitting
Flat knitting results in squares or rectangles of knitted fabric. Circular knitting results in seamless tubes of knitted fabric.

Almost all new knitters start by learning to knit flat on straight, single-pointed knitting needles. Those are the needles that look the way that knitting needles are supposed to look. You start with all the stitches on the left-hand needle, and then you knit the stitches onto the right-hand needle, and when you have completed the row, you turn the work over, so that what was the right-hand needle becomes the left-hand needle, and you knit another row on the other side of the fabric. Knitting back and forth like this produces either squares or rectangles of knitted fabric. That makes it easy to do projects such as dishcloths and scarves.

You can introduce shape to your flat knitting with decreases and increases (removing or adding stitches while knitting) to produce for example a triangular shawl. You can also turn your knitted rectangles into tubes by sewing the edges together and make things like fingerless gloves, or if you do quite a bit of sewing, even sweaters.

Circular knitting is an alternative, and for most people the preferred method whenever you are knitting anything that involves tubes of knitted fabric. Think socks, hats, summer tops, sweaters, gloves, legwarmers – in other words, clothing. You join the cast on stitches together to form a circle, and then you knit in a spiral to form seamless tubes. You can probably knit anything flat if you really want to, and sew it into shape afterward, but it certainly is easier to knit fitted garments in the round. You need special knitting needles for knitting in the round. The two basic types are double-pointed needles and circular needles.

Knitting needles for knitting in the round

Double pointed needles and circular knitting needles
Knitting needles used for knitting in the round: Circular needles either with a fixed cable or an interchangeable one, and double-pointed needles.

Circular knitting needles

Circular needles are two knitting needles connected with a flexible cable. You use them by casting on enough stitches to fill the cable and the needles from tip to tip and then you “join in the round” to begin knitting your tube. This means the length of the cable matters. With regular straight knitting needles, the only important size parameter is the diameter of the needles, but for circular needles, you have to use needles with the right combination of size (diameter) and length. The length is measured from needle tip to needle tip, and generally, you want to use needles that are a bit shorter than the circumference you want to knit. You can buy circular needles either with a fixed-length cable, or as a set where you get a variety of needle sizes and cable lengths, and you can mix and match them to suit the project you want to knit.

A couple of inches of circular knitting
Circular knitting in 2-by-2 ribbing on 16″ (40 cm) circular needles. That’s the length used for knitting hats.

Circular needles can also be used to knit flat

Although you will probably have learned to knit flat on straight, single-pointed needles, it is just as easy to knit flat on circular needles. That makes circular needles more versatile since you cannot use single-pointed needles for knitting in the round. In fact, many knitters swear by circular needles and never use straight needles at all. Time will tell what you will prefer. Personally, I like both depending on the project. If you are knitting a really large flat piece, like a blanket or a rug, then you will definitely want to use circular needles with a nice, long cable. The cable can easily accommodate hundreds of live stitches, and it takes the weight of the blanket off the needles, so you can knit without strain.

Flat knitting on circular needles
Circular needles are not only used for circular knitting – they can also be used for knitting flat pieces. The length of the cable is less important when you are knitting flat.

Double pointed knitting needles

Double pointed needles are straight with two pointed ends and come in sets of 4 or 5 needles. They are sometimes called sock needles because they are traditionally used for knitting socks. You use them by dividing the stitches on to 3 or 4 of the needles in a set, and then you join in the round. The remaining needle is used to knit the stitches from the first needle, and then when that needle is empty, you use it to knit from the second needle, and so forth. I will write a future article specifically about double pointed needles and how to use them.

Knitting in the round on double pointed needles
Knitting in the round on double-pointed needles (DPNs). The stitches are divided between 3 or 4 needles. It takes a little getting used to handling the many needles, but you only deal with two needles at a time.

Double pointed needles are well suited for anything with a really small circumference, but there are also other types of knitting needles that are specifically designed for small circumference knitting, and there are tricks that allow you to knit in the round with circular needles with a cable that is too long for the circumference of your knitwork. I will also cover this topic in the future.

Casting on to circular needles and joining in the round

Casting on to circular needles is no different from casting on to straight needles. You can use whatever cast-on method you prefer. You cast on to one of the two needles of the circulars, and as the needle fills with stitches you push them back to the cable to make room for more stitches. You will want to keep your cast on nice and loose. If you have a tendency to cast on too tight, then it might be an idea to cast on to a needle one size larger than what you want to knit with, and then transfer the stitches to the correct needle size. If you prefer, you can even cast on to a straight needle, and then transfer the stitches to the circular needles. Just don’t drop any. Here’s a video from Howcast by Jessica Kaufman showing the longtail cast-on for circular needles. Jessica highlights the importance of making sure the stitches fit comfortably on your needles so that you don’t need to stretch the stitches to join the round.

Joining the round

Once you’ve cast on, it’s time to join the round and start knitting. First, you will want to make sure that all the stitches are facing the same way. They should not twist around the cable.

Stitches about to be joined in the round on circular knitting needles
It’s important to check that the stitches are not twisted on the needles, before joining knitting in the round. The cast-on chain should lie flat on the inside of the cable of the circular needles. Notice that the stitches fill the cable and reach from tip to tip. With circular knitting, it’s important to use circular needles with the correct cable length for a given project. Patterns will tell you what length you need.

Hold the needles so that the needle which has the working yarn attached to it is in your right hand, and the other needle is in your left hand. Bring the tips together, and insert the right needle tip into the first stitch on the left needle and make a knit stitch. Make sure you knit with the working yarn (the yarn attached to the ball of yarn) and not the yarn tail. You have now joined the round. Place a ring stitch marker here before knitting the next stitch. That marker will help you count your rounds. When you reach the marker again, you slip it from the left to the right needle and you will know that you have completed one round. Just like it’s often important to count your rows in flat knitting, it’s important to count your rounds in circular knitting.

photo of how to join in the round with written step-by-step guide
You join in the round by simply knitting the first stitch on the left-hand needle using the working yarn attached to the right-hand needle.

Here’s a nice demonstration from Webs by Sara Delaney of how to join in the round.

Always knitting on the right side

In knitting, we talk about the “right side” and the “wrong side” of the work. If you are knitting a garment such as a sweater, the outside is the right side, and the inside is the wrong side. When you are knitting something like a scarf it can be a little more tricky to recognize the right side and the wrong side. For some stitch patterns, both sides of the fabric look identical or near-identical, while for others it’s obvious that there’s a pretty side meant for being shown to the world, the right side, and a less pretty backside, the wrong side. Even when the two sides look almost identical, most patterns require you to know which side is which.

When we are knitting flat, we knit on both sides of the work, because we turn it over every time we reach the end of a row. On the contrary, for circular knitting, we are always knitting on the right side of the work, the outside of the knitted tube. That makes a difference to the pattern required to make a given stitch pattern. As an example, here are the patterns for both flat and circular knitting for the first two stitch patterns that new knitters learn – garter stitch and stockinette:

The pattern differences between garter stitch and stockinette for flat and circular knitting
The patterns for garter stitch and stockinette stitch are switched from flat knitting to circular knitting because when you knit in the round you are only working on the right side of the fabric.

Prevent knitting inside out

During the first few rounds of circular knitting, you can easily lose track of which way you’re knitting if you put your knitwork down for a minute or two. That can result in accidentally knitting on the inside of the work, and it will mess with your pattern. I’ve written an article about how you make sure, you are knitting on the right side of the knitwork when knitting in the round.

Your first knitted hat

Okay, it’s time for you to try your first project knitted in the round! I recommend starting with a chunky hat. It’s a fast and simple project, and you will learn all the basics of circular knitting. It’s always good to learn new techniques on small projects, and the chunky yarn will make the knitting even faster. Sheep & Stitch has a fantastic free tutorial for the perfect starter hat. The hat is knitted with chunky yarn on size US 15 (10 mm) circular needles with a cable length of 16 inches, and a set of US 15 (10 mm) double-pointed needles. You need the double-pointed needles for the top of the hat when the circumference is too small for the 16-inch circulars.

If you don’t have any circular and double-pointed needles yet, nor any experience with them, then I will advise you to start with bamboo needles and a fixed cable for the circulars. It could be Clover Takumi (for my US readers) or SeeKnit Koshitsu (for my DK readers), but there are many other good options. It’s probably too soon to buy a full set of interchangeable needles. Good quality interchangeable needles are an investment, and before you spend that kind of money, you will want to know what type of needles you prefer. Are you a metal, wood or bamboo kind of knitter? Are you all about the sharp tips, or do they hurt your fingers? How flexible would you like your cable to be? There are so many options. It’s cheaper to get started with a bamboo hat set of 16-inch circulars and matching DPNs. I am sure you will love chunky hats so much that you will use them again and again, making hats for all your friends and family. Of course, if you already know metal needles are your friends, you can use this an opportunity to find out which metal circulars are going to be your favorites.

chunky knitted hat in malabrigo rasta
The Chunky Hat for Beginners from Sheep & Stitch was my first knitted hat as well. I chose to knit it with Malabrigo Rasta yarn in the colorway Arco Iris, and then I added a pom pom. Here’s a guide for how to attach faux fur pom poms.

The pattern and tutorial are free, but please consider buying the PDF version of the pattern to support the designer. Here is the Sheep & Stitch Chunky Hat for Beginners Pattern, and the video tutorial is below.

I welcome questions and comments

What is your experience with circular knitting? Have you tried it yet, or have you been hesitant to try it? Do you love or hate circular needles? What topics regarding circular knitting would you like me to write about next?

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