Saturday, February 10, 2007

Flat knitting (back and forth) on circular needles--how and why

back and forth on circular needlesclick picture

Is it a mystery to you how it is possible to knit flat objects back-and-forth on circular needles? If it isn't a mystery now, I'll bet it once was.

Here is the secret: Think of each tip as a separate needle. Cast on the stitches you want. Next, put the tip formerly in your right hand into your left hand, the tip formerly in your left hand into your right hand. The fact that the tips are joined around the back need not concern you at all. Knit normally. When you've knitted all the stitches off one tip, turn the whole business around by again putting the tip formerly in your right hand into your left hand, and the tip formerly in your left hand into your right hand. Keep on doing this until it all makes sense.


Why, you might be asking yourself, would anyone want to knit back and forth on circular needles? Why not just use straight needles?

There are a few reasons.
  • Less lethal: It's actually scary to watch a 6 year old zooming in for a hug when mom is working a pair of long straights.
  • Public knitting: At conferences, seminars, movies--wherever others may think that you're not "supposed" to be knitting--circulars eliminate the distinctive clang of one needle hitting the floor... at crowded events you're less likely to lose a needle. .. you're less likely to poke the stranger in the next seat on a packed plane, bus or subway.
  • Security: A long pair of nice pointy aluminium 10 1/2's at the airport? Maybe not... Same size in circulars? You've probably got a better chance. Circulars pack better too. (Remember--if you're traveling abroad, even if those long sharp things are OK at the US end--as knitting needles currently are--they might not be when it's time to go through security at a foreign airport to come home again.)

For heavy work with lots of stitches, there is a division of opinion as to whether long straight needles or circular needles are better. In my opinion, circular needles will give nearly every knitter a better result--although some straight-needle knitters strongly disagree. Here is the debate laid out:

Some straight-needle knitters stabilize their straight needles by using very long ones, tucking one (or more) under their arm.

click picturelong straight needle tucked under arm
This is a modern version of the knitting belts and sheaths used by the old production knitters (and some traditional knitters even up to this day). Once long straights are stabilized in this way, the weight of the work is also transferred. This method of efficiency leaves the fingertips free to maniplate the stitches without having to carry the weight of the fabric. There are other ways to stabilize long straight needles also--some knitters tuck the needles into their sleeves, and I once saw a knitter with her left needle tucked into her watchband. Some of the very fastest knitters of all times knit with a stabilized needle or needles.

HOWEVER, few US knitters knit with sheaths or belts--and most straight-needle knitters do not stabilize their ends, or transfer any weight by tucking. Realistically, therefore, the choice is is often between straight needles held in the hands (ends left untucked) and circular needles.

Under these circumstances, I think that circular needles have a better chance of yielding a superior result for flat back and forth knitting of large objects.

With circular needles, the needles are attached by the cable. This allows both hands to support the weight of the work even at the end of a row of 274 stitches, for example. With straight needles, all these stitches would be all bunched up on one needle or another at every row end, but with circulars, the work stays mainly on the cables, with only a few stitches on either tip. Stated otherwise, the shape of the circular needle cable and tips lets a lot of the weight of the work rest in your lap. If all those stitches were hanging from one needle, as they would be at the end of every row knitted on long straights, that'd be a lot of weight to swing around with every stitch--exhausting work, actually, and the weight shift from hand to hand often makes the gauge go off.

Also, the cable of a circular needle is a smaller diameter than the tips. That makes it possible to squish a LOT of stitches along the cable. In fact, you can squish a whole back-and-forth sweater on even a too-small pair of circular needles, a trick pretty much unfeasible on even the longest straights.



Clair St. Michel said...

OK, I am now convinced! I will try some circular needles soon. Thanks for the advice. I was a little worried about stabbing someone, actually.

Bells said...

I'm a big fan of this style of knitting. You just explained all the reasons why I love it, so thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for helping a dyslexic knitter out-- I LOVE the color-coded diagram! I may be busting out the label-maker to code each needle.

christinemm said...

I am new to knitting and after two projects that were heavy switched to knitting on circulars just for the weight issue. My hands were cramping holding up the straight needle with lots of yarn on it.

Also since I am new I felt I saved money by buying a kit of bamboo needles with circular attachments instead of buying a zillion straight needles plus circulars for when those are required.

Anonymous said...

This does generally work much better, but I've found one problem. Is there a technique for wrapping for drop stitch (esp. if two wraps) that won't make you want to tear your hair out on the next row when you're ready to knit it and it's closed up on the skinny cable?

Anonymous said...

Thanks really helped :)

Anonymous said...

I went from having no idea what switching sides of my knitting in circular needles to finally understanding it by you pointing out put your Right hand needle in your Left hand needle and thats all I needed to figure it out


John Mack said...

My sister will definitely enjoy this! I know she knits but I don't think I've ever seen or heard of circular knitting needles before. Thanks!

nana said...

Round needles are SO much better! You never lose your "other" needle, and everything is so much more compact. I have a 40" round needle that I'm using now -- had to go up to 480 sts! -- now I'm back to 240, working down to 120. NO WAY I could do it on straight needles -- nor would I want to. Try it -- I promise you'll like it!