Friday, March 16, 2007

Knitting seamless tubes & circles-part 2: the theory

The first post of this series tried to convince you of the wisdom of learning to make seamless tubes and circles. Today's post examines the theory What is the theory behind the voodoo of double pointed needles, as well as magic loop.

Future posts will get down to the actual (k)nitty-gritty--how to hold 4 (5?) needles with two hands, how to cast on, all that good stuff. But for today, we're not going to worry about how the stitches are cast on, or how they find their way from one needle to the next, or ladders, or any of that stuff. Today, we're just going to look at some stitches ALREADY ON the needles. Today, we're dealing with--

The THEORY of seamless tubes and circles 101

The traditional way of knitting small tubes or circles is with 4 or 5 double pointed needles (dpn's). But nobody has that many hands, and the thing looks horribly complicated. The alternate non-traditional method--using one very long circular needle--a method called "Magic loop"-- also looks complex.

Given how un-intuitive these methods seem, there must be a pretty good reason why they're so popular. So what is that reason? What's with all those needles, all those darn loops?


The deal is this: double pointed needles (dpn's) allow your knitting to choose its own natural diameter. This is true whether you are knitting a pass-through tube (sleeve) or a dead-end tube (hat, sock, mitten)--or any flat circle (lace shawl, hat top)--on dpn's these items all get to find their natural diameter without any stretching.

An example: per the illustration below, if you have a tube of 44 stitches, and you put that on four dpn's, you'll have 11 stitches on each of the four needles, right? Each SET of 11 stitches can just sit in the middle of its own personal needle, taking up exactly 11 stitches worth of needle-room. The stitches in each set never need to stretch their way down the length of the needle. Any unused lengths of needle just turn into naked needle ends sticking out PAST either end of the set. As a result, the tube gets to hang down from the needles in its natural shape--at its natural diameter.

Now, the thing is, the naked needle ends on the dpn's are free to overlap one another as much or as little as necessary. That's what makes the dpn system so very flexible. On the illustration below, if you were to increase one stitch per set--so you had 12 stitches on each of 4 needles, each needle would have less naked needle-end, and more of each needle would be taken up with stitches. In this way the tube would remain free to find its own diameter.

So it all boils down to this: stitches on dpn's don't have to stretch ALONG the needle--the excess needle just sticks out. That means there's no gap between the stitches of one set. But, how about the gap BETWEEN sets?
click picture
44 sts on dpn'sLet's look at the gap between stitch 11 and stitch 12 in the above illustration. It is true that two needle ends are sticking out of this gap. However, although there is a right angle bend between them, stitch 11 (the LAST stitch of one set) and stitch 12 (the FIRST stitch of the next set) aren't really any further apart from one another than if they were two stitches in the SAME set. In other words, they're just as close to one another as they would be if they were on the same needle. See: the knitted fabric is flexible, bends readily and easily accomodates the right turn between each set of 11 stitches, while the naked needle ends overlap as much (or little) as they need to, to keep adjoining stitches from different sets right next to each other.

Bottom line: with dpn's, there is no stretching between stitches in the same set, nor between stitches in adjoining sets. The dpn's let the tube you're knitting find its own diameter, and any excess length of needle just sticks out PAST the stitches.

Of course, the whole thing looks like a porcupine, with all those naked needle ends sticking out. And that is especially so when you're just starting a center-start garment with a very few stitches. However, within that ferocious-looking nest of needle ends, the tube or circle lays very nice and tidy and most of all it lays peacefully UNSTRETCHED.

The WHY of a too-long circular needle (called "Magic Loop")

We now pass on to the trick of knitting with a too-long circular needle. This trick was popularized in a booklet which named the technique "Magic loop" knitting. The booklet, available on the web, and probably at your LYS, came out around the same time as modern circular needles which feature a well-attached and flexible cable.  This technique is a needle-ruiner for the older type needles with stiff nylon cables, which will kink or break at the cable-needle joint.

Oh wait--one more thing before we jump in. I expect you are wondering why this trick even developed--after all, it seems sort of odd to create a small seamless tube with a too-long needle. Why not just use an itty-bitty teeny circular needle in the first place? Actually, there ARE tiny needles touted for making little tubes--needles 8 inches long and 12 inches long. However, for many knitters, a needle that short is hard to manipulate. The needle tips have to be very short or the cable wouldn't be long enough to wrap around the back, so you have to hold the needle tips with your finger tips.

OK, now we come to the theory of the technique.

The deal with a too-long circular needle is this: by popping two loops of cable out between two sets of adjacent stitches, the stitches separate into two sets in a flattened sort of tube. As with dpn's, disassociating the length of the needle from the amount of room each set of stitches takes up, allows the stitches in each set to sit unstretched, taking up exactly as much needle-room as they need.

In other words, in the same way that the naked needle-ends protrude past the ends of the stitch sets in dpn's, so unused part of the cable needle protrudes in loops past the ends of the stitch sets in this technique. Because the cable loops are free to stick out of the fabric as far or as little as necessary, this allows the tube you are knitting to find its natural diameter without stretching around the circumference of the circular needle.
click picture
Between stitches 22 and 23, in the illustration above, the first loop of excess cable has been popped loose of the fabric, and between stitches 44 and 1, the second loop of excess cable has been popped loose. (Notice that the front set of stitches lies on the left needle tip, but the back set of stitches isn't actually on the right needle tip--it is on the cable. The right needle has been drawn all the way around, and is positioned ready to knit the waiting stitches off the left needle.)

The cable loop which pokes out between sets is theoretically flexible enough so that stitches in adjoining sets are no further apart than stitches along the same needle in the same set, and the knitted fabric is theoretically flexible enough to take the 180 degree bend between the front and back set of stitches without distortion. In actual practice, you may find that there is distortion along the line between the front and the back sets of stitches.


Like every other aspect of knitting, personal preference trumps all.  For me, magic loop, with its flattened, doubled fabric, is a perfect match for creating objects which are used flat and doubled--classic ski hats, diamond-shaped potholders, christmas stockings. This is partly because magic loop tends to distort the fabric slightly along the fold line making it a good match for objects which will stay folded, and partly because with magic loop, it is so easy to visualize what the finished project will look like since you knit it in the same shape as it will be used.

Other than for folded, doubled objects, I don't use magic loop much because I find it slow to have to stop and re-arrange the needles twice on every round--that'd be every 30 or 40 stitches on a sock, for example. In my hands, double pointed needles are much faster.

However, as is evident in the comments, this is utterly a question of preference.  Some knitters find that magic loop is quite a bit faster than dpn's, and more convenient, too: easier for travel, less likely to lose needles, no need to own multiple sets of needles.

It's knitter's choice, and after a few iterations, you'll know which trick works better for you.

* * *

This is part two of a five part series. The other posts are:
Why knit seamless tubes (first post)
Theory of seamless tubes on dpns and magic loop (this post)
Ski hat magic loop tutorial (third post)
How to knit with dpn's (fourth post)
Avoiding ladders with dpn's (fifth post)


paula, the quilter said...

I just wanted to thank you for all your posts. They are very informative. I am currently working a pair of tube sox using the Magic Loop method. This is the way I make them because I want them to be the same length. These started on dpn but because of the ugly color puddling at the gusset and heel I frogged them and started over. I agree: Magic Loop is slower and my preferred method is dpn.

Anita said...

Two other advantages with the magic loop method...

1) For those who have trouble with "laddering" when knitting socks on dpn's, this seems to be reduced or eliminate with the magic loop method.

2) I love knitting socks with the magic loop method because it is SO much easier to travel with the partial project. It's less likely for my stitches to fall off while in transport and less pointy ends sticking through my bag.

But I have heard that long-time double-point knitters can knit faster than the magic-loopers. I say, choose whatever you are comfortable with and go for it.

Thanks for all your information! What a great resource.

jillian said...

Thank you for this great resource - I've just discovered it and I just want to sit down and read every post!

However, I do feel the need to comment about the speed and utility of Magic Loop. I tried all 3 methods - dpn/ML/2circs for knitting tubulars, and settled on ML as my preferred method. I wasn't intimidated by dpn's. You don't have to be intimidated by something to prefer something else. In part it was practicality - it does travel much easier and it keeps your needle collection simple. You only need one longer circular, which can also be used for all sorts of other projects, not just small tubes.

It has the additional practicality of not needing multiple types of needles for a project. You can knit an entire sweater using only one circular well as hats and other things that require that you switch to a tubular knitting method at some point. This saves time.

Second, like any method, I believe, (and as you state for dpn's), once you get the hang of it, it's very fast, I believe every bit as fast as any other method. I can switch around my "loops" practically without looking and just keep on knitting with barely a pause. There is time needed to switch around, and perhaps this is minutely slower than rearranging dpn's at each turn. But for all the reasons stated above (and probably others I've never thought of I'm sure) overall it can be just as efficient.

I admit I never got super-speedy with dpn's because I settled on a different method, but I believe whatever method one chooses one will with practice become proficient at.

In no way am I trying to convince anyone to change their method. I am a firm believer in if it works for you, keep doing it! But what is faster for you is not unequivocally faster or better for everyone, based on the numerous pros and cons between methods. Just food for thought. Thank you again for creating this incredible resource.

thraceknits said...

I tend to prefer using two circulars unless the tube to be knit is very small (glove fingers, thumbs etc.), but with less fiddling than ML and fewer stress points than dpns. I find knitting two tubes concurrently easier using that method as well.

Nancy said...

I like wokrign with DPs, but if I am working on a travelling project, I use the ML method...I can't lose a needle that never leaves the stitches. Also, I have noticed that my gauge is not the same on ML as on DP, so if I am doing a sweater, it behooves me to do the sleeves on ML, as i am going to be using a circular on the body.

Trish - My Merino Mantra said...

Wow, another timely post! You always seem to write about my next project. I am almost ready to cast on for my 2nd pair of socks (the first was a disaster). I bought the Magic Loop book, have the needles and yarn, and now I just need someone to hold my hand. And there you were!

Smuddpie said...

So what about 2 circs? So far it is my favorite method, though I admit I haven't spent a lot of time with dpns. It seemed so slow, as did magic loop.

WendyM said...

I have no experience with Magic Loop, I am just commenting to say how much I appreciate your Blog page and the time spent putting it together. I am working my way through all of the posts, and do hope to find find an answer to my problem with tension at the end of the rows of my stocking stitch.
I do not seem to have a problem with 'rowing out' overall, just those last few stitches on the knit side, and first few stitches on the purl side. Is there anything I can do, or is it just a matter of try, try and try again?

--TECHknitter said...

Hi Smuddpie--2 circs will be covered in a future post. Stay tuned!

Hi WendyM. I highly encourage you to try making slipped (chain) selvedges. They are covered in the post of 2-20-07. Don't be afraid of pulling too tight at the ends--you really can't. If this doesn't solve the problem, I don't know what to tell you...that's a new problem on me!


marjorie said...

One of the things I found frustrating about working with double-pointed needles initially was joining the first row. I'm not sure this is the way you are "supposed" to do it, but I knit the first row flat (on two needles--usually two of the dpns), and then I join on the second round. I use the tail when I'm done to join the cast-on row. This seems easier to me than the instructions I've seen in books for casting on to each of the dpns on the first round.

Thanks for explaining the magic loop. It is something I never tried because dpns are fine for small tubes and 16" circulars seem fine for slighty larger tubes.

Anonymous said...

When a friend of mine tried dpn's for the first time, she referred to them as 'the pointy stick-wad of death.' I thought this was a rather good description.


Julia said...

I have tried all three types of knitting in the round: dp's, magic loop, and 2 circ's. Of the 3, 2 circ's is my least favorite. I use dp's at home, and magic loop for my project that stays in my purse for knitting on the bus, or in a waiting room. I love it that I don't have to worry about dropping a needle and disturbing others when I'm out.

bkreader said...

I love this blog!
I wonder why you haven't mentioned double-knitting a flat tube with only two straight needles? I've tried all these techniques, but find that DPNs fail for me when i have two few stitches, and the needles are unruly, or too many and the stitches fall off.

The only caveat with flat-tube double-knitting is that your stitches are looser, since each spans two stitches wide. Solution: tight knitting with smaller needles.

TECHknitter said...

Hi BKreader: Thanks for writing. It is true that double knitting can make a tube, and many clever tricks result from this fact. At some point in the future, TECHknitting blog will cover all the features of double knitting and at that time, glove fingers and other narrow tubes will be considered.

Thanks again for your comments. --TK