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. Have a look at this chart which shows minimum and maximum stitches which can be stretched or squished onto circular needles of different lengths, and imagine trying to squeeze the higher-end numbers onto even the longest straights.