Tools of the Trade: Circular vs. Straight Needles

Anyone else a bit drooly over the new needles over at Knit Picks?

Caspian needles at Knit Picks

I totally love that they’re finally referring to needle “colorways,” as this is their third available wood treatment (their classic Harmony rainbow ones are still my favorites, though). All the needle excitement got me thinking about the many, many tool options that exist for knitters rocking in the free world, and the passionate debates that inevitably ensue. If you’ve never wandered through Ravelry’s Tools forum, prepare to get your eyes crossed a bit.

Well, I’m here today to tell you that one of these infamous debates is over. Let the smackdown begin!

Every new crop of baby knitters I teach walks into class expecting to be handed two long, metal needles like Granny had (if they’re lucky, maybe some pretty rosewood ones or perhaps even a little bling on the caps). They’re often puzzled when I instead present them with something that looks a bit like an assassin’s tool– a thin length of piano wire suspended between two pointy tips. A wonder of modern engineering known as the circular needle.

WP_20131116_002

In my early, more congenial teaching days, I’d bring both straight and circular needs so that students with their hearts set on the “straight needle experience” wouldn’t be disappointed. But as I grew as a knitter myself, I became more and more convinced that there is simply no remaining defense for straight needles, beyond the faint whiff of nostalgia.

Advantage #1: Versatility

Some knitters assume that each shape of needle plays an exclusive role in the craft: straight needles are for “flat” pieces (pieces worked back and forth in rows), and circular needles are for “round” pieces (pieces knit in a spiral tube, with the same side always facing out). This is a MYTH.

Yeth?

Yeth?

Anything you can knit on straight needles can be knit on circular needles. Seriously. Provided the circular needle in question is long enough to hold all your stitches, there is no advantage to straight needles when working flat pieces. Never tried working a flat piece on circs before? It’s easier than you think. Just make believe that the needle points aren’t connected in the middle. You cast on just like you would on straight needles, then knit across your stitches (transferring them to the other needle tip). Flip your work over, just like on straight needles, and work across your stitches again. It’s like you’re still using those trusty straight needles like before– they just happen to have their cap ends connected with a bit of cable that you can entirely ignore.

However, the situation is not parallel at all: circular needles can do things that straight needles definitely can’t. Nearly any type of garment can be knit in flat pieces, then sewn up at the end to make all manner of shapes. However, many designs save time and trouble by working in the round (check out one of the many video tutorials available if you haven’t heard of this irreplaceable technique). By selecting a circular needle of the right length, you can knit in a ring shape to form tubes of knitting, useful for all kinds of things that fit nicely on humans, like hats, sweaters, sleeves, socks, and mittens.

Advantage #2: Portability

My mind still reels to consider how I ever carried straight needle projects with me. It’s seriously like trying to find room in your purse for a couple of yarn-covered shish kebabs. In contrast, circular needles are so self-contained it’s almost embarrassing.

On top of that, it’s so much easier to preserve your work mid-row on circular needles. My family and friends are exceptionally familiar with the “just let me finish this row” plea, but there are simply some occasions upon which my desperation falls on deaf ears. When you need to pause knitting in the middle of a row, straight needles are not your buddies. You can certainly pull the work further down the shaft of each needle to protect it a bit, but there’s really no way to eliminate the stress on the stitches before and after the gap.

Straight needles ain't no good

This effect is largely mitigated on circular needles, even when working flat pieces. Slip each side of your work down onto the cable section of the needle, et voila, a portable little bundle with far less chance of stitch distortion or *heaven forbid* losing stitches altogether.

Circular needles FTW

Advantage #3: Ergonomics

As soon as you knit your first blanket, this one is a no-brainer. When you knit heavy, broad pieces on straight needles, what happens at the beginning and end of each row? Almost all your stitches are on one needle, being supported by just one hand and wrist. Ugh.

When you knit similar pieces on circular needles, your stitches still move from side to side, but anything hanging on the cable is supported by both hands and wrists at all times. Clear point to circs, yet again.

Advantage #4: INTERCHANGEABLE NEEDLE SETS OMGWTFBBQ

There comes a time in every knitter’s life when s/he realizes that buying needles of all sizes, shapes, and lengths would cost roughly one zillion dollars. Yet, nothing is more of a drag than snagging a gorgeous new PDF pattern perfect for your stash yarn, but being forced to wait for the craft shop to open because you have no suitable needles on hand.

Undoubtedly the best investment you can make in your knitting future is a set of interchangeable needle tips. This is soooo the subject of another post for another day, but here’s where it relates to the issue at hand. If you accept the sovereignty of the circular needle early enough in your knitting career, and can stand to invest an extra few dollars with each needle purchase, you can buy needle tips that detach from the cables. This setup is often just marginally more expensive than buying the permanently connected version (referred to as a fixed circular needle, since the needle size & length are fixed). The real beauty of this approach, though, comes a couple of months later. Let’s say you needed a 24-inch long size 8 needle for a hat project in February, and instead of buying a fixed circ for $10, you bought size 8 needle tips for $9 and a 24-inch cable for $4, totaling $13. But when you decide to knit a sweater in April that calls for a 32-inch long size 8 needle, guess how much it’s going to cost you? Instead of a new $10 fixed needle, you just need a new $4 cable to attach to your existing size 8 needle tips. Epic awesome. Detachable needle tips are the sneakiest way to stretch your needle budget, and straight needles just can’t touch ‘em.

So let’s check the scoreboard one last time:

Straight needles:

  • Only useful for working flat pieces
  • Pausing your work mid-row is awkward and tough to transport without distorting stitches
  • Weight shifts from one needle to the other
  • No sneaky budget shortcuts to be had

Circular needles:

  • Can work flat or tubular pieces
  • Pausing your work mid-row or mid-round is easy and portable, with far less distortion
  • Weight is distributed across both needles and the cable
  • Saves money when purchased as interchangeable parts
QED, my knitters. QED.
 
My next Tools post will be on needle/hook composition (metal vs. wood vs. plastic vs. dry vermicelli or whatever else they’ve thought of). What’s your favorite?
 
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