Knitting in the round creates a seamless tube—the perfect structure for socks, mittens, hats and even sweaters (at least up to the armhole).
For socks, we start at the cuff and work to the heel, then “turn the heel” as the procedure is called, so the tube has a bend in it, then we proceed with the tube for the foot part until we get to the toes where we decrease and finish sock.
For mittens, we begin the tube at the cuff, work to thumb part, where we knit a gusset to accommodate the thumb. Then we continue with the tube to tip of fingers, where we decrease and finish the mitten.
For a hat, we start at the bottom and knit the tube to the tip where we decrease rapidly for a gathered look; or we decrease slowly and gradually over entire length of hat until just a few stitches remain.
For sweaters we begin at the bottom and knit up to under-arm position, where we divide the stitches in half: half for the front and half for the back piece. Then we continue by working back and forth on either the front or the back piece. Sleeves can be knit in the round in two ways: starting at the cuff and working up to shoulder; or—our preferred way—picking up stitches around the armhole opening (on sweater or cardigan) and knitting sleeve down towards cuff. This method saves on sewing parts of the sweater together. A great relief for most knitters.
Knitting in the round is accomplished in two ways: For large pieces, such as sweaters, we use a circular needle. For small items, such as socks and mittens, we use double-pointed needles.
How to knit with circular needle
A circular needle has two short needle tips (also called shafts) that are connected with a plastic string. The measurements for circular needles are as follows: first, the size of the needle tip, which is the regular knitting needle size crucial for your gauge; then the second measurement is in inches and measures the entire length of the needle (needle tips plus the length of he plastic string). This second measurement is important for the size—or circumference—of the garment we are making. Because when we knit with a circular needle, we are working from tip to tip and your stitches are distributed along the length of the needle. If the length of your needle is greater than the circumference of your garment, you would have to stretch the stitches out the entire length of the needle in order to knit in the round.
For example, if we are knitting a hat, we will have to use a 16” needle not a 24” or longer needle, or else we would be stretching that hat out to 24” to fit over the length of the needle. And if we plan to knit a pair of mittens, we will not be able to use the 16” circular needle, because mittens measure only about 7” or 8” entire round width. For mittens and socks, we’ll have to switch to double-pointed needles, because the shortest length for circular needles is 16” (there are shorter ones, but we find them uncomfortable to knit with, because the shaft—the needle part—is very short and difficult to hold and knit with).
Advantages of working with circular needles
Working with circular needles has advantages other than creating seamless garments. It is easier on your wrists, because you are not lifting entire knitting every stitch you knit. Your hands support and hold the stitches on the short tips only, the plastic loop—and the stitches on it—rest in your lap and are not lifted every time you knit a stitch. That’s an important point to consider when you knit large pieces that can get weighty as you progress. Also, your knitting is more compact with circular needles (easier for traveling). You are less likely to drop stitches and you certainly never loose a needle.
You can also use circular needles to knit back and forth with (for throws, baby blankets or cardigans—large pieces with lots of stitches). A long circular needle (29” or longer) will accommodate large number of stitches more comfortably and knitting the piece will be easier on your hands and wrists. To knit back and forth, treat circular needle the same way you would two single point needles. The needles just happen to be connected to each other—like a pair of mittens connected with a string.
To knit in the round, cast on number of stitches for your project (using the correct length of needle). Before joining round (closing loop to form a tube) make sure cast-on stitches on needle face downward (the edge of your cast-on row faces downward) over the entire length of needle. Then you are ready to start knitting: you’ll be knitting the first cast-on stitch as your next stitch by joining the two tips and knitting off stitches from end tip of circular needle, onto front tip (pull yarn tight for that first stitch to avoid gap). Your left hand holds end tip of needle and the front tip is in your hand and is used to knit off stitches with. You’ll be knitting a spiral: one round leading right over the next round. And since you are working on the outside going round and round, the right side is always facing you (you are not turning knitting and working back on the wrong side to beginning of row, the way you do when knitting back and forth) every stitch you are working is a knit stitch.
How to knit with double-pointed needles
Most sets of double-pointed needles contain five needles. The stitches are divided onto four needles, and the fifth needle is used to knit with. If your set contains only four needles, divide stitches onto three needles and use fourth needle to knit with.
If you are knitting with double-pointed needles for the first time, cast on stitches using a regular needle. Now divide number of stitches by needles in your set (keeping one needle to knit with). If set contains 5 needles, divide stitches by 4; if your set contains 4 needles, divide by 3. If number of stitches does not divide evenly into 4 or 3, add left-over stitches to last needle. Now transfer stitches you cast on to double-pointed needles—each needle getting the correct amount of stitches. As you transfer stitches, to second and third needle, let first or second needle dangle.
Now join needles in a triangle (with set of four) or square (with set of five needles). Make sure cast-on stitches all point downward or inward (so you don’t twist stitches in first round) and start by knitting first stitch you cast as your first stitch of round using left-over needle to knit with. Pull yarn tight between last stitch you cast on and first stitch of round to avoid gap. Continue knitting in the round—knitting stitches off next needle onto free needle that you are working with.
Practice, practice, practice
It will take some practice to get used to working with all those needles. Remember: you are only holding two needles—in the left hand the needle with the stitches to be knit next and in the right hand the needle to be knitting with. The rest of the needles are hanging loosely, awaiting their turn. You’ll be knitting a spiral: one round leading right over the next round. And since you are working on the outside going round and round, the right side is always facing you (you are not turning knitting and working back on wrong side to beginning of row, the way you do when knitting back and forth) every stitch you are working is a knit stitch.