Question: I am knitting a hat in the round on a 16-inch circular needle, as listed in the pattern. However, the knitting feels very awkward. I can’t quite get the needles into a comfortable angle. What’s the problem?
Answer: A16-inch circular needle is a very common recommendation for the straight section of a hat crown. It’s a popular choice because the circular needle allows for continuous knitting with no extra manipulation of multiple needles or cables. In addition, the knitter doesn’t have to worry about tension issues at needle junctions until the shaped section.
That said, not all 16-inch circulars are the same. While they all have two rigid needle tips connected by a flexible cable, they can differ in materials, needle-tip-to-cable-length ratio, and even the shape of the needle tip. All of these factors affect the overall flexibility of the needle, which is one of the most important requirements for making a circular needle easy to use.
Use whatever material you prefer for the needle tips, but be sure to examine the cable material carefully. Some needles, especially vintage needles, have fairly stiff plastic cables, which can fight a little when bending. Newer circular cables tend to have better flexibility. Comfortably flexible cables I have used include Skacel, Knit Picks, Chiaogoo, and Knitter’s Pride. Look for smooth cables that bend easily.
The needle-tip-to-cable-length ratio is an even more important factor. The flexibility of a 16-inch needle primarily lies in the cable. Shorter tips allow for a longer cable and consequently more flexibility. A common tip length for a 16-inch circular is 3.5 to 4 inches, but as knitting technology has progressed, shorter tips have become available.
The tips below, left to right, measure approximately 5.25 inches* (Knitter’s Pride), 4 inches (Knitter’s Pride), 3.625 inches (Clover), 3.25 inches (Knit Picks), and 2.375 inches (Chiaogoo).
Tips of 5.25 inches aren’t meant to be used with a 16-inch cable because the cable could be only 5.5 inches long—impossible to work with. Tips of 4 inches allow for 8 inches of cable, which is better. The 3.25-inch tips can accommodate 9.5 inches of cable. And finally, the 2.375-inch tips could allow for a 11.25-inch cable.
While it may seem that the shorter the tips are, the better they will work, it’s important to try them out. The size of your hands, the way you hold your needles, and your style of knitting could actually make the shorter tips awkward to use. My fingers are short, and I usually use a knife hold with English-style knitting (yarn in right hand). I am most comfortable with tips in the 3–3.5-inch range. However, with the shortest needle tips, I find Continental-style knitting (yarn in left hand) more comfortable.
Shape of the Needle Tip
Another strategy that manufacturers use to enhance the flexibility of a circular needle is to bend the needle tips. The vintage needle below bends at about 2.125 inches from each tip.
Some knitters love this bend; some don’t. Again, the size of your hands and your knitting style will determine whether you like the bent-tip needles.
Important Note About Interchangeable Needle Tips: If you are using interchangeable needles, be sure that you are attaching the correct cable length. Cable lengths are usually listed on the packaging by the length they will be when the tips are added rather than their actual length, so a 16-inch cable for 3.25-inch tips will actually be shorter than a 16-inch cable for 2.375-inch tips.
Tip: If your 16-inch circular needle seems to be fighting itself, try a needle with shorter tips, and be sure to use the correct cable. As with all circular needles, make sure you have a smooth join between the needle tip and the cable.
*The 5.25-inch tip is shown without its connector as it would never be part of a 16-inch circular needle.
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