Knitting needles generally fall into two camps: the traditional long and straight variety, or circular needles, which are short needles connected by a cable. Most knitters eventually need them in many sizes, and sometimes (if you like to switch between ongoing projects), you’ll need even more than one pair of each size. Before investing the time and money in tools you don’t enjoy using, what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
I learned to knit on my mother’s long aluminum knitting needles. They were green and slippery and awkward. The stitches had a mind of their own, splitting and combining together so that my stitch count never came out quite right (although this had more to say about the knitter than the needles. They had a habit of jumping off the needles when I wasn’t looking, especially if I set them down in the middle of a row. They made a scraping clicking sound that set my teeth on edge. I didn’t stick with knitting for long.
Many years and three children later, I picked up needles again, but this time I used bamboo circular needles. These were warm to the touch, a little better at clinging to my stitches, with a comforting ticking sound that didn’t jangle my nerves. Since the needles were connected, even in the middle of a row I could push my stitches down onto the cable, fold the needles in, and securely carry my work without worry of dropping stitches or stabbing neighbors. I think you can sense my preference in needle type here.
There is really nothing that you can do on straight needles that can’t be done on circulars. Straight knitting is accomplished on circular needles exactly the way it is on straights, but usually with a good deal more comfort. Stitches progress from right to left, with one needle in each hand, connected by the cable behind. At the end of a row, turn the work around and switch needles just as you would with straight needles. The difference in comfort, however, is notable. When the work is large, such as with a large sweater or a blanket, straight needles must be long enough to support all the stitches. As the work piles up on one needle, it becomes heavy and unruly, which is awkward and often painful for the hands and wrists. The same work on circular needles is pushed onto the cable behind as the stitches progress, so the hands are not supporting the weight of an entire garment.
The best aspect of circular needles the option of knitting “in the round”, which many knitters enjoy as a relaxing alternative to back-and-forth knitting. The work is joined in a circle and continues in a spiral, eliminating “knitting back” on wrong side. Few seams are required since the garment is already tubular and knitting proceeds more quickly, with fewer finishing steps. You can’t do that with straight needles.
Unless you have a specific reason for choosing straight needles, I recommend investing in circulars. They will do everything that straight needles do, and so much more. I still have a pair of my mom’s aluminum straights to remember her by. Sadly, I recently added a pair of my sister’s straights to my collection. I take them out, look at them, and remember. But I don’t knit with them.