What is Knitting in the Round? And Why Bother?

Knitting in the round makes seamless projects possible: seamless socks, seamless hats & mittens, and seamless sweaters, vests, & cardigans. If you want to make any of these projects, you’ll want to take the plunge and dive into knitting in the round.

The Basic Technique

Briefly, knitting in the round involves joining the ends of your knitting piece so that there are no ends.  Once you have joined the ends, your knitting will resemble a circle.  Knitting in the round is also called circular knitting.

Instead of producing a flat piece of knitted fabric, you will produce a seamless, knitted fabric tube, like some t-shirts and most socks, hats and mittens.

Instead of turning your work at the end of each row, you’ll keep knitting, going around and around and around. In circular knitting, it’s common to call rows “rounds.”

Note:  It’s important to place a marker at the point where the knitting was joined so that you will know when you’ve reached the end of a row or round.

Advantages of Circular Knitting

  1. Reduced finishing.  Since you are producing a seamless piece there’s very little sewing needed.  You’ll still have to weave in any yarn ends, add buttons, etc, but you won’t be sewing fronts to backs and it’s even possible to knit the sleeves onto the body of a sweater knit in the round.
  2. Circular knitting is  great for mindless, mindful, & meditative knitting.  All 3 degrees of attention to knitting are easily achieved with knitting in the round. For a discussion of mindless, mindful & meditative knitting, see my article here.
  3. Reduced needle loss.  If you’re knitting with circular needles – strongly recommended for knitting anything larger than a sock – you will be unlikely to lose one of the needles unless you forcibly throw it away.  If you’re using an interchangeable circular needle, the possibility of one of the needles becoming un-moored & lost exists, but it’s far less likely than losing a straight needle.
  4. A more even look to your knitting is possible.  Stockinette Stitch, probably the most commonly used pattern, is made by knitting every row in circular knitting, which produces a more consistent look than switching back and forth between knit rows and purl rows as in flat knitting.
  5. A tiny bit less yarn is needed since few to no selvage stitches are needed.  It’s not enough to make up for a whole ball of yarn, or even half (probably), but it could make a difference.
  6. The “right” side is always facing you while you work.

The Needles that Make Circular Knitting Possible

It’s impossible to knit in the round on a pair of straight needles. You will have to obtain either fixed circular or interchangeable circular needles for any project larger than a sock.*

If you’re knitting socks, mittens, or hats, you’ll want double pointed needles.  It is possible to make these smaller projects on longer circular needles, but that requires either multiple circular needles or the use of the Magic Loop technique.

Before circular needles were invented, knitting in the round was accomplished by using several double pointed needles.  The number of needles depended on the size of the project and the length of the needles.

Fortunately for us, circular needles do exist and have improved considerably. In their early days, circular needles had wire cables with rough joins and a tendency to fray both wire & yarn.

Today, you have a choice. There are fixed circular needles with smooth permanent joins to the wood, metal or bamboo needle portion.  Or you can choose interchangeable circular needles that give you the option of changing the cable length or needles depending on the size desired.  For more on interchangeable circular needles, see my article here.

Are there any downsides to knitting in the round?

Proponents of circular knitting would say there are no cons to knitting in the round.  As with anything else, your experience may be different.

There are differences between knitting flat and knitting in the round.

  1. Some stitch patterns will have to be done differently.  For example, in flat knitting, stockinette stitch is achieved by knitting one row & purling the next.  In circular knitting, you knit every round or row.
  2. Some techniques, for example, intarsia, can’t be done, or not easily, in the round.
  3. Some argue that knitted tubes don’t have adequate structure to hang properly.  “Phoney [sic] seams” as Elizabeth Zimmerman liked to call them, may fix this if you think it’s a real problem for your project.
  4. You will have to buy new needles if all you own are straight needles.
  5. Extreme care is required when joining the ends of your knitting.  If you inadvertently twist the row, you will have to go back and start over.  It’s not the kind of thing that can be fixed by ripping out a few stitches.

Conclusion

Knitting in the round, or circular knitting does require changes in equipment, techniques, and design compared to flat knitting.  It is possible to convert a flat knitting pattern to circular knitting, and vice versa, but it takes practice and experience to figure out how.

That said, most knitting, whether flat or circular, remains largely the same.  The right side is still the right side.  The two basic stitches, knitting and purling, are done exactly the same way.  Ribbing is done exactly the same way.

Knitting is a relaxing hobby, but it’s also a great opportunity to try new things and be creative.  Add knitting in the round to your skll set!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with knitting in the round in the comments section below.

*It is possible to use double pointed needles on larger projects, but most would find knitting this way a form of torture rather than an enjoyable hobby.

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