A Guide to Circular Knitting Needles

The circular-knitting needle section of your local yarn or craft store can be a bit overwhelming. Even though I’ve been knitting for many years, I still space out a little when I walk into the needle aisle and see all the choices.

If you’re new to knitting, you probably ask yourself, why all the different lengths and why in the world would I need a 36″ needle?

Often, your pattern will tell you what type of needle you need, but what if you’re designing something yourself? Don’t let the name “circular” fool you. Even though they’re called circular needles, you won’t just need them when you’re knitting in the round.

Use this guide next time you shop for circular needles and breathe a little easier when you’re faced with all the options.

Girl in Knit Sweater Leaning Against House
Photo via Avrellyn Rose

36″ circular needles

Good for: heavy or large projects that will be knitted flat.

Have you ever tried to knit a heavy project, like a shawl, on straight needles? The wrist pain is unbelievable. I made this mistake early on in my knitting career and ended up having to hunch over my knitting so that the table held most of the weight. You can bet I never made that mistake again!

You may also need to use a circular needle if each row has a large number of stitches. Straight needles have a limited amount of space on them, so casting on 300 stitches is probably going to be impossible, even if you’re using a long straight needle.

Using a long circular needle, like the 36″ one, will put all the weight of the project onto the cord, allowing you to speed along as you knit. The majority of the weight can rest in your lap or on the table while you knit.

The Watercolor Ponies Poncho, seen above, is one example of a project that’s great for 36″ circular needles because each row has a lot of stitches. Any garment that’s loose-fitting, like ponchos and shawls, will call for a longer circular needle.

Girl in Blue Knit Poncho
Photo via Super Fun Knits

29″ circular needles

Good for: medium-sized projects knitted flat, like the Iris Pi Shawl seen above.

Like the 36″ circular needle, the 29″ needle can be used for projects that are knitted flat. The difference is that the 29″ can be used for a project that’s just a bit smaller in size.

Photo via Sans Limites Crochet

16″ circular needles

Good for: small projects knit in a tube.

If you’ve ever followed a pattern for a hat, you’ve probably used a 16″ circular needle. These needles are perfect when the project is just a bit too large to fit on double-pointed needles. The Purl Turban Headband, seen above, is a great example of when a 16″ circular needle will come in handy.

Unlike the 36″ and 29″ needles, the 16″ needle is used more often for knitting in the round. Hat patterns will often ask knitters to use a 16″ to work the brim, then switch to double-pointed needles as the hat gets smaller at the crown.

Want to be a real circular-knitting whiz? Take Stefanie Japel’s Hats Four Ways: Circular Knit Lab class to learn how to choose supplies and creating hat circumferences to fit any size head.

How do you use your different sizes of circular knitting needles?



Nobody knits with straights anymore. My local yarn shop doesn’t even sell them.


I hate straight needles, They kill my hands, but I found a great use for my old straight needles. Gave them to my dog show friends who use them to part coats on Lhasa Apsos, Tibetan Terriers, and Skye Terriers to name a few.

Ruth Haydon

I must be nobody, because I knit with straight needles quite often. They are great for small items like scarfs. I use circular needles when I have a large number of stitches or am knitting in the round. I use double pointed for hats and socks.


I guess I am a “nobody” as well. I also love my straight needles for making small projects like cup cozies, scarves, and etc. I use circular and DPN’s as well but I think all of them have a purpose.

Miss Cara

People have been knitting with straight needles for a longer time than circular. I use straights all the time as my first preference if possible and I use straight double pointed needles to do circular knitting. For example, a slipper that uses several short rows cannot handle a circular needle because the turns are too sharp and it bends the cord to almost snap. Also, circulars can waste time since they seem to loosen and I’ve lost stitches this way….and, some yarns snag too, making obvious marks! I think straight needles have it’s place, but hardly are they on the level of parting animal hair for their only utility.


I would not be able to knit if it weren’t for circulars My hands could never take it.

Diane Addams

Contrary to popular belief, there are people who still use straight needles and they still make and sell them….true they aren’t as popular as in times gone buy, but they are very useful for small projects with a small amount of stitches. As a matter of fact, I currently have 47 stitches on a set of straight needles…I ‘m making square for a baby blanket!


I’ve thrown out my old straight needles — can’t imagine ever using them again. Well — maybe when I teach someone how to knit….

It would be helpful to have reviews of the various brands of circs — especially the ones with replaceable tips.


You no doubt know this, still, please check out Knit Picks.com! They sell all kind of needles, singly & in sets. I think (maybe) that I’ve seen what you are wishing for over there! They can, at least, get you started. GOOD LUCK*!*

Joan Archer

I’m finding I prefer to use circulars now for knitting even when the piece is flat. I mainly use Interchangeable needles so depending on the number I can pick different size cords.
I do still use straights on the odd occasion in fact the project I’m knitting at present has a separate front lace border that’s stitched on after and I’m knitting that on 8” straights there’s 21 stitches for it.


I’m wondering about the sizes that I usually see in the stores: 40″, 32″ and 24″. Do you have different size needles in your stores than we do here in VT??


Using a cross between irish cottage and continental style knitting, I find long straights to be much faster then circular needles which is especially nice when working on big projects because you finish them sooner, but I do agree the weight can be tremendous.


I want to make a knitted cap for my grandaughter, the instructions say to use 5 dpns. Could I use circular needles to knit this as long as I use a row start stop marker. I’m new to knitting and just wondering. It seems to be much easier.

Shirley Kendall Ward

I saw someone using circular needles that were for a very small item 3 inches round. Need smaller tips and lengths for hats so I don’t have to use double points for binding off, Where can I get them.

sara merritt

Im 32 yrs old. I just started knitting about 2 weeks ago. I had knitting needles that I couldn’t let go to waste. After crocheting since I was 7 yrs old…I grabbed those knitting needles and said lets give it a shot! I was so excited 2 nights ago when I did rows of purls and knit stitches. I just saw last night that there are different kinds of needles like the circulars. I jope as I advance…I dont give up on the straights. I have tiny hands and like the needles I have inherited. I know I may be extremely new to knitting and teaching myself from casting on to the two stitches ive learned…but im really enjoying it as much as I do crocheting! I placed an order for a variety of knitting needles. Im learning just from reading your comments and glad I stopped by here.

Ashley Little

Go, Sara! Remember that if you find you like circular needles better, you can use those for knitting flat, too.

Diana Sturcz

Very helpful but the size of the needles are all the same except for the length, right? How can that be?


Hi there, I just started to knit and I want to make just a simple knit stitch throw. Can anyone tell me please if I should use straight needles or round. How many stitches would you cast on. I like the look of like size 15 needles for my throw. Any info anyone can share with me is much appreciated. Thanks


Hi Jana, I’d say your throw will get pretty heavy, especially when you get toward the end. I’d recommend using a long circular needle, 36″ or even longer if you can find one. To figure out how many stitches to cast on, check out the recommended gauge on the yarn label. The label will tell you how many stitches are in 4″ using the recommended needle size, and that should give you an idea of how many to cast on based on how wide you’d like the blanket. Good luck!


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