When working in the round, there are choices. Some pieces are large enough that you can simply use circular needles, spread the stitches around, and get to knitting. However, when the circumference is small, knitting in the round requires a way to move the stitches in closer proximity than what 16" circulars allow. Two of your options for knitting these smaller circumferences are either using double pointed needles or something called the magic loop method. These certainly are not your only two options, but they are both very good ones and most patterns are written to accommodate these two methods. I like both, but I like them for different things. I'll break it down for you here. This is not a tutorial on the how to execute these methods but more on how to choose which is right for you...or perhaps which is right for your project...or maybe just to inspire you to try one that you haven't yet ventured toward. This is purely submitted for your consideration and is based on personal experience and taste. We are all knitters as unique as the yarns and projects we choose, circular knitting is equally dynamic in taste and range.
Double Pointed Needles (DPNs)
With double pointed needles, you use three or more needles to hold your live stitches while using an additional needle to knit. These needles, as the name suggests, are pointed on either end so that you can knit and slide you stitches from one needle to the next with ease. Ideally, you spread your live stitches evenly on your working needles. You can use this method to knit very tiny rounds.
What I Like About DPNs
I feel like the flow of my knitting is a little smoother with DPNs. With this method, you just keep on knitting- there is no stopping to tug on cords- one needle just flows to the next. I especially like DPNs when I'm working with lace weight of fingering weight yarns because my working area is confined to just my needles and I feel I can work with a more delicate touch. There are no lengthy cords sticking out and tugging at my project, which can sometimes feel a bit tangly to me, especially with the lighter weight yarns. I also really like using DPNs when a project has few stitches or a particularly small circumference.
What I Don't Like About DPNs
When using double points, I like to shift where one needle's stitches stop and another needle's start. This is because at the join of the DPNs, the stitch is a little looser as I work. While this usually resolves itself with quality blocking, I don't like the appearance of these loose little seams in my knitting. By shifting the stitches around periodically, this problem can be avoided. However, sometimes it's more convenient to work with a set number of stitches on each needle, depending on the pattern. Also, there are three to four needles with stitches on them...and these needles have double points...and stitches like to fall off needles when you aren't looking. I would say that DPNs are less project bag friendly for this reason. There is not a great way of securing your live stitches from slipping and sliding other than being careful when handling.
The Magic Loop
This method essentially divides your knitting in the round into two rows of knitting by using circular needles with a lengthy cord. Half of your stitches go on the left hand needle to create your "front" row, the other half of your stitches patiently wait their turn on the cord in the "back" row. A long cord is necessary so that you can pull the right hand needle around to knit while still keeping a loop of cord between your front row of knit stitches on the left hand needle and those back row stitches that sit on the cord. When you finish the "front" row, it will have moved from the left to the right needle. You flip the whole operation over so that the front becomes the back, shift the stitches on the right hand needle to the cord and shift the stitches from the cord to the left hand needle. The right needle always stays the right needle and the left needle always stays the left. It really is like magic.
What I Like About Magic Loop
There is a lot to like about the Magic Loop method. First off, you do not need a special set of needles. Especially if you already have some interchangeable circular needles, you probably have what you need to implement this method. You do need a long cord- somewhere in the 32-40" range so you can comfortably maneuver your needles while maintaining your loops. I really like using magic loop on things like sweater sleeves. This is partially because I can usually use whatever circular needles I was knitting with for the body to also do the sleeves. Since you are using circular needles, everything is connected and there is very little risk of stitches falling off or things getting messy in a well-travelled project bag. Also, there are always only two areas where you can get the loose stitch seams I spoke of previously. And as a bonus, though I'm not really that great at it, you can knit two sleeves or socks at a time with the magic loop method, which is not possible with double points. The method is very versatile.
What I Don't Like About Magic Loop
I don't mind the stop and shift of rows from front to back for larger circumferences or heavier weight yarns, but this stopping and pulling slows my flow. So, for smaller projects or more delicate work, I find this stopping to be a little cumbersome. Also, for lighter weight yarns, I find that the cord wants to tug a little more at those loose stitch seams where the front and back rows meet. I know these are small complaints, but it is truthfully why for things such as socks, mittens or the tops of hats I typically stick with double pointed needles.
As with any knitting technique, it is important you find what works for you. Whether seeing double or doing magic (or perhaps a little bit of both) it is always nice to have more than one trick up your sleeve. It is also fun to try new things. As I tell my kids when they refuse to try my latest vegetable concoction- you never know, you might be missing out on your new favorite thing.
I'd love to hear about what method you use. Do you have an arsenal of circular knitting tricks or do you stick to one that is tried and true?