Knitting Small Circumferences on Double-Pointed Needles

When I came back to knitting, someone gave me several sets of double-pointed needles. They were all for medium weight yarn, and most were short enough for sock or mitten knitting. I was about to declare this to have been very prescient of the giver, but since I promptly moved on to the wonders of circular needles, leaving the double-pointed needles (dpn’s) to languish in a drawer out of the great fear that I’d never get them to work right, I can’t boast about that. What I can boast about is that I finally learned to use them though I’m still far from feeling convinced that I’ll use them very often.

Double-points are probably the most traditional way to knit tubelike shapes. Nothing more than slender dowels with a tapered pencil point at each end, they are the closest thing a modern knitter comes to working with sticks. The needles sell in a couple of shorter and longer lengths, the shorter length being for smaller items like socks and mittens; the longer, for larger projects like hats,sleeves, and pullovers.

While there’s really only one process, there is a little variation in whether knitters work with 4 needles or 5. People who use 5 needles divide the work evenly over 4 of them and use the fifth to do the actual knitting. People who use four generally place half the stitches onto one needle, divide the rest over two more, and knit with the fourth needle, but they may distribute the stitches in some other way, based on what makes sense for the project or the pattern stitch.

If, like me, you’ve been dreading dpn’s, the thing to keep in mind is that these needles aren’t like regular needles. They’re rougher. You don’t notice it from normal handling, like when you use them to put your hair up in a bun or when you bang them on a sauce pan to let the family know dinner is ready. But as you cast on and begin to work your stitches, you notice that the metal, plastic, or wooden surface of the needle shaft is actually weirdly . . . porous and, yes, rough. This causes the work to slide more slowly along than it would on an Addi or Knit Picks circ, which reduces the likelihood that stitches will drop off one of the tapered ends and gives you and me time to grab them if they slip.

To learn the process, the best approach is to start a hat, mitten, pouch, sleeve, sock, or some other tube, using one or two circs. When the tube is 2 or 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) long, remove the circular needle(s), slipping the live stitches on to double pointed needles as you go. You can use 3 or 4 needles. I used 3 to have fewer things/needles to deal with.

Now here’s where knitting with double-pointed needles becomes a lesson in trusting the process and the tools. Once the dpn’s are in place, find the working yarn, which should be at one end of a needle. Grab that neighboring needle, the one that is closest to the working yarn. Hold the neighboring needle in your left hand, and with an empty needle in the right, start knitting.

That’s right. Just grab the needle nearest the working yarn with your left hand as if it were a traditional single-pointed needle (the ones with a stop at one end), put an empty needle in your right hand, hold the working yarn as you normally do, and knit away.

The other needles hang in the work without slipping out and onto the floor. If you’re nervous about losing a needle or if you’re an especially loose knitter (hey, what we do on our own time is our own business, right?), you can put point protectors on the ends of the idle needles, or if you don’t have point protectors handy, you can wrap rubber bands around the ends.

To start a project on double-pointed needles, cast the stitches onto one needle, using a firm cast on that keeps its shape, like the long-tail cast on, or choose any other cast on and work one row. Then start redistributing stitches by slipping stitches from one end of the cast-on needle to another needle or two. For example, if you plan to divide the work over four needles, put half of the stitches onto the second needle; lay the needles on a table perpendicular to each other, forming a wedge or V; then slip half of the stitches from each needle onto two more. If you plan to divide the stitches over three needles, lay a single needle on the table; then starting at one end, slip a fourth of the stitches onto a second needle, and starting at the other end, slip another fourth of the stitches onto a third needle. Much easier than I’m making it sound.

To actually start knitting, shift the collection of dpn’s that are on the table so that the working yarn is at the left end of one of the needles. If it’s near the right end of a needle, pick up the whole structure and flip it over, as if you were turning a pancake or emptying out a purse. When the working yarn is properly positioned, rotate the structure of needles so that the one with the working yarn is near your right hand. Do not pick that needle up, Instead, pick up the one next to it, the one nearest the working yarn, the one that starts with the first stitch you cast on. That is the needle that goes in your left hand. Hold an empty needle in your right hand, and pick up the collection of needles with stitches so you can bring the working yarn close enough to your left needle to knit. This is one of those knitterly moments when you really wish you had a few extra fingers, but it really does stop feeling awkward with a little practice.

Then just knit. When you finish working the stitches on a needle, put the newly emptied needle in your right hand, and use it to work the stitches on the next needle, repeating the process with each needle until you’re done.

That’s all there is to it. To avoid laddering where the needles meet, give the working yarn an extra tug after working the first stitch of each needle. Run your hand over the work periodically to make sure you haven’t dropped any stitches. Beyond that, it’s all a matter of trusting that things will go as they should–kind of like life. Who knew?

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