How to Use Interchangeable Knitting Needles – Tips & Tricks

by | Sep 26, 2023

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Interchangeable knitting needles are useful, convenient, and can work well for nearly any project. Here are my favorite tips for using these versatile needles.

What are interchangeable knitting needles?

Interchangeable circular knitting needles are the most versatile type of knitting needles available.  They can be used for just about any type of project imaginable, whether you’re knitting flat or in the round, whether your project is large or very small.

Knitters often learn to knit on straight needles, which are usually about 10-14″ long.  Straight needles have a point at one end and a stopper at the other end.  They are intended for knitting a flat piece back and forth in rows.

Circular knitting needles are designed for knitting in the round to make a tube of knitted fabric without any seams.  A fixed circular needle has a needle shaft permanently attached to each end of a flexible cable.  This allows you to knit a round row of knitting, great for socks, sleeves, cowls, seamless sweaters, and more.  

You can also knit back and forth in rows on a circular needle if you need to make a flat piece instead of a tube.  This works well for any flat project, but especially large ones.  

You cannot knit a large blanket in one piece on a 10″ straight needle, but you can knit a large blanket on a long circular needle.  A circular needle can be long enough to hold a large number of stitches on it at a time. 

The main drawback to fixed circulars is that you will often need circular needles of different lengths for different projects.  

For instance, if you’re knitting a hat in the round, you may need a size 8 circular needle that is 16″ long, but if you want to knit a sweater in the round, you may need a size 8 circular needle that is 32″ long.  

It can be inconvenient and expensive to have to buy multiple lengths of circular needles to have the tools you need for different types of projects. 

This is why interchangeable circular needles are so handy.  

With interchangeable needles, the needle tips connect to the flexible cord with a screw connection.  This means the needles can be detached from the cable, allowing you to switch out different cable lengths to use with different sizes of needles.  You can customize the length and needle size of your circular needle to be exactly what you need for each project.  

Benefits of Interchangeable Knitting Needles

– Can be used for knitting flat or in the round

– Great for projects of all sizes, from a large blanket to the sleeve on a baby sweater

– Replaces double-pointed knitting needles, as you can use the magic loop technique to knit at very small circumferences on a flexible circular needle

– Easier on the hands than straight needles, as much of the weight of the project sits on the flexible cable of the interchangeable circular needle.  This allows the weight of most of the knitting to rest in your lap, so you don’t have to hold up the weight with your hands.

Parts Included in an Interchangeable Knitting Needle Set

Buying interchangeable needles as a set is a great way to get all the needle sizes you’ll need for most projects.  Many brands also have extra, less-commonly-used needle tip sizes available separately if you need them.

Here’s what you’ll get in a typical set of interchangeable needles:

– Several pairs of interchangeable knitting needle tips in different needle sizes, each with a screw-hole connection in one end

– Flexible cords / cables in a range of lengths, each with a screw connection at both ends

– A small cord key or pin, used for properly connecting the needles to the cables

– At least one pair of end caps, which can attach to the ends of the flexible cables if needed

Some interchangeable sets may also include a cord connector, used for joining two cords together to make a longer one.

Different needle brands may also offer other accessories, such as needle cases for their interchangeable needle sets, or size marker tags. 

How to Assemble Interchangeable Knitting Needles

First, choose the needle tip size you want to use, and the cable that is the length you need for your project.  

Circular needle lengths are described as the measurement of the full length of the needle, from the end of one needle tip, along the cord, to the end of the other needle tip.  For instance, on a 24″ circular needle, the entire needle, including both the cable and the needles, measures about 24″ long.  So if your pattern calls for a 24″ circular needle, don’t choose a cord that measures 24″ on its own.  Instead, choose the one that will create a circular needle that measures about 24″ long, including the length of the needle tips.

Tip: How do you keep interchangeable knitting needles from unscrewing?

Then, insert the cord key (also called a cable key) into the little hole in the metal connector on the end of the cord.

Next, line up the screw end of the needle tip with the screw on the cord, and twist the needle tip to screw them together.  Use the cord key to tighten the connection.  It gives you something to twist against so that the connection is secure.  

Note: If you do not use the cord key to tighten the connection, the needle will not be securely attached.  This may cause the needle to come unscrewed from the cable while you are knitting.  That little cord key is important!

Once the needle is attached, remove the cord key from the hole in the cord.

To finish assembling your needle, attach the other needle to the other end of the cord in the same manner.

How to Disassemble Interchangeable Knitting Needles

To disassemble your needles, insert the cord key into the hole in the end of the metal connector on the end of the cord.  

Using the cord key for grip, unscrew the needle tip from the cord.  If the needle was attached securely, you will not be able to unscrew it with just your fingers.  You need the cord key to give you something to twist against.  

Repeat the same steps to detach the other needle from the other end of the cable.

How do you knit with interchangeable needles?

Knitting with interchangeable knitting needles is just like knitting with a regular, fixed circular needle.  You can knit a flat piece back and forth in rows, knit a tube in the round, and even knit small circumferences with the magic loop technique.

You can use interchangeable circular needles for every type of project if you like.

Tips for Using Interchangeable Knitting Needles

What are the end caps on interchangeable knitting needles for?

Saving a project for later

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a project, and you decide to start a new project that will require the same size needle as your current project.  

You don’t need another pair of needle tips in that size.  Instead, you can use the end caps that your needle set came with to put your current project on hold for later.  

This effectively turns your cable into a giant stitch holder that can keep all the stitches in your project secure until you’re ready to work on it again.

To do this, push all of the stitches of your project onto the flexible cable of your needle.  Then, insert the cord key into the hole on the connector, and unscrew the needle tips.  

Tip: Wait, which needle size was I using?

Some needle manufacturers also sell little size marker tags that you can slip onto your interchangeable cables.  These are super handy for when you save a project for later, as they can mark which needle size you were using for that project.  Then, you don’t have to worry about remembering which needle tip size you were using when you come back to the project.

If you’re using size marker tags, remove the cord key for a moment, and slip the size marker onto the cord.  Then, insert the cord key into the connector again.

You can then screw an end cap onto the end of the cable, and remove the cord key.  This will stop the stitches of your project from sliding off.  

Now, you can attach your needle tips to another cable to start a new project with the same needles.

Bonus: Interchangeable Crochet Hooks

Some manufacturers also sell interchangeable crochet hook tips that work with the same cords and parts as their interchangeable knitting needles.  These crochet hooks are great for Tunisian crochet, where you sometimes need to have a lot of stitches on the needle at once.  If you enjoy Tunisian crochet, these hooks may be a good option to consider as an add-on to your interchangeable knitting needle collection.

How to Make an Interchangeable Needle as Long as You Want

Want to knit a large blanket all in one piece?  You can knit a project as large as you want with interchangeable needles.  

KnitPicks sells cables that will make a needle up to 72″ long (!), but if you don’t have a cord that long, you can join multiple shorter cords together to make a longer one.  You’ll need one of these cable connectors and two cord keys. 

The cable connector has a hole in the center for a cord key, and a screw hole at each end.

First, insert a cord key into the cable connector, and another cord key into the connector at the end of one cable.  

Then, screw the cable connector and the cable together, using the cord keys to securely tighten the connection.  

Next, remove the cord key from the end of the cord, and insert it into the end of the next cord you would like to join to the connector.  

Screw the end of the second cord into the connector, using the cord keys to securely tighten the connection. 

Now you can remove both cord keys and attach needle tips to the ends of your new, very-long cable.

When you want to detach the two cords, you can use the cord keys to unscrew the cords from the cable connector as usual.

Adding a Lifeline the Easy Way

Sometimes, when knitting complex stitch patterns like lace or cable knitting, we can use a lifeline to make it easier to fix any mistakes.  A lifeline is a string threaded through an entire row or round of your knitting.  If you add a lifeline after each repeat of your stitch pattern, then if you find a mistake, you can unravel back to the last lifeline before the mistake.  All the stitches will be held on that lifeline, and you’ll know which row of the stitch pattern you need to begin with when you continue knitting from that point.

Adding a lifeline is usually done with a yarn needle, by threading a smooth string or thread through all of the stitches on your needle.  

But if you’re using interchangeable needles, you can add a lifeline somewhat automatically.  Just choose a smooth string or thread that fits through the hole in the end of your interchangeable cable.  

Cut a long length of smooth string or thread that is at least 12″-16″ longer than your row or round of knitting.  The extra length allows for the ends of the string to hang loose, so that it doesn’t easily slip out of your stitches.

Before beginning to knit the row where you want the lifeline to be added, push any stitches on the right needle down onto the needle cord.  Thread the string through this hole (where we would insert the cord key when attaching the needle tips) below the right needle connector.

Then, tie the end of the string together with the main length of the string a few inches past the hole in the cord.  This will keep the string from slipping out of the hole.  

Knit your row or round as normal.  As you knit, the stitches will slide over both the interchangeable cable and the lifeline string.  When you finish the row, make sure all the stitches have slid past the right needle’s connector, so the string is going through all the stitches.  

Untie the knot in the string so that it is not attached to the needle anymore.  (Another option would be to cut the string loose from the needle if you can’t untie the knot.)

You now have a lifeline threaded through all the stitches on your needle.

How to Choose a Set of Interchangeable Knitting Needles

There are lots of interchangeable needle sets on the market, so it can be hard to decide which kit to purchase.  I have tested many sets of needles over the years, and have narrowed it down to my top 2 favorite sets below.

If you prefer wooden knitting needles, my favorites are the KnitPicks Options Interchangeable Needles in Laminated Birch.  They come in many beautiful color combinations, and have the best smooth surface of any wooden needles I have tested.  

If metal needles are your preference, I would recommend the Mindful Collection Interchangeable Set from Knitter’s Pride.  They are made from durable, high quality stainless steel, with flexible swivel cables that practically untwist any kinks on their own. 

Are interchangeable knitting needles worth it?

In my opinion, yes!  I use interchangeable circular needles pretty much exclusively.  They are extremely versatile, can be used for nearly any project, and are more cost-effective than purchasing sets of straight needles, double-pointed needles, and fixed circulars.  I love using interchangeable needles for my projects, and highly recommend them.

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