Magic Loop: Using One Long Needle to Knit Small Circumferences

I like knitting in the round. When the circumferences are small, like when I’m making socks, gloves, mittens, sleeves, and hats, my preferred method is to use two circular needles. I do a lot of my knitting on the go, and the two-circ method is perfect for that. I can just shove whatever I’m working on into or pull it out of a bag without worrying about dropped stitches; I can quickly figure out where I am in the round; and I can use the fact that the work is evenly divided over two needles to help me keep track of the pattern. Still, there are other ways to get the job done.

One method, the one covered in this post, is to use one long needle to knit small circumferences, a method sometimes called the magic loop. It’s most obvious benefit is that you only need one needle, which is sometimes all we have. Two other benefits are that it’s good for the unpredictable cramming and grabbing of knitting on the go and that there aren’t a lot of unnecessary needle tips to keep track of, as there are with the two-circ method.

What You Need to Magic Loop

To work in the round on a single circ:
• You need one long circular needle.
• The needle needs to have a very flexible cable.
• You need one or two stitch markers to keep track of the beginning or middle of the round.

The question of length is relative. Most knitters recommend a needle that is at least 36 inches (91 cm)long, but if you’re working on something small enough, like a child’s sock or the thumb of a glove or mitten, you can do so comfortably on a needle that is 24 inches (60 cm) in length. I find I work most comfortably when the needle is 1.5 to 2 feet (45 to 60 cm) longer than the row of stitches.

Flexibility, however, is not so relative. If you hold the rigid ends of the circular needle in one hand so that the tips point in the same direction, you should be able to run your fingers down the cable to a small loop at the end where it is folded in half. If that loop is about 1.5 inches (4 cm) long, the cable is flexible enough, but if the loop is over 2 inches (5 cm) long, then the cable is probably not flexible enough. And before you spend a lot of mental energy scheming, forcing the loop to be smaller doesn’t change the fact that the cable is too firm for what you are about to do.

How You Do the Magic Loop

Knitting a small circumference on one long needle is similar to knitting it on two circs in the sense that, once you pull a loop of cable out of the work, you have two imaginary circs to work with. Here’s how it’s done:

1. Using one long circular needle and any method, cast on an even number of stitches, 20 for this example.
2. Run your index finger along the row of stitches, stopping when you are between the two center stitches, in this case between Stitch number 10 and Stitch number 11.
3. Wiggle your finger left and right to separate those two center stitches, stopping when your fingertip is on the cable between them.
4. Grab that bit of cable with your thumb and index finger.
5. Pull! Keep pulling. You want a big loop of cable to form between those two stitches.
6. As you pull on the cable, use your other hand to slide the stitches as close as you can to the rigid tips of the needles, but leave them on the cables.
7. You may want to put a stitch marker on the big loop of cable to mark the middle of the round.
8. When the stitches are next to the rigid ends of the needle and when there is a big loop of cable between the two center stitches, hold the tips of the needle in your left hand, as if they were a single needle and you were going to start knitting a row.
9. Take a moment to observe the work. The tips of the needle are in your left hand. They are pointing up or to the right. One is behind the other; in other words, one needle tip is closer to you, and the other is farther away. The row of stitches is folded in half, like a closed book, and there is a big wire loop of cable sticking out of the spine of the book.
10. Make sure the working yarn is on the needle that is farthest from you. If it isn’t, rotate the stitches on each needle so that the smooth bottom edge of the fabric is on top of the needles, then pretending the two needles are a single needle, turn them up side down.
11. On the front needle, the one that is closer to you, slide the stitches onto the actual rigid tip of the needle.
12. Grab the back needle, the one that is farthest from you, and tug gently up or to the right.
13. Stop tugging on the back needle when you can pretend the back needle is the right needle; then place a marker on it and start working in the usual way.
14. If the needle is long enough, the wire loops will always be evident in the work. If the needle is a little short, the loops will tend to disappear as you reach the beginning and middle of the round. If the loops disappear, reposition the work as in Step 9, tug on the back needle and continue working.

Troubleshooting Magic Loop

One complaint about the magic loop is that the loops magically disappear. As you knit, there are always two loops of cable sticking out of the work. One is to your right at the beginning of the round, and the other is to your left at the halfway point. I like to keep a marker in each loop so that, if I lose my loop, I can quickly recover it by finding the marker and pulling on the cable there.

Another common problem of knitters new to this method of working in the round is loose stitches or a laddering effect below the loops. To avoid this, some knitters recommend changing the position of the loops every few rounds. I find that laddering happens only when the cable isn’t flexible enough, putting unnecessary stress on the work. It also helps to give the working yarn an extra tug after the first stitch following the loop.

The oddest gripe about the use of one long circ for small circumferences is that double pointed needles are needed for the smallest of circumferences. I’m not sure why anyone would stop using magic loop at any point. It works as well for the fingers of gloves and the crowns of hats as it does for anything else. Using shorter needles is more comfortable, to be sure, but it isn’t really necessary, and there’s never any danger of losing the loop.

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