A step-by-step tutorial on how to knit magic loop using a single circular needle
Do you want to start a tubular project? You tried knitting in the round on double-pointed needles but the technique was beyond you? Well, then you came to the right places because this tutorial is all about the super simple magic loop knitting method.
First of all, what does magic loop mean? At its core, it’s an ingenious technique first mentioned by Sarah Hauschka in a book of the same name in 2002 that allows you to knit small diameter projects with regular circular needles. When you want to knit socks or similar patterns, the circumference of these projects is typically smaller than the the length of needle tips themselves. And this prevents you from knitting in a continuous round.
The trick behind knitting magic loop is simple. You separate your project into two parts. And one part is always on the flexible cable. And if the cable is long enough, you can use the needle on the other end of the cable to knit stitches freely. And since the method is just so smart, it almost feels a bit like magic.
Let’s show you how to knit it.
Note: Neither knitting in the round on double-pointed needles nor magic loop is in and by itself better. Both methods can produce the exact same results. It entirely depends on your personal preferences and knitting style.
- Cast on the required number of stitches using a standard longtail cast-on plus one extra stitch. E.g. If your pattern asks for 20 stitches, you cast on 21.
For an extra invisible join, consider starting your cast on with a simple backward loop instead of a slip knot.
- Slide the stitches to the center of the cable.
- Fold the cable at the center of your cast-on edge and pull out a loop of cable through the middle. There should be about half of the stitches on either side.
- Slide the stitches on both sides back to the tips of the needles without twisting them. To avoid this, don't let go of either cable as you slide the stitches to the front.
- Slip the first stitch of your cast on back to the other needle using either your fingers or a spare needle. Make sure that you bring the stitch around by 180 degrees as you do that.
- Pass the now second stitch on the back needle over the one you just slipped.
Tug gently on the tail if this loosened up the stitch a bit. You just successfully joined your knitting in the round.
- From here, turn your needles around by 180 degrees.
- Now, pull out the needle in front.
The loop at the end of your needles should be about as big as the length of the cable attached to your free (working) needle. Be careful not to pull the loop at the end too close. This can put stress on the seam and result in ladders.
- Using the free working needle, start the magic loop technique by simply knitting into the first stitch. Check if the working yarn got tangled up with the cable. You should be able to move it freely around your project and it should not be trapped inside the cable.
Make sure that you keep the last stitch on the cable (so on the other side) and the first stitch close together as you knit the first stitch and keep a nice tension.
- Continue knitting across the rest of the stitches on the back needle according to your pattern.
Once you finished knitting all stitches on the back needle, you should have one free needle again.
- Gently pull on the loop at the end of your needles to pull back the free needle until all stitches are back on the needle tips.
Make sure that you pull on the right end of the loop and you don't accidentally drop the stitches that you just knitted off the needles. It helps if you secure the stitches on the other side with your fingers.
- Turn your project around by 180 degrees again. The needle tips should point towards the right and there should be a big loop on the left. Then, gently pull out the front needle and slide the stitches (you just knitted) to the middle of the cable.
- Pick up the free needle. The working yarn should fall freely behind the work. And then, start knitting across the next set of stitches.
Again, make sure that you keep the last stitch on the loop close to the very first stitch you are going to knit on the new needle. Keep a nice tension but don't pull too tight!
- Continue repeating steps 7-13 to knit magic loop. So at the end of each section, you pull on the loop until all stitches are on the needles again, you turn the work around, pull out the needle in front, and continue knitting.
If you look at the pictures closely, you can see that you always pull out and knit with the same needle tip.
The method itself is quite simple and, unlike when knitting with dpns, you will have a hard time accidentally dropping stitches. The most difficult part is probably the cast on - especially if your pattern requires a lot of stitches that go beyond your needle tips. Then it's very important to check for twists before you start knitting.
As it can be difficult, some knitters prefer to knit flat for 3-5 rows before they join in the round. Later on, they seam the gap using mattress stitch.
How to avoid ladders when doing magic loop
The biggest problems, when it comes to knitting with the magic loop method, are ladders. Compared to knitting the traditional way on circular needles, you end up with two gaps. And this join, and your individual knitting technique, can put stress on the stitches to either side of the divide. As a result, a knitter may find a column of very loose stitches or visible bars along the length of their project. A so-called ladder.
So, how can you avoid this?
Important tip: First of all, make very sure that you actually need to knit using magic loop. If your project has a sufficiently large circumference (say a sweater or a cowl), you can knit in the round with a circular needle of a similar length without ever needing to pull out the cable. Brands like Chiaogoo also offer interchangeable needle sets with super short tips (the so-called Mini sets) that will even allow you to knit socks with circular needles.
But if that’s not possible, here are some tips:
1. Don’t stretch out the Gaps
The weak point of any magic loop project are the gaps at the beginning and end of a needle. So, whenever you switch needles, there is this one stitch at the beginning that is a bit more difficult to knit. Make very sure that you bring the last stitch on the loop close to the new needle.
If you don’t, you will automatically create a bit of slack between the stitches and this will be very difficult to fix later on. Speaking from experience, especially English knitters face this problem as they often let go of the needle to throw the yarn. So, make sure that you pinch these stitches together.
2. Keep an even tension
The second cause for ladders when knitting magic loop has to do with tension – or rather the redistribution of the same. Either through the way you knit and tension your yarn or the way you handle the needles and the cables, you may stretch out certain sections or steal yarn from previous stitches. This will lead to an imbalance and it will create ladders all the same.
It’s important to realize that this is a different kind of ladder. In the previous example, there was too much yarn around. Now, the amount is right but as all stitches in a row are connected, you can accidentally pull on any stitch to artificially close an adjacent stitch. The result will be one super small stitch and one really loose stitch. Here’s how this can happen.
A) Pulling too tight
As you bridge the gap, a lot of tutorials will tell you to pull tight after you knitted either only the first or the second stitch. What will often happen is, that this closes the last stitch on the cable. The barrel of the needle isn’t there to define its size anymore. So, when you tug on the working yarn after you knitted the first stitch, this can lead to a super small stitch.
If you pinch the stitches close to each other, you can just continue knitting with the same tension.
Once you finished the second stitch, you may want to give the working yarn a gentle tug nevertheless to pull out any excess yarn around the gap.
Important: Depending on whether you are an overall loose knitter or a tight knitter, the results may be different. A loose knitter may have to tighten up the first or second stitch while a very tight knitter may actually consciously try to knit those first two stitches a bit more loosely to avoid ladders.
B) Using the wrong cable
Another thing that may influence your stitch definition in a negative way are the cables themselves. If the loop on the left end of your needles is too small, not flexible enough, or ends up being twisted, it may end up stretching out the gap.
The result will be a set of very loose strands in between two relatively small stitches, aka a ladder. The key to magic loop knitting is having a cable that is sufficiently long. The brand itself doesn’t matter all that much. It just needs to be long enough to not stress the joins.
Note: I personally prefer to knit with brands that have thicker cables (Knitter’s Pride) as this minimizes the risk of accidentally pulling the stitches on the cable too tight.
3. Don’t knit complicated stitches at the beginning or end of your needles
A very last problem has to do with the fact that complicated stitches tend to put stress on adjacent stitches. When you knit an SSK, a P2tog tbl, or similar stitches, then will automatically end up using the stitches to gain some leverage as you pull the yarn through.
That’s why most tutorials will recommend knitting those stitches close to the tip of your needles for the best results. But when you knit them close to the gap, there is one side where the stitch will be able to steal a bit more yarn because the stitch on the other side is farther away than a normal stitch. This often results in eyelets or ladders. To avoid this, simply shuffle your stitches around.
4. Don’t knit purl stitches as the first or last stitch
The last issue is one that has often been misunderstood. Apparently, it is still a widely held belief even among knitting professionals that a purl stitch would use more yarn than a knit stitch and that this can cause ladders. That this is nonsense. A purl stitch is a mirror-inverted knit stitch and uses the exact same amount of yarn. Otherwise, patterns like stockinette stitch wouldn’t look the same when you compare flat with circular knitting.
At the same time, the yarn is held in front for a purl stitch. This means the yarn has to travel the outer curve and not the inner curve (think of it as athletes during an 800-meter running event). And this effect will pronounce any underlying problems that cause ladders.
So, if possible try to avoid knitting purl stitches around the gaps. And it’s a purl-only pattern, meaning reverse stockinette stitch, then consider flipping your project inside out.
5. Use different needle sizes
And here’s one last tip. If you go through the tutorial above, you will see that you always only work with one needle. So, your left needle never actually gets to see any action. It just acts as a stitch holder, so to speak. If you own a set of interchangeable knitting needles, you can use that knowledge to attach a needle one size smaller on that end.
This will make sliding the stitches up your needle, entering stitches, and so on, much easier. It won’t help you with the ladders – at least not in a straightforward way. But if you need to push, prod, and pull a lot, then this will stress stitches of the previous row and your overall stitch definition won’t benefit from that.