Or, how to handle double-pointed needles (DPNs).
If last week's theme was fear of YOs, this week's was definitely fear of DPNs; I've explained their care and feeding to no less than three knitters, and the week's not over. They're definitely one of the things that new knitters find intimidating, but in reality, like many aspects of knitting, they look a lot tougher to handle than is actually the case.
Important fact #1: Regardless of how many DPNs you're using on your project, you're never actually knitting with more than two needles. And you know how to do that! The others are just being stitch holders.
The corollary to this is that you should never be trying to hang onto more than two needles at a time. With wood or bamboo, and most plastics, unless you're just an incredibly loose knitter, your inactive DPNs aren't going to fall out of the stitches; with metal, it's a possibility. If you feel paranoid, or your stitches really are that loose, put point protectors on the tips of the needles you're not using; that way you'll know they're not going anywhere, and you can ignore them. Let go of them and let them hang out.
The hardest part of DPNs is definitely getting a project started on them. A lot of first attempts at DPNs end right there, as the knitter struggles to make the DPNs behave, concludes they're obviously doing something wrong, and gives up. Which brings us to:
Important fact #2: DPNs are unruly for the first few rows for everybody, no matter how much experience they have. They flop around like landed fish, they try to cross, they just plain won't behave. The difference with experienced DPN knitters is, they know that this is normal, and that it's not them, it's the DPNs, and they keep going.
After a few rows, the fabric below the needles will stabilize them and they'll settle down. If you're having trouble getting to this point, you can knit the first few rows flat, and then join and knit in the round after you've got a bit of fabric started; you'll have a little seam, but on most projects it won't be a big deal. I definitely encourage you to try starting a project on DPNs in the round from the beginning, however, once you're a little more comfortable with DPNs generally; it's a skill you're eventually going to want to have.
So, how do we get started? Begin by casting on all of your stitches onto one of the DPNs, or onto a straight or circular needle of the same size if you're going to do too many to fit comfortably on a single DPN. When you've finished with that, slip approximately 1/4 (or 1/3 if you're using a set of 4) of the stitches onto each of the DPNs which will be holding stitches, leaving one DPN of the set without stitches. I suggest doing it this way, rather than trying to cast onto each of the DPNs you're going to be using, because the latter can contribute to laddering between the DPNs on your first few rows, since the joins tend to get stretched out while you're trying to get subsequent stitches cast on. Casting onto a single needle and then slipping the stitches to each of the DPNs tends to cause less of this simply because there's less manipulation going on once the stitches are separated.
If you are accustomed to casting on over two needles held together, I would not suggest that you do that for DPNs; the very loose stitches this causes don't hold the needles snugly, which makes the first row a real challenge. Instead, use a set of DPNs several sizes bigger for your cast-on row (use a mm size that's double the mm size of your project DPNs for the same effect as casting on over 2 needles), and then knit off onto the project size in your first row. Better still, make your cast-on stretchier by making sure you maintain a horizontal spacing between your stitches, instead of by making the stitches themselves bigger.
Once you've got your cast-on stitches separated out onto the DPNs, it's time to join. As with any circular knitting, it's very important that you not have a twist in your cast-on row. The first time you do this, I suggest laying the DPNs on a table in a line, and making sure all the bumps are on the same side of the needles. Then, without picking them up, bring them around so that the first and last DPN are together; the bumps should now be all on the outside or all on the inside. If you like to swap stitches to join, go ahead and do that now. Now, still without picking the DPNs up from the table, take your spare DPN and insert it into the first stitch, and wrap the yarn and work the stitch. Now, your stitches are joined, and you can't get a twist; go ahead and pick the DPNs up. As you get more comfortable working with DPNs, you may find that you can get them sorted out and joined untwisted without going through all of this, and that's fine, but this way will always work, so it's a good way to begin.
I find the following arrangement of DPNs to be the most efficient, and keep the inactive DPNs out of my way the best. Arrange your DPNs so that the left end of each is on top of the next needle to the left, and the right end is underneath the next needle to the right. To knit from a needle, slide it down so that all the stitches are near the right end, and then twitch the right end of it up above the next needle to the right, so this DPN is on top of both of its neighbors. Bring your empty DPN up from beneath and to the left of the next needle to the right, and begin working the stitches. You should only be holding onto the needle you are knitting from and the needle you are knitting onto. Let the others just hang in their stitches and wait their turns; if you try to hold onto them as well, you really will feel like you're wrestling with a porcupine.
When you've knit all the stitches, slide the newly filled DPN down so that the stitches are in the middle of it. If you used the arrangement I explained above, its left end should be up and its right end down automatically, but if they're not, then wiggle the ends around so they're placed that way. Put the newly empty DPN in your right hand, and move on to the next DPN to the left, and repeat.
A note about stitch distribution: if it is reasonably possible to do so, I suggest avoiding starting a DPN with a purl stitch. Starting with a purl stitch is more awkward, and increases the chance of doing an accidental YO (thus causing an extra stitch, and a hole) in the "corner" of the DPNs. It's not important that your stitch counts be balanced on the DPNs, as long as they're not so unbalanced that it makes it difficult to work; starting each DPN with a knit is definitely a priority. So, for instance, if you were knitting 56 stitches on 5 DPNs, and beginning with 2x2 ribbing, the obvious arrangement for the 4 DPNs with stitches would be 14/14/14/14, but that has two of the DPNs starting with purl stitches; a better arrangement would be 12/16/12/16, or even 12/12/12/20, so that each starts with a knit. It will not always be possible to avoid starting with a purl -- for instance, in seed stitch, a stitch that is purled one round is knit the next, so trying to arrange them to avoid starting with a purl is pointless -- but if you can do it without undue difficulty, I recommend it.
Next up: avoiding ladders!