Knitted lace, a fabric that consists largely of holes, will always stretch wider than its counterpart in stockinette or garter stitch. The most common methods of casting on and binding off, however, often produce an edge that’s too firm and inflexible to stretch the width of a lacy fabric. Traditional lace shawls were often designed to avoid this problem by doing away with cast-on or bound-off edges altogether. A provisional cast-on and a “live” last row allowed the piece to be finished off with a perpendicular knitted edging. But many of today’s lace projects—simple lace scarves and shawls, for example—are knitted from a permanent cast-on edge to the bind-off row. The following lace cast-on and bind-off methods yield flexible edges with enough give to accommodate the most aggressive blocking.
Conventional wisdom for increasing the elasticity of a cast-on edge has the knitter work the long-tail (Continental) method over two needles. Unfortunately, this modification doesn’t provide a more elastic edge: the stitches on the needle may be larger, but the size of the knots at the base of the stitches remains the same. Only a very little yarn is used in each “knot” and between neighboring knots, yielding the same tight and inelastic edge. To compensate, the knitter must somehow add extra yarn either to each knot formed at the base of the stitch or between knots. Leave a consistent length of yarn (¼ to ½”, depending on the gauge of the piece) between each stitch as you cast on.
Backward Loop Cast-On
The backward-loop cast-on works beautifully for lace fabric because of its absolute simplicity—there are no twists or knots on the cast-on row of stitches. But it may stretch even more than the body stitches and must be pinned carefully during blocking to avoid flared or scalloped edges.
Make a loop with the working yarn and place it on the needle backward. The loops may be made with the ball end of the yarn in front or in back of the loop. The difference is almost impossible to see once worked, though you may prefer a forward loop (Figure 1) when the first row after cast-on is knitted and a backward loop (Figure 2) when it’s purled.
More solid than a backward loop cast-on, the knitted lace cast-on produces an edge that is lacy and loopy and will stretch as far as you need it to. Though instructions for this cast-on often start with a slipknot loop, for a completely knotless edge, try a simple twisted loop instead.
Place a twisted loop (or slipknot) on the left needle. Knit into this stitch with the right needle (Figure 1), draw a new stitch through, and place it on the left needle (Figure 2). Repeat until the correct number of stitches has been cast on, always knitting into the last stitch you made.
Many lace patterns, after pages of intricate charts and working instructions, end abruptly with a note to “bind off loosely.” Although the standard k1, psso bind-off may be loosened slightly by working it with a needle many sizes larger than those used for the body, it still may not have the necessary give to stretch comfortably with the fabric. The following variations on binding off may be a little more challenging to work, but the results are worth it.
Modified Standard Bind-Off
If working with very large needles doesn’t produce a bind-off with enough elasticity, a little extra yarn can be manually inserted as you work.
Bind off as usual, making a yarnover between stitches at regular intervals (Figure 1) and slipping it over with the stitch being bound-off (Figure 2). Depending on how open and airy the body stitch is—and how far it needs to stretch—a yarnover may be inserted between every third, second, or even after every stitch.
Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Sewn Bind-Off
This sewn bind-off, which Elizabeth Zimmerman described in her book Knitting Without Tears (Fireside, 1973), mirrors the look of a cast-on row. Worked with carefully matched tension, it makes a tidy bound-off edge.
Break working yarn, leaving at least 1½” for every stitch to be bound off. Thread the yarn into a blunt tapestry needle small enough to pass through the live stitches without stretching them. Insert the tapestry needle into the first stitch on the needle as if to knit, and slip this stitch off the knitting needle. *Insert the tapestry needle purlwise into the next two stitches, leaving them on the knitting needle (Figure 1), and pull the yarn through. Insert the tapestry needle into the first stitch on the needle as if to knit (Figure 2), and slip this stitch off the needle. Repeat from * until all stitches have been bound off.
Sometimes called a Russian bind-off, the yielding—but very strong—edge this method creates is ideal for edges that are to be blocked into points or scallops. Though the bind-off row is worked with purl stitches, it looks right at home on the right side of a stockinette fabric—a good thing, because a bind-off worked in this way with knit stitches doesn’t have the same elasticity.
Purl two stitches. *Slip the two stitches back onto the left needle, without twisting (Figure 1). Purl two together (Figure 2), purl one stitch (Figure 3). Repeat from * until one stitch remains; break yarn and pull through to finish.
Try these cast-on and bind-off techniques for your next lace project. Looking for lacy inspiration? Check out Classic Knit Shawls, a collection of gorgeous shawl patterns that’s sure to excite you!
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