Pattern Play: Cast-Ons
A great finished product starts at the beginning. Usually when we learn to knit, someone teaches us the basic skills and tells us to practice. That’s a great start, but then we have to learn how to read a pattern. This 7-part series by Kate Atherley explains how. Originally published in knitscene Fall 2016.
There are myriad different ways to maneuver cast-ons.1 These are my favorite and most-used methods, and the ones I believe all knitters should learn.
The most common all-purpose cast-ons are the knitted, the cable, and the long-tail methods. The knitted method is one we often teach to newer knitters, and although it’s quick and easy, it’s not that great for most applications: the edge can be inflexible and have big, loose loops. The cable cast-on, which is a simple variation of the knitted method, creates a much nicer edge with a little more give. (It’s called the cable cast-on because the resulting edge looks like a twisted rope.) If you use the knitted method, I strongly recommend you try cable instead.
My preferred all-purpose cast-on is the long-tail method. It is fast to work, creates an attractive edge, and is stretchy for sock and mitten cuffs. Make sure you leave room between the stitches on the needles—pull them up snugly, but space them out. The “cast on over 2 needles” trick is a red herring—although it makes the stitches larger, it doesn’t make the edge any stretchier. When you work the long-tail method, one yarn end drapes over the needle and the other yarn end forms the edge. Making larger stitches with the one end doesn’t change the edge at all. The challenge with this method is guessing how long a tail to leave: unless you’re working with bulky yarn, an inch per stitch will give you plenty.
A provisional cast-on is a row of working yarn loops that has been secured at the bottom temporarily, typically with waste yarn. When the waste yarn is removed, the other sides of the stitches of the cast-on row are exposed, ready to be worked.
You need a provisional cast-on if you need to work in both directions from the starting stitches, or if you want to make a seamless join.
There is a category of scarves called the Seaman’s Scarf that has you start at the center and work in both directions. You work this way so that the patterning is symmetrical when the scarf is draped over your neck. You cast on, work one side, return to the cast-on, and work the second side in the other direction.
A cowl worked lengthwise might start with a provisional cast-on so you can make a seamless join. Once the knitting is done, the stitches are left live so that the live stitches at the cast-on edge can be joined together with the stitches of the other end, either with grafting or a three-needle bind-off.
Specialty Knitting Cast-Ons
As you work through different types of projects, there are other methods you might find useful.
Backward loop (also known as e-wrap): This method is very fast and easy, but the resulting stitches aren’t very stable and can be hard to work from. It’s okay for a small number of stitches—for example, at the crook of the thumb when making mittens—and it makes an excellent increase! If your pattern calls for a “Make 1 (or M1)” increase, you can just make a backward loop and place it onto the right needle—you don’t have to worry about remembering special instructions for left and right or knit and purl versions.
Judy’s Magic Cast-On (JMCO): This method was developed by Judy Becker specifically for toe-up socks. It’s related to the figure-8 and Turkish methods, which are used for the same purposes. These methods can also be used in place of a provisional cast-on. Instead of working from both sides, slip half the stitches to scrap yarn or a holder and then return to them when you need to work in the opposite direction. (Note that there is a slight difference in the result compared with a standard provisional cast-on: these methods create an extra row of knitting that can disrupt a stitch pattern.)
Tubular: Although fiddly, this cast-on is fantastic for stretchy and beautiful ribbed edges, like those used in commercial knits. It begins with a provisional cast-on of half the stitches required, and the full stitch count is created by alternating live stitches with loops picked up from the provisional edge.
Twisted German/Old Norwegian: A variation of the longtail method, this cast-on creates a very stretchy edge and is worth learning if you’re a top-down sock knitter who struggles with too-tight cast-ons.
Chinese Waitress: This cast-on is my current favorite method. Author Cap Sease learned it from a friend who learned it from a waitress in a restaurant in China. A fascinating evolution of the cable method, it’s a stretchy cast-on that doesn’t require the long tail. Very Pink Knits has an excellent video tutorial on YouTube.
1. [There are two great books on this topic: Cap Sease’s encyclopedic Cast On, Bind Off: 211 Ways to Begin and End Your Knitting (Martingale, 2014) and Leslie Ann Bestor’s more accessible Cast On, Bind Off: 54 Step-by-Step Methods (Storey Publishing, 2012).]↩
(Originally posted on August 13, 2017; updated on May 17, 2019.)