Ralph is Not the Provisional Cast-On
What is a Provisional Cast-On?
There are several different types of provisional cast-ons to choose from, but they all have the same goal: to leave live loops at the bottom of the knitting so that the loops can be used again, either by knitting in the opposite direction or by grafting the live loops at both ends of a piece together.
The cast-on methods differ only in how the loops at the bottom of the knitting are temporarily secured. Most methods call for securing the loops with waste yarn that is later removed and discarded. The waste yarn can consist of several knitted rows, a crocheted chain, or just a single strand running through the loops. But any number of other things can be used, including the cable of a circular needle, braided fishing line, dental floss, or even your pet snake Ralph (not really, he’s just helping to illustrate my point).
When the provisional cast-on stitches are ready to be used again, the temporary holder is removed and the live loops are placed onto a knitting needle.
The term “provisional” has led many knitters to believe that the cast-on is the part that gets removed, when in fact the term refers to the unsecured working yarn loops. This misunderstanding can cause confusion for a knitter who is following a pattern if it’s not clear what the pattern writer intended, particularly because not all pattern writers are on the same page. For example, one pattern may tell you to cast on provisionally by working a crochet chain with waste yarn and then picking up stitches in the back of the chain using a knitting needle and the working yarn, while another pattern may tell you to crochet a waste-yarn chain directly onto the knitting needle. In one case you end up with working yarn stitches on the knitting needle, and in the other case you end up with waste yarn stitches.
Which method is correct?
Technically, both are, but the second method is incomplete and it will be necessary to knit a row with working yarn in order to end up at the same point as the first method. If you’re working the main piece in stockinette stitch and row count isn’t an issue, being a row short may not matter. But if you’re working in a lace pattern and will be grafting two ends of the piece together in pattern, then a single row can make a big difference. In that case, it’s important to end the cast-on with working yarn loops on the needle. This confusion could be alleviated if pattern writers understood that the provisional cast-on ends with the first row of working yarn loops.
In other words, the provisional cast-on isn’t Ralph!