General, Knitting Know How

Which cast on should I use? Three popular cast on methods to start most types of garment.

The many ways to cast on

I’ve been meaning to write a post about cast on methods for ages as it is something that comes up regularly at workshops. Many of us have a favourite cast on. If you are anything like me, it was the one your Mum taught you and you used it for everything until you did City and Guilds and discovered the reason why you could never get your hand knitted socks over your arch!

There is a book by Cap Sease called “Cast On, Bind off: 211 Ways to Begin and End your knitting. I shall leave you to investigate the many methods that I shan’t be discussing here. In this post I’ll talk about the three most commonly used cast ons and why it is a good idea to be proficient in all of them. Just like exercise and jeans, one size does not fit all.

Sincere apologies to left handers, the diagrams and explanations below are given for a right handed knitter i.e. me.

Thumb cast on (often called backward loop). As a teacher of knitting this is often the one that people find the easiest to grasp and therefore is often taught to children.

thumb cast on diagrams low resAfter tying a slip knot (counts as stitch one on the needle), a loop is made by twisting the working yarn around the thumb in a clockwise direction (diagram 1). The needle tip is placed in to the loop (diagram 2). The thumb is removed from the loop and the working yarn is tensioned to create an even stitch on the needle (diagram 3).

The advantages of the thumb cast on:

  1. It creates a stretchy cast on and therefore is suitable for garments that need give e.g. sock and mitt cuffs (a revelation for me as hinted at in the introduction above!)
  2. It is simple to do in the middle of your knitting as you continue to work in the same direction. This means that you can use the working yarn as it presents itself from the previous stitches. Hence it is often the cast on used for putting stitches back on to the needle mid row after they have been cast off on a previous row e.g. button holes and pocket holes.

The disadvantages are

  1. The first row can be a bit tricky in some yarns as there is little structure in the cast on stitches and they can overlap and get a bit tangled. However, it is worth taking it slowly and persevering (counting as you go!) as further rows are a doddle.
  2. As it is a stretchy cast on method it can distort and slacken with use e.g. baggy sweater bottoms.

Cable cast on

This is probably the other end of the firmness scale to the thumb method.

cable cast on photos low res

After tying your slip knot (counts as stitch one on the needle), place the right hand needle through the loop as if to knit (diagram 1.). Wrap the working yarn around the needle anti clockwise, again as if to knit (diagram 2.). Continue to create your knit stitch by pulling the yarn through the centre of the slip knot loop on the left hand needle (diagram 3.) and place the loop you have just created on the right hand needle over the top of the left hand needle. Two stitches now sit on the left hand needle. Here it changes:

cable cast on 2 low res

To create the third stitch on the needle (and all consequent stitches), place the right hand needle in between the two stitches already on the needle (diagram 4.). Continue as if to knit a stitch by wrapping the working yarn anti clockwise around the right hand needle and pulling it back through the gap between stitches 1 and 2 on the left hand needle. Place the loop from the right hand needle on to the left hand needle (diagram 5.) to create your third stitch. Continue in this way until all stitches have been cast on.

The advantages of the cable cast on:

  1. It creates an attractive, firm cast on line and as such is great for starting bottom up sweaters etc as it is less likely to go baggy with use and time.
  2. The second row is a doddle (unlike the thumb cast on method as mentioned above).

Consequently the disadvantages are:

  1. It isn’t very stretchy and therefore is not a great choice for cuffs e.g. socks and anything else where the cuff circumference is smaller than the circumference further down the garment.

As these two cast on methods are either end of the stretchy spectrum having both of them in your knitting tool kit will enable you to tackle most garments competently (we are talking function only here and not discussing the many ways of changing the appearance of your cast on edge). However, there is another commonly used cast on method which is a current fave with a lot of the American Knit Stars some of whom claim that they never use anything else. This is probably because it sits in between the two discussed above, being more stretchy than the cable cast on and firmer than the thumb cast on. It is called long tail cast on.

Long Tail Cast On

long tail cast on photos low res

Firstly you need to guesstimate the amount of yarn you need to cast on with. There are a number of ways suggested to do this, one being wrap the yarn around the needle the same number of times as the stitches you require (I would always add a few more on for luck!). This gives you the length of the tail that you will be working with.

Make a slip knot and place on your needle (there are ways of avoiding the slip knot which I shall leave you to investigate if you are interested). Hold your knitting needle in your right hand with both strands of yarn hanging down, tail in front. With your left hand pinch your thumb and forefinger together and place them between the two strands of yarn. When you open your thumb and forefinger the tail end now hangs over the thumb and the working end over your first finger (diagram 1.). Turn your hand to a sling shot position (diagram 2.).

Insert the right knitting needle tip over the top and hook back up and under the outside of the tail end loop. Keeping the strand of yarn from the thumb on top of the needle move your needle over the top of the far side of the yarn on the forefinger and catch it by bringing the right hand needle from right to left. Pull this strand through the loop made with the tail end (diagram 3.). Carefully remove the thumb and replace it behind the tail end to help tension the stitch on the needle. Continue (diagram 4.) until all stitches are on the needle.

A little chant that helps me to remember what I’m doing with this cast on is: over, under, over, under, through, and drop.

If the above sounds way too wordy and complicated for you, there are lots of videos available on line. Just search “long tail cast on” and find the one that works for you.

The advantages of this cast on are

  1. It forms a neat and relatively firm edge.
  2. It retains some elasticity.

The disadvantages are

  1. It is a compromise so before using it I would ask myself whether the function of the cast on would be better met with one of the other two versions discussed above.
  2. You have to guess how much yarn you are going to use before you start casting on. We’ve probably all run out of tail end before reaching our quota of stitches at some time in the past with this method and had to start again. Not such a problem for a small garment but you can imagine the distress this might cause when casting on hundreds of stitches.

I hope that you have found this article helpful. These are only three of the many methods of casting on that are available to you (but for me they are the ones that I use most often, along with the provisional cast on which I have covered in a previous post). The important thing to remember when choosing your method is what is the primary function of the cast on edge for this particular piece of knitting? e.g. decorative appearance, give, firmness etc. This will then inform which method you are going to plump for.

Happy knitting x

Which cast on should I use? Pinterest graphic

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