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Casting on

"Jamie snorted briefly and picked up a needle and a ball of yarn.

"It's no verra difficult, Sassenach. Look- this is how ye cast up your row."

Drawing the thread out through his closed fist, he made a loop round his thumb, slipped it onto the needle, and with a quick economy of motion, cast on a long row of stitches in a madder of seconds. Then he handed me the other needle and another ball of yarn. "There – you try.""

-- Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn

There are tons of different techniques for casting on and most experienced knitters likely have a favorite. New knitters will perhaps only be familiar with one type -- the favorite of the person who taught them to knit. Learning several different types of cast on lets you choose based on the effect you want to achieve. Some techniques give a firm, stable cast on edge while others yield a softer, more elastic cast on edge.

One thing you never want is a cast on that's overly tight. On a garment (socks, sleeves, caps, hems of all sorts) a too tight cast on row is not only uncomfortable, it will be under constant strain and therefore wear out well before the rest of the knitting. And a sweater hanging like a sack over a tight cast on? Definitely a case of What Not to Wear.

If you have trouble -- like me -- keeping your cast on loose enough just use a needle a couple of sizes larger (remember to switch to the proper needles when you start to knit!) or two needles held together. I find that my own cast on rows vary depending on my mood and surroundings and have learned to force myself to rip out and start over if I'm not pleased with the cast on after knitting the first couple of rows. Not always easy, but it makes a huge difference to final result.

The first thing to do when beginning a cast on is make a slip knot -- a loop-type knot that comes unraveled by pulling on one end -- and place it on your needle.

To make a slip knot, arrange the yarn like this:

...then simply raise the needle and tug the yarn end. Make sure the loop gets tighter when you pull on the loose yarn end rather than the end that is attached to the yarn ball. If not, you'll inevitably wind up with a sloppy looking knot at the beginning of the cast on row.

The length of your loose yarn end will depend on what type of cast on you're going to be using. The description of the cast on usually gives this information. The two-needle casting on techniques -- "knitting-on" and cable for example -- don't require a yarn tail at all. Just be sure to leave enough yarn to effectively weave in or to start a seam later. The one-needle cast on technique I'm going to illustrate here depends on having a yarn tail long enough to complete the cast on row. Too long and you're wasting precious yarn. Too short and you'll likely be throwing the needles across the room in frustration, though it is possible to join an extra length of yarn if this happens -- you'll just have a couple extra ends to weave in afterwards.

Knitting on

Perhaps the simplest cast on is known as "knitting on". Fortunately it's also a marvelous method of casting on -- even and nicely elastic. You'll need 2 needles for this type of cast on.

Start with a slip knot on the left hand needle. Leave a short tail. Insert the right hand needle into the slip knot as if to knit, wrap and pull through, just like a regular knit stitch.

Place the newly created stitch back onto the left hand needle. There are two ways to accomplish the transfer of the newly created stitch:

transferring it directly...

Or with a twist...

I find that transferring it directly makes a neater cast on row, while twisting it tends to be a bit looser. The most important thing is to be consistent across the row.

Knitting on stitches in this manner results in a cast on row that looks like this...

...and leaves you ready to start a right side row in stockingette stitch. (Some cast on methods leave purl bumps. We'll get to that later.)

Cable cast on

First off let me say that the cable cast on has nothing to do with cables and I don't know why it's called that.

Start by placing a slip knot on the left hand needle. Again, you can leave just a short tail. Knit on one stitch leaving 2 stitches now on the left hand needle. Now insert the needle between the two stitches, wrap and bring through. Transfer the newly created stitch onto the left hand needle.

The cable cast on will also you leave you set up to start with a knit row. It is strong yet flexible and, according to Elizabeth Zimmerman, "looks equally well on both sides".


Long-tail cast on

Leave a long tail on the slip knot. I've seen several ways to guesstimate how long the tail needs to be. One good way is to cast on a small number of stitches, 10 for example, then unravel to find out how much yarn is required for that number of stitches and work out the amount of yarn needed for the total number of stitches. Another good way to avoid this problem is by using two balls of yarn -- or both ends of the same ball of yarn -- joined at the slip knot. Just cast on one extra stitch and unknot the slip knot when you're finished casting on. You'll only need one needle for this method. Make a slip knot and place it on the needle. Grab both ends of the yarn in your hand and secure with your fingers. Then insert your thumb and forefinger between the strands of yarn and pull the needle downwards, creating a V shape with the yarn, like so...

Holding the needle in your right hand, bring the tip up through the loop on your thumb...

Then down through the loop on your finger, grabbing the yarn...

And pulling it down through the loop on your thumb...

...let the loop of yarn on your thumb slip off. Bring your thumb back under the loose strand of yarn to tighten the stitch on the needle.

Repeat for each stitch to be cast on.

And since I have a sneaking suspicion that still images alone might be difficult to follow, I've prepared this Quicktime movie of the long tail cast on. Right-click [PC] or option-click [mac] to save it to your hard drive to watch it as much as you need to, and save Knitty a little bandwidth.

This type of cast on is quite sturdy, but does have a tendency to be too tight. I often use a larger needle than the one that I'll be knitting with or two needles held together. The long-tail cast on leaves a row of purl bumps, so if you'll be knitting in stockinette stitch, begin with a wrong side row.

Next issue: Yet more ways to cast on!


Theresa is an American living, knitting and blogging near Oslo, Norway with her husband and step-daughters.

She's just started working full-time as a nurse and has no time for housework.