Monday, November 20, 2006

How best to cast on--long tail method

click any illustration to enlarge

Hand knitting involves drawing new loops through old. So first, you have to HAVE some loops. Putting the first row of loops on your needle is called "cast on" or "casting on," abbreviated "CO."

There are several main kinds of casting on in this world including knitting on, and looping on (the subject of the next two posts). THIS post is about--

In many kinds of casting on, you first make a floppy sort of foundation row, often a row of simple loops which happily share yarn with their neighbors: growing or shrinking with the merest tug. To start your knitting, you must chase these skittering loops around the needle. It isn't until the third or fourth row that you get a rhythm going, and the foundation row often looks lumpy and distorted.

With long tail cast on, you don't have these problems because you make the foundation row AND knit the first row at the same time--that's why it's my favorite. In other words, long tail casting-on produces a uniform row of loops already pre-knit into the underlying foundation row. These loops and the foundation row stabilize one another.

Another advantage: for circular projects, other kinds of foundations are a bit skimpy; they're hard to hold right-side up so as to avoid making the dreaded moebius strip. In long tail cast on, you've actually created a looped foundation row AND a first row of knitting at the same time. Because more fabric lies on your needles, it's easier to keep the whole works sunny-side-up when you join for a circular project.

A note to the unconvinced: if you've tried long tail casting on and gotten a tight, unyielding edge, you're not alone. But it's such a great method, I urge you to try again.

In most knitting directions, the first stitch is shown as a slip knot. I think they're second-rate, and at the very end of this post I show a better way. But because most knitting instructions call for a slip knot, you might as well know how to make one.

how to make a slip knot in 4 steps1) make a loop with the tail end of the yarn laying OVER the ball end of the yarn,
2) catch the tail end through the original loop and pull on the top of the new loop you just made.
3) insert two needles into the new loop, tugging the ball end,
4) snug the new loop around the two needles by further tugging on the tail end.

BTW: Here is a short cut to making a slip knot: Make a pretzel shape as shown below. Insert the needle as shown: over, under, over. Once the needle is through, hold onto both ends of the yarn and pull up with the needle. Then, tighten by pulling on the tail end. Voila: instant slip knot.

or: why is my tail always too short?

A lot of knitters DESPISE long tail casting on because the tail always winds up a few stitches too short. And there truly is no cure if your tail is too short the first time you try to cast on-- you'll just have to pull it out and do it again. But there IS a cure for moving the knot again and again, having the tail come out too short a couple of more times, and then suddenly, infuriatingly, having the tail coming out WAY too long.

showing placement of slip knot between tail end and ball end of yarnSee, with long tail casting on, you're making a looped foundation row at the bottom, and putting a first row of knitting on your needles, both at the same time. The top loops are a lot bigger than the bottom loops and take up a lot more yarn. So, what makes sense is to use the ball end of the yarn to create the bigger top loops, and the more limited tail end to make the smaller bottom loops. My casting on instructions are very specific about which is the ball end of the yarn, and which is the tail end.

If you consistently arrange the yarn this way, then at least when you move your first slip knot to a new spot and try again, you've got a far greater chance of getting it right. And, if you always arrange your yarn the same way, experience will shortly teach you how much to pull out in the first place.
First step: putting the yarn on your hand

Thread the yarn on your left hand as shown. The ball end (the end going to the ball of yarn) is to the left, trailing from your little finger, and the tail end trails from your thumb. The slip knot you just made is partway along the tail end.

Preparation for casting on: Hand draped with yarn
The yarn passes twice through your fingers. You tension the yarn by pressing together the little finger and the ring finger, as well as the pointer finger and the middle finger.
* * *
Second Step: Preparation

The strand marked "a" is the ball end of the yarn; "b,"the tail end of the yarn. Holding the needles with the slip knot in your right hand, arrange the yarn on your left hand as shown: the ball end remains between your ring and little fingers. Catch the tail end between your middle and fourth finger. Insert your thumb into part "b" --that is, the loop of yarn which stretches between the needles and your middle/fourth fingers. To get to the third step, swing your thumb towards you and up, as shown by the gray arrow.

After arranging the yarn, this picture shows the first step in the casting-on process
* * *
Third Step

Once you've swung your thumb towards you and up as instructed in the second step, your hand should look like the picture below. To get to the fourth step, swing your right hand down, as shown by the arrow.

Your ring finger has a lot to do. The base of your ring finger is pressing against the base of your little finger to hold the ball end of the yarn in tension. The top of your ring finger is pressing against your middle finger to hold the tail end of the yarn in tension.
* * *
Fourth Step

Once you've swung your right hand down, as instructed in the third step, your hand should be positioned as in the picture below. To get to the next step, follow the gray arrow: insert the tip of the needles through loop "b" on your thumb, and hook them around the front part of loop "a."
* * *
Fifth step

After hooking the front part of loop "a" with your needle as instructed in the fourth step, your set-up should look like the picture below. To get to the sixth (and last) step, swing the needles down and towards you, bringing loop "a" through loop "b." At the same time, swing your thumb down and out of loop "b."

* * *
Sixth step

After you've removed the needles and your thumb from loop "b," loop "b" is left wrapped around loop "a." In other words, what you've done is draw loop "a" through loop "b." Loop "a" is a stitch in the first row of knitting, and loop "b" is the foundation row through which that loop passes.

Long tail casting on is the same thing as making a foundation row of backwards loops and then knitting your first row into those loops. But making the foundation row and the first row at the same time is far easier than making the foundation row first, then trying to knit the first row into loops which skitter maddeningly around your needle.

If you follow the gray arrow and pass your thumb around the yarn below the newly cast-on stitch, you'll see that your hand is in the same position as step 3, above. From here out, repeat steps 3 through 7 over and over again until you have the correct number of stitches on your needles.

One last, but VERY IMPORTANT thing: When you complete the cycle of stitch creation and swing your thumb into loop "b" to make all look as it does in step 3, you are tightening up the bottom loop of the previous stitch. It is NOT necessary to yank that loop as tight as possible as you swing your thumb up. Rather, it is best to be mild in this adjustment. A tight and constrained long-tail cast on is directly traceable to an over-tightening of the bottom loop in this last step.

* * *

When you've cast on the correct number of stitches, remove one needle from the loops. There are all your stitches, ready to be knitted. They'll look loose, but after a few rows of knitting, you'll see that they magically adjust to the correct tension. (You COULD have cast on over one needle, very, very loosely, but it's hard to adjust your tension freehand like that.)

* * *

Here are some notes to the wise, so you don't make the same stupid mistakes I do, over and over again.

1) Count your stitches. I often count the stitches as I cast on, only to find (five rows later) that I've got one stitch too many because I forgot to count the first stitch, which was made differently.
2) If you're making a pattern which requires you to count rows religiously, try to figure out whether pattern author cast on long-tail or some other way. Long tail casting on creates a first row as you cast on. Your first pattern repeat might have one too many rows if you don't count long-tail casting on as the first row. For further information about how to count rows in knitting, click here.
3) If you've pulled your second needle out, and then discover that you have too few stitches cast on, no worries. If you still have enough tail yarn left, simply hold the second needle next to the first and cast on some more stitches, then pull the second needle out of the newly added stitches: no need to unravel all the way to the beginning.

* * *
A LAST (opinionated) THOUGHT:
Getting rid of slip-knots

I've give the directions for the slip knot only because so many other knitting instructions call for it. But it's actually not a great technique for the first stitch of your hand-made project. No matter how you slice it, slip knot is a KNOT which is going to leave a hard nub in one corner of your knitting. That may not matter much in a heavy sweater, but in a lace shawl, it's a mess. In my opinion, the far better way to make the first stitch in knitting is by making a--


The point of this blog is to infest your mind with all the little improving viruses which currently infest mine. So here's the best way, in my mind, to make the first stitch in your knitting. (FYI: this also works for the first stitch in crocheting.) If you make a simple loop, there's no knot. To start your knitting with a simple loop, just insert your needles and twist, and there's the first stitch, waiting on your needles. If the loop unwinds when you make the second stitch, that only means that you made the loop with the wrong end up. Twist it the other way and try again.

Final tangential thought: Although slip knots are not a great way to start your knitting, they have many other uses (such as making provisional stitches intended to be unraveled.) But, slip knot's highest and best use is tying balloons onto children and vice versa. If you practice this skill you'll be the hit of the next birthday party as the "balloon mommy."


ADDENDUM: If you have a truly monumental number of stitches to cast on, and want to do it using the long tail method, click HERE to be taken to a different TECHknitting post about a nifty little trick which assures that you CANNOT run out of yarn.

You have been reading TECHknitting on "long tail cast on."


Lila said...

wow. i have never known how to cast on, but i have never taken the time to do it, and i read this blog, and now i can! thanks a lot. i like the picture of the "happy birthday" baloon.

kmkat said...

I have discovered through experience that, although I am a CPA and make my living with numbers, I am constitutionally unable to count higher than 20. Ever. So I place a marker after every 20 cast-on stitches. It makes my life SO much better.

techknitter said...

--techknitter here--
Thanks for your great idea, Kmkat. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Well there is a cure for coming up short of wool just before you have enough stitches: either switch the two strands in your hand so that the one that's running out gets used on the less wool-consuming part of the stitches, or undo the last few and do this: or add on the last couple of stitches with knitted or cable caston... depending of course on how visible it will be in the FO, how much you care about having the CO consistent (although longtail is one of the less attractive castons IMO), how much work would be involved in casting on the whole lot again, and how keen you are to start knitting the item.
If your loop disappears because you twisted it the wrong way, no need to start over, simply pull the slack out and turn the second stitch into the first. You don't actually need that at all for longtail: just lay the wool over the needle and continue as normal.

veenie said...

i don't understand the "simple loop" alternative to slip knot. can anyone explain it to me?

maybesocks said...

Here's a link to TECHknitting TM's description of the two ball cast on. You will always use exactly the right amount of tail yarn. The cost is that there is one more yarn end to sew in later. For me it is a price well worth paying.

I just discovered this blog and am starting at the beginning. I hope this comment will help other recent arrivals.


KnittingFits said...

Thanks for a great tutorial "3-in-1 TechJoin." I'm just starting a chemo hat for MIL and am going to use this.
Here's the way I always have taught people to remember how to hold the yarn for the longtail caston. The LONGER yarn (the ball) goes over the LONGER finger (the first finger) and the SHORTER yarn goes over the SHORTER finger (the thumb). And, yes, I realize that, technically, the thumb is NOT a finger....but remembering it this way never fails you.
Central Texas

Anna said...

Interesting. I was taught the long tail cast on using two hands, which is what my mother was taught by her grandmother. I never even looked at any instructions for it because, well, I knew I how to do it.

I just worked both methods on the same cast on, and they look the exactly the same. Very interesting...

Thank you so much for your blog; it's intensely helpful for the non-mechanically minded like myself.

jennhx said...

I've noticed, as you have, that the long-tail gives you your first row of knitting too. I come into a problem with this when I want to knit in garter stitch. Using the long-tail means I always have a row that looks like stockinette stitch before I start my garter stitch. Help!

KnittingFits said...

Wouldn't purling the first row do it for you?
Or, check this out:

Anonymous said...

two comments from me.

firstly a reply to jennhx, I have casted on like this all of my 30+ knitting years as it was the method taught to me by my mother as well as my teacher. Trust me, you won't notice that first row in the finished garment no matter what pattern you will knit.

And secondly, my mother had a rule of thumb. She held the end of the yarn in her hand and measured the distance from her hand to her ellbow (cubit) per 20 stitches she wanted to cast on. This rule works very well for worsted weight yarns. You will not run out of yarn 10 stitches before the end. Thicker material will yield less stitches(12-15), thinner material more stitches (25-30). Give it a try, after some time you will be able to "judge" your yarn.
Anyway, I usually use whatever is leftover to sew the garment together.
Greetings from Germany

Meshanna said...

I have a very simple solution for figuring out how much yarn you will need for the tail. First I cast on 10 stitches. So technically, I have 11 stitches on the needle, because I don't count the first stitch as part of the first 10. Then I grab the tail as close to the stitches as I can and put my thumbnail between the first (first loop or slip knot) and the 2nd stitch (the first one that was cast on. Then I slide the stitches off the needle while pinching my fingers on the points of the yarn at the beginning and end of these 10 cast on stitches. I pull the cast on stitches apart and measure the yarn between my fingers and round to the nearest 1/2".

Next I take the number of stitches I need to cast on and divide by 10 and then times that number by the inch measurement of the yarn.

An example:
If you needed to cast on 132 stitches...

Number of stitches required for cast on: 132 % 10 = 13.2
If my yarn measurement was 4.5 inches then:
13.2 x 4.5 = 59.4
Round up to 60.

I add 6-8 inches to this new number so I have enough of a tail at the end to work the last few cast on stitches.

So for my tail, I would measure 66-68 inches of yarn, make a loop and start casting on.

This way I know how much yarn I will need using the yarn for my project and the size of needles etc. I almost always have the perfect amount of tail this way. If you want to you can add an extra 12" the first few times you try it because too much of a tail is a lot less of a problem then not enough.

Yes, it involves a little math, but not a whole lot. (I keep a calculator in my knitting bag anyway). And yes, it involves a little extra time to cast on 10 stitches only to take them off again, but this little extra time is NOTHING compared to having to undo 200 stitches and start over because you didn't quite have enough tail.

This would work for metric as well, just measure the yarn by centimeters and times that number by the number of cast on stitches divided by 10.

If you have any questions, email me: meshannaj{at}yahoo[dot]com. Happy Knitting :)

KnittingFits said...

@ Meshanna:

I doubt that I will ever consider casting on without using this simple bit of mathematical guidance first.

I have a set of Nancy's KnitKnack Cards that have the "multiplier" for each size needle etc, and I do refer to that quite frequently. However, it is a set number for each size needle and I do believe that your yarn size would also be an important factor, so I see your method as far more accurate and will be using it from now on.
Thanks for a sharing a GREAT tip!!!

ddl said...

I've always hated that slip stitch knot -- thanks for the tip about the simple loop. Love your site for its clear, concise directions and great diagrams. Hope you have a book in the works!! It would be a best seller for sure!!

Purple Butterfly said...

I have always done the long tail cast on this way, because I hate knots in my work. But I thought I had invented it! :D

OPKnitter said...

Absolutely love your blog. I've been knitting for over 40 years & have never used the LTC - & never could get a good explanation of what was the point. Appreciate your answering that question. I still will probably fall back on knit or cable cast on for most uses, but now I understand when/why LTC could be useful.

Anonymous said...

Oh my! I was looking for a "jogless jog" tutorial and discovered your blog. It's simply knitting blog heaven! Thank you, thank you, thank you...

Ronda said...

I was following everything so well until the simple loop instructions. Doesn't make sense to me. "To start your knitting with a simple loop, just insert your needles and twist, and there's the first stitch, waiting on your needles." Insert your needles into what? The loop? It doesn't stay. Can you clarify?

mdynamic said...

Hi there! This cast on method and your "jogless" join look great! My question is: my pattern calls for a cable cast-on. Will this cast-on method work in replacement of the cable cast on? Alternatively, can I use the cable cast on as described in your "jogless" join post?


--TECHknitter said...

Hi Rhonda--I see where this could be confusing! Basically, you twist the yarn around the needle. However, after you've done it a couple of times, you'll see that it's easier to flick the needle, and catch the yarn up into a loop that way. Nevertheless, whichever way you do it, you're right, it doesn't stay very well, but the second stitch you make will hold it in.

Hi Mdynamic--I'm not quite sure why your pattern calls for a cable cast on--perhaps it is so that the cast on and cast off edges will match?
In a structural sense, the long tail and the cable both make a firm, reasonably heavy cast on, which should be interchangeable. However, without the benefit of your pattern, I can't say for sure.


PS; Here is a post about matching cast on and cast off (cast off is also called bind off).

And, here is a post on the cable (aka chain) cast ON:

(You have to cut and past the addresses into your browser window--I don't know how to make a link in the comments. Knitting, I can handle, most days, anyway, but computers, not so much!)

mdynamic said...

Thank you for your response! I will cruise over to your article on cable cast-on.

For reference, the pattern I'm referring to is here:

goldmom2twins said...

Here's a way to measure your yarn to have enough tail yarn. measure out about a foot of yarn and grasp the yarn to the needle you're going to use. (the length of your needle is usually about right) then wrap the ball-end yarn loosely onto your needle in a spiral. Do it the number of cast on stitches you need. Make your slip-knot or first loop when you get to the end of your counting. The loops are about like one stitch. Just be sure to do it loosely.

Anonymous said...
This is a link, how Austrian primary school pupils are taught the long tail cast on.

And here there are links for the knit and purl stitch respectively:

When I do a long cast on, I just use yarn of a second ball for the "tail" end.
Best wishes from Austria! Barbara

smittynag said...

Ha!! I recently learned this cast-on..GREAT. And here I thought I had made a new NOT using the slip it!! Only to find someone else already had!

Matilda said...

Re: a simple loop instead of a slip knot - the way I learned long tail cast on used a simple loop too, and it's made as part of the first stitch (so the first step actually produces two stitches). The way I do it is to position the yarn in my hand like an upside-down triangle - the top side goes over my thumb and index finger and is held taut by my other three fingers. (Yarn to the skein on the right, loose end on the left) Then I insert my needle into the "triangle", lift the top bar and, without pulling it off my fingers, pick up the left side of the "triangle" and proceed as usual. :-)

I have a feeling that description is really hard to follow though. I can take some pictures later if you're interested...

TECHknitter said...

Hi Matilda: That would be splendid. My e-mail address is: Thanks!

Jill2 said...

So if the long tail casts on and knits the first row and the first row of my pattern is knit, do I skip the first row and just move on to row 2? What if the first row of my pattern is purl?

Quilter Mom of 2 said...

Thanks SO much for this post!!!

I'm getting back into knitting & for the life of me could NOT remember how to cast on!


DancesOnStars said...

An addendum to Matilda's comment about eliminating the slipknot: I hold the yarn in my left hand as shown, but since it's not tied to anything, the slipknot section sort of hangs there--more or less a straight line. I then bring the needles (in my right hand) up from below, into the triangle formed by my left fingers and the yarn, and pinch the running yarn to the needles with my forefinger. It forms something of a slingshot shape.

For some reason, doing this creates TWO stitches during the "first" stitch. Since I make it exactly the same way as all the others, I'm not sure why, but the end result looks fine to me!

P.S. I can't take credit for this--my grandmother taught me :) said...

I just discovered this fabulous blog. Will put it on my bookmark bar for easy reference. I, too, use the "slingshot" method, without a loop or a slip knot. I get the extra stitch as well, and just count it in. But I get it when I try the simple loop also so maybe I am doing it wrong. But my long tail works so I'll stick with it. So loved reading all these posts.

Kiwi Lemon Twist said...

Some people say that the long tail method has a RS and a WS if you're thinking of a stockinette stitch. They claim that one side is the knit side while the other is a purl side. I had a project that had k1p1 ribbing so I decided to try and reverse the long tail method to make a k1p1 ribbing while casting on.

The idea is that the long tail method that you described creates a knit stitch. In order to make a purl stitch, in step four you would insert the tip of the needles in loop A instead and then hook them around B. And then bring loop B through A. So for a k1p1 pattern I would alternate between these two methods. (Sorry if this isn't a particularly new idea I just haven't seen it much online) I really don't know if this method of casting on makes any sense or really helps with the ribbing. I was wondering what your opinion is on this.

TECHknitter said...

The long tail co does, in fact, have a RS and a WS, that is correct. This is because the loop drawn though is always drawn through in the same direction, and can appear as either a knit or a purl, depending on whether the CO is joined for knitting in the round, or flipped for knitting flat.

Now, as to CO for a ribbing, IMHO, no CO should appear at the edge of a knitted fabric, and the reasons for this opinion are set forth in this post: (cut and paste linky into browser window)

Another post on this issue is found here:

HOWEVER, if you are determined to CO in ribbing right from the edge, the easiest way to do it, technically speaking, is by working a backwards loop CO, and then k/p the first row. This is because a long tail CO is in fact a backwards loop CO with the first row of loops created at the same time. By working just the bottom edge of the longtail CO (that being the backwards loop) you can make the very first row in k/p ribbing pattern with no additional steps. Aaaaand..since backwards loop CO is something of a pain, you might want to use the tricks in the below-linked post to control the slackness which wants to form with the backwards loop CO

Best, TK

TECHknitter said...

OK, NO--the last linky in the above comment should go to


karen weidmann said...

I'm a brand new knitter. After casting on, I don't know how to proceed, because the yarn from the ball, which I now want to use to knit with, right?, is on the stopper end of the needle. How do I begin the next row? I'm stymied before I even get two rows....

TECHknitter said...

I'm not quite sure how this happened! The tail end is supposed to be at the working tip of the needle. Were you drawing the loop through with the ped end of the needle? The new loop is supposed to be drawn through with the tip. Write again if you're still confused. Best, TK

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the no slip knot technique. I've always hated having a hard knot on the edge of my knitting and now I can avoid it.

FYI I was taught to cast on using a variation of the longtail cast on but instead of the under over between the thumb and forefinger I loop the wool twice around my thumb and then knit it. It looks just like your diagram of the cast on to me.

New Zealand

TECHknitter said...

Hi Chris--There are actually lots of ways to hold the yarn to create the long tail cast on, and your way sounds intriguing. Knitting is so interesting, isn't it? So many different ways to do things. Thanks for writing, TK