Sunday, July 8, 2007

The overcast method--part 3 of tails and joining in multi-color knitting

Now we come to a third method for joining yarns and working in tails AS YOU GO in multi-color knitting, a delicate and very useful method which I call the "overcast method." (This is another "unvention," so if someone knows the real name, sing out in the comments, OK?)

Why a third method? Well, the first two "as you go" methods for color knitting--the Russian join and the back join--are both bulky, featuring doubled stitches on the face of the fabric. But the overcast method features no doubled stitches at all--the tails are worked in "as you go" ONLY on the fabric back. (Ok, I'm lying, a tiny bit of the tail appears on the front, but you ABSOLUTELY cannot see it.) Because a lot less tail yarn is incorporated into your fabric, the result is a more delicate join, suitable for fancy work and narrow stripes.This technique is called the overcast method because the tail is held in by fabric stitches "cast" over the tail yarn, the same way an embroidered overcast stitch holds in the floss laid under it. Specifically, the standing yarn is knitted by reaching first "over" then "under" the tail yarn. The illustration above combines the overcast method with the jogless stripe method--the (many, many) tails of these socks were worked in as the socks were knit. The only finishing involved clipping the tails flush with the fabric back after the socks were washed once. (Another view of these socks is here.)

The tension for the overcast method is adjusted afterwards, so the only real error you can make is if you accidentally knit a stitch using the tail yarn, instead of the standing yarn. If you DO knit a stitch using the tail yarn, you will NOT be able to pull on the tail yarn to adjust the tension, because the tail yarn will have been fastened down onto the fabric face--you'll have to rip back and do it over.

The overcast method is usually used in circular knitting--round and round. This is because back-and-forth knitters will usually change color at the fabric edge. Therefore, the illustrations in this post all show the overcast method in circular knitting. (It IS, however, possible to adapt the overcast method to back-and-forth knitting, and instructions for doing that are towards the end of this post.)

The overcast method involves three steps.
  • BACKWARD overcast (work in old tail)
  • INTERMISSION: switch to the new color, and work one round of plain knitting,
  • FORWARD overcast (work in new tail)
Its complicated, but worth it--see for yourself (illustration below)--the yellow tails belong to the orange yarn, the light blue tails belong to the blue yarn.
So, fasten your seatbelts, and here we go with the...


Suppose you are knitting in orange yarn (old color), and you want to switch to blue (new color), the first step is to finish up in orange, and work in the orange tail. Here's how to do both those things at once, using the backward overcast:

1. Knit the orange yarn to within some even number of the change point--to within perhaps 8 or 10 stitches in thin yarn, or perhaps within 6 or 8 stitches in heavy yarn. Loop the standing yarn over your tension finger so that the yarn coming from the work (the "working yarn") is in coming FROM BEHIND over your tensioning finger, and the yarn coming from the ball of yarn (the "tail yarn") is in front. For clarity, the tail in the illustration is yellow, although, of course, in the real world the tail would be the same color as the working yarn (orange). It will be much easier to do the overcasting if you can figure out how to hold the tail firmly against the back face of the fabric with a stray finger or two--this will put tension on the loop of yarn and make all the following maneuvers easier.

2. (Below) Create the first part of the backward overcast, the "over stitch," as follows: with your right needle, reach OVER the tail yarn, then hook the working yarn in the usual manner, and make a stitch. As the illustration below shows, the working yarn is wrapped over the tensioning finger from behind--the OPPOSITE from the way the yarn usually lies. As the illustration below also shows, the idea of reaching "over" the tail is pretty much the same idea as reaching "in front of" the tail.

3. (Below) Create the second part of the backward overcast, the "under stitch," as follows: with your right needle reach UNDER the tail yarn (yellow), then hook the working yarn (orange) in the usual manner, and make another stitch. As the illustration below shows, the idea of reaching "under" the tail is pretty much the same idea as reaching "behind."
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3. As you run out of yarn in the loop over your tensioning finger, pull more yarn into the loop from the tail; again, the tail is not fastened down to the fabric face but only has stitches cast over it on the back. As shown in the illustration between steps 5 and 6, the tail yarn runs along the back of the fabric, free to slide back and forth--it doesn't slide easily, but it does slide.

5. When you get to the color-change point, you should have ended with an "under stitch." The remainder of the yarn you had over your finger will lay as a loop on the fabric back, as shown in the illustration below.
6. Interlock the new yarn (blue) with the old yarn (orange) by threading the blue yarn through the last loop of the old yarn. Pull out a nice long tail of the blue (several inches, at least) and leave it hanging on the back of the fabric. Again, for clarity, the blue yarn has been given a light blue tail, although, of course, in the real world both portions of the new yarn would be the same color, and the worked-in tails would be invisible (as they are in the opening photo illustration of this post).

7. Pull the tail of the old yarn carefully to tighten, until the last orange loop over the right needle has the same tension as the rest of the orange stitches and the blue is snug against the back. This completes the backward overcast sequence. As shown in the illustration between steps 5 and 6, the tail of the old yarn (yellow) is now held down on the fabric back by the over-and-under action you did as you knit the last several stitches of the orange yarn.


The next phase of the work is to work one round plain in blue. Therefore, leaving the light blue tail dangling on the back of the work, work one round in blue.


1. (Optional) if you want your color change to be jogless, slip the first blue stitch you made right after the color change point. (The opening photo illustration of this post features jogless stripes made by this option.)

2. (below) You will now create the first stitch of the forward overcast sequence on the next stitch presenting on the left needle. (If you did select the jogless option this would be the SECOND blue stitch. If you did not select the jogless option, this would be the FIRST blue stitch. For comparison, the illustration below is NOT jogless, the second illustration of this post--above--IS jogless.) Take the tail of the blue yarn into your yarn-feeding hand, and, using a spare finger or two, anchor the tail so it is in front of the standing yarn (standing yarn-yarn coming from ball). Again, for clarity, the tail is illustrated in light blue, although in the real world, the tail and the standing yarn of the ball you are adding would be the same color. Now, just as with the backward overcast, use your right needle to reach OVER the tail yarn (light blue) then hook the working yarn (blue) in the usual manner, and make a stitch.3. (below) Create the second stitch of the forward overcast sequence as follows: with your right needle reach UNDER the tail yarn, then hook the working yarn in the usual manner, and make another stitch.4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you've overcast the tail by about the same number of stitches as you overcast the tail in the backward sequence. In other words, if you worked 8 stitches over-and-under the tail with the backward sequence, work 7 or 8 stitches over-and-under the tail with the forward sequence. After these stitches are worked, drop the tail and continue knitting onwards with the standing yarn.

At a good stopping spot, re-adjust the tail tension. The forward overcast usually needs less adjustment than the backward part of the overcast. In the forward overcast, the tail is not part of the same loop as the working yarn, so you will not have had any problem running out of yarn--there will have been no need to slide tail yarn into the loop around your finger. The backward overcast will need more attention, because you will have scrunched up the fabric somewhat by sliding the tail yarn under the overcast stitches to deliver more yarn to the loop over your finger, and then scrunched it back the other way when snugging up the interlock. Therefore, be sure to stretch the fabric back and forth over a fingernail to smooth out the fabric and evenly distribute the tail, especially on the backward overcast portion. Snip the excess of the tails off, leaving 1/4 to 1/2 inch hanging. Make up the garment and block it, re-adjust the tension of any loose join one more time, then clip the excess of the tail even with the back of the fabric.

As is evident, the thinnest stripe you can make this this method is 3 rounds high--any narrower and the backwards overcast of the old color would run right into the forwards overcast of the new color. If you MUST have 2 round high stripes, skip the intermission step, and simply work the forward overcast on the same round as the backward overcast. Also: if you choose the jogless option as it is written here, you will create "traveling" jogless stripes. For more information, or to modify the work to "stationary" jogless stripes, click here.

1. If you mistakenly do an "over" where you should have done an "under," or an "under" where you should have done an "over," it really does not matter. You can even end on an "over" instead of an "under," like you're supposed to, and that doesn't really make a lot of difference, either--your loop will lay a little crooked, that's all. In fact, the only REAL error is to mistakenly knit with the tail yarn, instead of casting over it. You can test for that error by giving your tail yarn a little tug after each over or under stitch. If the tail moves, you're still on the right track. If it doesn't, tink back to where you mistakenly knitted the tail onto the fabric surface and do it again.

2. The fact is, that even though the instructions say to do it, and even though that's the way it is illustrated, I personally do NOT wrap the yarn over my tensioning finger "backwards" (tail in front) when I do the overcast. I leave it looped on the regular way (tail in back). I show it different than I do it because experience dictates that its easier to LEARN (and illustrate!) the overcast with the tail yarn held in front. Once you get the hang of the overs and unders, you'll have no trouble adapting to do the overcast method with the yarn wrapped the regular way over your tensioning finger. And of course, once you gain the experience to overcast from a regular wrap position, you can do the overcast method at pretty much the same speed as you knit--it might take a bit to get that fast, so hang in there.

The OVERCAST method in BACK and FORTH knitting
To work the overcast method in back-and-forth knitting, you work the backward overcast on the last row of the old color, as you get within 6 or 8 stitches of the end of the row. You switch yarns at the edge by looping the old yarn through the new yarn, as illustrated above, and then you work the tail of the new yarn into the next row by the forward overcast. If you like, you can reduce bulk by separating the two overcast rows--work the first row of the new color plain, and work another backward overcast to work in the tail of the new color as you come within 6 or 8 stitches the color change spot on the second row of the new color.

If you find you are having trouble with the concept here, you may want to practice your "overs and unders" with a very similar sort of work--called the disappearing loop method for casting on. Rather than messing with your knitted fabric, practising the disappearing loop only requires a few inches of yarn. While the action is not exactly the same, if you master the overs and unders of the disappearing loop, you'll be miles ahead on the overcast method.

in the form of a movie script, accompanied by an imaginary soundtrack

(The scene: The camera focuses on a hand, scratching a head in puzzlement. The focus pulls back to wide angle, to reveal that the scratcher is a preoccupied blog reader, sitting before a computer, reading intently. The focus now pans in, again, slowly. The reader gradually becomes aware that violin music is starting softly in the background. Startled, the reader looks around, then turns back to the computer. The camera keeps panning until it is focused tight on the computer screen. The following words appear.)
"Overs and unders" can be confusing, especially if you have to teach them to yourself while sitting in front of your computer. However, it really will be worth your time to master this maneuver. Once you do, you can kiss your sharp needles GOODBYE! (The background music swells, its tempo increases.) All you'll need for working in ends will be your knitting needles, and a pair of scissors to trim the excess. The hour or two you put into practising the overcast method will repay you many times in the future. Think how you'll be able to add lots of color to any knitting, knowing you are...yes... free from the nasty, nasty job of working in all those ends! (Music reaches triumphant conclusion, reader nods to self and says "I can do that!" The camera pulls back to a final wide angle shot, and the reader is seen rushing from the room to fetch yarn, knitting needles and scissors.)


PS:  Here is a link to a post with 10 (!)  different methods of working in ends in knitting, eight of which are "as you go."
(You have been reading TECHknitting on: the overcast method for joining yarns in multi-color knitting.)


Anonymous said...

Amazingly useful!
Keep up the good work.


phoenix said...


I had to read that a few times to properly process it. I stuck it out though because it would be very useful in my current project not to have doubled joins. It works beautifully, but it's definitely going to take me a bit to have this become second nature.

phoenix said...

It turned out I had to work this technique using purl stitches as I'm doing garter stitch in the round. I'm reasonably sure I figured it out, but will you being doing an article that shows this technique for purl stitches?

--TECHknitter said...

Hi Phoenix--First of all, I am THRILLED that you stuck it out. I think this is a very useful method, so THANKS. Second, I am not finding that it is terribly successful to give the instructions for fairly complicated tricks like this in print with illustrations. I'm not getting a lot of feedback, and what I do get (mostly by e-mail) is that folks are confused. So, I therefore doubt that I will pursue giving the instructions on this blog for doing the overcast in purl. I have to fnd another way of getting this information out there--maybe by video, maybe by seminar, if any reader has an idea, I'd love to hear it.

IN the meantime, however, there are several tricks you could try. First of all, you can do the overcast on the knit side, then turn your project inside out. By definition, garter stitch looks the same on both sides, so you could work the overcast on the knit side and not be losing anything. Another trick that might work for you (and will make it a LOT easier to do garter stitch in the round) is to do a WRAP--a little trick I haven't yet covered on this blog, but for which I believe shouldn't be too hard to find instructions. The downside is that you'll get a seam, the upside is that you can garter stitch in the round with knitting only, and will therefore be able to do the overcast in knit. And finally, the fact is, that you've probably figured it out already. If your tail is overcast by some stitches, and you're purling the working yarn over and under the tail, then you're doing it right.

Thanks so much for writing, thanks for sticking with it to figure it out, and e-mail me if you still need more feedback, and I'll try to write the instructions again to you.


Wee Quantum Furball said...

So that's what it is called. I've done this for years and years, but have had no place to send my friends for details on how I'm doing it. I just say to them, "Well, you just knit your tail in. I promise it works." The silence is deafening. I'm so thrilled to have a place to send them now!! Thank you so much.

Lauren said...

This is fantastic. Now I need to get my knitting out and try it a dozen or two times. Thank so much!

Scherzando said...

Awesome, thank you so much! This is a really awesome tutorial :)

mrsverp said...

Thank you for so much help. I must be doing the same project as phoenix as I am doing stripes that are 2 rows high and in garter stitch so purling help would be great.

Just one question - in these instructions, you slip the first stitch in the colour change row but in your article for travelling jogless stripes, you slip the first colour change stitch on the next row??

Anonymous said...

I've been teaching myself to knit since December and just wanted to say thank you for all your posts as I use them as a constant reference point and have learnt so much from them. Thank you!

Margot said...

This is how I was taught to do it as a child. The way I describe it to people is to just work in your ends as you go as if you're doing Fair-Isle, with one yarn in each hand. It works for either stockingette or garter stitch, or on the purl side of purl work, but I can't make it work for reverse-stockingette. For fancy pattern stitches, I just catch the tail every time there is a knit stitch in the pattern.

Kate said...

I've never seen this technique before. It's brilliant. Thanks so much for posting it.

The Kitties' Mom said...

I apparently unvented a corollary join. I wrap the tail around the working yarn on the back of the work, but it does the same thing.

Anonymous said...

I knew how to do the forward overcast, but not the backward overcast. I am glad that I found this page. Thanks!

Carly said...

I'd looked at and half-tried this before, but it felt awkward and delicacy wasn't of the essence at the time, so I just went with a Russian join. I decided to stick it out for my latest project and found two things:

a) Even though I normally knit English, it's easier for me to do this held Continental.

b) This is basically how I was catching my stranded knitting! Once this brainwave happened, it all made a lot more sense.

Thanks for the very helpful posts, they are great for us self-and-internet-taught folk!

Laura Majeski said...

I absolutely love this as I hate weaving in ends. Period. It's one of the reasons why I loved crochet so much because crocheting over the tail was so easy.

The tutorials you have on here are amazing and I use them as a constant reference. If you totally complied your blog into a book, I'd totally buy it and keep it as a reference. No book I've found has come close the the helpfulness of your blog.

Wusel1811 said...

Hi, I love your blog and have found so many helpful tricks here, but I'm stuck on the first step of the overcast method - the loop confuses me. What do I do once I have that loop and also my yarn tail? I'd love to understand this, it sound so useful...

Greetings from Switzerland,


KayY said...

Thankfully, someone linked to this page just as I was about to begin a very stripey top. I had to laugh at the movie script, that was me! It looks more complicated than it is, and produces a beautifully neat result. Thanks TechKnitter!!!

Litchi said...

I think this method will soon become my favorite way of weaving tails in stripes. I can now do the backward overcast and the forward overcast quite easily (even if I wrap my yarn differently than your instructions).
However, I wish to do this on a purl row (my stripes are "knit n rows MC, knit 1 row CC, purl 3 rows CC, knit 3 rows MC) and I can't figure it out. Could you explain the path the weaved in yarn should follow (in backward and forward overcast). Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It looks like this is doing the same as catching a long float in stranded knitting. So, would you accomplish the join by holding a color in each hand?

Thanks for your marvelous blog.

TECHknitter said...

Hi Linda--well, catching a long float is done differently by different people. If this is how you catch down long floats, then you are way ahead of the curve when it comes to this method.

Anonymous said...

This is so frustrating. I have been trying this method for over two hours, but I still don't have the concept. A video on YouTube would be SO beneficial for those of us who are "diagram challenged" but who would very much like to learn the method.

TECHknitter said...

Hi Anon--TECHknitting is a diagram-based site, sometimes I do videos, but that is not my main purpose. I regret that diagrams do not suit your learning style. For those who prefer videos, there are many people who make you-tubes of TECHknitting techniques (although not always with attribution). Have you searched? If you can find nothing, another alternative might be to consider showing the diagrams to one less challenged by diagrams. Best regards, TK

Angela said...

I super like your post, thanks for sharing!

jarah said...

is the reason to do the forward overcast on row 3 to reduce bulk? or some other reason?


jarah said...

one more comment. if i understand correctly, the first 'over' stitch doesn't actually catch the tail. it's the 'under' stitches that are anchored IN the knit stitch.

thank you.