Taming the Tubular Cast-on
By Marnie MacLean
Take a look at any of your ready-to-wear knits and you may notice something about the hems, cuffs, and other edges. They don’t have the sorts of cast-on edges that you normally see in handknit pieces. While there are exceptions, most hems are either a band of knit fabric (ribbed or jersey) folded in half and sewn on, or…what? How do you even describe what’s happening on the cuffs of those socks and the hems of those sleeves? When you follow the stitches from the right side of the fabric to the edge to the wrong side, there is no apparent beginning or end, just stitches flowing from the right side to the wrong side, yet the fabric is a single layer. The edge is somehow both sturdy and flexible, keeping the edge neat and flat.
Anatomy of a Tubular Cast-On
Look at a swatch of stockinette and you’ll see knit stitches on the public side and purl stitches on the wrong side.
A tubular cast-on is actually half the desired total number of stitches needed for the project. To acheive the correct stitch count, the top loops of a length of stockinette are alternated with the bottom loops of the same length of stockinette.
Once the tubular cast-on is complete, the first row is made up of alternating knit and purl stitches, making this a perfect cast-on for knit-one-purl-one ribbing, seed stitch and—with a minor alteration—linen stitch. We’ll cover how to work the cast-on for knit-two-purl-two patterns like ribbing and moss stitch and discuss other suitable and unsuitable patterns for this cast-on.
All three methods described below form a knit-one-purl-one pattern. A long-tail cast-on works well, but produces an obvious ridge on one side and may lack the elasticity required for cuffs and hems of tightly fitting garments like socks.
In the Spring/Summer 2015 issue, I covered four different methods for working a provisional cast-on; all are suitable for this method.
Look at your pattern and determine if you need an even or an odd number of stitches. If you need an even number of stitches, use a provisional cast-on to cast on half that total number of desired stitches. For an odd number of stitches, divide in half and round up to the next whole number. For example, if you need 21 stitches, divide in half for 10.5, then round up to 11 stitches.
Work a total of four rows of stockinette with your working yarn, leaving a long enough tail for weaving in later.
Release the stitches from the provisional cast-on and catch those stitches on a spare needle.
If you need an even number of stitches, be sure to pick up that extra stitch along the edge so that you have the same number of stitches on your spare needle as you have on your working needle. If you need an odd number of stitches, you’ll pick up one fewer stitches than you have on your working needle.
Holding both needles in your non-dominant hand, slip one stitch from the working needle, then one stitch from the spare needle, until all the stitches are on a single needle.
Use a circular needle so the stitches do not need to be slipped to yet another needle to start the first row. If any of the stitches you picked up from the waste yarn are twisted, orient them correctly as you slip them to the working needle. This will make your first row easier to work.
With this method, you’ll cast on the exact number of stitches you need using a technique that is similar to Provisional Cast-On Method 4. This will cast on two rows of stockinette at once, alternating a stitch from the tail and a stitch from the working yarn. Using a double-knitting method, we’ll knit the stitches from the working yarn, then the stitches from the tail to create the four rows of stockinette needed for the tubular cast-on.
Holding your yarn in your non-dominant hand as for a long-tail cast-on, with the tail over your thumb and the working yarn over your index finger, place the needle, point down, behind, then under, the yarn between your fingers. With the yarn over the needle, turn the tip around 180 degrees so that the needle is pointing at the fingers of your non dominant hand to form a loop with a twist to secure it at its base.
The loop on the needle will count as your first stitch and your needle is in the starting position.
Needle in starting position. (Shown in two colors to make it easier to follow the steps.)
Bring the needle behind and under the yarn on your index finger and pick up a loop from the yarn over the thumb. Return needle to starting position. One more stitch has been cast on.
Bring the needle over then under, yarn over your thumb, and pick up a loop from the yarn over the index finger. Return the needle to the starting position. One more stitch has been cast on.
Continue in this manner, casting on stitches from each side so that they interlock at their base, until you have the desired number of cast-on stitches.
When the desired number of stitches has been cast on, wrap the tail around the working yarn once to secure the last stitch.
If you were to move all the stitches to two needles, alternating one stitch to one needle then the next stitch to the next needle, you could see what this cast-on is doing
Every other stitch of your cast-on will be oriented with the back leg forward. If, like me, you are a combination knitter, this won’t be unusual but if you are accustomed to having all your stitches oriented with the same leg forward, you can flip stitches as you come to them.
For an even number of stitches:
Knit 1 stitch, bring the yarn forward, slip the next stitch purlwise, and return the yarn to the back of work.
Continue in this manner, knitting a stitch, bringing the yarn forward, slipping the next stitch and returning the yarn to the back of the work, until the row is finished. Your last stitch will be a slip stitch.
Turn and work the next row in the same manner.
For an odd number of stitches:
Slip the first stitch, purlwise, with yarn in front. Work the remainder of the row as indicated for an even number of stitches.
Turn and work the next row as for an even number of stitches, ending with a knit stitch.
This method is a sort of love child of the above two methods and is closest to the method many machine knitters use to cast on their machine-knit projects. Like Method 1, we need to determine whether we need an even or odd number of stitches. For an even number of stitches, provisionally cast on half the total number of desired stitches plus one. So if you need 20 stitches, half would be 10 plus one for 11 provisionally cast-on stitches. For an odd number of stitches, cast on half the desired total number of stitches, rounded up to the next whole number, just like Method 1.
On the next row, knit one, yarn over; repeat these two stitches to the last stitch, knit one.
You may now remove the provisional cast-on. Let’s dissect this cast-on and see what we have. Alternately moving the stitches to two needles, we see three rows of stitches, one made up of the original cast-on, and two made from the knit and yarn-over stitches.
I’ve seen some instructions call for working two or four rows in double-knitting, as we did for Method 2, before starting in pattern, but the three rows cast on with this method is sufficient.
If you need an even number of stitches for you project, decrease the extra stitch on your first row of work.
Linen stitch is quite compressed and while a conventional cast-on produces a perfectly serviceable edge, it’s worth knitting a swatch with a tubular cast-on to see if you prefer the appearance. Since linen stitch is compressed, use a tubular cast-on that allows you to work only two rows of stockinette (either Method 1 or Method 2) and skip the double-knitting if you use Method 2.
Knit-two-purl-two patterns (ribbing, moss stitch, reversible cables, etc.)
Converting the knit-one-purl-one configuration of a tubular cast-on to a knit-two-purl-two configuration requires no changes to the steps covered above; we’ll simply cross stitches to position them in the correct order.
Take a look at the stitches. Depending on the method used to cast on and the number of stitches (odd or even) the first stitch on the needle may be a knit stitch or a purl stitch. The first stitch should be worked as it appears, and the remaining stitches can be crossed, as needed, to produce the first row of the stitch pattern required for your project. If the first stitch is a knit stitch and you need it to be a purl stitch on the right side of the garment, consider your first row a wrong-side row.
Let’s assume that you want to work a knit-two-purl-two ribbing starting with one knit stitch and then (purl two, knit two) to the last three stitches, ending with a purl two, knit one.
Start by knitting the first stitch as it appears, then purling the next stitch.
The next unworked stitch is a knit stitch, but we need another purl stitch. Place the next unworked stitch on a cable needle and hold to the front of the work.
Continue in this manner, crossing the third and fourth stitch in the sequence until you reach the end of the row.
If your first stitch was a purl stitch, the third and fourth stitch will still cross but the cable needle is held to the back of the work. Always cross the knit stitch in front of the purl stitch when crossing stitches.
When to Use a Tubular Cast-on
Tubular cast-ons are my go-to cast-ons for many of my garment patterns. I used it for Intaglio, Chainlink, Foxcroft, Picard, and many other designs. Most knit-purl stich patterns, including ribbing, textured stitches, and cables, are suitable for tubular cast-ons. The stitch patterns might not flow uninterrupted from the cast-on edge into the stitch pattern the way ribbing, moss and seed stitch do, but heck, a conventional cast-on is all knit or purl stitches and that’s never stopped any of us from using them for a wide range of projects and stitch patterns.
But tubular cast-ons won’t work for all projects. We know that the cast-on edge of the tubular cast-on is half the number of desired total stitches. This means that while the edge is quite elastic, it is still relatively taut. While I won’t say never, it’s unlikely to be the best cast-on for edges worked in lace, garter stitch, or drop-stitch patterns. It would also be a poor choice for edges intended to curl. When I designed Lyssia, with its garter hems, Lacewing with lace edges and Heyday with rolled hems, I used conventional long-tail cast-ons to ensure the hems would compliment the stitch pattern. I’d also avoid the tubular cast-on for edges that will be seamed since they are a little bulkier than conventional cast-ons and may show through to the public side of the garment.
Knitters have come up with a near-infinite number of ways of combining knit stitches, purl stitches, increases and decreases and they use them in all manner of projects from home decor to haute couture. The best way to know which cast-on to use with each project is to swatch and find out. Give these methods a try and see if they suit your next knitting project.
Marnie MacLean lives in Oregon with her husband and three rescued dogs. She holds a desk job by day and she designs and works as a production coordinator for Twist Collective by night. Find all her patterns and blathering at http://MarnieMaclean.com