By Marnie MacLean
When I started designing, back when I only offered free patterns on my own website, and deadlines and schedules were the furthest thing from my mind, I would design in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way, working a bit of the design, trying it on and going where the yarn and my mood took me. To keep my options open, I’d almost always start with a provisional cast-on. I hadn’t learned to estimate yardage so it made it possible to lengthen or shorten the piece, without much fuss, and I could pick a hem that suited the design, once I figured out what that design would be.
That method of designing was great for spontaneity and creativity, but less effective for ensuring the design actually works in a multi-sized pattern. After designing myself into more than a few corners, I changed my process significantly. That doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty of reasons to use the trusty cast-on method. I even keep a huge ball of unbleached, undyed crochet cotton in my knitting basket to use for lifelines, stitch holders and, of course, provisional cast-ons.
Provisional cast-ons are common in designs that are worked side to side and are symmetrical along a central axis. This can be true of almost any type of project including socks, hats, sweaters and stoles. Provisional cast-ons are also used when working certain types of tubular cast-ons and sock toes, as well as other unexpected places, including the hems of Zaida, my hooded cardigan in this issue. The hem is cast on at the center back, using a provisional cast-on so that it mirrors on both sides.
The center-back hem of Zaida, starts with a provisional cast-on
Anatomy of a Provisional Cast-On
Each row of knitting is just a series of loops, going up and down secured by the row of stitches above and below. If you were to look at a single row of knitting, it would look something like this:
A single row of knitting.
As each row is worked, it is interlocked with the row below, securing the loops and forming the fabric.
As rows are worked the stitches interlock to secure the loops and create the fabric.
A provisional cast-on is simply an easily-removed anchor for the base of the first row of loops.
The provisional cast-on anchors the first row of loops and is easily removed.
Unlike a standard cast-on, which is intended to permanently secure the stitches at their base, a provisional cast-on is temporary.
Pick your Provisions
Over the years I’ve tried a few different provisional cast-ons and while I have my favorite, I can’t say that any one is the best. Try them all and see which works for you. You may find you prefer different methods for different projects.
In all cases you’ll need your working needles, project yarn, and some waste yarn. When choosing waste yarn, avoid anything loosely spun, heavily dyed, or fuzzy. Choose a fiber that is sturdy and will leave no trace of itself when it’s removed. Crochet cotton or mercerized cotton are two great options; anything that came off a vertebrate (wool, alpaca, or worst of all, fuzzy mohair) could be a problem. I prefer my yarn to be finer than the working yarn so that the stitches won’t be too loose when I release them.
For two of the methods indicated, you’ll also need a crochet hook, the same size or larger than your project yarn needle. It’s easiest to make the conversion if you look at the metric size. A U.S. 6 knitting needle is 4 mm, so a 4 mm or larger hook would work.
Choose a crochet hook as big or bigger than your project knitting needle.
Smooth, tightly spun cotton makes an excellent provisional cast-on
Method 1: Pick up stitches into a crochet chain.
Using your crochet hook and waste yarn, make a crochet chain with about 10 more chains than the desired number of cast-on stitches.
A crochet chain made from waste yarn.
Keep your chain very loose, and err on the side of too many chain stitches instead of too few. Cut the yarn and pull through the last loop. Place a knot on the end that you just cut.
Knot the cut ends of the chain.
A crochet chain is made up of two parts; a V on top and a loop along the bottom. To make your provisional cast-on easy to remove, pick up stitches into the bottom loop, only.
Picking up stitches in the bottom loop.
To remove this provisional cast-on, find the end with the knot and undo the last chain stitch on that end. You should be able to pull the tail and unzip the entire cast-on in a quick movement.
Undoing the knot.
Pull the tail to undo the cast-on and release the stitches.
I find this method easiest on my hands and wrists. With the other methods, I have to work a little harder to keep everything situated correctly.
Whatever number of stitches you cast on originally, you’ll have one fewer full stitch when you release the stitches. The stitches on the provisional cast-on are formed between the live stitches. Just as the average human hand has five fingers and four spaces between those fingers, provisional cast-ons will have X cast-on stitches and X-1 stitches on the other side. To get the same number of stitches, pick up a loop from the edge that connects the first row to the second row.
There were 12 stitches in the original cast-on. There are only 11 stitches released from the other side. The provisional cast-on thread is caught on the loop on the edge.
Tug the loop and slip the loop over the needle tip.
Method 2: Crochet chain directly onto working needle
With your crochet hook and waste yarn, make a slipknot. Work a chain stitch around the working needle as follows:
Hold the working needle in your non-dominant hand and the crochet hook in dominant hand. With the crochet hook in front of the needle, bring the waste yarn behind and over needle.
Bring the waste yarn behind and over the needle.
Yarn over the hook and pull through the loop on the needle. This forms a chain stitch directly onto the working needle.
Yarn over the hook
Bring the yarn-over through the loop on the hook to make a chain stitch
Bring the yarn back behind the needle and repeat the process. Each time you do so, you’ll add another loop to the working needle. Cast on the exact number of stitches you need to begin your work.
Return yarn to the starting position, behind needle
Ready to begin next stitch to the right of the first stitch made.
Continue until desired number of stitches are cast on. Cut the yarn, pull through the loop to secure, and tie a knot in the end you just cut.
You are now ready to begin knitting directly into the stitches on your needle, just as you did for the previous method. You can also release the stitches the same way as in Method 1.
I will almost always choose this method over the previous, though I do find holding the knitting needle and working the crochet stitch onto it a little harder on my hands. The only time this might be less desirable than Method 1 is when you are casting multiple stitches onto a long circular needle. It may be hard to make the initial chain loose enough when you are adding them onto the cord instead of the needle. Do a test swatch to ensure you are comfortable maintaining a loose enough tension while working this method.
Both this method and the previous method are most desirable if there are no resting rows (all knit or all purl) in your stitch pattern. It allows the very first row of live knitting to be worked in any stitch pattern.
Method 3: Pick up loops with waste yarn
If you are already comfortable with the long-tail cast-on, this method will be easy to remember. Tie the tail of your working yarn together with the tail of your waste yarn. Be sure the tail of your waste yarn is long enough to weave in when you finish your piece.
Secure waste yarn to the working yarn, leaving a tail to weave in later.
Loop the waste yarn over for thumb and the working yarn over your index finger
Holding the knot and your working needle in your dominant hand, place the waste yarn over your thumb and the working yarn over your index finger of your non-dominant hand and work a long-tail cast-on as you normally would. You should be placing loops of the working yarn on your needle with the waste yarn securing the base of the stitches, under the needle.
Work a standard long-tail cast-on
The working yarn should form loops on the needle while the waste yarn secures the base of the stitches.
Cut the waste yarn, leaving a short tail so the stitches don’t come loose. This produces a single row of live purl or knit stitches and you’ll be ready to start the next row of your pattern. To release the stitches, carefully unpick the waste yarn.
Untie the knot.
Use a knitting needle or tapestry needle to release stitches.
To make this easier, you can cut the waste yarn every few stitches so you are not pulling such a long thread through the live stitches.
Cut the waste yarn every few stitches, to make the waste yarn easier to remove.
This is the most tedious cast-on to pull out and may not be suitable for very delicate or softly spun yarns. However, it’s also really quick to work, easy to remember, and suitable for most yarns.
Method 4: Pick up loops with waste yarn (my favorite)
This method starts off just like Method 3. Tie the waste yarn to the working yarn, being sure you leave a bit of tail to weave in later. Hold the knot and the working needle in your dominant hand and place the waste yarn over your thumb and the working yarn over your index finger on your non-dominant hand.
Begin as for Method 3 with the waste yarn tied to the working yarn.
Bring the needle towards you, and then under the waste yarn. Grab the working yarn with your needle to add one loop to your needle. When the needle is above the work, it is in the starting position. Return the needle to the starting position.
Bring the working needle under the waste yarn and over the working yarn.
Grab the working yarn with needle and return the needle to the starting position
One stitch cast on.
Bring the needle behind the working yarn and draw up another loop. Return the needle to the starting position.
Bring the needle behind working yarn and draw up a loop
Another stitch is cast on.
Continue in this manner until you’ve cast on the desired number of stitches. Clip the waste yarn leaving a generous tail. The stitches will basically free-float along the waste yarn. If the tail is too short, the stitches could jump ship before you are ready.
After casting on the desired number of stitches, clip he waste yarn leaving a generous tail.
Wrap the tail around the working yarn once to secure the last stitch. Hold the waste yarn while you start the first row of knitting.
Wrap waste yarn around the working yarn to secure the last stitch cast on.
Turn work and knit the first row, holding the waste yarn securely while working the first few stitches.
This method produces a single row of knit or purl stitches with a thread of waste yarn securing the base of each stitch. To release the stitches, simply untie the initial knot from the end, slip the stitches onto the working needle and pull the waste yarn out of the stitches.
Untie the knot.
Using the waste yarn as a guide, slide the working needle into the held stitches.
Remove the waste yarn.
This method is fast to create and to release but it’s not a cast-on you can put down and come back to later. You need to leave yourself enough time to do the entire cast-on without interruption. You will also need to be aware of your tension as you work this method. It can be a challenge to hold your work and count the stitches already cast on, without having the work come loose. It is definitely my favorite method but when things go awry, I almost always have to start over from scratch.
Tips and Troubleshooting
- Stitches released from the provisional cast-on will be offset half a stitch from the stitches above. Stitch patterns like ribbing, cables, seed stitch and other knit/purl patterns, may have a subtle jog along the provisional cast-on axis.
- If you are working with really silky or slinky yarn and you are worried about dropping stitches when they are released from the provisional cast-on, thread your working needle through the stitches before pulling the provisional thread out of them.
- When casting on lots of stitches, place a marker every 10, 20, or 25 stitches to help you keep track. If you lose count, you only have to count the number of stitch markers and then the number of stitches since your last marker.
- If your provisional cast-on of choice produces a row of knit or purl stitches that you do not want to be a part of the pattern, carefully pull that row out, after releasing the stitches from the waste yarn.
- When catching the live stitches released from the cast-on, use a smaller needle size than the project yarn. You are less likely to pull out neighboring stitches.
- For Methods 3 and 4, you may use a slip knot to secure the waste yarn to the working yarn before you begin. This is easier to remove than a standard overhand knot.
Provisional cast-ons are a great tool to have in your arsenal and are used in many Twist Collective patterns. I hope that if you’ve ever struggled with them in the past, you’ll try some of the other methods I’ve shown. You may end up enjoying them as much as I do.
Marnie MacLean lives in Oregon with her husband and three rescued dogs. She’s does a desk job by day and she designs and works as a production coordinator for Twist Collective by night.