Step-by-step instructions on the long tail cast-on. An easy and very versatile method for knitting beginners + many tips and tricks.
Are you looking for a very versatile, beautiful, and easy cast-on method suitable for beginners? Then you came to the right place because in this tutorial I will show you how to long tail cast-on the easy way. There’s a video included, you’ll find lots of big pictures, and you can even print out the instructions. All to help you learn it the right way!
Now, there are many different ways to knit that first preparational row before you can start knitting but in my opinion, the longtail cast-on method is by far the best for beginners. Why? Because it creates a neat edge, it’s moderately stretchy, it’s perfectly suitable for most beginner patterns, and will be very useful throughout your whole knitting journey.
If you look around my blog and check out my knitting patterns, you will quickly notice that the majority of them actually use the long tail cast on. It’s just such a great technique!
It may be a tiny bit harder to learn than other methods. On the plus side, the stitches it creates are very easy to knit in the first row. Arguably the single cast-on is much easier but it creates very tight loops that are so much harder to work and the edge isn’t all that great.
Anyway, let’s dive right into it, eh?
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- Set aside a tail that is around 4 times as long as your project will be wide. The ball of yarn should be on your left (= the working yarn), the tail on your right.
- Wrap the working around the pinky finger of your left hand clockwise two times.
- Bring the yarn across the back of your hand. It should rest comfortably above the last knuckle of your index finger.
- Turn your hand around clockwise and wrap the working yarn around your thumb clockwise (just once).
- Tension the yarn, and secure the tail between your ring and pinky finger by pressing them together.
- Pick up both needles with your right hand and insert them into the loop around your thumb coming from below.
Note: You can also do this with only one needle to create a less stretchy edge. Most beginner projects will benefit from a stretchier edge, even though it may look a bit too loose before you knitted the first two rows.
- Go around the strand towards your index finger coming from above.
- Pull the working yarn through the loop around your thumb.
- Let loose of the loop around your thumb (just bend it a bit and it should slip off).
- Tighten up your first cast-on stitch by stretching out the two strands with your thumb and index finger of your left hand and pulling the needles towards the right.
Note: You just created a slip knot. There are many other ways to tie one and a lot of tutorials will show you different methods. However, as you will shortly see, your hands need to be in the exact same position for the next steps, so I actually feel this is the easier and faster way to do it.
- Pull the needles towards you to create another loop around your thumb. It will look a bit like a slingshot and that's why this method is sometimes also called slingshot cast on.
- Insert the needles into the loop around your thumb coming from below one more time.
- Grab the yarn towards the index finger from above.
- Pull the yarn through.
- Let loose of the loop around your thumb and tighten up.
- Repeat steps 11-15 until you cast on the desired amount of stitches.
- To start knitting, you have to remove the second needle carefully (if you used one). Then, turn the work around. The tail will hang down on the right and this is a very easy way to keep the right and wrong side of your project apart.
Try to maintain an even tension as you cast on and make sure that you keep the individual spaced out evenly as well. So, try to work close to the tip of your needle. If things are getting to crowded, push the stitches a bit further down.
If you notice that you cast on too many stitches, you can simply slip the stitches you don't need off the needle before you start knitting. Or, you could also pick up the working yarn (wrap it around your pinky finger and bring it across your hand) and the tail (wrap it around your thumb clockwise) and cast on additional stitches.
You can also do the long tail cast on as a left-hander. Simply mirror the instructions and every time it says left, exchange it for right (and vice versa). Do note, however, that especially continental knitting relies heavily on using the left hand. So, a lot of left-handed knitters I know actually stick to the standard way.
You can also cast on stitches with needles following the almost exact same steps but picking up the half-hitch part and the loop with different parts of the needles for an even stretchier edge. Here's a tutorial on the two needle cast on.
Reading tip: Check out the German twisted cast-on if you are looking for an even stretchier edge.
How much yarn do you need?
Now there is one big issue many beginners have with this method. Because you are equally using the working yarn and the tail, it’s easy to run out of yarn before you created the required number of stitches. So, how do you estimate the length of yarn you need for a long tail cast on?
For beginners and smaller projects, it’s probably the easiest way to just pull out a yarn or two and start casting on. You can easily cut away any access (but be sure to always leave around 6-8 inches for weaving in the ends). As a rule of thumb, the tail should be four times as wide as the final work will be wide.
For bigger projects (say 100+ stitches), you should do some calculations. Here’s my full tutorial on estimating how much yarn to use for a long tail cast on
Two colored long tail cast on
A lot of beginners struggle with determining the length of the tail. But the fact that each stitch is created from two different parts – a tail and your working yarn – is also its biggest advantage because you can also do the long tail cast on using two colors. Now, this is a method frequently used in double knitting and other colorwork techniques (here’s a tutorial on cast-on for double knitting in case that’s something you are looking for).
However, you can also use it as a very smart way to never again bother about the length of your tail again. Because what works using two colors, also works using two balls of yarn in the same color. For bigger projects, you are probably bought two skeins anyway.
If you only have one skein, you should look into creating your own center-pull yarn cake. And then use both ends (and cut the one you don’t want to use after the cast-on).
Step 1: Create a slip knot using both yarns (and don’t count it!) leaving a short tail of 6-8 inches for weaving in later on.
Step 2: Pick up the yarns the way I showed you before with one yarn around your index finger and the other color/yarn around your thumb. The main color should be the one around your index finger.
Step 3: Follow the exact same instructions as above.
Step 4: Knit across the first round. When you come to the slip knot, slip it off your needles, and simply unravel it. Don’t be scared, your stitches are perfectly secure!
Tip: You can also use this technique to create a nice edge in a contrasting color. For some projects, it can look really stellar!
Long tail cast on in the round
Now, can you use the long tail cast on for knitting in the round as well? Of course, you can. In fact, it’s almost the exact same technique. There are just two things you need to adjust.
Step 1: Don’t start your cast on with a simple twisted loop. Don’t do a slip knot.
Step 2: Then, cast on the required number of stitches to one needle (or two needles held double – whatever you prefer).
Step 3: Slip the stitches, one at a time, to your double-pointed knitting needles and distribute the stitches evenly to all four needles.
Step 4: Join in the round any way you prefer. I always cast on one stitch more, slip the first stitch on the first needle back to the fourth needle, and then pass the (now second) stitch over the first. Then, I slip the remaining stitch back to the left needle.
Also, make sure that you don’t accidentally twist the stitches. I always put my needles on the table in front of me and check if all stitches are looking towards me with their sunny side.
I do have to mention that there are a couple of books and videos that will show you this method without slipping the stitches to the needles. Instead, they will directly cast on the stitches to their respective needles.
I don’t do this because it tends to create loose stitches around the gaps between two needles. It’s extremely hard to maintain an even tension as you transition from one needle to the next. Slipping the stitches takes time but the cast-on edge is often the most noticeable part of a project and some extra work here is worth it.
Long tail cast on purlwise
And here’s another thing you should know. The standard long tail cast on method creates knit stitches. If you continue in garter stitch, you will see how it will look like there is already one row below the first one you actually knitted. It will look super neat.
The problem with knit stitches is, however, that when you turn your work around, these knit stitches will appear like purl stitches. So, they have these little bumps around their base. And if your knitting stitch pattern is (partially) based on knit stitches on the right side (like stockinette stitch or a 2×2 rib stitch), you have two options:
First, if it’s all knit stitches on the front, you may consider starting on the wrong side. So, for stockinette stitch that would mean you start your first row with purl stitches and knit the second – at least if you want to work in pattern. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a garter stitch edge. While it may not look as neat, it could also mitigate the curling a bit.
The alternative is doing the longtail cast on purlwise. This is should be your preferred method for ribbings and other knitting stitch patterns where you alternate between knit and purl stitch in the first row (for some selected few patterns a tubular cast-on can look even better).
Basically, it boils down to going into the loop around your index finger (instead of the thumb). But do read my tutorial. There’s a video included and tons of further tips.
The overall problem is not addressed very frequently and I suspect there are two reasons for it. First of all, a lot of old English knitters just stuck to garter stitch (even when doing lace, etc) and avoided purling as much as they could. Or they were knitting in the round (socks especially) where the problem doesn’t occur either.
Last, but not least, I want to share some long tail cast on tips with you. I do believe it’s quite easy to learn but in the beginning, there are a couple of common mistakes you might want to avoid.
1. Pulling tight close to the next stitch
So, when you cast on the next stitch, try to bring the loop very close to the next stitch before you pull tight. The stitches should come as close as possible (but not so close they end up on top of each other). If you don’t, you’ll end up with little loops hanging down from your cast on edge and that might not be all that pretty.
2. Avoid a Cast on that is too tight
Another problem I often observe is that some knitters cast on too tightly. And it’s very easy to spot that because then the fabric will get wide towards the top. In the best case, that won’t look pretty, and in the worst case your hem or cuff might end up being too tight to fit.
And there’s an easy way to avoid that. Like I said, simply cast on around 2 needles or use one needle one or two sizes bigger. Don’t hesitate to toy around a bit. It’s worth it!