Why the Long Tail Cast on is the boss

For a jolly long time, there were a lot of things I used to ignore when working from knitting patterns, because I couldn’t entirely understand why they were there. “Ignore it and it’ll go away” is a questionable decision at the best of times, and it’s definitely a bit of a daft choice at times when knitting.

One of these times, it turns out is when you’re ignoring the long tail cast on.

I use the long tail cast-on a lot now. A lot lot. I use it in loads of my patterns; the Ya Basic bed sock, the Jimmy Jab Jumper, the Bingpot Beanie, the I Smell Snow hat, and probably at least one more that I’ve forgotten. And the reason I use it so much is this:

The long tail cast on produces a brilliantly stretchy edge.

But before we talk more about why that’s such a good thing, let’s go back a bit.

Why you should use the cast on the pattern calls for

Now, when I learned to knit, I learned one cast on, and I used it for everything. I didn’t even realise that there were different ways to cast on until I’d been knitting for a couple of years. Even then it didn’t occur to me that these different cast-ons probably did different things. I thought it was probably a bit like getting dressed; the exact steps you take might be different (socks before trousers, or trousers before socks?) but the end result is the same.

Not the case.

I now know that the first cast-on I learned was what is known as the “cable cast on”. I also know that it produces a strong, stable edge. It’s a good all-rounder, this one. Except for when you need a stretchy edge, where it’s really, really rubbish. It’s far too strong and stable to be faffing about with any of that stretching stuff.

And how did I learn this? I tried to use it to begin a top-down sock. And then I tried to use it to begin a top-down sweater. Both were absolutely terrible decisions. I could not get the sock over my heel. And then I could not get the jumper over my head. Of course, being an idiot I didn’t clock this until I’d completed the rest of the knitting and found myself with an unwearable item, and a new appreciation that maybe I should’ve paid attention when the pattern asked for a stretchy cast on.

What’s so great about the long tail cast on?

Which is where my great friend the long tail cast on comes into the story. Ooh, that’s a stretchy cast on. It’ll go straight over my heel, and my massive head. It’s brilliant for top-down socks, and top-down jumpers, and anything where you need a stretchy edge. I tend to use it to start brim-up hats because…giant head.

Now, the only thing is that the long tail cast on can be a little bit fiddly to learn. It involves arranging your yarn around your hand in a particular way, and then wiggling your knitting needle through that arrangement. That’s why I looked at it and disregarded it before knitting that sock, and that jumper. Too much faff. Couldn’t be bothered.

Don’t make my mistake.

How to do the long tail cast on

Once you’ve got your head (or perhaps more your hand) around it, the long tail cast on is actually crazy easy. And oddly fun. You can really get some speed up once you’re used to doing it. But it is a cast on that you need to see to learn, really. Which is why I’ve made this little video tutorial.

How long should that long tail be?

The only possible pitfall of the long tail cast off is working out how long that famous tail should be. There are some handy mathematical formulas out there, but I’m going to be straight with you. I don’t bother with them. I take a guess at how much yarn I think I’ll need, and then I add on about a third again. I very rarely run out of yarn, but I do sometimes end up with some ridiculously long tails sitting there unused. So if you’re running a bit tight on yarn, maybe do try one of those formulas. And then let me know how you get on.

How to knit with German short rows: A not at all scary guide

Do you know what I really bloody love? German short rows.

Seriously. They’re one of my very favourite knitting techniques. If you’ve knitted one of my patterns, then you’ll know that I use them a lot, but I’ve never felt compelled to truly sing their praises before.

Until now.

What are short rows?

Now, before I get all over-excited about German short rows, let’s take it back to basics a bit by answering the question “what are short rows?”

The answer, like many things in knitting, is suprisingly simple. Short rows are – as their name suggests – where you knit only part of a row before turning your work. You have to do a little bit of a something at the end of your partial row to stop a hole appearing there, but we’ll get to that later.

Why would you use short rows?

You mean other than because they’re brilliant?

They can be used for all sorts of things to do with shaping knitting; adding high-low hems, shaping shoulders, creating “chunks” of knitting within a pattern (as in my Set the Tone scarf), and even turning heels.

And what are German short rows?

German short rows are one technique that you can use to avoid those holes I mentioned earlier. A lot of people use the wrap and turn short row method and think it’s fine, but I can only assume that those people have never used German short rows. Because German short rows are way, way better.

What makes German short rows so good?

They’re really simple. Honestly, they’re so, so simple. When I tried the old wrap and turn back in my early days I got myself into a right pickle trying to pick up wraps and then dropping wraps and then forgetting to even do the wraps and oh it hurt my head.

There’s no faffing with wraps in German short rows. What you do instead is make the first stitch of your row into a “double stitch”, which sounds fancy but really isn’t.

So how do I make a double stitch?

Creating a double stitch is surprisingly easy, and weird satisfying. And it’s the same whether you’re working with a knit or purl stitch.

To create a double stitch, you bring your yarn to the front of your work, slip the first stitch onto your right hand needle, and pull the yarn over the top of your needle to make a stitch with two “legs”. That’s it.

Bet you thought it was going to be a more complex thing than that, didn’t you?

What about getting rid of the double stitch?

Once you’re done working your short rows and want to go back to knitting the full row – or round, because you can use them for knitting in the round as well – you just work the two “legs” of the double stitch together. If you’re on a knit row, you knit them together. If you’re on a purl row, you purl them. That’s it.

Can I see German short rows in action?

You can indeed. I’ve made a handy little video tutorial to German short rows and creating double stitches. It’s even got a cameo from my cat.

And just because I’m all kinds of lovely, I’ve also made a handy little reminder pin that you can use as a cheat sheet.

Got any questions about German short rows? Drop me a comment below, get in touch on Instagram, or even send me an email. In case you can’t tell, I love German short rows and will be very, very happy to help.

Well that’s not scary: shawl knitting

Of all the ridiculous misconceptions I’ve had about knitting, perhaps the most ridiculous of all is that knitting a shawl is a really complex thing. Any shawl. Of any kind. Must be tricky. Must have crazy complex increases and decreases to make those shapes, and must be beyond my capabilities.

Told you it was ridiculous.

But just in case you’re still hanging out in the cave of knitting fear, I’ve designed what may in fact be the world’s easiest shawl. The Math of Love Triangles shawl.

The world’s easiest shawl. Probably.

Large green garter stitch and textured triangle shawl

Ok, maybe not the very easiest – because that would probably have a whole load of nothing but garter stitch going on – but this has got to be right up there. It’s a lovely, sideways triangular shawl with a few textured panels to keep things a bit interesting. And – and this is the really key bit of information – it’s way, way easier than it looks.

(Small aside: I briefly considered making “way easier than it looks” my business tagline, but then realised that’s probably a bad idea.)

Anyway. The thing that’s so magically simple about the Math of Love Triangle shawl is that it only needs three skills beyond your classic knit and purl stitches – and two of those skills are basically the same. That’s it’s. So, if you can cast on, cast off, knit, and purl, you’re ready to take on this guy.

If you’re a total beginner and want to have a crack at just doing those first, then I recommend having a little look at the kits and patterns that Lauren Aston Designs and Moloney Makes put together. But seriously, this shawl is really not much harder than a beginner scarf.

And why am I so confident in that? Because I’m about to show you those two extra skills that you need.

How do I “slip 1 purlwise with yarn in back”?

Sounds a bit complex, doesn’t it? It’s really not. Let me show you.

You see that? It’s so straightforward I made it a gif! Because all you have to do for this one is put your right hand needle into the next stitch as if you’re going to purl it, and then just slip it off your left hand needle. Then carry on.

It’s so easy that you don’t even have to bother knitting the stitch.

And how about “slip 1 purlwise with yarn in front”?

Now, when I said that two of the skills were kind of the same skill, this is what I meant. At its core, you’re doing the very same thing here that you did above – inserting right hand needle as if to purl, and then slipping it off the left hand needle.

But because you’re working on the wrong side of the shawl at this point, you need to do a little bit of yarn jiggling to keep it looking pretty. But it’s only very little. Let’s have a look, shall we?

So, for this one you work to the stitch you’re going to slip, move the yarn forward, slip the stitch, and then move the yarn back again.

It ends up lying across the stitch you’ve just slipped, but as we’re on the wrong side of the shawl here, so you’re all good.

And how about this “knit front and back” thing?

Now, this one is every so slightly more complex. But only in that you actually have to do some knitting with it.

And what knitting do you have to do? Well, pretty much what it says; you knit into the front of the stitch, and then into the back of it. Now, if you’re not super familiar with knitting yet than it can be a bit tricky to work out exactly what this means, so yet again I’m going to show you.

Let’s break that down. Starts off normal; you knit into the front of the stitch, as per usual. But then, instead of slipping that stitch off the left hand needle, you go round the back of the stitch and knit into it again.

Once you’ve done that, you’ve got two stitches instead of just the one. That’s exactly what you’re meant to have; these increases are how the shawl gets its lovely triangle-y shape.

So now you’ve watched those demonstrations, you’re all ready to get going with a bit of shawl knitting. The Math of Love Triangles shawl comes out on Thursday 5 November, so not long to wait.

Well that’s not scary: Knitting Intarsia

A FEW WEEKS BACK, I ASKED ON INSTAGRAM IF THERE WERE THINGS THAT OTHER KNITTERS FOUND A BIT SCARY. BECAUSE I’VE GOT A THEORY THAT ALL BUT THE MOST CONFIDENT AND CAVALIER OF KNITTERS HAS A SECRET LIST OF THINGS THAT THEY FIND A LITTLE BIT INTIMIDATING.

I know I did. I’ve written before about how I found yarn substitution to be a thing of absolute mystery. But that wasn’t my only fear; I had a whole big mental list of scary techniques. They intimidated me right to my yarn-y core. So much so that I’d avoid any patterns that used them, no matter how beautiful those patterns looked.

I’d see people talk about these terrifying techniques, and I’d freak right out. How could they do this incredible thing with this scary technique, and I couldn’t?

Turns out there’s a simple answer to that one. They’d tried, and I hadn’t.

Because – and this is the point of my asking the “what scares you” question on Instagram, and of starting this new series of blogs – nothing in knitting is actually that scary. It’s just yarn and sticks. The worst that can happen is that it goes a bit wrong, and you try it again. And that’s fine.

And so, in the spirit of de-scarying knitting, I thought I’d start off by talking about colourwork – after all, quite a few people said they were scared of it. And I’m not starting with just any colourwork; I’m starting with intarsia, the style of colourwork that scared the beejesus out of me until a few short months ago.

What the hell is intarsia?

Good question. Sounds fancy and magical, doesn’t it? But the basic definition is this:

Intarsia is colourwork where the fabric remains single thickness. Instead of carrying (or “stranding”) the yarn across the back of your work to the next area of that colour, you join in a new yarn for each area – or “block” – of colour.

(It’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s defintion, this one – smushed together from the Ultimate Knitting Bible by Sharon Brant, Rowan Yarns’ definition, and The Spruce Crafts)

Right. Lovely. What does that actually mean?

The simplest way to explain intarsia is to look at it. So, let’s look at this dog cushion. It’s one I designed and knit back in the summer because I’m a ridiculous woman who decided to make my first intarsia project a little bit complicated.

A light teal cushion with a knitted spaniel dog on it

You see all those little patches of colour on that dog? Each one is a different bit of yarn that I joined in, just for that patch*. Each eye? New bit of dark yarn. Pink tongue? Little bit of pink yarn. The teal background on either side of the dog? Two separate bits of yarn. You twist your new yarn round your old yarn at the back of the work when you join it, and that stops it forming holes. Magic, hey?

*this isn’t strictly speaking true, but we’ll get onto that later. So let’s just ignore that for now, shall we?

So, now we’ve established what intarsia is, let me share my hints and tips for how to make a great big success of your next intarsia knitting project, rather than staring at it in fear.

Let me hit you with my intarsia hits and tips

Plan out your intarsia project before you start

I know, I know. Planning is so very boring. But believe me, it’s pretty crucial to making a success of intarsia knitting. I’m not saying you have to swatch every little bit, but have a look at your pattern and have a great big think about how many areas of colour there actually are, and how many different yarns you’re going to need. It’s guaranteed to be more than you think.

For example: I didn’t initially consider that I’d need a new bit of golden yarn for each side of the dog’s nose. Or that I’d need one for the fur to the left of his eyes, one for in between his eyes, and one for to the right.

If you’re using a paper pattern, then I’d crack out a pen and circle each area. If, like me, you’ve come up with something on Stitchmastery and are just hoping for the best, then good luck to you, friend.

Bobbins are your friends when it comes to intarsia

Dark brown yarn wound round a small cardboard bobbin

And what, pray tell, are bobbins?

They’re these things; little bits that you wind your yarn around (technical, I know). I just hacked into some of the endless cardboard that we’ve got knocking about to create mine. You want one for each different area of colour you’re going to knit, so you may find yourself with four of one colour. That’s fine. That’s good. That’ll stop you getting into a flap once you realise you need more golden yarn and all your golden yarn is currently in a big ball attached to your work.

Definitely not speaking from experience there.

Do the twist

Back of a piece of knitting, showing twisted intarsia join between patches of colour

Twisting is the key to intarsia. It’s what stops big holes appearing between each patch of colour, and keeps your work one lovely bit of material. Tin Can Knits have a great blog showing you how to do this twisty join, which I should’ve looked at before starting.

Even though I didn’t check that post out though, I still managed to work it out. See, for example, the twists on the back of the cat cushion I’ve absolutely not left languishing in my WIP pile. They’re pretty much the same thing as the Tin Can Knits join, which shows that even a cavalier fool like me can work intarsia out.

Sometimes you have to cut your losses

I’m not going to lie to you; when you’re working with umpteen different bobbins, you are at some point going to end up in an almighty tangle. If you do, then it’s absolutely fine to just cut your way out of it and start again.

By which I mean to just snip off the working yarns, and rejoin them without the tangling. Not to get in a rage and take scissors to all your work. Let’s keep things in perspective here.

And finally, duplicate stitch is your friend

I’m a big fan of doing what works, regardless of whether it’s the official “correct” thing to do. So remember when I said that technically speaking, I didn’t knit with a new yarn for every single patch of colour in that dog?

That’s because I got myself into one of those almighty tangles, threw a bit of a strop, and decided that the smaller patches of colour could be added later with duplicate stitch. It was a wise choice to make, and one I would absolutely make again.

Because after all, when it comes to knitting there is no single right way to do things, there is just the way that works for you.

Have I missed anything out on my quick jaunt around the intarsia universe? Is there anything you want to see me try and de-scary for you? Let me know.

Well that’s not scary: Turning heels is actually easy knitting

Back in the day, before I started knitting socks (which is considerably more recently than you’d think; an Instagram reminder popped up the other day to tell me I knitted my first socks two years ago), I was absolutely terrified of turning heels. SO SCARED. It seemed like some impossible black magic that I would never be able to master.

The backs of the Ya Basic bedsocks, showing their heels

Sock knitting was difficult, I was convinced of it. I should not even give it a try. Quit before you have the chance to get behind.

Well, if the title of this blog hasn’t already given it away, then I’ve got something I need to share with all other knitters who are scared of socks. Heel turns aren’t scary. Heel turns aren’t difficult. Heel turns aren’t witchcraft.

Heel turns are actually simple, and also quite fun.

Yes, there are many different types of heel turn. And yes, some of them are more complex than others, and some suit different feet better and some suit different socks better and blah blah blah. But let’s not worry about that. All you need to worry about is the heel turn in the pattern you’re using. Let us designers worry about the best way to swivel that heel round.

So, to show how simple heel turns can be, I’m going to walk you through one.

Take my new Ya Basic bed socks; the heel turn on those is so simple that I’m almost tempted to get my 3yo to try it out to see if he can handle it. To be honest, the only reason I haven’t done that is because I don’t want to get into another ridiculous situation where he insists he has to do something himself and it takes such a very long time and I lose the will to live because I could just do it so much quicker. I have visions of him running across the playroom every time I want to turn a heel, and I am not prepared for that to happen. No.

Anyway. The Ya Basic heel turn is…well, pretty basic. In case you don’t believe me, I’ve actually filmed all the stitches you need to do it, so you can see for yourself how it works. It’s like the knitting equivalent of unmasking the Scooby Doo villain; pull the sheet off, and there’s nothing frightening there are all.

What the hell is a short row heel turn?

First things first; you’ll see in the pattern that Ya Basic uses short rows to turn the heels. This sound like another bit of baffling knitting jiggery pokery, but really it just means this: when you knit a short row, you don’t knit across all the stitches in that row. You knit a few, and then you turn your work round and knit back again. At each end of the row you do a different stitch from the standard so you don’t end up with holes. That’s it.

One thing you’ll see in the Ya Basic instructions is “Sl 1”, which translates as ‘slip one stitch’. That’s one you can take pretty literally; you just put your right hand needle in to the first stitch on your left hand needle, and slip it across without knitting it. Simple. You’ll see that at the start of the rows in the heel turn section.

So how do I ssk (slip, slip, knit?)

Next up, you need to do a ssk before you turn your work. What that translates to is “slip 2 stitches as if to knit, and then knit them together.” Way easier than it sounds. Just watch this:

See what I did there? I slipped those two stitches over to my right hand needle. Then I inserted my left hand needle into the front of them, wrapped the yarn round the back (right hand needle) and slipped them off lefty. Then, for the sake of completing the short row, I did one more standard knit stitch and then turned my work.

Watch it a few times. Slip, slip, knit these two stitches together. Knit one more. Turn.

Right. And how do I p2tog (purl two together)?

If you’ve got the ssk down, the p2tog is going to be a piece of piss. Again, let’s have a look:

This one’s even easier than the ssk. You basically do a normal purl stitch, but rather than putting your right hand needle through just the first stitch, you put it through the first two. Then wrap your yarn and finish your stitch as normal. Again, I’ve done a standard purl stitch after the p2tog just to show exactly how to finish the row according to the pattern.

P2tog done. And with those two stitches you’ve done the bulk of the heel turn.

But how do I pick up stitches?

If, like me, you look at the instruction to pick up stitches and the first thing you think is “but I never put them down in the first place”, then this instruction can seem a bit tricky. But again, it’s not.

When you were knitting the heel flap of your sock, you will have slipped the first stitch of each row. That gives you a lovely big stitch to pick up these mysterious stitches from. Let me show you:

At the start of this video I’ve got to the end of the last heel turn row, so it’s time to pick up those stitches. That bit I’m showing you by my left thumb is the lovely big slipped stitches along the side of the heel flap.

To pick up and knit stitches from along there, you insert your right hand needle under both loops of one of those stitches, and then wrap your yarn and knit as normal. Do that right up the side of the heel flap for as many stitches as the pattern tells you, and you’re good to go.

(A little tip: try and make sure you pick up one of your stitches right up in the corner where the heel flap starts. That should stop you getting any little holes there)

Is that it? Have I turned a heel now?

Yes. Yes you have.

See, I told you it wasn’t hard. If you want to give it a shot, you’ll find the links to buy the Ya Basic pattern below. And don’t forget that 10% of all sales goes to the wonderful Bluebell Care.