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.