Like many knitters, I learned to knit first as a child, around age 9 or 10. I remember getting the hang of garter stitch, and the knit stitch felt pretty easy to do. I also remember that I made someone else do the cast on and cast off parts of that little square, because those parts seemed far too difficult! Later on I learned to knit again as an adult, and once I had practiced a bit, I was off and running. Still, the cast-on step can be one of the most intimidating if you are a new knitter, because a poor cast-on can result in an uncomfortable first few rows of knitting.
Cast-ons and bind-offs alike come in a variety of methods - you could learn a new one each week and probably take a full year or more to exhaust all of the many different options! They also fulfill different needs. Some cast-ons need to be stretchy, for example, the top of a cuff-down sock or the cuff edge of a fitted ribbed sleeve. Others are designed to be decorative, such as the picot cast-on or lace cast-on. And many are simply practical, basic cast-ons that could be used in a variety of projects. In this article I'll demonstrate two basic methods of how to cast on - the knitted cast-on, and the cabled cast-on.
The Knitted Cast On
The knitted cast on is where many of us start as knitters. It very closely resembles the motions required to do the knit stitch (thus, the name!) and means that if a person is learning to knit and cast on at the same time, they will need to grapple with fewer pieces of new information all at once.
Like many cast-ons, this one begins by making a slip knot and placing it on the needle in your left hand. Make sure this is fairly snug, so that it is held securely on the needle.
Next, insert your right hand knitting needle through the loop "as if to knit" - in other words, through the front leg of the loop.
Then, wrap the yarn counter-clockwise around the right hand needle as though you are wrapping a knit stitch, and then pull the yarn through the loop.
Finally, place the loop onto the left hand needle. You have now created a new stitch and have two on the needles.
Repeat steps 2-4 until you have the desired number of stitches on your needle.
The Cabled Cast On
The cabled cast on is a close cousin of the knitted cast-on, and many knitters prefer it for times when they want a firm and neat looking edge. Buttonholes are a good example of this, as well as when casting on new stitches at the end of a row. Sometimes a firm edge is very desirable.
First, start with two stitches on the needle - using the knitted cast-on, for example.
Next, insert the needle between the two stitches, between the needle and the cast-on edge - NOT through either of the stitches.
Then, wrap the yarn around the right hand needle as if to knit, and then pull the yarn through as a loop.
Place the new stitch knitwise onto the left hand needle. You have now added a new stitch to the cast-on. Repeat Steps 2-4 until you have the desired number of stitches on the needle.
Both of these cast-ons produce a simple, even edge that is quite firm. They are also simple to learn for new knitters. The other advantage with both of these cast-ons is that you are always working from one length of yarn and are not likely to run out of yarn during the cast-on. This can be a challenge with other cast-ons such as the Long Tail Cast-On - all cast-on and bind-off methods have their own advantages and disadvantages.
If you are finding yourself longing for a stretchier edge, the easiest thing to do is to use these same methods with a needle 1-2 sizes larger than what you will use to work the project. A better idea, however, is to graduate to a stretchier cast on like the Long-Tail Cast-On, the Channel Island Cast-On, or others.
New cast-on techniques (and bind-offs as well!) are one of the best techniques to start adding to your knitting tool-box as early as possible. If you are lucky enough to have a local 'knit night' to attend at a yarn store or library, or have friends who are knitters, they may be happy to show you their personal favorites. Cast-on methods can be surprisingly personal! Don't be shy about trying new techniques, since you just might find a new cast-on that will become your own personalized method.