How to: do the crochet provisional cast-on

Seeing the words "provisional cast-on" in a pattern can cause a sinking feeling quite out of proportion to how hard the technique actually is. I know this feeling well. It used to come partly from the hassle of having to gather assorted supplies that weren't otherwise in my project bag (waste yarn! come on, I've just cleared out the scraps from my last project), and partly from lack of familiarity; I worked this cast-on so seldom, I always had to look up how to do it. 

There's not much I can do about the first part – though I am slowly getting better at planning ahead and stocking my bag accordingly. The second part has been helped enormously by two things: trying a bunch of different methods, and working a whole lot of projects that actually require a provisional start. For which I have no one to blame but myself, since I've gone and designed said projects. 

Which presents a certain problem, knowing as I do how off-putting a provisional cast-on can be. On the excellent advice of my wise and all-knowing tech editor, I make a point of writing my patterns to be as forgiving as possible: I give alternatives, I explain what will happen if you use a different method (eg a less smooth and stretchy, but hidden, join) – and I point readers to my favourite tutorials on the web.

I don't much like doing that, though. I don't like having to outsource my instructions; it feels like cheating. I have no control over whether the link provided might get broken, the tutorial deleted. And besides, it's far nicer to have all the help you need right there in the pattern, no? So I've started working on photo tutorials for all the special techniques I use – to be included in downloads, and shared here on my site. They're not perfect, which put me off doing this for a while. But perfect is the enemy of good, right? So, in support of my Am Meer hat and mitts set, here we are. 

Back to the provisional cast-on possibilities. Of all the methods I've tried, the one I'm about to show you is probably the most complicated, although still totally doable. (We'll get to the others another day.) But it's also probably the most popular, and with good reason. Yes, you do need extra supplies – a crochet hook, that waste yarn – and it's slower than some other options. But it's reliable. Other methods may be well suited to a short edge, or to working in the round, as long as your stitch pattern meets certain criteria... The crochet technique is a solid contender for any circumstance I can imagine. It'll do the job. And even though I said it's the most complicated, it's actually really simple. Simple enough that I could remember it after not even working it, just reading about it once.

In summary,
Pros: Simple; neat; works every time. 
Cons: You need a crochet hook and waste yarn, in more or less the same size and weight as your project needles and yarn.

Shall we?

1. Use your crochet hook and waste yarn to chain a few stitches. (If you don't yet know how to make a crochet chain, skip ahead – the next step will teach you!) This isn't strictly necessary but I find it better than starting the actual cast-on straight away – it just allows your stitches a smidge of breathing room, and gives you something to hold onto.

2. Now you're going to work your chain around the knitting needle. In the original crochet cast-on method, you would first work a long chain and then knit into the back of each chain stitch; with chains being as pesky and twisty and hard to count as they sometimes are, this saves a lot of trouble! So hold your yarn in back of the needle…

3. …wrap it over the top and draw through…

4. …pull yarn around the back again…







5. …and repeat till you have as many stitches on the needle as you need. Work a few extra chain stitches, then cut your waste yarn and pull the end through loosely. These extra stitches are more important than those in step 1; they will help to prevent the chain unravelling before you're ready.



6. Using your project yarn, knit into each stitch on the needle, and you're off!

7. When the time comes, return to your crochet cast-on and insert your needle into each "stitch" below the chain, and when they're all on your needle, rip it out.
(The knitting shown here is a garter lace pattern from my Am Meer hat design; without yarnovers and k2tog it'll look a lot more more even!)

You'll have one stitch fewer than you originally cast on, as shown, because you're working between the original stitches. If the pattern doesn't allow for this (when Kitchenering, it works pretty well to have one stitch fewer than the end you're matching, because that also sits half a stitch off), you can fudge it by picking up a half-stitch at the beginning or end of your cast-on row.

Bonus: worked in the main yarn, without extra stitches at beginning and end, this (no longer provisional) cast-on is a good match for a regular cast-off. 

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