My mother taught me to cast on with two needles. When I went to boarding school there was a knitting craze (somewhere between the jacks craze and the french skipping craze, probably) and I was surprised to see some girls casting-on over their thumbs. I never bothered to learn from them, however, because my mother had told me that the cable cast-on was 'the best'. When I started knitting socks I realised that it isn't always the best method and I looked around for a more elastic cast-on method.
According to Priscilla Gibson-Roberts in Knitting in the Old Way, p. 51, cast-ons can be divided into elastic (long-tail) and inelastic (short-tail). Long-tail cast-ons are made with one needle; short-tail with two. I have a favourite long-tail cast-on for socks which I’d recommend to anyone. It’s a twisted long-tail cast-on that can be achieved in two (or more) different ways.
The most basic cast-on method is sometimes called the ‘backward loop’ or ‘e-wrap’. It is simply a line of half-hitches made on your needle. It’s a very quick cast-on and is useful when you need to cast-on extra stitches at the end of a row, but it is difficult to knit into because it may be a bit tight. The following long-tail methods, twisted or not, build on this simple foundation.
The thumb method
Leaving a long tail (somewhere around 3 to 4 times the length of your cast-on width) tie a slip knot and set it on the needle. Hold the tail in the fingers of your left hand, with your thumb pointing up. Hold the yarn from the ball (your working yarn) in your right hand, as you would to knit. Twist your thumb down onto the yarn then round and up so that there's a loop of yarn round your thumb. Insert the needle into the loop, bring the working yarn round as for a knit stitch, draw though and leave the new stitch on the needle. Let the loop fall from your thumb and tighten the stitch by pulling on the tail end. One new stitch is cast-on. Can you see that it is basically a half hitch that you knit into before mounting it on the needle?
Exactly the same result is achieved by the ‘continental long-tail cast-on’. Leave a long tail and make your slip knot as before. Mount it on the needle so that the working yarn is to the back and the tail to the front. Catch the two ends together with the 4th and little finger of your left hand. Put your forefinger and thumb together between the two threads and then open them out. Make the shape that children make when they are holding pretend guns, with your forefinger pointing away from you and your thumb pointing up. The yarn end now makes a loop round your thumb. Insert your needle into the loop from below. Catch the working yarn and draw it through the loop to make a stitch, letting the loop drop from your thumb at the same time.
Now we come to the twisted cast-ons, which add an extra twist between the stitches, thus giving elasticity without making the stitches themselves any bigger. (Alternative ways of working these are described on pp. 53-4 of Knitting in the Old Way.) The first is the ‘Maine method’ as described by Robin Hansen in Favorite Mittens: Best traditional mitten patterns from Fox & Geese & Fences, Flying Geese & Partridge Feet (p. 14). This builds on the thumb method. The second is the Twisted German cast-on, which builds on the continental long-tail cast-on.
The Maine method takes the thumb method and gives it a twist. Start off as for the thumb method, with the slip stitch on the needle, the working yarn in your right hand as if to knit, and the yarn end round your thumb. Insert your forefinger down into the loop round your thumb and transfer the loop to your forefinger. The loop twists as it moves from your thumb to your forefinger. Now knit into the loop and mount your new stitch on your needle, tightening gently by pulling on both yarn ends.
Twisted German cast-on
Exactly the same result is achieved by the Twisted German cast-on (I’d really be happier calling it the German Twisted cast-on – I’m sure it’s more polite!). I think it’s quicker to do, but it’s possibly harder to understand at first. Set yourself up as for the continental long-tail cast-on. Instead of going up into the loop on your thumb go under both strands then back into the loop from the top. Turn your wrist slightly so that your hand comes towards you. Crook your thumb but don’t quite let go of the loop. The loop should open up slightly. With your needle, catch the yarn that is held over your forefinger and draw it down through the loop. Let the loop drop from your thumb as you do so. If the loop isn’t opening up for you it may be because you haven’t quite bent your thumb enough.