Welcome to another of our Midweek Masterclasses! Smoothing out cast-off stitches is something many of us do without really thinking about, but recently at a knitting group this came up in conversation. When working shoulder, sleeve cap and armhole shaping, where a series of cast-off rows are worked in succession, often your work can end up looking a little ‘wedgy’. Here we will cover two techniques that will help to smooth out your shaping, allowing for neater seams and a more natural fit.
The 'Stair Step' Problem
Photo 1 shows a standard shoulder finish, the instructions for which will be familiar to most of you: ‘Work without shaping until armhole measures xxcm, ending with a RS row. 24 sts.
Row 1 (WS): Cast off 8 sts, work to end. 16 sts.
Row 2: Knit.
Row 3: Cast off 8 sts, work to end. 8 sts.
Row 4: Knit. Cast off remaining 8 sts.’
I’ve worked the cast-off row in our example using blue yarn to highlight the final row, which you can see is staggered in ‘stair steps’, as this finish is sometimes referred to. When it comes to sewing the shoulder seams together, mattress stitch becomes a little tricky as there isn’t a direct line of stitches to follow. You’ll also find you are probably hiding the steps inside the seam, leaving a slightly lumpy finish.
Using Short Rows
Working wrap-and-turns into the shoulder shaping instead of casting off gives a nice even finish that is almost invisible (2). You can see the blue cast-off line is much smoother, and gives you the option to work a three-needle cast-off rather than seaming the shoulder pieces together.
If you look closely, you might see where the extra rows have been worked but it’s tricky - which is why I created a second sample working the short rows in blue, so that it is clearer (3).
So how do you convert the ‘stair step’ cast-off given in your knitting pattern to work in short rows? Take our example: we begin with 24 stitches, and cast off 8 stitches on every WS row 3 times. We want our ‘cast off’ (or in this case ‘unworked’) stitches to be at the shoulder edge, which in this example is on the right-hand side with the WS facing. Instead of casting off 8 stitches at the beginning of Row 1, on the wrong side, we are going to miss those 8 stitches on the row before (which we’ll call Row 0), by working as follows:
Row 0 (RS): Work to last 8 sts, slip next stitch on LH needle purlwise to RH needle, take yarn to other side of work, slip stitch back from RH needle to LH needle, take yarn back to where it started, thus creating a wrap around the 8th stitch, turn work. (This is known as wrap and turn, or w&t)
Row 2: Sl 1, purl to end.
Row 3: Work to last 8 sts, w&t.
Row 4: Sl 1, purl to end.
Row 5: Work across all 24 sts, picking up wraps as you go.
Leave sts on holder to work three-needle cast-off with second shoulder. You’ll notice we slipped an extra stitch after the wrap and turn at the beginning of the WS rows. This helps the stitches to sit that little bit flatter when they are reaching up towards the next row. If you want to cast off normally rather than work a three-needle cast-off, you can do so on Row 5, ignoring the wraps.
Our second example (4) shows the top of a sleeve cap, where the stair steps have already been avoided. The method I used here is much simpler than the wrap-and-turn method, albeit not quite as smooth. The pattern for this sleeve said to cast off 3 stitches at the beginning of every row, 6 times.
I worked this as instructed, with a few exceptions. For a nicer finish, try working as follows: At the end of the final row before the cast off, slip the last stitch and turn the work. On the first cast-off row, slip the next stitch, so there will now be 2 stitches on the RH needle. Slip the first of these stitches over the second stitch. This is your first cast-off stitch. Work the remaining cast-off stitches as normal.
Continue to work this way for each cast-off in the section until all of the required stitches have been cast off. You can see from the example, highlighted in blue, that the slipped stitch is slightly longer than the other cast-off stitches and helps to smooth over the steps. This will make seaming the sleeve into the armhole a much easier process, and the sleeve cap will sit neatly around the shoulder.
Ashley Knowlton's 'Hestercombe' below, from issue 88, uses the short row method, which sits neatly on the shoulder.
About our expert
Faye Perriam-Reed is a designer and the technical editor of The Knitter and Simply Knitting. She loves to explore techniques for achieving neat, professional results in her knitting.
For more Midweek Masterclasses click here or to give shoulder shaping a go click on the image below to find your copy of the pattern!