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Many shawl patterns start with a garter tab. Sometimes the instructions clearly indicate that’s what you’re doing, but often they don’t. They just start with a narrow strip of garter stitch, and very little clue as to what it all means or how to do it.

I’m here to explain.

What It Is

A garter tab makes the top edge of a top-down shawl smoother.

If you were to just cast on for a shawl and start increasing, you’d get a gap at the center top, caused by the shaping of the increases. It’s as if there’s a portion of the edging missing:

Some clever knitter, at some point, realized that you could work a strip of garter stitch to fill in that missing section.

How It Goes

You cast on the number of stitches used for the edging–it’s often 3, so that’s what my sample shows. You work enough rows in garter stitch to cover the full width of that gap. (More on “enough” below.)

And then you do a pick-up-and-knit row to get all your stitches.

The Pick-up-and-knit-row (RS): Knit stitches of strip. Pick up and knit stitches along the edge of the garter stitch. Then pick up and knit the same number of stitches in the cast on edge, as the number of stitches you cast on.

How many stitches do you need to pick up from the edge of the garter stitch? If you’re working from a pattern written for garter tab, it will tell you. If you’re adapting an existing pattern, it’s the number you need for the first row of knitting, minus the edge stitches.

How long should your strip be? It’s determined by how many stitches you need to pick. Garter stitch is made up of ridges and valleys:

The arrows point to the valleys.

I like to pick up and knit in the valleys, grabbing the leg of the stitch at the every edge. Just one leg/strand–not both!–so that there’s a minimal lip on the inside of the work.

Which means that you need to have as many valleys as the number of stitches you need. Don’t count the valley that’s between the cast-on edge and the first ridge, you don’t want to use that one. (It can make things a bit tight.)

Doing the pick-up-and-knit: Poke the needle under one leg of the stitch at the edge of the valley. Wrap the yarn around the needle tip as for knitting, and pull it through.

A valley stitch picked up and ready to knit.
The 3 stitches on the right are the live stitches of the strip, the 3 on the left are the stitches picked up in the cast-on edge, and the 3 in the middle are the ones picked up along the edge.
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Some knitters work a provisional cast-on for the strip, in waste yarn, and then unravel it to grab the second set of the edging stitches in the pick-up-and-knit row. I don’t bother with this, as I’m usually working with a fine yarn and small needles: it’s hard to see and fiddly to work, and the difference just isn’t obvious in the finished project. Instead, I use a backwards loop or knitted cast-on, as the edge is less substantial than for other methods.

Some knitters prefer to pick up the stitches in the bumps of the garter ridge. That works too! I use the valleys because the side loops are easier to find, particularly if you’re working with a fine yarn and small needles.

Why It Works

The garter tab cast-on relies on the stitch/row gauge ratio for garter stitch. In garter stitch, the height of two rows is the same as the width of one stitch. So you pick up one stitch for every two rows–one stitch in every valley.

Not Just Garter

The garter version is most common because the garter edging is very common in shawls. But I’ve been doing it with stockinette stitch too, which allows me to work a rather pleasing rolled stockinette edging on a shawl.

I start with the required number of stitches, and work a strip of stockinette stitch, ending with a WS row, allowing me to do the pick up on the RS row.

Here’s the key difference: I don’t need as many rows as I do for garter because the ratio of stitch gauge to row gauge is different. For stockinette it’s about 3 stitches to 4 rows: I need to work 4 rows for every 3 stitches to pick up.

Pretty, eh?

Wouldn’t This Come in Handy?

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About The Author

Kate Atherley is a teacher, designer, author and technical editor. She’s also the publisher of Digits & Threads, a magazine all about Canadian fibre and textile arts.


  • As a not-very-experienced shawl knitter I had wondered why many started with a garter tab and I have sometimes found it a bit fiddly.
    Now I understand both the rationale and the process so much better.
    Thank you, Kate.

  • Huh. So it’s NOT a magic incantation along with kicking all cats out of the room and drinking mandatory mint tea. I love knowing the REASON.

    • YES. My first shawl was Traveling Woman by Liz Abinante. I followed along blindly, with no idea where I was going—it all magically came together, but this photo tutorial is brilliant!

  • Wouldn’t a stockinette edge curl?

    • Yes, it does! I’ve used it in a couple of designs to create an edge that looks like an i-cord, but it easier to work and doesn’t have any of the issues with tightness that an i-cord can have.

  • This is one thing as a newbie shawl knitter I was able to grasp faster than my more experienced friend (instructions were from the Summer Flies Shawl which were very clear). However, Kate, they resulted for me and many others in a small hump in that part of the shawl. Are your instructions different in some way to eliminate that hump? Thanks!

    • Crescent-shaped shawls often do result in a bit of a hump if you use a garter tab. It’s more to do with the shawl shaping than the tab, but I believe that someone is working on a solution… stay tuned!

      • Yes, there is a knitting scientist toiling away on that one!

  • AHA!!! Thanks for this, Kate!

  • When I do a garter tab, I have the live stitches, then I do a yarn over, pick up along the edge, do another yarn over, pick up the cast on edge. Then when I do the next row I drop those two yarn overs. It seems to really help with the lumpiness issues – I think it loosens those pivot points just enough. And also remember the tip from someone on this blog (not sure if it was Kate or someone else) to do your garter edges in purl stitches to get more stretch along the edge.

    • I do this too. Learned it from PDXKnitterati blog. Really works well.

  • I place a coil less safety pin or removable stitch marker through the cast on stitches before I start knitting the garter tab , this makes it easier to find the stitches when you return to that end. It’s very quick and easy, way less fiddly than a provisional cast on.

    • I do that too! It’s so much easier.

    • Now *that* is a brilliant idea, thanks for sharing!

  • Yes, I always fiddle with these! Next talk about the tension because lots of folks end up with a hump where the garter tab is. Its too tight or loose to match the gauge of the main work.

    • Well, the hump is not as much about tension as you might think… It happens mostly in crescent shawls, and there’s something coming that will help you out!

      • Did this help ever happen? I’ve searched the site, and I can’t find anything.

      • Ooh, I can’t wait! I swatched all sorts of ideas once to try to get rid of “the hump” on a crescent shawl but got nowhere. (I did produce a range of shapes reminiscent of mustaches!) I believe I tried throwing in extra increases in the rows where the dip starts (to bring the dip up, rather than the hump down). I am intrigued to see what great knitting minds will come up with to solve this.

    • This is great info! Thank you.

      Susan Rainey of The Rainey Sisters also has a great solution for crescent shawls that she developed using a wider garter tab. (Doesn’t work on triangular shawls). See lv2knit’s Ravelry project notes on her Day-of-the-Week shawl (pattern is Sweet Dreams).

  • I’d like to save this article but there’s no “save” flag icon?

    • You’ll need to sign in. Then come back and it’ll be there.

  • Disregard my previous comment… I wasn’t logged in!

  • Just last night I cast on (twice) for the Woodlark Shawl which uses a garter tab–I so wish I had waited one more day. This tutorial is really helpful. Thanks, Kate!

  • Thank you, Kate, for the “why” of garter tabs. I’ve done them lots of times, but never took the time to understand about the gap that would arise. I’ve learned something today, woo hoo!

  • Just tossing this into the mix: on the Pressed Flowers Shawl, which is a triangular mosaic shawl with center increases at the top as shown here, Amy Christoffers has you cast on provisionally, and knit the whole shawl. Then at the end, you come back, undo the provisional cast-on–2 stitches on each side of the center, and GRAFT THEM TOGETHER. Close the gap, so neat and pretty.

    I didn’t quite understand why she did this until I saw your first photo in this article!

    • As I am about to start that very shawl …. that makes perfect sense.
      Though I always somehow screw up my provisional cast-on. One day it will unzip, because one day I will do it right.

  • CO 3 sts with larger needles in CC1, using long-tail method. Place a removable sm in each of the 3 sts. This will make it easier to pick up them up later on. I found this method on a pattern by Oceane on Ravelry and it is really so easy. You just pull up on the stitch marker and the needle slides right in.
    Hope this helps someone. I tried it with a 3 stitch cast on and was shocked how well it worked. Now it is all I use.

    • I am going to try this with my next shawl. thank you.

  • Thanks, Kate! This explains so much.

  • Wonderful … the clearest and cleanest explanation I have seen in years of knitting garter tabs.

    Can Kate explain the difference between this type and the “y/o” version that i think I once did from Evelyn Clark’s “Knitting Lace Triangles”?

  • Thank you so much for this explanation! I have long been confused about how to pick up the stitches, so this is *super* helpful and just in time for an upcoming project.

  • I’ve knit a few shawls, but never saw the need for the tab. (Still don’t, it IS fiddly.) I can’t remember seeing the little “v” that the tab fills in. Your explanation is excellent. Thanks for that.

  • This is great. I actually like the way it looks with a missing section, but it’s nice to have someone explain how to avoid it when desired.

  • “Some clever knitter, at some point” — the first time I saw a garter tab cast-on for a shawl was in patterns by Evelyn Clark. She may not have been THE first, but she was certainly one of the first. (And speaking of Evelyn Clark, she may also have designed the first single-skein shawlette of the modern era: the Swallowtail Shawl, published in Interweave Knits, Fall 2006.)

  • I getting ready to CO for the Expression Fiber Arts “Peacock” shawl and was looking for someone to give me more ideas to “hide” the Center Spine increases, and your Post popped up. Brilliant, and explained so well for the reason behind the Garter Stitch CO. Do you have any ideas for how I may changed the YO into something that is hidden. Here is the shawl so you can see what I mean. Thanks so much, Ginger

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