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.
In the MDK Shop
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.