What Are Cables?
What are cables, exactly? Well, you see how they look like stitches are twisted around or over/under each other? That’s because that’s exactly what’s happening — the stitches are knit just like any other knit stitch, but their positions are moved around on the needle to make the twists. That’s it!
Cables like the ones in the swatch shown are made with knit stitches, and are surrounded on each side by purl stitches (reverse stockinette stitch) to make them pop off the fabric. Cable patterns can also involve different combinations of knits and purls (a little more about this later when we talk about more complex cables), but for these tutorials we’ll be working with knit cable stitches.
For this swatch, we worked all the cables in one color, and then we worked a bit with two colors to better illustrate what’s happening. You normally will not be working cables in two colors (you can, but it’s more advanced) so the colors are only for you to see the front/back or left/right stitches.
How to Work Cables
That brings us to an important thing about cables: all cables are twisted either to the right or to the left, and for this to happen, the first stitch(es) are brought either to the back or to the front of the next stitch(es).
See what direction a twist is going by following the direction of the twist, in the direction of the knitting. This swatch was knit bottom to top, so the cables travel bottom to top. In this example, if a cable is twisting up and to the left (this is an S curve), it’s a Left cable, or up and to the right (a Z curve), it’s a Right cable.
Different patterns may label cables as Right/Left OR Back/Front twists. So this is good to know:
Right = Back
Left = Front
This means if you’re holding the first stitches to the back, your cable will twist to the right, and if you’re holding the first stitches to the front, your cable will twist to the left.
In other words, if the first stitches are traveling in Back, that means the next stitches are in front of them, traveling from left to right, making a Right twist; if the first stitches are traveling in Front, that means they are going over the front of the other stitches, moving from right to left, making a Left twist.
Here are a couple methods to get you started working cables.
Note: Because we are using this tutorial as an introduction to how cable needles and the cable technique works, we’ll be using a cable needle. Normally, a 1-over-1 cable would not need to be worked with a cable needle. If you’re knitting a pattern with lots of 1-over-1 cables, we recommend checking out our tutorial specifically on 1-Over-1 Cables for three examples of how to make them without cable needles.
For our first cable, 1-over-1 Left, we’ll start by slipping that first stitch onto the cable needle. Since it’s a 1-over-1 cable, there is only 1 stitch worked on either side of the twist. That means 1 stitch slipped to the cable needle, and 1 stitch knit off the regular needle.
This is a Left cable, so hold the cable needle to the Front.
Then knit the next 1 stitch from the knitting needle (that’s the yellow stitch).
Now grab the cable needle and hold it in your hand to knit the stitch from it …
… and knit that stitch, just like a regular knit stitch.
That’s it! That first stitch was crossed in front and over the second stitch, traveling in Front, twisting to the Left.
Note: There are different kinds of cable needles, but we prefer the kind pictured or the U-shaped kind, which stay out of your way as you work. Your cable needle doesn’t need to be the same size/diameter as your knitting needle.
Now we’ll do a 1-over-1 Right cable, which means we’ll hold the cable needle to the Back. Start by slipping the first 1 stitch to the cable needle, then hold it to the back of your work, behind the needles.
Knit the next stitch from the left needle while holding the cable needle in the back. Then pick the cable needle back up and hold it up to knit the stitch from it.
Knit that stitch directly off the cable needle, which is coming from behind the first stitch you just knit.
By holding the first stitch to the Back, you’ve just made a Right twisting cable!
Now that you know the basic concept of how cables are worked, we’ll just be doing the same thing but with more stitches! A 2-over-2 cable is made with 4 stitches total, 2 held to either the front or back, over or under the other 2, to make the left or right twist.
Note: Some patterns may label cables in different ways, such as calling these 4-stitch cables, instead of 2-over-2 cables. Once you understand how cables are made, you can read instructions for a cable and know what’s meant to happen, regardless of how it’s labeled.
If you’re knitting a pattern with lots of 2-over-2 cables, we recommend checking out our tutorial specifically on 2-Over-2 Cables Without a Cable Needle for a step by step example of how to make them without cable needles.
First we’ll make the 2-over-2 Left cable twist. Those first 2 (blue) stitches will twist in Front of the second 2 (yellow) stitches to make the Left twist.
Slip the first 2 stitches to the cable needle, and let the needle drop to the front.
Knit the next 2 stitches from the knitting needle.
Pick up the cable needle, and hold it up to knit the stitches from it.
Knit the 2 stitches from the cable needle.
Now the stitches have flipped places; the yellow stitches are now to the right, with the blue stitches twisted in the front to the left. On the next row, you’ll knit (or purl) across those 4 stitches normally.
Now we’ll do a 2-over-2 Right twisting cable, which means the first 2 stitches will be held to the Back.
Start by slipping the first 2 stitches to the cable needle, then let it drop to the Back of your work.
Knit the next 2 stitches from the left knitting needle. As you knit these, the cable needle will just be hanging in the back, not visible from the front.
Grab the cable needle and hold it up to knit from it.
Knit the 2 stitches off the cable needle.
That’s your Right twisting cable! Holding the first 2 stitches to the Back made the second 2 stitches twist up and over, to the right, creating your Right cable. Again, on the next row, just work across these 4 stitches normally.
Most cables you encounter will be worked just the same as the ones we’ve done above. Some complex cables use two cable needles with more than two sets of stitches — we won’t get into those today — but you should be able to follow even these tricky cables by working each step of the pattern as written. Most patterns use cables that have a set of stitches (could be 2, or 3 or 4…) twisting either right or left over another set of stitches, same as what we’ve already done.
The most common variation you’ll find is a very simple one: purling the stitches in the back instead of knitting them. For this, you’ll work the cable exactly as the instructions show above (either with or without a cable needle) but purl the stitches held to the back of your cables, which are the first stitches on a left twist, or the last set of stitches on a right twist.
Another complex type of cable you may find in some patterns is one that incorporates an increase or decrease into the cable stitches. If you know how to work the increase or decrease, and you know how to make the cable, then you’ll be able to follow the steps and make the pattern!
In the middle of this swatch image is an example of another simple use of 2-over-2 cables. The braid style cable is made by twisting 6 stitches total in 2-over-2 cables, one cable twist per right-side row. To work this cable: on a right-side row, work the first set of 4 stitches as a 2-over-2 Left cable, then knit the last 2 stitches normally; on the following right-side row, knit the first 2 stitches normally, then work the next 4 stitches as a 2-over-2 Right cable. The way the stitches are cabled around each other is just like a 3-strand braid (think hair braid!): twist the outer 2 stitches up over the center 2 stitches, first on one side, then the other side, and just keep repeating.
Here is an example of asymmetrical cables — there are 5 stitches per cable twist, so first a 2-over-3 cable was made, then a 3-over-2 cable next time, so sets of 2 stitches are twisting around sets of 3 stitches.
And it’s also an example of two cables worked side-by-side, with no purl stitches or plain stitches between then, which makes a broad, flat cable. Use the same techniques as above, but immediately one after another.
Here, the 3-over-2 Left cable has just been completed. This is worked exactly like a 2-over-2 Left cable, but with 3 stitches on the cable needle held to the Front instead of 2.
Then immediately after that Left cable, a 3-over-2 Right cable was worked. This is the same as the 2-over-2 Right cable, except after holding the 2 stitches on the cable needle to the Back, 3 stitches are knit for the front stitches of the right twist.
To continue on with the above cable pattern, the next right-side row will be knit across normally, and then the following right-side row will be cabled: first a 2-over-3 Left cable, then a 2-over-3 Right cable. You can see in the swatch how the sets of 2 stitches are yellow, and the sets of 3 stitches are blue, so those sets always remain grouped together as the cables twist around.
Now that you understand how cables work, let’s take another look at that complete swatch! Can you see what’s happening in each cabled column? See how as the cable twists travel up, the stitches twist around each other, either to the right or to the left, and you now know that those stitches are twisted in front by being pulled over the front of the other stitches.
A couple of extra things for if you’re NOT working from a pattern. These tips are unimportant if you’re following a pattern, as the pattern will tell you exactly how to work each row. However, if you want to experiment with your own cable ideas, read on if you for a better understanding of the basic “rules” of cable construction.
First, the general rule of thumb for how often to work a cable twist is: work as many rows are there are stitches in the cable for each repeat. Round down for an odd number of stitches (unless you’re working in the round, in which case there’s no reason you need to work cables only on odd or even number rounds).
Here are some examples:
- For a 1-over-1 cable, there are 2 cable stitches involved, so work the cable twist on every 2nd row, which means every right-side row.
- For a 2-over-2 cable, there are 4 cable stitches involved, so work the cable twist on every 4th row. This means after working a cable row, you’ll work 1 wrong-side row, then 1 right-side row, then 1 more wrong-side row; repeat the cable row on the next right-side row.
- For a 3-over-3 cable, there are 6 cable stitches involved, so work the cable twist on every 6th row. So you’ll work 2 plain right-side rows between cable rows, making six rows total in the pattern repeat (3 right-side, 3 wrong-side).
- For an asymmetrical 2-over-3 / 3-over-2 cable, round down to 4 stitches and work the cable every 4th row. Or you may want to try rounding up and working the cable every 6th row, and see the difference between the two options; maybe you’ll prefer one over the other.
- For the braided cable we did above, a cable is worked on every right-side row because they switch sides. So the first kind of cable — 2-over-2 Left over the first 4 stitches — is only being worked every 4th row, and the other cable, worked over the last 4 stitches, is being worked on the opposite right-side rows, also every 4th row.
Another tip to keep in mind is that cables pull in the knitting significantly, as the stitches pull across left and right to twist, so adding cables to a project will significantly affect your stitch gauge. For example, if you know that a hat in the same yarn weight that fits you well has 100 stitches around in stockinette, but you want to add some cables, you’ll need to cast on more than 100 stitches to compensate for the change in gauge and elasticity. Try adding half as many stitches as there are in the cables; so, if you’re adding five 2-over-2 cables (which use 4 stitches each), that’s 20 stitches total in all the cables, so add 10 extra stitches. This math may or may not be perfect, depending on your yarn, density, specific cables … so pay attention as you work, measure your cable pattern gauge as needed, and do what you need to do to get the results you want!