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“… the unaccustomed terms of back twist and forward twist made themselves gradually at home in my brain, the oiled wool slipped through my fingers, “… the sun beat down upon it all, and thus my dream began. Not quite a dream, but a strong feeling that my fingers knew quite well what they were about, and welcomed the chance to be about it again after a long lapse of time. I knew then that I had been through this before, with younger fingers in a ruder boat, rocked on the salty summer waves of the Atlantic off the Irish coast…” – Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter’s Almanac

A knitted cable is accomplished by knitting the stitches out of order. In other words you make a simple cable with four stitches by knitting the second two stitches first then the first two stitches second. This can make your knitting resemble ropes, braids or loosened knots.

Cable patterns usually consist of stockinette stitches on a reverse stockinette background in order to “raise” the cables off the surface, giving them an embossed appearance.

Cables can be made by utilizing a special tool called a cable stitch holder

… an extra double point needle or - as I’ll be showing you a bit further on - with no special tools at all!

Let me say right away that once you learn the basic method of creating a cable – getting those stitches knitted “out of order” – no cable will be too complicated for you. Not even these…

Morrigan [designed by Jenna Wilson, from the book No Sheep for You]
Knit and photographed by Laura Prescott

The only difference between creating this masterpiece and working the simple 6 stitch cable I’m about to show you is that the former takes a bit more patience. (Well, patience, good organizational skills and a hefty dose of willpower.)

A few more facts about cables:

1. Cables make a dense fabric that is significantly less yielding than regular stockinette. This means that more ease is required in a heavily cabled garment than in one without cables.

2. Cables “pull in” laterally which affects stitch gauge significantly. In other words a heavily cabled sweater will have you casting on many more stitches than the same sized sweater knit in stockinette. (Of course, this also means that you’re going to need more yarn!) Here you can see the tendency of cables to pull in at the point where the cable was made:

3. Since cabled garments are quite dense, they require a yarn that is NOT. The yarn needs to have a certain springiness or “bounce”. Wool has this bounce naturally, while things like 100% cotton or silk do not. A cabled sweater knit in 100% cotton -- which tends to be dense and inelastic -- will be enormously heavy and stretch lengthwise rather than hold its shape. (If you are interested in knitting in non-animal fibers, I cannot recommend our beloved editor’s book No Sheep For You highly enough.)

And now down to business. We shall be making a simple 6-stitch cable with both a front cross and a back cross.

Front cross cable

A “front cross” cable simply means holding the stitches that are “waiting” to be knit in front of the work. Front cross cables are said to twist to the left, which simply means that the stitches on top in the finished cable seem to veer off to the left.

A six-stitch cable consists of 6 stockinette stitches. Some stitch dictionaries will say a 6 stitch cable is made on a panel of 10 stitches – this includes the two purl stitches that are customarily on either side of the 6 knit stitches in the center.

Knit to the beginning of the center group of knit stitches.

Slip the first 3 stitches (A) to a spare double-point needle (or cable stitch holder) and hold these stitches in front of the work.

Ignoring the three stitches being held on the extra needle for the moment, knit the second 3 stitches (B).

Then knit the three stitches that were being held on the extra needle.

Voila! One front cross cable completed. Let’s do one back cross cable before we get sneaky and throw out our cable holding needle, shall we?

Back cross cable

The entire process is the same, except you’ll be holding the needle with the waiting stitches at the BACK of the work, like so:

Back cross cables always twist to the RIGHT.

The loose purl stitches issue

One of the most common problems with cabling is that the purl stitches immediately following the crossing can be quite loose due to the strain of the crossed stitches.

This can, in extreme cases, make the cabled stitches warped and leave small open areas to the left of your cables. One way to correct this is to make it a habit of giving the yarn an extra tug while working the first couple of purl stitches…

…to make sure the purl stitches sit nice and snug up against the cable.

Another option is to twist the purl stitches by knitting them through the back loop.

Cabling without a cable needle

Now that we’ve got cabling down, let’s go one step further and talk about cabling without that extra needle for holding the waiting stitches. It does require a bit of faith – faith that your knitting won’t immediately unravel completely when you pull your needles out. A bit of faith in your ability to pick up stitches if they did drop is also helpful.

Front cross cable without a cable needle:

Knit to the stitches to be cabled. Slip them ALL to the right-hand needle as if to purl (one at a time or as a group, either way is fine.)

Insert the left-hand needle into the stitches that would otherwise be held on the extra needle from the front…

… and then – take a deep breath - remove the right-hand needle from all the stitches, which will leave half the stitches kind of hanging in space. It will be ok. They won’t go anywhere if you keep your head and work quickly.

Reinsert the right-hand needle into the needle-less stitches:

Now pull your needles apart enough to slip all the stitches that have not been knitted, one at a time, from the right-hand needle to the left-hand needle.

What you have accomplished here is the cable cross without having knitted it yet. The only step left is to knit those stitches! They are all going to seem very tight, but press on and you’ll wind up with a lovely front cross cable without having to hunt through your knitting junk drawer for your cable needle.

Back cross cable without a cable needle:

Again, knit to the stitches to be cabled. Slip them to the right hand needle and then reinsert the left hand needle into the stitches that would otherwise be held on the extra needle but this timefrom the back and into the back loop of the stitches

Pull the right-hand needle out and reinsert it into the needle-less stitches, which will now be in front.

Slip the un-knitted stitches from the right-hand needle to the left-hand needle and knit over all.

And now you have a finished right twist cable!



Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts
A Treasury of Knitting Patterns by Barbara G. Walker



Theresa is a 30-something nurse slash IT consultant who keeps an irregularly updated blog called Bagatell.

She had the supreme pleasure of meeting Amy this fall during Amy’s trip to Norway.


editor's note: the pleasure was all mine, as evidenced by the death grip I have on Theresa's shoulder.