A Guide to Reversible Knit Cables
Who doesn’t like cables? Cable sweaters are a perennial favorite among knitters. Cables are not difficult to knit, and their intricate-looking textures are intriguing. But when you want to use them in, let’s say, a scarf or shawl, the sad fact is that the back of a knit cable isn’t particularly presentable. With reversible knit cables, however, the cables look good from the back as well as from the front.
WHAT’S A CABLE?
A knit cable is made up of a few stitches crossing over one another and changing positions. In other words, the stitches are not worked in order. Instead of working 1-2-3-4, you knit stitches 3 and 4 first, then 1 and 2. To get to stitches 3 and 4, you use a cable needle to move stitches 1 and 2 out of the way. All of these stitches are usually worked in stockinette stitch. There are only two kinds of cables, left and right, and they are made by holding the stitches on the cable needle either to the front or back of the work.
Knitters often say that cables are nothing but ribbing. If you work stitches primarily in stockinette, with reverse stockinette stitch on either side of the stockinette stitches, you do essentially have ribbing.
Swatch 1 is basically a k4, p4 rib with a cable in the k4 area. In any rib, the vertical lines, whether they’re stacks of knits or stacks of purls, are known as wales. You could consider every cable in a cabled fabric to be a wale. As long as it has distinct wales, a fabric is essentially ribbed. Notice how the stockinette areas stand out and the reverse stockinette areas recede.
Usually, the backside of a cable is not very presentable. This puzzled me. Consider the analogy of crossed fingers. Cross your index and middle fingers. Turn your hand over and look at it from the other side. Are your fingers still crossed? Of course! So why isn’t a knit cable equally visible on both sides? In most cables, the crossing is only visible from the front side, which is in smooth stockinette. On the back, the lumpy, bumpy purls keep the cable from being visible, as you can see on Swatch 1.
Any reverse stockinette areas on front side become stockinette on the back, which offers you an opportunity to create a new cable on the backside. If you work a cable within each wale, whether it’s with knit stitches or purl stitches, you will get cables on both sides and the piece will be reversible.
To create a reversible cable, you need at least two stitches. The smallest cable possible is one stitch over another for a two-stitch cable as seen in Swatch 2.
Why do we cross only on the knit stitches? We could cross the purl stitches when they face us as well, working alternate rows of ribbing, crossing the knit stitches and then crossing the purl stitches. However, most of us like to actually see the cable as we cross it, and the cable is most visible in the knit stitches. In addition, working all the cables across the row at once creates quite a bit of horizontal compression. For this reason, I like to distribute the crossings between the two sides of the fabric.
As seen in the swatches below, wider cables start to show some activity in the purl sections. Some knitters dislike and others like the extra texture. If you don’t like this effect, stick to smaller cables. Smaller cables also produce a much more elastic fabric than wider cables. The larger the distance a cable crossing spans, the more the movement of the fabric is restricted. For non-stretchy pieces, such as afghans or stoles, wider cables are fine. For pieces that require stretch, such as sock tops or cable sweaters, smaller cables work best.
You can work the same cable on both sides. In these samples, however, the cables are crossed in opposite directions on opposite sides, which lets you see the two kinds of reversibilities. Just as there are two kinds of twins, identical and fraternal, there are identical and fraternal reversibilities. In the former, the back looks exactly like the front. In the latter, the back looks different from the front, but it is still attractive enough to create a reversible fabric.
What if you wanted a larger cable? You can make the ribs wider! The next even cable is a four-stitch cable, which crosses two stitches over two. Thus, you would need a k4, p4 rib. The next larger size is six stitches, or three crossed over three, in a k6, p6 rib. You could also work a k3, p3 rib and an uneven three-stitch cable crossing a single stitch over the other two, or vice versa.
What if you wanted the same cable cross to be visible on the front and back, just as one pair of crossed fingers is visible from both sides? You don’t see the cable on the back because the lumpy purls get in the way of visibility. Logic tells you to use a reversible stitch instead of stockinette, which isn’t reversible. If you turn to garter stitch, however, the easiest and simplest of reversible stitches, you get a bumpy fabric on both sides. What you want is a reversible stitch that looks smooth on both sides. What’s the answer? Ribbing!
Ribs have the advantage of vertical ridges that define the stitches. Knit stitches stacked in columns alternate with purl stitches stacked in columns. The stockinette or knit stitches of one side become the reverse stockinette or purl stitches on the other.
In addition, ribbing can look deceptively like stockinette. Four stitches of k1, p1 rib can look like two stockinette stitches—on both sides. From either side, you see the knits standing out as the purls recede. Cabling these stitches results in a reversible cable, as illustrated by the swatch below.
Now the same cable crossing is in full view on both the front and back. You finally have the equivalent of crossed fingers. The cables also cross in the same direction on the front and back. You’ve created a true identical reversible cable.
Although the cable is really an eight-stitch cable, crossing four stitches over four, it looks like a four-stitch cable, or two over two. This occurs because the indented purls do not show on a given side. Single-rib cables are twice as thick and half as wide as the same cable worked in stockinette stitch. Any simple rope cable pattern can be made reversible by working it in single rib.
Of course, other ribs are equally reversible. Note the differences between single-rib reversible cables (the blue swatch above) and the double-rib reversible cable seen in the green swatch below. Visually, the single-rib cable looks flatter. The double-rib cable looks more dimensional because double-rib wales are more visible than single-rib wales. The double cable also seems more asymmetrical. Compare the right and left edges of the cable. The cable begins with a knitted wale but ends with a purled wale. In single rib, the wales are narrower and not as noticeably different.
Ribbing compresses fabric horizontally. Cables also compress fabric horizontally. Cables and ribbing together really thicken the fabric. I recommend going up in needle size unless you like knitted cardboard. Try swatches in a few needle sizes to arrive at your own personal preference.
Enjoy experimenting with reversible cables—I’m sure you’ll find it engaging! There are enough combination and variation possibilities to keep you experimenting for a very long time with scarves and cable sweaters. For further information on cables and reversibility—plus adding color and texture to cables and a brand-new method for charting cables—check out my book, Power Cables: The Ultimate Guide to Knitting Inventive Cables.