Once Upon a Knit Cable

Cable Knit Sweater

Deborah Newton’s Hedgerow Coat uses a classic rope cable.

I’m itching to do some cable knitting. I have several projects to finish before I’m allowed to cast on something new, but I have two knitting retreats coming up, at which I plan to make some serious progress, perhaps even finishing a couple of things. I have yarn and a pattern all set for a beautiful cabled cardigan, so that’s motivating.

In an old issue of Interweave Knits, I came across this article by the fabulous designer Deborah Newton, and it’s all about the knit cable. I thought it would be fun to share, so read on!

Exploring Cables

My love affair with cables started years ago as I tried to please a boyfriend, one passion inspiring another. I wanted to design a cabled sweater for him, but I was daunted by complex row tracking. I settled on a simple cable that crossed every right-side row instead. I’d never have to think, or count! Still, it was a nice cable, and I planted it in a very simple design. Many years later, the sweater is still worn and admired, and the boyfriend has been a partner for decades.

Despite my initial fright, my first published design was a richly cabled pullover. As a freelance knitwear designer, I spent a lot of time exploring cables: There was, and always is, a spot for a cabled sweater every season, in every line, in every craft magazine. For many years I also sold swatches to Seventh Avenue designers in New York City.

In an effort to keep things fresh, I started designing my own cables. I learned that cables don’t have to be complex to be interesting and that the easy ones can teach even experienced knitters a lot. Starting with a simple cable and methodically trying out all the possibilities inherent in it is a fine exercise for knitters of every level.

I suggest exploring a cable by knitting a series of swatches that build on and branch off from each other. As my inspiration, I chose the classic eight-stitch/twelve-row “rope”-style cable (at right) used in the Hedgerow Coat (from Interweave Knits, Fall 2007). This cable is a standby—smooth, gracefully undulating, and truly ropelike.

Background Choices

One of the first things to consider about a cable is the background stitch. Different stitches can give a cable a more traditional or less traditional look or even create a different texture for the cable itself.

swatches 1-3

Reverse stockinette stitch: This familiar (and traditional) background (purl on right side, knit on wrong side) is the best for setting up a raised cable texture: The natural tension between the knitted rope and the purled background creates a high-relief effect.

Stockinette stitch: A textured allover fabric results when cables are worked on a stockinette stitch (knit on right side, purl on wrong side) surface. Technically, there is no background at all—just smooth ripples where stitches cross. The famous Aran Honeycomb pattern, where stitches in an all-stockinette-stitch surface are crossed closely and frequently, is deeply dimpled. My swatch pattern (swatch 1), which crosses stitches less frequently, is more subdued. I might use this cabled fabric where I want texture that doesn’t distract from the structure of a garment or for a very simple sweater that might otherwise lack detail.

Garter stitch: In swatch 2, I reknitted the simple eight-stitch cable on a background of garter stitch (knit every row). The cable is much less prominent than on reverse stockinette stitch and tends to flatten. Because garter stitch tends to compress more row-wise, the “rope” also looks less elongated than the original.

Reverse stockinette stitch ridges: Breaking up the traditional reverse stockinette stitch background into ridges (alternate two or three rows of stockinette stitch with two or three rows of reverse stockinette stitch) provides a textured foil to a smooth cable. Like garter stitch, this background tends to compress row-wise. It can look whimsical. Here, background ridges and cables have been alternated in a checkerboard pattern (swatch 3).

Crossing Options

The original eight-stitch cable crosses every twelve rows. Changing the distance between crosses and changing the manner of crossing can completely alter the cable’s appearance. Consider the following techniques for altering larger cables or even for customizing a single strand of a more complex cable.


Crossing frequently: In swatch 4, I simply crossed stitches every six rows, or twice as often as the original, to create a compressed and dense cable. It might be interesting to try this technique on a garter-stitch background to see if it retains the same raised quality.

Irregularly placed crosses: Interrupting the smooth twelve-row sequence with an occasional additional cross yields an “eccentric” cable, as in swatch 5. There are all sorts of ways to make irregularly crossed curiosities if you like funky nontraditional effects.

Crossing an unequal number of stitches and/or short-rows: Sometimes a cable lacks depth due to yarn choice. Years ago I designed a modern cabled sweater but was disappointed in the linen blend yarn sent to me. The yarn was very smooth and not springy; the cable was flat and undistinguished. A tip in Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns suggested that for a richer cable, one could cross a large number of stitches over a small number of stitches. This technique helped, but to achieve my desired effect, I also added a couple of short-rows in the larger strand. Both of these techniques are used in swatch 6 for a decidedly raised effect—I crossed six stitches over two stitches and worked additional short rows at the site of the crossing. You can use both techniques to make a cable cross more prominent in any yarn but especially when you use a flaccid or nonstretchy one.

 Knit Cable Basics

  • When one or more knitted stitches are set aside on a cable needle and the next stitches are worked, the reserved stitches are then worked out of order. This cable cross most often forms what looks like a diagonal fold.
  • Depending on whether the reserved stitch or stitches are held to the back or front, the cable crosses, or appears to move, to the left or right.
  • The angle of the cross can vary. It can be either gradual or steep, depending on how many stitches are moved over each other.
  • Any number of stitches can be crossed, in equal or unequal numbers. One stitch over one stitch (often achieved by using twist stitch techniques) can form a fine etched line. On the other hand, crossing a large number of stitches most often creates deep corrugated folds. The effect you want to achieve determines the number of stitches you choose to cross.
  • The smoother and bouncier the yarn, the crisper and more pronounced the cable patterning will be. With a less elastic, more string-like yarn, cables will be less prominent.
  • When you bind off cables, decreasing a stitch or two for every inch of width keeps the top of the cable from flaring.

—Deborah Newton, Interweave Knits, Fall 2007

Well, I’m inspired! How about you?

I couldn’t fit all of the Deborah’s expert advice into this newsletter, so visit the blog for more great cable knitting tips!

This article is from Interweave Knits Fall 2007. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up now so you don’t miss any of the informative and inspiring articles that are coming up in Interweave Knits!


Post a Comment