Understanding Cable Chart Symbols

Most knitters learn to use charts without too much difficulty, but even knitters who are comfortable with charts may stumble when it comes to interpreting charted cables. Let’s break down the different parts of basic cable symbols and look at them within the context of the chart. Once you understand the information contained in a cable symbol, you’ll easily distinguish between similar symbols and you won’t need to refer to the key.


How are charted cable symbols different from other chart symbols? Many charted symbols appear in one box and represent either a single stitch worked (such as a knit or purl stitch) or an action, such as a decrease, that is worked over multiple stitches but results in a single stitch. But cable symbols represent both an action and a result that span multiple stitches.

Unfortunately, there is no universal standard for knitted stitch charts. However, most chart symbols are meant to represent what the stitches will look like when the actions are completed, so it’s usually possible to figure out the type of cable that is being worked simply by looking at the chart.

The trick is (literally!) to read between the lines.

Anatomy of a Cable Symbol

Let’s examine the symbol for the rope cable, one of the most basic cables of all. Swatch 1 shows two rope cables—one crossing right and one crossing left.

Chart 1 shows these cables represented in charted form. Looking at the chart, we can see that each of the cable-stitch columns is flanked by two-stitch columns of reverse stockinette stitch and that the stitches in the rows above and below the cable symbol are worked in stockinette stitch. We can also see that each cable symbol is six stitches wide (three stitches crossing over three stitches).

Some knitters run into trouble when trying to interpret the diagonal lines of the cable symbols, but there is a logic to them. Chart 2 shows just the cable symbols and the rows immediately above and below them, with arrows added to show how each group of three stitches crosses over the other group of three stitches.

Each cable symbol has two sets of two parallel diagonal lines that cross each other. The diagonal lines of the stitches that cross behind the other group will only be visible where the stitches don’t overlap. The number of stitches at the base of each pair of diagonal lines tells us how many stitches are crossing in front and how many stitches are crossing under. The lean of the topmost pair of lines indicates the direction of the cable cross (left or right). In Chart 2, the red arrows indicate that three stitches cross to the right and to the left over the three stitches that are indicated by blue arrows.

Interpreting the Chart Key

Every chart is accompanied by a key that explains how to work each symbol. Sometimes (but not always), cable symbols are also given a label that is an abbreviated description of the type of cable that the symbol represents. For example, “2/2 RC” stands for “two over two right cross (or cable)” and is a cable that is worked over four stitches, with two knit stitches crossing to the right over two knit stitches. “2/2 LPC” stands for “two over two left purl cross (or cable)” and is a cable that is worked over four stitches, with two knit stitches crossing to the left over two purl stitches.


How to Work a Cable Crossing

The first step of working a cable crossing is to slip the first group of stitches onto a cable needle (cn) (affiliate link) and hold these stitches either in front (for a left cable) or in back (for a right cable) of the work, depending on what the cable symbol is indicating. The second group of stitches is then worked from the left needle. The stitches that were held on the cable needle can either be worked directly from the cable needle or slipped to the left needle and then worked.


The right-hand side of Swatch 2 shows a stockinette-based basketweave cable worked over 10 stitches with 2 purl stitches at each side.

The chart for this pattern (Chart 3) is four rows high, with crossing rows on every right-side row. Row 2 of the 10-stitch cable has two knit stitches and two left-leaning 4-stitch cable crossings. Row 4 has two right-leaning 4-stitch cable crossings and two knit stitches.

Uneven Cables

Cable crossings don’t always involve an even number of stitches divided in half. The left-hand side of Swatch 2 and Row 2 of Chart 4 show three right-leaning cables that all span four stitches but are divided in different ways: 1/3 RC, 3/1 RC, and 2/2 RC. Note how the diagonal lines in the chart symbols frame a wider or narrower span, depending on the number of stitches crossing in front and in back.


So far, all the cables we have examined have been stockinette-based and all the cable symbols have been solid white to represent knit stitches. These cables have all stayed within a vertical column of stockinette stitch. But sometimes cables travel across a background of purl stitches, and working these types of cables will involve crossing purl stitches behind knit stitches. As a result, the cable symbols must represent both knit and purl stitches.

Swatch 3 shows a traveling cable that consists of an intertwining pair of two-stitch stockinette ropes on a background of purl stitches. The number of knit stitches in each rope remains constant at two, but the number of purl stitches in each cable is either one or two stitches, depending on how far the rope travels on any given crossing row. When the two ropes meet each other, one crosses to the left on top of the other.

Chart 5 shows that the traveling cable needs five different cable symbols: two that represent two knit stitches crossing over two purl stitches (to the left and right), two that represent two knit stitches crossing over one purl stitch (to the left and right), and one that represents two knit stitches crossing to the left over two knit stitches. The purl stitches in the cable symbols are black.

Stitch Symbols Above and Below the Cable Symbol

The stitch symbols directly below the cable symbols on the chart indicate how the stitches will appear on the needle before the cable is worked. The cable symbol shows you how the cable stitches are to be worked (whether the first group should be held in front or in back and whether the stitches should be knitted or purled), and the stitch symbols above the cable symbol show how the stitches should be worked in their new configuration.

For the traveling cable in chart 5, the purl stitches above and below the cable symbol correlate with the black background stitches of the cable and the knit stitches correlate with the two white stitches. The knit and purl pattern is maintained before and after the crossing. However, this will not always be the case.

Changing Stitch Type During a Cable Crossing

There are times when the back-crossing stitches need to change from knit stitches to purl stitches, or vice versa, in order to add or eliminate knit stitches as the traveling ropes move. Swatch 4 and Chart 6 show an example of such a cable. Row 8 of the chart has two 4-stitch knit cables, but if we look at the stitches directly below the cables, we can see that two purl stitches have become two knit stitches after the cable crossing. On Row 26, two knit stitches are changed to two purl stitches.


The incredible amount of information contained within a cable symbol allows you to work from the chart without constantly referring to the key. Chart symbols may include additional embellishments (to indicate knitting stitches through the back, for example). Even though symbols can vary from publisher to publisher, the minor differences are easy to understand given the context of the symbol within the chart and to confirm from the key and instructions.

Roxanne Richardson is a certified master handknitter living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she designs and teaches. Find her weekly videos on YouTube.

The featured image depicts the Ebb Tide Mitts by Cheryl Toy from knitscene Fall 2019. Image by Harper Point Photography.

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