Technique Tuesday: All About Cable Knitting

tips tricks and techniques
Good morning! It’s Tuesday, January 14, 2014 and a balmy (but drizzly) 50 degrees.

cable knittingToday we’re going to talk about cable-knitting. Do you like to cable knit? Are you attracted to those cool, but kind of intimidating, designs that have cables all over and create a fabric of texture and light that is simply amazing? What can you do to improve the final product so that the cables all go the right direction … twist at the right spots … make a cohesive whole?

Well, read on MacDuff!

HISTORY: The background of cabling in knitted garments is as fraught with romantic stories as most things Celtic – the symbology, the mystical beginnings, the mysteries. It’s fascinating to see how adamant is one knitting historian’s “proof” versus another’s. The facts are obscured by the wish for many to keep the romance and the mystery alive. Stories of sweaters knit to aid in identification … in talisman-like symbols knit into garments of loved ones .. in the overall magicalness of it all. Suggestions have been leveled that the intricate cabled garments of the British Isles, imitate the Celtic knotwork shown in the Book of Kells.

But what are the facts?

Sketches, pictures and knitted items only date back slightly more than a couple of hundred years. Cabled knitted garments came onto the knitting scene at some point in the mid-18th century – first seen in the Scottish fishermen’s ganseys, jerseys and guernseys. Aran knits (from the Irish island) came onto the fashion scene later, mainly as a source of income from the tourist trade. Imitating the ropes used in their spouses’ vocation, women created sweaters that could be worn under the wading pants, sweaters that were insulated because of the stitches used: the tightly worked knits and purls and the cables that basically doubled the fabric. Aran knits (from the Irish island) came onto the fashion scene later, mainly as a source of income from the tourist trade. The skill with which these historic items were made lends some credibility to the belief that these islanders had been knitting this way for a while … but surely not further back than the early 18th century.

All cabling is based on the following maneuvers

  1. slip x amount of stitches to a holder
  2. hold stitches out of the way – either to the front (for a left-leaning cable) or to the back (for a right leaning cable)
  3. work x amount of stitches from the main work
  4. work stitches from the holder

That’s it … that’s all cabling is. Honestly.

Here are the “rules” of cabling (always remembering that rules are meant to be broken):

  • worked on a background of reverse stockinette (all purls on right side)
  • cable stitches are stockinette (knits on right side)
  • any number of stitches can be twisted; usually you will work double the number of rows as stitches that will be twisted (so, a 2×2 cable would mean 8 rows worked between twists)
  • working the cable over a k1p1 rib will give you reversible cables
  • incorporating purls into the cable will allow for the cables to “pop”

As I mentioned above, rules in knitting are meant to be broken: change it up a bit and see what happens when your cable is all purls. A soft, wavy fabric is obtained by working all-knit cables on an all knit background. An uneven number of ropes makes a braid while the individual ropes can be different thicknesses (eg, 2 crossing over 4 stitches) or even different stitches (a seed stitch rope crossed with a all-knit rope makes a fascinating fabric that is highly textured). More frequent twists of the cable will make for a denser fabric (great if you’re working a carpet) … less frequent twists will make for a drapey fabric (fabulous in a big-yarn sweater).

Here are some tips for making your cable-knitting really sing:

  • understanding charted cables will allow you to create your own unique cable combination; further, being able to read a charted cable allows you to “see” what the cable should look like:
    sample cables charted

    sample cables charted

  • use slightly larger needles than you would normally use for the weight of yarn — eg, size 8 or 9 for worsted weight rather than 7 or 8. This will allow the cables to be knit slightly looser so as not to lose the elasticity and flexibility of knitting
  • ALWAYS swatch … even if you don’t swatch for anything else, ALWAYS swatch for cable knitting. The cabling pulls in much more than you would think so make sure you make a sizeable swatch, using the different cables indicated in the pattern. This does a couple of things for you: allows you to practice the cables on a smaller piece (cabled sweaters can have more than 200 sts … a swatch may have 50!) and gives you a cap, pillow cover, or bag to match the final garment. ALWAYS swatch!
  • if you are just starting out with cables — find a pattern that is worked in the round: a hat, bag or other simple piece (the cables can be intricate if you’d like). My Classic Cabled Clutch (or pillow top) or Drifting Leaves hat or Barra’s Blanket and Cap are all good examples of cabled patterns in the round. This allows you to always have the right-side facing you so that you can SEE the cables as they’re worked — fixing any mis-twisted or forgotten cables quickly. And of course, you don’t have to mess with seams!
  • check your knitting constantly to check for mistakes: mis-twisted, twists too early (or late), knits when you should have purled are all easy to fix within a round or two of the error. To fix these, slip the errant stitch panel (the whole 8 sts of a 4×4 crossed cable) to double-pointed needles (dpns), putting needle-stoppers to keep the other live sts on the working needles. Pull out the dpn, and unravel the round or two of just those sts. If the problem is a mis-twist, slip a dpn thru half the cable sts, holding to either front or back as it should be, work the sts and then the cabled sts. It is so much easier to just fix the few stitches, than to rip out the entire round(s). But rip if you must because you WILL always see that error, even if no one else does. Trust me on that one.

I’ll do I’ve done a follow-up post listing the best cable-knitting books to have in your library. For now, if you want further help with cable-knitting, check out:

  • How to Knit a Cable – 9 steps …
  • You-tube videos abound for how to knit cables; check out Eunny Jang’s
  • Knit Picks has a great tutorial on basic cable crossing …
  • Ravelry groups to join: Cable Lovers, Cable 411, Celtic Cable Knitters, Celtic Art Lovers

Enjoy the journey … and please come back and post comments and pictures of the your great cabling adventures!sig block

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