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Yes to cables!

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

You know that cabling is merely rearranging your stitches before knitting them, but you're still intimidated. Maybe you've cabled a hat or knit a shawl with a cable element, and you'd like to tackle a sweater? Or perhaps you've knit a sweater with cables, but you'd like to refine your cables. Either way, you're ready to elevate your game.


A cabled sweater seems like an insurmountable commitment

You want a cable sweater but worried you'll cast on, get mired, and put it down for two years? I've done that!

To get some momentum and keep it, try choosing a design with an all-over repeating cable pattern, or that's straightforward columns of repeating cables. Your goal is to find a pattern you can memorize while swatching so you're not tethered to your chart (hello knitting in the curbside pickup line). Simple twists, honeycombs, or horseshoes are perfect. Finding a sweater that has cable elements on limited components will also help you keep your momentum.

Dealing with a cable needle is fussy and annoying

The solution for this is to ditch the needle whenever you can. Makenzie from Hanks and Needles has a great video tutorial here (and companion blog post here) (PS, she's having a cable KAL the month of Feb, peep the details in the Go Further below).

Every time you put your work down, you lose your place

It seems like I should know by eye when it's time to cable, but I'm always second-guessing myself! When I first started working cables I spent a LOT of time ripping back.

My first trick for this is to track my rows religiously. If I'm cabling on the 7th and every following 10th row, for example, all I have to do is keep an eye out for 17, 27, etc. If I've made a 'map' of my pattern to keep track of row-by-row shaping, I'll circle the cable rows, and then I check off each row as I work it.

But sometimes I lose track! That's when you'll need to read your knitting. Y'all know I adore Patty Lyons, and she has a great tutorial here on how to read the rows from your last cable cross. If you're confused looking at the front, flip your work over - I find the back is often easier to read.

If you're still learning to read your knitting, you can try one of the following:

  1. Before you work the next cable, take a picture (try taking one of the front and one of the back). If you get lost later, you can refer back to it to visualize what your work will look like when you reach your next cable row.

  2. Use a ruler to measure your work to get a baseline.

  3. Place a stitch marker in the reverse stockinette or a stockinette part of your pattern when you work the cable row, where you can easily read it later.

A woman wears a frosty blue cardigan with an allover ribbed cable pattern.
Coming soon: one cable pattern, endless drama

In a few days, I'll be publishing a testing call for this cable sweater. The cable is worked across a ribbed fabric to create lots of depth; the cable itself is uncomplicated (8/8 crosses right and left, all stitches knit). The purl bumps created by the cable row are easily read on the back of the work.

Technical Improvements

Choose the right yarn

Intermediate knitters can probably intuit how a different fiber (cotton vs. wool vs. alpaca) or different weights (fingering vs. worsted) will impact their project - but the sneaky element in cabling is density.

Two years ago, I decided to spin enough wool for a sweater. I'm an inexperienced spinner, and I ended up with a VERY dense yarn. The resulting sweater is almost five pounds - so heavy that it deforms itself and is only suitable for bundling up next to a campfire - assuming I have room in the car to pack it!

Although long or wide sweaters may rely on a light, lofty yarn to keep from stretching to the floor or smothering the wearer, cropped garments may need the weight of a dense yarn to hang and drape properly. The key is a balance between silhouette, yarn size, and yarn density. If you're substituting yarn, compare the weight of the sweater per the pattern and the weight of the sweater using your substituted yarn (the ball band will tell you the yards and grams so you can calculate grams per yard, and multiply that by your size's yardage).

A sweater in-progress worked in rustic, dense, light gray brown handspun wool.
This sweater is virtually unwearable.

The dreaded loose left stitch

Noticing this phenomenon and addressing it can elevate your knitting, and not just when you're working cables. Often, knitters' leftmost knit stitch before a purl is looser than the stitches around it, resulting in a wobbly and floppy column. Master Knitter Heather Storta covers multiple ways to address this in her video tutorial on Tension Issues: Enlarged Left Knits here. Cleaning up these stitches will straighten out your cables and your ribbing and knit/purl textures.

Binding off across cables

Cabled fabric will always be narrower than the same number of stitches worked in stockinette because the crosses condense the fabric. This can create a problem at your bound-off edges that, if not addressed, will cause those edges to flare. If you want your shoulders, underarms, and necklines to match your schematic, you need to reduce stitches as you bind-off. Bind off two or three sts as normal, knit two together, and bind that stitch off. Experiment with the bind-off on your swatch to see how many stitches you need to decrease as you work across.

Two cable swatches in creamy white. The one on the left flares dramatically at the bind off, the other maintains it's width.
Regular bind-off vs. working decreases across the bind-off.

Go further:

  1. Makenzie from Hanks and Needles is hosting a cable knit-a-long the entire month of February. You can find out more here.

  2. One part stitch dictionary, one part pattern book, Norah Gaughan's Knitted Cable Sourcebook: A Breakthrough Guide to Knitting with Cables and Designing Your Own is a constant source of inspiration. Norah's sweater Deliciosa, published by Brooklyn Tweed, is at the very top of my non-design queue for 2021.

  3. You know I have a Pinterest board for this (it's here)!

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