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As a knitting teacher, I’ve noticed an interesting thing about cables: there’s a two-phase learning curve.

Newer knitters are often intimidated by them. After all, they look wonderfully complicated, and the instructions can be a little off-putting. There are all these new terms, and a cable pattern is often a knitter’s first foray into charts.

But once you try them, you realize that they’re entirely straightforward. As long as you can find the glossary for those pesky terms and symbols, you’re golden. Slip 2 stitches to a cable needle? Easy! Knit 2. I can do that! And then knit 2 from cable needle. Done. No problem!

And with that, you forge ahead, fully confident.

But after a while, the cable knitter’s confidence can drop. There are subtle challenges in working cables: counting rows, making sure you’re twisting and crossing the right way, and keeping them tidy.

I’m here to help!

How to Count Rows

There are always even rows/rounds between cable turns—sometimes one, sometimes more. If you’re not a careful counter, it’s pretty easy to lose track of where you are or how many rows you’ve worked.

Here’s how you check.

Stick the cable needle under the cable twist, like so:

Stretch the work out a little, and count the horizontal bars that run between the stitches of the cable and the purl column beside it. Count the bars sitting above the cable needle.

I can see six here—one for the actual turn, and then 5 even rows above it. Time for another cable!

In the MDK Shop
Time for Norah Gaughan cables! Thanks for your Shop purchases. They keep everything going here at MDK.
By Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne

Go the Right Way

Cable terminology is frustratingly inconsistent.

Some instructions use the L and R formulation, e.g. C4L and C4R. It’s reasonably safe, if you see this type of cable name, to assume that if there’s an L, the cable is going to swing to the left.

And if there’s an R the cable is going to swing to the R.

I like this style, since it allows me to check that what I’m doing is correct.

Other instructions use F and B—for front and back. In this case, you’re being told not which way the cable turns, but where to hold the cable needle. It’s helpful in one way—a nice reminder how to work the cable—but doesn’t help you check that you’ve done it right.

The good news is that there’s an easy mnemonic device: If you can’t remember how to work a cable, go Right Back to the instructions. If the cable needle is held to the back, the cable leans right. (Conversely, if the cable needle is held to the front, the cable leans left.)

A Side Note About the Numbers

Some standards put one number in the cable name, as in C4R above. That’s generally the total number of stitches in the cable. Some split it up, e.g. C2/2R. That generally is used to communicate the number of stitches in the two halves—that is, one of the numbers corresponds to the stitches slipped to the cable needle; the other corresponds to the stitches worked off the left needle. And I’ve seen some patterns use just a name, e.g., FC (for front cross). (Barbara Walker, I’m looking at you.)

The takeaway: Never assume what a cable abbreviation stands for. Always look up the stitch definition in your pattern’s glossary. Don’t try to guess. That way lies mistakes, and sadness.

Watch the Yarn Position

It’s pretty easy to get your yarn all tangled up when moving the stitches around and managing the cable needle.

If the yarn gets inadvertently wrapped around the working needle or the cable needle, you’re essentially making a yarnover – which can result in an extra stitch mysteriously appearing, or just a very loose strand of yarn.

This is simple to prevent: Before you slip the stitches to the cable needle, make sure the yarn is in the appropriate position for the next stitch. For example, if you’ve just worked a purl, and the cable is all knits, move the yarn to the back before you move the stitches.

Keep Them Tidy

Even when you’re careful about yarn position, you might have noticed that the stitches at the edges of your cable are a little baggy, a little loose. This isn’t uncommon, and it’s not really surprising—after all, stitches are being stretched out and moved around.

This is a sweater I made years ago. You can see that where there’s a cable turn, there are distorted and stretched stitches. I’ve circled a few of them, but pretty much anywhere there’s a cable turn, you see a little distortion. The stitch at the edge of the cable looks slightly off, a little larger.

It may or may not be really terrible or noticeable in your work—it depends a fair bit on your natural knitting tension, the characteristics of the yarn, and the frequency of the cable turns. Wait until after you’ve washed (blocked) the piece, and then see how it looks. (Oooh yes, *yet another* argument for swatching and washing your swatches.) If it doesn’t bother you, then there’s nothing you need to do.

If you look closely at a commercially made cable-knit garment, you’ll likely see this same effect. It’s not a mistake, it’s just a side effect of the cable turn.

As with the handknit sweater above, I’ve circled a few cables, and you can see a little distortion wherever there’s a cable turn. You can also see that the strand that runs between the purl column and the knit stitch at the edge of the cable is longer.

If you do find that this unevenness is noticeable, and it bothers you even after washing, then there’s an easy way to tidy it up.

If truth be told, the problem isn’t entirely the fault of the cable turn, it’s also partially caused by the stitches around it.

If you read my column about yarnovers, you’ll remember that there’s a problem when you’re transitioning between a knit and a purl stitch: when you move the yarn from the back of the needle to the front, you’re adding a bit of extra yarn between the stitches. That yarn gets taken up into the knit stitch, making it larger than a standard knit stitch.

To compensate, work the following purl stitch the short way—wrapping under rather than over. The yarn doesn’t travel as far when you do this, making the purl stitch too small. When you block, the purl will borrow yarn from the neighboring knit stitch, averaging them out to the proper size.

Wrapping yarn the short way—under the needle instead of over it— makes for a snugger purl stitch.

Just remember that when you’re working over that stitch on the next row/round, it will be seated incorrectly on the needle—left leg forward–so you’ll need to work it through the back loop to untwist it.

Untwist that puppy, er, purl Stitch, on the next row.

You might have noticed a similar effect in ribbing. The edge stitch of a larger rib can look a little sloppy, for the same reason. And the same fix works!

Next column, I’m going to talk about how to ditch the cable needle entirely. (Editor’s note: WHAT?)

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32 Comments

  • Well, I have seen the images and they are very helpful. I will try to do that untwist thingy to make my stitches more neat. And it turns out I’m making a baby hat with cables and just finished the ribbing for the beginning, so there are some cables in my future. In a complicated table pattern, I keep track of my rows with pen and paper. I will set up different columns for the different types of cables that will be in that pattern.

  • Images came through for me, on Safari. Thank you, thank you for the tip about wrapping backwards for the purl st; I’ve had a sloppy gap there – in ribbing and cables – for years. Learn something new every day!

  • So helpful, thank you!

  • It has always bothered me to have enlarged knit st on cable. I just have to retrain my brain to do that east European purl consistently. Thanks for reminder.

  • Love your article! I am a very visual person and having a hard time “wrapping ” my head around doing the wrap. Could you maybe do a video sometime in the future? My ribbing would appreciate it.

    • Hi Judy, I think if you get some knitting in your hands and make a few purl stitches, you will see what to do. Wrap it the “normal” way (over the needle) for a stitch or two, and then try to do it by wrapping under the needle. I think you’ll quickly see the way to do it.

      • I agree with Judy. Any chance you could do a video so we could see wrapping the purl “under” the needle? It would be very appreciated.

        • I really like this video explanation. At the very end, she also discusses the specific topic here: using a clockwise-wrapped purl (“Eastern purl”) only on the first purl stitch as you’re transitioning between ribs, or from a cable to the background. This is basically using a Combination knitting style for only that one column of stitches.

          https://youtu.be/5WP2MlICOWU

  • Kate is, as always, brilliant.

  • Thank you for all this helpful info I have a question about the very top picture – the green one showing two rows of cables right and left leaning. It looks as if the right leaning is quite a bit tighter than the left. Can you comment on that please?

    • I noticed that, too, and wondered it.

      • “Wondered *about* it” is what I meant to type.

  • Great information. I never thought to use something like a cable needle as a counting aid. I always just eyeball it. Not always accurate!

    • Agree! This method is much better.

  • Would the technique to ‘wrap’ the stitches work when knitting M1R or M1L? I’m currently knitting something where between the M1s there is a slipped stitch and it leaves a hole, even when I pull the working yarn tight. It will be better when blocked (it’s a shawl) but just curious. Thanks!

  • Another life changing tips. I can’t wait to count and wrap my purl the opposite way.

  • I am constantly losing my place when knitting cables. Thanks for the tip on how to count the rows. Those Canadians are so clever!

  • BRILLIANT tip about using the cable needle to help count rows. It also gives you a consistent place to store the cable needle when not in use! (Can’t tell you how many of those suckers have been eaten by my knitting chair because I laid them down in the wrong place!)

  • This is such fantastic information!! Thank you!!

  • I learned to knit the European/Swedish style holding the yarn in my left hand, and can’t really translate to the American style. Are there any website the approach knitting in European style?

    • I’m not sure if you’re asking about purling the “short way” or one of the other tips, but if it’s about the purl trick:

      I just posted another reply with a link to a video I really like that demonstrates both ways of wrapping purls (counter-clockwise, a.k.a. “Western” and clockwise, a.k.a. “Eastern” or “the short way”) AND shows how that looks when controlling the yarn with the left hand (like you do) or the right hand (like Kate does, above).

      I can’t seem to link to my comment, so I’ll repost the video link here and hope I don’t get caught in a spam filter!

      https://youtu.be/5WP2MlICOWU

  • those errant stitches have always bothered me – I am obsessive enough that I tug them into shape , yes, all of them. Your method is, I am sure, far superior.

  • I just finished a cabled hat where I was constantly losing track of the row count–despite using a row counter. This will help tremendously. Thanks!

  • Love the row-counting tip! thank you for that.
    To tighten the left edge of a cable, I was told a long time ago to knit the last K stitch of the cable in the back loop. That simple twist seems to tighten the transition to the purl stitch nicely.

  • SO helpful! I hope I can remember to go “Right Back” to the instructions in my next cable project. Also looking forward to trying the short purl fix. Goodbye frustration and sadness! Thanks bunches!

  • So helpful to have your tips in one place. I’m bookmarking this article, thank you!

  • This answers my pesky problem of whether to count the row of the actual turn. I can really get myself hung up on issues like this.

  • Thank you v much for tip re wrapping wool around needle clockwise in purl stitch after a knit column to take up slack & even out tension …… I’m doing a double rib stitch sleeve in the round so when I come to next round do I just purl the stitch tbl (wool around needle anti clockwise as usual) or do I also do that stitch clockwise tbl??

  • Thank you, this has helped me a lot.

  • Thank goodness regarding loose or distorted stitches. I thought it was my knitting. I will indeed not panic, continue on knitting, and block at end of swatch.

  • Just FYI, if you are a left-handed knitter, a cable back leans to the left, and the cable front leans to the right.

  • Just found this article and found it extremely helpful! My issue was the “baggy” stitch, and I know now how to fix it! Thank you so very much for easy-to-understand directions! A God-send just when I needed it!

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