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The first time you work a cable, it does seem pretty weird, and possibly even a bit scary: “What do you mean I have to take stitches off the needle?”

But once you’ve tried it, and seen the result, I think you’ll agree that the impact is much greater than the effort.

Skill Set: Beginning Knitting gets knitters started with left- and right-twisting 2 x 2 cables that teach all the basics. Lucky for us, there are literally thousands of variations of cables to explore.

Three cable motifs by Norah Gaughan for Field Guide No. 9: Revolution. From top: Elaine’s Capelet, Liberty pullover, and Calligraphy Cardigan.

From 2 x 2 twists to Norah Gaughan’s brilliant motifs, all cables work the same way: you’re knitting stitches out of order. That’s it! Really!

When you slip stitches to your cable needle …  

… you’re just setting them aside, putting them on hold.

If you’ve got 6 stitches, and you put the first three on a cable needle, this means that instead of knitting them in order, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … What you’re doing is knitting them starting with stitches 4, 5, and 6.

Let’s focus on two key cable elements.

Front or Back?

If you hold the resting stitches at the back, the cable turns to the right.  (This is easy to remember, think, “I’ll be right back!”)

If you hold the resting stitches to the front, the cable turns to the left. (“I’ll be left at the front door” is not so catchy, eh?)

How Many Stitches?

There are no rules or limits to the number of stitches over which you can work a cable. The tiniest ones, a two-stitch cable, have one stitch crossing over another.  

And you can have giant ones, crossing 8 or 10 or 12 stitches over another 8 or 10 or 12. 

Eight stitches crossing over eight! (Looking especially cablicious in MDK Atlas)

The more stitches in the cable cross, the more the cable pulls the fabric in, which can make really great textured effects.

Tip: Generally, when we talk about a cable, the number we mention corresponds to the total number of stitches—both sides. So a 6-stitch cable is 3 stitches crossing over 3.

All of these samples show all the stitches in a cable being knit … some cable turns introduce purl stitches, for even more variations!

Working Cables

Top tips for working cables:

  • This might seem counter-intuitive, but I like to use a cable needle that is slightly larger than my knitting needle, so that it doesn’t slip out of the stitches while they’re waiting.
  • It’s important to make sure that your cable needle doesn’t twist around when it’s resting. That is, you want to knit them in the order you slipped them to the needle.  
  • There are many different shapes and styles of cable needles—straight ones, v-shaped ones, curved ones. Which you choose is entirely personal preference. Heck, in a push, you don’t even need a special tool—you can just as easily use a bobby pin or a golf tee!
  • My favorites are the white and blue ones in that photo, shaped like a shepherd’s crook. (You can see it in action in these photos, too.) I love this style for several reasons. Because one end is shorter than the other, it helps me keep the stitches in order. I always slip the stitches onto the short end, and then slide them down to the long end and knit off that. 

  • When the stitches are waiting, I move them along to the bend, and then the cable needle tucks nicely out of the way.
  • And when I’m not using it, I can tuck it in the neck of my t-shirt when I’m knitting, so I don’t lose it!
  • Most patterns use abbreviations for the cable “name”—for example, C6R—rather than spelling out the full instruction every time. Always consult the pattern glossary for the details; there’s no need to guess what the abbreviation means.

Look Ma, no cable needle!

You read that right. You can work some cables without a cable needle. Check out my MDK Techniques in Depth article here.

Do the twist

Want to play with some cables? Have a look at these gorgeous accessories designs from MDK Field Guides.

Thea Colman’s Appleseed Mitts for Field Guide No. 8: Merry Making


Norah Gaughan’s Ironworks Beret for Field Guide No. 9: Revolution shown here knit up in one skein of MDK Atlas, shade: Mouse.


Cables form this elegant motif on Carol Feller’s Arcade Cap for Field Guide No. 14: REFRESH. You’ll find Carol’s Arcade Cap how-to video here.

Save it for later. Here’s how to tuck this article into your MDK account with one click.

About The Author

Kate Atherley is a teacher, designer, author and technical editor. She’s also the publisher of Digits & Threads, a magazine all about Canadian fibre and textile arts.


  • Wondering if there are tips for working cables in the round?

  • Interesting to see the “shepherds crook” cable needles. My favorite is from a fiber festival where someone was selling large hand carved “tapestry needle”/anything tools. They’re unique and lovely and a little twisty-turny and unfinished wood so they grip the stitches nicely.

  • Thank you, again, Kate. Your special teaching touch takes the ‘scary’ out of yet another technique. In addition, pointing the way to Carol Feller”s cable arches video (which I had been too scared to even watch) showed me what a fun technique that is! I LOVE binding off – and right in the middle of a hat to boot! Luckily I own the REFRESH Field Guide so I will probably postpone a massive all-stockinette palette cleanser to play around with her hat. I had purchased this Field Guide with blind faith that one day I would get up the nerve to tackle both that hat and the Trellis Top one day. Looks like that day has come!

  • The two recent articles on cables are terrific. I’d love to see one more on how to refine cable knitting. Specifically, on how to avoid distorted stitches at the edges of cables, and on how to estimate how much a cable will pull in to reduce the width of the knitted piece.

  • Yet another great column from you. I don’t care how long you’ve been knitting, there’s always things to learn.

  • Learned something today! Thanks for the “right back”tip! My favorite needle is the shepherd’s crook also!

  • I don’t find making cable difficult BUT my big problem is counting the rows between the twists. short of clicking a row counter, how do you tell when it’s time to twist? How do you count rows?

    • I usually put a locking stitch marker on the first stitch of the cable and count from that.

  • Thank you for this, from a fellow Torontonian. I have been feeling that cable needles were old school but I have great difficulty doing cables without the extra needle (all the twisting and tight stitches were aggravating my arthritis). I use anything handy, like a pencil if necessary, but I prefer the curved cable needles you mentioned. As always, your articles are the best!

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