Well, we've had a nice long colorwork series -- admittedly, a bit longer than I'd truly intended it to be in terms of time, but sometimes life happens, and hopefully it was worth the wait. Now, what about some texture? I've got it in mind to start here with the basics of cables, and then in subsequent posts we'll get to working without a cable needle, designing with cables, some of the texture stitches that substitute for cables, and then we'll wind up by talking about individual twisted stitches. Sounds good, I hope -- let's get started!
Cables are, fundamentally, just stitches knitted out of order. Typically, if you have stitches sitting 4-3-2-1 on your left needle, you'll knit them in the order 1-2-3-4; when you're cabling, however, you might knit stitches 3 & 4 first, and then stitches 1 & 2 -- this causes one column of two stitches to cross over the other column of two stitches, and produces the twist of the cable. There are refinements, such as how many stitches to work, how to get them out of their original order, and in what manner to cross them, but at their heart, cables really are just that simple.
Cables usually are done with columns of stockinette (all knit stitches on the RS of the work), and these are generally set on a background of some other type of stitch, most often reverse stockinette (all purl stitches on the RS of the work); setting them off in this way is not mandatory, but it's definitely the most common way in which cabling is done. Typically, cable crossings are done several rows apart, and on rows where no crossing is going on, the pattern is essentially ribbing, often with somewhat irregular ribs. Because of this, cable directions very frequently employ the "work the stitches as they appear" instruction for either the WS rows or for all rows in which no twisting is going on, so if you haven't mastered that, or need a refresher, you may want to review this post, where we discussed how to execute that.
Here's how you'd execute a simple 6-stitch cable, with an appearance of twisting upwards to the left, using a cable needle. Work up to the right edge of the group of 6 stitches to be cabled. Take your cable needle, and slip the first half of the stitches -- three of them -- to the cable needle; you'll want to slip them purlwise, as the individual stitches in a cable are not twisted. Move the cable needle in front of your work, and let it dangle there. You should not need to hold onto it; if it's so slippery that it tends to fall out of the stitches, find a different cable needle. Knit the second half of the cable stitches -- again, three of them. Pick up your cable needle, and slip those stitches back to the left needle, again purlwise, and making sure they're in the same order they were originally in before you put them on the cable needle in the first place. Knit across these stitches also, and your cable is done; continue on with the stitches to its left.
A basic cable, then, consists of two groups of stitches: the first group, held on the cable needle, starts further to the right and ends up further to the left, while the second group starts further to the left and ends up further to the right. The cable above appears to twist to the left, because the group of stitches on the cable needle was held in front of the work and therefore ended up on top of the other group, so their right-to-left directionality is the one that's apparent to the viewer. To make a cable that appears to twist to the right, you reverse this by holding the group on the cable needle to the back, which puts the other group of stitches on top, so their left-to-right directionality is the one that's obvious.
Continental and combined knitters, who hold their working yarn in the left hand, sometimes experience some confusion trying to figure out where the cable needle and the working yarn belong in relation to each other when the cable needle is in back of the work. The thing to remember is that you want the working yarn to go smoothly from the last stitch that's been worked to the stitch you're about to work, without getting wrapped around the reserved stitches: slip the stitches to the cable needle, put them all the way to the back with the working yarn crossing in front of them, work the second group of stitches, bring the cable needle in front of the working yarn, return the stitches to the left needle, and work them. This is generally not a problem for English-style knitters, whose working yarn is over in the right hand minding its own business, but should they find themselves getting tangled up, the same general rule applies: go straight from the last stitch you worked to the one you're about to work.
What type of cable needle to use is a matter for your personal preference; there are many types. The U- or J-shaped variety are good at hanging down out of the way, and also can be conveniently hooked on the knitting when not in use (or elsewhere -- many a knitter has inadvertently gone out in public with a forgotten cable needle hooked on her ear or in her bra); the "flying bird" variety is also decent at staying out of the way, and is easier to knit directly off of rather than returning the held stitches to the left needle. Straight wooden cable needles may get in the way a bit more, but rarely fall out of the stitches (especially when they have grooves), and are likewise easy to knit directly from. You may notice that these look a great deal like DPNs, and indeed one certainly can simply use an extra DPN as a cable needle. One can also use pretty much any other substitute on which stitches can be temporarily parked -- paper clips, coffee stir sticks, and pencils are popular tools with which to make do. And, of course, as we will discuss in the next post, one can do without the cable needle altogether in many circumstances. Try things out, and see what works for you.
A common variation on the cable is the twist, wherein one of the stitch groups being moved around consists of one or more knit stitches, and the other of one or more purl stitches. With this type of twist, if the purl stitch group is the one placed on the cable needle, it is always held to the back; if the knit stitch group is the one placed on the cable needle, it is always held to the front. This type of twist is invariably done on a reverse stockinette ground, and gives the effect of the column of knit stitches raised up from and moving across the ground; it is frequently encountered in pictorial knitting, such as this twining trees pattern, adapted from a similar pattern in Barbara Walker's Charted Knitting Designs: A Third Treasury of Knitting Patterns. There is another type of twist, a mock cable rather than a true one, where one performs a decrease and also works one of the stitches in the decrease by itself, which produces a more prominent slanting stitch and can be used on a stockinette, rather than reverse stockinette, ground; we'll talk more about those when we get to the various mock cables, but for now, just know that for purposes of this post I'm talking about the truly cabled variety.
Cable abbreviations are not completely standardized, so you'll need to pay attention to how the abbreviations are defined in your pattern. Most commonly, however, they are given in the form (C or T)(number)(F or B), where C or T indicates a cable (all knits) or a twist (combination of knits and purls), "number" indicates the total number of stitches involved, and F or B indicates whether the group on the cable needle is held in the front or the back; for instance, in this system of nomenclature C6B would indicate a 6-stitch cable, with the 3 stitches on the cable needle being held in the back. Sometimes, "L" for left is used in place of F, and "R" for right in place of B, indicating the direction of apparent twist rather than where the needle is held. Typically for a cable, an even number of stitches is involved, and exactly half are placed on the cable needle; a twist may have an odd or an even number of stitches, and the group placed on the cable needle will be either all the knits or all the purls, whichever begin in the position furthest to the right. Because there is a rule of thumb for how many stitches go on the cable needle, it's not necessary to specify that separately. A cable abbreviation which departs from this rule should clearly indicate this, but watch out -- occasionally a 6-stitch cable may be abbreviated as C3F, with an intended meaning that three stitches are placed on the cable needle, and the involvement of the other three stitches implied rather than stated. This is fairly obvious in this example, since cables usually involve even numbers of stitches; it's less obvious in the case of something like a "C4B" abbreviation, which generally would be a 4-stitch cable but could be an 8-stitch one if this less-common nomenclature is used. Pay attention, and think about what you're being asked to do -- if your setup row involved 8 knit stitches between purl columns, then chances are you're looking at an 8-stitch cable and not a 4-stitch one, for instance.
That's the basics of cables, and they're not too hard. If you'd like to give them a try, here are some patterns you might look at:
- The Irish Hiking Scarf -- a nice basic cable pattern, with plenty of practice and an attractive result.
- Hugs and Kisses (XO) afghan square -- just one square makes a nice dishcloth; cables are great for scrubbing.
- Basketweave afghan square -- this is what happens if you stack cables going opposite directions, with no purls columns between.
- Also, the twining trees pattern linked above as an example of pictorial knitting.
If you'd like to try something a bit meatier (not really difficult, but you'll definitely need to pay attention), check out these free cable patterns from The Girl from Auntie; the double increase can be a bit tricky if you've never done it (once you've got it once, it'll make perfect sense), so there are pictures of how to execute it here.
Edit: I have pointed this out before, but this is a worthwhile place to point it out again -- Eunny Jang has a great tutorial on "Unventing a Cable" that's helpful to furthering your understanding of how cables are put together, and how cables are charted.
Next up: cables without a cable needle!