We've already learned how to do basic cables with the aid of a cable needle, and that wasn't too bad; it turns out that the cable needle is just a tool for holding onto stitches while you rearrange them. However, it is one more thing to hang onto while you're working, and one more thing to keep track of while you're not, and manipulating it does slow things down a bit, so it'd be nice to be able to do without it at least some of the time, and that's why we're going to talk about how to cable without a cable needle.
When working cables with the extra needle, you do some rearranging, then work a few stitches, then some more rearranging, then finish knitting the cable. When working without a cable needle, in most cases, you will do all the rearranging at the beginning, and then do all the knitting at once. This contributes to the efficiency of the method, as does not having an extra tool. However, cabling without a cable needle is not for every circumstance. It becomes more difficult to do as the width of the cable increases, and for very wide cables (such as those with 10 or 12 total stitches) may be more trouble than it's worth; also, because in most cases it does involve stitches being off the needle for a second, it may not be suitable for very slippery yarns.
Here's the basic method for doing a basic cable without a needle: leaving the stitches that make up the first half of the cable untouched for the moment, stick your right needle into the stitches that make up the second half of the cable; pull the left needle out of all the cable stitches at once, which results in the second-half stitches sitting on the right needle, and the first-half stitches dangling in midair; put the left needle tip back into the first-half stitches; slip the second-half stitches from the right needle to the left one; knit across all stitches.
Let's translate that from the abstract to the concrete by looking at how you would do a 6-stitch cable twisting upward to the left. With the needle method, you'd slip three stitches to the cable needle, hold them in front, knit the next three, put the first three back on the left needle, and knit them. To do the same thing with this method, it works like this: ignoring the first three stitches, go behind them and put the tip of the right needle into the back of the next three stitches; pull the left needle out of all six stitches, which leaves the first three stitches dangling in front of the right needle; use the left needle tip to pick up the three loose stitches; slip the three stitches from the right needle to the left one; knit across all six stitches. Wendy Johnson has some nice pictures of this process here.
Some things to note here:
- Where the needle method involves holding the needle in front, the needleless method involves going in from the back; this is because you're manipulating the other half of the stitches. That should be fairly simple to understand, but because cable abbreviations often use front or back to specify the direction of the cable, it's important to keep straight that these abbreviations are assuming the use of a cable needle, and if you're using the needleless method, you'll be going in from the opposite direction.
- To make the whole thing with the loose stitches less scary, hold onto them: after you've inserted the right needle into the second-half stitches, reach down and pinch the bases of the first-half stitches with your right thumb and forefinger or middle finger, before you pull the left needle out of all the stitches. This takes the tension off those stitches and keeps them from wanting to run downward, so it's easy to pick them back up with the left needle tip.
- As with the needle method, all of this slipping should be done purlwise; you don't want to be turning any of the stitches to the other orientation, only moving them with respect to one another.
There are, of course, other methods for getting this done; Grumperina has an alternate method where the first half stitches are merely slipped out of the way, and the dangling-in-midair step is performed after the second-half stitches have been knit. I find this a little less elegant than getting all the rearranging over with at once (obviously this is a matter on which opinions may differ), but because the dangling stitches are the ones that have already been knitted for the current row, this method may put a little less stress on them and be a little easier to accomplish in a more slippery yarn, as they are not being pulled on by other stitches also being manipulated.
For those cables involving only two stitches, Ariel Barton offers an additional solution, as incorporated in her lovely Cable Net sock pattern. For a cable spiraling to the left, the two stitches are individually slipped knitwise, which reorients them, and then the left needle is inserted from right to left and the right needle removed -- this maneuver, which is the opposite of slipping two stitches together knitwise, changes the orientation back to the original, but at the same time reverses the order of the two stitches, so they have effectively simply swapped places; they are then both worked normally. For a cable spiraling to the right, the two stitches are slipped together knitwise, and then are passed back to the left needle, which both reorients them and changes their order. Because they now sit in Eastern orientation, they are worked through the back loops to avoid twisting. Two-stitch twists, where a single knit stitch moves over a single purl stitch, are worked in a similar manner, except that the knit is knitted and the purl purled. Simple, and very elegant!
What about more complex cables, such as those with an axis stitch? Not only can these be done without a cable needle, it may be less complex to do so. For example, there is a lovely cable that can be done on 2x2 rib, where two of the knit ribs change places, while the purl rib between them continues straight up the center. Because both knit ribs need to cross in front of the purl rib, this cable cross is complex to do with a cable needle; the version which spirals upwards to the left actually requires two cable needles, so that the two stitches of the first knit rib can be held to the front while the two purls are held to the back. To do the same cross without a cable needle, one uses two rearrangements, instead of two extra needles: first, the two stitches of the right rib are crossed in front of all four of the remaining stitches, and then a second rearrangement is done on only those four, so that the left rib crosses in front of the two purl stitches. When both rearrangements have been done, so that the stitches which began as 6-5-4-3-2-1 now sit 2-1-4-3-6-5, they are worked by knitting two, purling two, and knitting two. Any cable can be broken down and done in this manner, although there is probably a point at which the mental gymnastics outweigh the physical ones of the other method.