I've seen a lot of questions lately on a couple of topics. The first is ribbing -- a lot of people are noticing that the stitches in the last knit column of each knit rib are loose, and wondering if there's anything they can do about that. The second is also loose stitches, but in cabling, and this time it's the first purl that seems to be the culprit.
As you might have guessed from the fact that I'm addressing these together, the problems are related. In fact, they're the same problem, really -- cables are, effectively, fancy ribbing, and the same factors that make them "fancy" also make this issue manifest just a bit differently than it does in straight ribbing. We'll look at the issue in ribbing first, and then talk a little bit about why it shows up in a different way in cables.
It turns out that the problem and the solution are both somewhat related to the asymmetrical YO issue. Theoretically, if you were to take away the row of stitches below, the current row of stitches on your needle would just be a spiral of yarn around the needle, in the direction that's counterclockwise if you're looking at the tip of the needle, regardless of whether those stitches were worked as knits or as purls. That's theory, however, and practice is often just a tad different. In practice, it matters where the yarn starts out. In practice, as you form a purl stitch that follows a knit stitch, your yarn has to come from behind the fabric, all the way under the right needle, and around it a full time until it's in front of the right needle again; this ends up being a longer path than the yarn takes when forming a purl stitch that follows another purl, since there the yarn starts from the front side of the fabric. A purl stitch that follows a knit stitch uses more yarn, just as a YO between a knit and a purl does.
So why is it the last knit column that ends up appearing loose instead of the first purl column, since that's where the actual extra yarn is coming in? I'll confess I'm not 100% sure; however, I do have a theory (you knew I would, right?). In June Hemmons Hiatt's The Principles of Knitting, she states that when you're working decreases, the stitch that's to the right will end up slightly bigger than the one that's to the left -- this is why it's so hard to get your left-slanting decreases to match the right-slanting k2tog, even when you're working them in a way that structurally should be a mirror. The reason for this phenomenon, as I understand it, is the interplay between stitches as you work. As you move stitches onto the right needle, there's tension between the needles on the stitch you've just worked, which is just below the right needle; normally, you don't see the results of this, because every stitch gets an equal tug in its turn, but when you do a decrease, you're moving two stitches at a time, and the one further to the right is insulated from this tightening process, so it ends up looking looser. I think something similar goes on with ribbing; there's extra yarn in the space between the knit and the purl, so the knit stitch doesn't get tightened down as it normally would. There's not a lot of extra yarn, true, but it's not a big tug, so I think it's enough to offset it.
So why are cables sometimes somewhat different? Again, I'm not completely sure; however, it's worth noting that often, what people take to be the purl stitch is actually the bar between the knit and the following purl, and that's where the looseness is usually occurring for those who have this issue. My operating theory on this one is that the cabling process produces a counteracting stress on the stitches, pulling on them from the right side instead of the left, and that this tends to draw out the bar between the knit and the purl stitch, emphasizing any looseness that might be there. This theory finds support in the fact that for many people the looseness is more noticeable with more frequently crossed cables -- it will be more apparent in a 4-stitch cable crossed every 4 rows than in the same cable crossed every 8, for instance, because the more frequent crossing puts more tension on the knit stitches to act as a group. It probably also makes some difference that the final knit column is not, by the nature of cabling, always the same column, which tends to mask looseness there since it's not always affecting the same group of stitches.
Now that we've looked at the causes, what are the solutions? There are a couple of fairly simple ones, and probably there are others out there that would also be workable.
One solution is to simply tug the extra yarn back out of the space between the knit and the purl: after you've formed the first purl, give a tug on the working yarn until you feel a slight release as the excess yarn between the two stitches slides through. With a bit of practice, this will become a very natural motion, almost an unconscious habit; the reason for doing it after completing the purl stitch is that that stitch will then hold the yarn in place, whereas if you just try to yank the yarn tight when forming the purl stitch, it will usually slip back.
The other simple solution is not to let the extra yarn get in there in the first place; form your first purl by wrapping the yarn clockwise, as is done with combined knitting. With this method, the yarn goes over the needle from back to front, making less than a full circuit, rather than going more than a full circuit. It can actually result in the purl column ending up tight instead of the knit column ending up loose, but tightness in ribbing is less noticeable than looseness, and more attractive even if it's noticed.
It helps, also, to work your ribbing tightly. Many patterns recommend dropping a needle size or two; experiment with dropping even more than that, and see what you think of the results. When the stitches are tight for the yarn being used, the effects of the interplay are lessened, and often this results in an improvement. Obviously there is a limit to the degree to which you can do this, but it's a fruitful area for experimentation.
For ribbing that you've already worked, don't worry too much about the looseness; over time, with washing and wearing, the stitches will become more equalized. You can hurry this process somewhat with some aggressive blocking -- tugging the ribbing vertically will encourage the excess yarn to redistribute.