Cables are one of the most iconic knitting design elements. Many people picture braided twists of stitches when they think of knitting. They add texture, volume, and visual interest to knitted work and can dress up any project. They aren't just for sweaters, but can be a great element on gloves or mittens, a hat, or a headband. Maybe not for the sole of a sock, though.
To many beginner knitters, cabling can seem like a scary, highly advanced technique not to be attempted. Cabling, though, isn't difficult at all. If you can slip stitches, knit, and purl, you can make a cable. Half the knitting patterns out there involve cables, so letting yourself believe that cables aren't just possible, but actually pretty easy will open up a world of new project ideas for you. (Here on Craftsy, we have over 1000 patterns that feature cables.)
Reduced to its simplest terms, a cable is nothing more than a section where you work your stitches out of order. Working your stitches out of order makes them twist and braid around each other, creating that raised cable look. Say I'm working a 3 stitch cable. I would knit stitches 4, 5, and 6 from my left hand needle before coming back to knit stitches 1, 2, and 3.
When you get to the point where your cable is to start, you slip the stitches you are skipping onto your cable needle (cn), then come back to them a few stitches later. Which way your cable twists depends on where you hold your cable needle with its suspended stitches while you are working the stitches after them. For a right twisting cable, hold the cable needle behind your working needle. To twist left, hold the cable needle in front.
That's it, all there is to it; that is the heart of cabling. Once you understand the basic concept, the number of cable designs you can create seems infinite. There are some commonly used cables, like the braid cable, open cable, wave cable, and honeycomb. But there is no limit to how pattern designers can incorporate a cable element into a pattern.
You can add in a simple cable effect by twisting one stitch in front of another without even needing to employ a cable needle. You can have that effect only repeat for a small section of your overall project if you choose. Or you can make a honeycomb cable, like this honeycomb hat, where the entire fabric appears covered in cables. A cable can be a design element around a neckline, like this turtleneck. And different cable styles can be mixed and matched, like this adorable baby sweater with its multiple cable styles.
The usual practice is to knit the cable itself in stockinette stitch while knitting the background in reverse stockinette. This makes the cable stand out both visually and physically. But there are no wrong answers. Try experimenting with a different background stitch, like garter or seed stitch.
Many specific cable types cover only 8-15 stitches, so they're easily added as a panel insert to any project. A braid cable, for example, is an effect that looks like a hair braid. It is its own stripe, if you will, on your project, either vertical or horizontal. If you know how to create the braid cable, then you can easily add the cable in. If you are knitting a plain, stockinette bag, for example, you can dress it up by knitting a braid cable right down the center. Just pick out a section of your bag where you can add in a vertical panel and make your cable. Cables are often demonstrated in patterns with a chart to help you visualize the direction of the twist and which stitches go where. That chart can then help you visualize the cable as a stand-alone panel.
When adding a cable panel to a project, be sure you pick a spot void of increases or decreases. You only want to add a design panel where your project maintains a consistent height and width. You will also need to think about the change in width between a cable section and a non-cabled section. Because cables involve crossing stitches over each other, they require more yarn and cover less width than the same number of stitches would without cables. If you are modifying a pattern to add a cable element to it, you will need to account for that difference by adding stitches.
As for the tools you'll need, the only new item you must have is a cable needle. There are a variety of styles of cable needles. Many knitters prefer a cable needle with a U shape to it, rather like a hook. The U helps hold the stitches on the needle and it's easy to keep it out of the way. Some cable needles look more like a flattened bell curve. I have a set of 3 bell curve shape needles in varying thicknesses. With a cable needle, you don't need to worry about having one in every needle size. You don't need a size 9 cable needle for when you are working on size 9 needles; you just want a cable needle that's close enough. It isn't necessary to have any particular type of cable needle. Strictly speaking, it isn't necessary to have a cable needle at all. I have a good friend who is an experienced knitter who often uses whatever double point needle is closest. All you're really doing is holding a few stitches off to the side for a moment, so what you hold your stitches on doesn't matter that much.
Once you try cable knitting, you'll be sorry you weren't always adding cables to your knits. Now that you know how easy it can be, if you're ready to take your knit cable skills to the next level, be sure to check out Craftsy's classes: Custom Cabled Pullovers, Creative Cabled Necklines, Celtic Cables, and Mastering Cable Design. What kind of cable is your favorite?