How to knit traveling cables
Do cables frighten you? Do you panic every time a stitch comes barreling down the tip of the knitting needle and off the edge? Have no fear, fellow knitters; Amy is here to overcome your fear of both phobias….
In knitting, cables are created simply by knitting stitches in a different order than they present on the knitting needle. Seriously! There is no new technique to learn beyond knit and purl. The greatest part about cables is that they make non-knitters think you are a genius. Straight cables typically have a background stitch (often reverse stocking stitch), and a different pattern within the cable (usually stocking stitch) that gets twisted at regular row intervals.
A traveling cable uses that background pattern as part of the cable stitch, so that the cable does not just have to go in a straight up-and-down line in your knitted fabric. This opens up possibilities to make the ropes of the cable travel across the body, or to just take several smaller cables and crisscross them so that they look like intricate nautical knots. Either way, traveling cables are fun.
Making a straight cable twist to the left involves holding the first stitches on the needle in front of the work, knitting the next few stitches, and then picking up the held stitches to knit next. To make a cable twist to the right, you hold the first stitches behind the work, knit the next few stitches, and then knit the held stitches after that. Traveling cables work the same way, but the actual knit-and-purl orientation is different.
Traveling cables are usually written in an iconic enough way where you can see how the strands are supposed to go, like this:
The slant tells you which way the cable will twist when you look at it, so the one on the top will twist to the left. The numbers indicate the number of stitches in front and back, so on the top one, it’s three to the front, two to the back. The two in the back are background stitches. Unlike straight cables, too, markers will not help you very much, because they will keep moving. By the way, the point where the ropes appear to cross each other in the photo above? That is one straight cable in the middle of a traveling cable…you are literally just crossing the ropes with no background.
To “travel” a cable to the right using the examples above, meaning it moves diagonally up the fabric and to the right, you will stop knitting two stitches before the stocking stitches.
Place the two purls in the back of the work by slipping them off the needle (you can use a cable needle to hold them if you prefer), knit the three knit stitches, and then bring your yarn to the front to purl the two held stitches.
To “travel” a cable to the left, knit to the stocking stitch portion and hold those stitches in front of the work. Purl the next two stitches, and then knit the three held stitches. On the wrong side, knit the knits and purl the purls. You will not end up with a staircase; the stitches will relax from being knitted in pattern over two rows like this instead of just one.
You really only need to remember Right In Back, Left In Front. If you ever get confused as to which way you should be crossing, remember that the purl stitches always cross to the back.
Also, the number of stitches in the cable determines both the thickness of the rope, and the angle of the slant. If you have four knits and one purl, this will slant more than three knits and two purls.
Something to keep in mind: if you screw up a straight cable (like I did last week), you can just rip the cable down to where needed and pick it back up stitch by stitch. To repair a traveling cable, you have to rip back where it originated. In other words, if you twisted a three-stitch cable incorrectly six rows ago, and you notice this weird straight part instead of a nice and smooth diagonal rope, you need to rip back six stitches and six rows, because the cable originated three stitches to the left of where you currently are on the needle. Eeps!
After the first couple of rows, your cables may just be logical to you. If not, just be in compliance with your pattern because unless you are designing, someone has already done the counting for you. All you have to do is follow instructions (I just made that sound so easy). But they are really not that challenging; you just have to try! If at first you don’t succeed, rip it out, make a baby hat or dishcloth, and pick it up later!
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Last updated: July 14th, 2016.