How to knit the cable stitch

A step-by-step tutorial on cable stitch knitting and everything you need to create beautiful Aran patterns, sweaters, etc.

Do you want to knit a beautiful cable sweater or a lovely hat adorned with a Celtic knot? Well, then you need to know how to knit the cable stitch! In this tutorial, I will show you how to knit it and a couple of beautiful patterns you can create with this simple, yet effective knitting technique.

Contrary to what you might think, knitting cables is quite easy. You only have to know how to knit the purl stitch and the knit stitch and that’s it. In a way, they are just fancy rib stitches. The fundamental idea behind all cables is that you knit stitches in a different order.

But, let’s dive right into it, eh?

You will need a special cable needle for the cable stitch. Here’s a nice one for beginners.

a special cable needle used for knitting the cable stitch
A typical cable needle

You can also use a short double-pointed needle, but for beginners, I want to point out that this does run the risk of dropping the stitches. So, buy one of the sets like in the link above. They are cheap and will help you master this technique!

Note: I earn a small commission for purchases made through links in this article.

step by step instructions (+video)

a 2x2 cable stitch swatch

There are probably a million cable variations out there, but 99 percent of them can be reduced to two different stitches. The right cable cross and the left cable cross. If you combine these – especially across multiple rows – you can create stunning patterns (like my cable cowl “Into the Desert”).

My best tip for knitting both of them is to think visually. Look at the picture of the pattern and really think about where the stitches should go. Do they need to disappear in the back or move to the front? Don’t worry so much about learning abbreviations. Once you see the bigger picture, it’s easy to get these right.

Also, it does not matter if you are knitting a 3×3 cable, a 2×2 cable, or any other odd combinations. The technique is always the same and you will be able to follow the very same directions – the only difference is the amount of stitches you slip to a cable needle. For the sake of consistency, I’m going to show you the basic technique with a 2×2 cable and then some fun variations further down below, okay?

Anyways, here we go:

Instructions: How to knit cables

a knitted swatch with the classic cable stitch knitting pattern

The super easy right cable cross is achieved by holding the first stitches on your left two needles in the back and knitting the stitches further down the needle first. Often it is abbreviated with “Cable 4 back” or “C4B” (or C6B if you cross three stitches, or C2B if you only cross two, etc).

Active Time 5 minutes
Total Time 5 minutes

Instructions

  1. Slip the first two stitches on your left needle to the cable needle (for C6B you’d have to slip three stitches). You always slip purlwise. So, point-to-point.


    Slipping two stitches to a cable needle
  2. Bring the cable needle to the back of your work.

    for the right cable cross, bring the cable needle to the back
  3. Knit the next two stitches on your left needle as normal. Try to keep a nice tension so you close the gap without creating any major eyelets (for C6B you'd have to knit the next three stitches).

    right cable cross knitting two stitches with the cable needle in back
  4. Bring the cable needle with the two slipped stitches back to the front (make sure you don't twist the cable needle in the process) and knit the two stitches.

    right cross knitting two stitches from the cable needle
  5. Put the cable needle to the side and continue knitting as normal. Try to keep a very high tension for the next stitches, so you don't create any gaps. The looser your knit and the more you wiggle around, the more irregular your cable will look.
  6. continue knitting as normal after a right cable cross

2) Left cable cross

Once you get the hang of the right cable cross, the left cable cross will be very easy. You knit it in exactly the same way. The only difference is that you hold the cable needle with your slipped stitches in front. In knitting patterns, you will also find Cable 4 front = C4F.

Step 1: Slip the first two stitches to a cable needle.

inserting the cable needle into two stitches on the left needle for the left cable cross

Step 2: Keep the cable needle in front of the work.

cable needle with two stitches in front for the left cable cross

Step 3: Knit the next two stitches on the left needle with the cable needle in front.

knitting two stitches with the cable needle in front for the left cable cross

Step 4: Pick up the cable needle again.

Step 5: Knit the 2 stitches on your cable needle.

knitting two stitches from the cable needle for the left cable cross

Step 6: Put the cable needle to the side and continue knitting (keeping a high tension on the yarn for the next two stitches).

continuing knitting as normal after a left cable cross

Note: In the same manner you can also cross any other combination of stitches. Just slip however many stitches you want your cable to be wide onto a spare needle and cross them. It can also be asymmetrical numbers you cross. Like slipping 2 stitches to the CN but then knitting 3 stitches (or vice versa).

Common cable variations

So, let’s take a closer look at the repeats for the most common cables. Almost all have four things in common:

  • The actual cable is knit with knit stitches.
  • The cable is surrounded by purl stitches to make it pop.
  • You knit in between the rows (so the return row has no further cable stitches, etc); this evens out the cables and makes the transitions a bit smoother.
  • The patterns are not reversible (so they only look good from the right side).

2×2 cable

close-up of a 2x2 cable
Two 2×2 cables next to each other: Left cross on the left and right cross on the right

The typical 2×2 cable is an 8-stitch repeat: [p2, k4, p2]. In every 5th, 7th, or 9th row, you cross the knit stitches in the same direction (can be either a left or a right cable cross). You always cross the cables on the right side – never on the wrong side.

  • Row 1: p2, k4, p2
  • Row 2: k2, p4, k2
  • Row 3: P2, C4F, p2
  • Row 4: k2, p4, k2
  • Row 5: p2, k4, p2
  • Row 6: k2, p4, k2
  • Row 7: p2, C4F, p2
  • Row 8: k2, p4, k2

If you alternate between right and left cable crosses, you get a sort of meandering snake-like pattern. You can also add a couple of additional rows in between the cable crosses if you want a less twisted cable.

3×3 cable

knitting on a swatch with a 3x3 cable stitch

A 3×3 cable is knit in the exact same way. You simply add more knit stitches in between your purls. E.g. [p2, k6, p2]. In the same manner, you can create even bigger cables. You should know, however, that the bigger you go, the tighter your fabric will get. So, I don’t recommend going bigger than 8 stitches for normal cables.

The bigger your cables are, the more rows should be in between the cable crosses. Otherwise, your fabric might start to pucker.

The repeat for the above swatch with a 3×3 cable is:

  • Row 1: k2, p4, k6, p4,k2
  • Row 2: k6, p6, k6
  • Row 3: k2, p4, C6F, p4,k2
  • Row 4: k6, p6, k6
  • Row 5: k2, p4, k6, p4,k2
  • Row 6: k6, p6, k6
  • Row 7: k2, p4, k6, p4,k2
  • Row 8: k6, p6, k6

Celtic knot variations

The into the desert cable cowl knitting pattern
My cable cowl with a couple of Celtic knot variations.

A normal cable just crosses knit stitches but nothing speaks against crossing into purl stitches either. For a Celtic knot, you are basically knitting a 2×2 rib stitch and then you are slowly crossing these ribs this way and that way. The result will be an intricate lattice-like structure (I used this for my “Into the Wild” hat pattern)

Usually, the crossings are worked in two steps. First, you cross 2 purl stitches and two knit stitches, so the two ribs converge, and then you cross the ribs, and then you part them again.

I know, a lot of knitters don’t like charts. But if you want to knit complex cable patterns, there is absolutely no way around learning how to read them. You always begin in the bottom right corner and move onwards to the left (because you knit towards the left as well!! It’s actually easier that way). And then in the return row, you read from left to right (again, that’s the way you knit).

Do pay attention and check the legend: the symbols are read differently in the return row. It might sound confusing, but in reality, you just knit all the stitches the way they appear (at least for a normal cable pattern). So why not use different symbols? Well, they show the way the stitches will appear from the right side, so it’s easier to spot mistakes.

And I really urge you to learn it and not ask for written instructions. Why? If you have an endless line of “k2, p2, k2, p2” with a lot of crossings in between, you won’t be able to spot your mistakes. Whereas one single look at a good chart will show you if you crossed in the wrong direction in a certain row. So, without further ado, this would be the chart for a classic Celtic knot knitting pattern.

Knitting instructions for a celtic knot pattern
Note: The chart only displays the right side rows (so only every second row); You need simply purl across every wrong side.

Once you master the basic Celtic knot, you can, of course, come up with your own variations. You can cross those ribs any way you like! For example, from row 15, you could move onward in a simple 2×2 cable. This will create a very exciting pattern, believe me!

You can add further complexities to the Celtic knot as well by spanning it over twice the rows and crossing the cables further. The possibilities are sheer endless.

Wishbone Cable / Horseshoe Cable

A swatch in the wishbone cable stitch

A wishbone cable is a nice alternative that has a very easy 6-row repeat. It’s basically a double cable where you cross in a different direction on each side (check out my mug cozy pattern to see what it looks like in a real project).

  • Row 1: p2, K12, p2
  • Row 2: k2, p12, k2
  • Row 3: p2, C6B, C6F, p2
    (C6B = Slip 3 to cable needle and hold in back, k3, then k3 from the cable needle = Right cross
    C6F = Slip 3 to cable needle and hold in front, k3, then k3 the cable needle = Left cross)
  • Row4: k2, p12, k2
  • Row 5: p2, k12, p2
  • Row 6: k2, p12, k2

Note: You can create a bigger or smaller wishbone as well. Just scale it down with *C4b, C4f* or up with *C8b, C4f*. You may also skip rows 5+6 if you want your wishbones a bit more condensed or add further rows.

Read my full tutorial on the horseshoe cable stitch here. Or check out my cable socks to see it in a pattern.

Bavarian twisted stitches

a swatch with bavarian mini cables knitted through the back loop
A tiny swatch with twisted mini cables

The Irish may have invented the Aran sweaters, but long before the Bavarians had been using twisted mini-cables for stockings and cardigans. But here is the twist (pun intended): These traditional patterns almost exclusively feature cable patterns constructed of only 1 knit stitch and they are almost always knitted twisted (so they pop out even more). Typically they are knit with very small needles (size 0 or 1).

For a twisted cable, simply knit all knit stitches of the cable through the back loop. This looks best for 1×1 cables on a purl background. And then cross the stitches any way you like. You can knit diamonds or mini-cables, etc.

Here’s my full tutorial on knitting Bavarian twisted stitches.

Honeycomb cable

a swatch in honeycomb cable

This is a very fun pattern you will find in a lot of Aran sweaters but can be used for pillows and other items that benefit from a lot of texture as well. It’s a simple 8-row repeat and requires you to cast on multiples of 8:

  • Row 1: Knit across
  • Row 2: Purl across
  • Row 3: *Cable 4 Back (C4B), Cable 4 Front (C4F)*
  • Row 4: Purl
  • Row 5: Knit
  • Row 6: Purl
  • Row 7: *C4F, C4B*
  • Row 8: Purl

Repeat rows 1-8 over and over again until you’ve reached the desired length. Read my full tutorial on the honeycomb cable stitch here.

(Repeat the pattern between ** asterisks over and over again until the end of the row)

CABLE STITCH WITHOUT A CABLE NEEDLE

left cable cross without a cable needle - dropping two stitches with thumb pressing them to the needle
Picking up two dropped stitches (secured with the thumb) to knit a left cable cross

Advanced knitters may attempt to knit cables without a cable needle as well. Instead of slipping the stitches to a separate needle, you drop them and pick them up from the other side as well. I love this method. It’s easy, very fast, and results in neater cables.

It’s a three-step process: First, you insert the right needle into the stitches further down the needle – either from the back or from the front. Then you pull out the left needle (so only the first two stitches drop). And then you pick them up again. That way, the stitches are only “dropped” for a fraction of a second and don’t run the risk of unraveling.

If you are interested in this technique, I wrote a very detailed tutorial on how to cable stitch without a cable needle here.

The best cable needles

There are many different cable needles out there and all have their advantages and disadvantages. For complicated Japanese knitting patterns, you might favor a hook, while a ribbed straight needle could be ideal for sweaters and other patterns with a lot of cables.

For beginners, I actually recommend a classic cable needle. So, a short needle with an indentation in the middle. (here’s another version).

Why? Because the little “v” form makes it very hard for stitches to accidentally drop. As a bonus, this also means the cable needle hangs quite a bit below your working needles, so it won’t interfere with your actual knitting. The standard straight ends make it easy to knit the slipped stitches.

What’s the advantage of a hook? Well, it’s easier to knit around it and it doesn’t bother you as much while you knit across the stitches above. A straight needle with ribs, on the other hand, is faster to insert and pull out. But of course, stitches will also drop a bit easier and it can be a bit awkward as the needle might get easily in your way.

Here’s a nice set with all essential cable needle shapes.

Once you mastered working with a cable needle, you can try to knit without one!

Anyways, That’s how you do the cable stitch. I hope I was able to help you knit your first beautiful cables.

How to knit the cable stitch for beginners

18 thoughts on “How to knit the cable stitch”

  1. Hi… first off I found you today!… Very easy to listen to and follow:) Thank you.
    I am currently trying to figure a “leg warmer” pattern.

    the row 5 is as follows.
    P6, C5B, p3, *p4, k6, p7, C5B, p3*, rep from *to* once, p3.

    How do I work this C5B?

    Thank you for your time.

    Reply
    • there could be many ways to knit it, but typically you park 3 stitches on a cable needle in the back of your work, knit two, and then the three from the cable needle

      Reply
  2. Norman,
    I just knitted my first ever cable following your directions for the 3×3! Thank you so much for making this so simple and easy to follow. I never thought I’d be able to knit cables, but it came out *perfect*. I could hear your voice in my head, “don’t fiddle too much, keep your tension high…” Our family has a great niece/nephew due in December, and thanks to your instructions, I now feel confident I can knit heirloom quality keepsakes. Now I must go do a happy dance then get back to knitting!
    (The 3×3 cable written pattern has two row 7 instead of a row 8, but maybe that’s just how you keep us on our toes 😁)
    Thank you 💕

    Reply
  3. Norman, I have tried following other instructions from other sources for cable, but somehow you just have a gift for explaining things so well! Since I found you I have not looked anywhere else – and I have done my first cable today – thank you so much!
    Without gushing too much, I just think you are fab and I love watching your youtube videos. You will have a few hot teas on me for sure 😉

    Reply
  4. Hey Norman,
    it’s a very detailed tutorial , I like it very much! But what if I wanna knit a celtic knot hat? How do I decrease?
    Thank you for wasting time on my problem

    Reply
    • well, typically you always decrease a knit stitch followed by a purl stitch with an SSK, and a purl stitch followed by a knit stitch with a k2tog. As to how you want to decrease your hat..well..that’s something you have to figure out yourself.

      Reply
  5. Hi Norman, I find you most informative and enjoyable to watch … How do I do a Cr4L and
    Cr4R and Cr5L andCr5R please
    Thanks
    Lyn

    Reply
    • It’s the same technique. The difference is really just the amount of stitches involved and whether they are all knit or some purl stitches in between.

      Reply
  6. Hey Norman,

    my tension in the new row is never off, the last stich of the lower row ends up HUGE (this is visually worse when the cable is crossed in the front) and gets worse with the number of stiches that are crossed. All my common methods to avoid this do not work (currently I mend my work by going through the piece by afterwards and manually adjusting the tension for each cable). Which works and currently I do that so I get an even fabric, but I’d rather not. So far I’ve tried:
    – holding the needle differently
    – slipping the stiches back on the main needle before knitting (gotten slightly better, but not happy with the result)
    – buy a lighter weight cable needle (KnitPro Symphony)

    I am kind of the end of my rope to avoid this wanky stich as I go instead of fixing it afterwards. I am aware I stretch it too much while knitting, I am just unsure how to avoid this further.

    I would be very grateful for your tips on it.

    Reply
  7. In your video after your cable you keep saying continue knitting when you purl 2. For a beginner that would be confusing if they didn’t know what to look for. The pattern reads right but you need to explain it like your pattern in the video.

    Reply
    • If someone says “continue knitting”, it can be a little bit ambigious. But typically, you mean “continue the act of knitting stitches”. Whereas things as “knit across”, “continue in stockinette stitch”, etc, would specifically call for a knit stitch.
      still thank you for pointing that out.

      Reply
  8. Whenever I decide I want to learn a new thing about knitting, yours is always the first website I go to. You always have fantastic instructions, and pictures. Thank you so much for that. I’m excited to try cable knitting. And then try your cable socks, those look so comfy and beautiful!

    Reply
  9. Hey Norman,

    thx for all the work you do. while practicing with the chart you provide here i just wonder, if its right to do the crossings from row 10 on on the WS?

    Regards…

    Reply
    • You can definitely cross on the wrong side (but you need to do it purlwise).
      But acctually this chart just displays the right side rows. Probably should adjust that but I remember my charting programm couldn’t proccess that back then.

      Reply

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