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 actually 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 of 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.
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)
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: 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:
- 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.
- Bring the cable needle to the back of your work.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Step 2: Keep the cable needle in front of the work.
Step 3: Knit the next two stitches on the left needle with the cable needle in front.
Step 4: Pick up the cable needle again.
Step 5: Knit the 2 stitches on your cable needle.
Step 6: Put the cable needle to the side and continue knitting (keeping a high tension on the yarn for the next two stitches).
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).
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.
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 actually 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
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.
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 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.
Bavarian twisted stitches
The Irish may have invented the Aran sweaters, but long before the Bavarians have 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.
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 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
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.
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.
Once you mastered working with a cable needle, you can try to knit without one!