By Clara Parkes


People warn against using anything but the simplest of yarns for cable motifs. The more challenging the twists and turns in our pattern, the more solid your yarn's color and texture should be—the idea being that the pattern itself needs to take center stage, with the least distracting yarn possible. This might explain why Luise O'Neill's Ballyfaron tam and cowl set piqued my interest.


While Luise used a pleasantly smooth, worsted-spun, multiple-ply yarn (Madelinetosh DK) for the sample, she chose a surprisingly busy semisolid color. I wanted to see how the gorgeous cable motifs in her pattern would work up in something smoother and cleaner.


I had a few ground rules. First, because this is a plush cowl and tam set, it should be swatched in yarns whose fibers are traditionally warm. Second, those fibers should be on the soft side, since they'll come in contact with the neck and forehead. And third, the fibers need to have sufficient elasticity to hold the tam snug against the head. What's the use of a pretty piece of fabric loosely perched on the head, just waiting for a sudden gust (or nod) to make it tumble?


 Malabrigo Silky Merino.


I began my swatching with a smooth, round singles alternative—Malabrigo Silky Merino—that would give the added brilliance of 51% silk while providing a cuddly 49% Merino wool base. Because singles have no ply shadows, they render stitches with the least amount of shadows or textural interruption. Here, that smoothness helped highlight the calligraphic nature of cables, turning Luise's columns of knit stitches into smooth lines waving back and forth as they worked up the fabric. The color I chose—Azul—ended up being a little more variegated than I'd intended, but gorgeously so. The variegation quieted the effect of the cables, but not disastrously so.


 Malabrigo Silky Merino.


Singles have the least amount of twist holding the fibers together. Keep this in mind if you're fond of working cables without a cable needle, as I am. That particular technique works best with a yarn that holds the stitch in place when the needle is removed. Here, the fibers are so delicate and loosely twisted that my pointy-tipped needles were constantly snagging strands they shouldn't have snagged. It was frustrating, but my own fault. I'm sure working those cables with a needle would eliminate the problem, although it might also slow you down a little.


 Plymouth DK Merino Superwash.


At this point, I wanted to veer away from color nuance completely and match solid and smooth within one well-rounded yarn. I picked the bouncy, spaghetti-like S-on-S cablespun DK Merino Superwash from Plymouth Yarn. To work cables in this yarn is to carve a high-relief sculpture out of smooth granite. Every cable, every purl bump, every side-to-side movement in the motif is exaggerated in almost overblown resolution.


  Plymouth DK Merino Superwash.


Again, a warning to those who work cables without a needle. This type of yarn is another major candidate for inadvertent snags when cabling without a cable needle, especially if you're using pointy-tipped knitting needles. When you form a loop with yarn composed of so many tiny strands all plied together in the same direction, they tend to open up. Instead of poking your needle through one loop, you'll be poking through six, eight, even more fine strands, all sitting parallel to one another. That tip is going to grab what it grabs, regardless of which side of the actual loop it's on. I persevered, but not without a few embarrassing snags and the realization that if I were knitting anything bigger than this swatch, I'd change to the bluntest-tipped needles I could find.


Rowan Felted Tweed.


Finally, I wanted to challenge two other assumptions about yarn. First, that two-ply yarns are best for lace (which they are); and second, that cables are best worked in smooth yarns (which they are, mostly). For this, I picked Rowan's classic Felted Tweed made from 50% wool, 25% alpaca, and 25% viscose. It has the visual appeal of an old-fashioned woolen-spun yarn with the added long-fibered halo of alpaca, faint flecks of tweed, and, hidden beneath the halo and the tweed, a quiet sheen from the viscose.


Rowan Felted Tweed.


This is a needle-less cable-worker's dream. The loose halo of the yarn makes it delightfully grabby, keeping your stitches from moving or changing when you slip them off the needle to work the cable. I liked how my swatch looked, too. The halo and somewhat wobbly two-ply construction merely diminished the three-dimensionality of the cable pattern without obscuring it or detracting from its fundamental beauty. It had an earthy texture to it, like a well-worn path through your favorite patch of woods.


Without concentrating so much on each stitch, I could relax into the meditative beauty of Luise's cable pattern, which wanders back and forth in splits of two, three, and sometimes four stitches, mingling knits and purls in a fabric that was deeply satisfying to work and to admire.


In fact, this is one pattern I have to keep.


Clara Parkes is the brilliant mind behind and the author of several fantastic fiber books.