Friday, September 23, 2022

What row am I on in my cable? (Counting cable rows)

What row am I on in my cable? If losing row count leaves you with a mystery on your needles, today's post shows how to tell.

The answer lies in two pieces. First, if you do not remember your pattern, you have to figure out how many rows are in your cable repeat. Then, you have to find out where in the repeat you are. Luckily, cables have two landmarks to help: holes and strands.

Are you surprised that the cable twist is dark green (backside) row? Are you surprised the cable itself is labeled "row BELOW the cross?" And why is the darker orange row labeled "cross worked" when it is a plain row ABOVE the cable cross? Hold those thoughts a few paragraphs...

This diagram shows what the cable in the top photo would look like laid out flat, without the distortion which comes from twisting the cable rows: makes it easier to see. 

  • The first landmark is the hole from the cable cross. In this diagram, these holes are highlighted in blue.  In the closeup diagram (left) the hole appears between rows 6 and 1. The hole always appears in a cable cross row. It is an artifact of the crossing itself
  • Second, the easy way to count rows is by counting the strands connecting the cable rows to the purl stitches alongside. In closeup, these strands are highlighted in yellow, and there are six of them. (The more usual advice is to count rows in the cable starting at the cross, but IMHO counting strands from the hole is significantly easier.) 

So, to determine row repeat, poke around with your finger until you find the cable hole. Then, count how many strands are ALONGSIDE the cable--in the diagram, there are six strands alongside the cable, counted from the top of one cable-cross hole to the bottom of the next. In the closeup diagram (above, left) the six rows are numbered. Finding the holes and counting the strands show that this is a "6-row repeat" cable. 

In this photo of a real-life cable, the cable-cross holes are where the fingers poke through. Stretching makes it easy to count the six strands between the holes. 

Counting strands between holes to determine cable repeat (6 row repeat)

Now comes the question of which one of six numbered cable rows is on your needle.

And here comes the explanation promised in the diagram caption. You see, the confusing thing about counting rows in cables is that the row on which you perform the cross is NOT the row in which the crossed stitches were laid down. It is (knitted) row ONE which makes the cross on (previously purled) row SIX. 

Geek note: In fact, although we don't think about this very often, all knitting is like this. The stitches on the needles are blanks--they are neither knits nor purls--not yet, anyway. It is when we come through on the NEXT row that these "blanks" are transformed into a knit or a purl--or in this case--a cable cross. 

  • Draw a loop through a blank from from front to back and the blank becomes a purl in the row below. 
  • Draw a loop through a blank from back to front, and get a knit in the row below. 
  • Rearrange the blank stitches on your needle, and you perform a cable cross on blank stitches you laid down in the previous row.

If you want to explore more about blanks and knitting into them, there's a whole TECHknitting post which shows this effect in textured color knitting, where it is particularly easy to see. If you want to explore the idea that cable crosses are merely a rearrangement of previously plain-worked stitches, there's a whole TECHknitting post about that, too

For row-counting purposes, the stitches you're rearranging (crossing) into a cable are the stitches you put onto the needles in the previous row. Row 6 is purled plain and it is (knitted) row 1 which does the crossing. And now you know why the cable in the diagram is labeled "the row below the cross:" the stitches of it were worked in the row below (row 6)  and the cross made on the following row (row 1).

In real life, let's say you lost row count with the following situation on the needles. 

count rows above last hole to determine what row you're on
Count strands above last hole to determine what row you're on

From the poking finger, you see there are three strands above the hole and below the knitting needle. In the photo, row 3 is on your needle, 

From the diagram, you get a preview of the three rows to go before the cable cross:

  • row 4--ordinary backside row (light green purl row)
  • row 5--ordinary frontside row (light orange knit row) 
  • row 6--the ordinary backside row which will be twisted--bright green 

Again, per the diagram, the twist itself will be worked on the knit row ABOVE the bright green twist, a row 1, colored DARKER ORANGE on the diagram. 

After you straighten out the confusion of counting row-strands from the hole alongside the twist, there's one more hurdle. 

See, if you're using a modern pattern, the pattern writer may not have numbered the rows as shown here. Often, the knit row which does the twisting is not called row 1, but is numbered somewhere in the middle of the cable row-repeat. This is done so that the cable column looks balanced by beginning and ending with a half-cable, instead of beginning and ending with a cable twist. 

The old pattern writers used "partial repeats" to accomplish this centering, but newer patterns avoid partial repeats by simply "starting in the middle" of the cable. Therefore, in a modern pattern, the row which does the twist might be called row 5 or 6 or 3,  rather than row 1, depending on the number of rows in the repeat, which row the author chose to be the half-way mark, and on which fabric face (knit face or purl face) the counting began.  

Despite this kind of confusion, however, knowing that the twist is worked on the knit row ABOVE where the twist actually appears, you can figure out which row number to assign the row which does the twisting (cable cross), and thus, how many more rows remain to work before you get there.

And now you can pull out that cabled WIP which you lost the pattern to, and finish up! (But first pull out a few rows and start with fresh yarn from stitches which haven't been sitting on the needle for five years, or you'll get an obvious line--ask me how I know.)

* * *

Continuing onward with the cable theme, the next two posts will each show a different way of fixing a miscrossed cable. Stay tuned! 

Til then, good knitting


* * *

Previous TECHknitting posts about cables:

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Tracking complex cables using box-and-circle
part 2 of a series

complex cable pattern example techknitting
Keep track of simple single or multiple cables using box-and-circle charts was the subject of Part 1 in this series.  

Box-and-circle charts also work for complex panels of cables such as this one, and that is today's post, Part 2. 

* * *

Most complex panels are made up of at least some simple patterns. The main components of this* complex cable panel are:
  • mirrored twisted cables (12 row repeat--a simple cable, but worked in a tricky way)
  • zig zag panel, right and left (24 row repeat--a minimalistic traveling cable)
  • twisted trellis (28 row repeat--a traveling cable which does deserve to be called complex)

The following stitches are used in this panel.

Symbol and instruction key for complex panel

click here to enlarge stitch key in a new free-floating window

Mirrored twisted cables:
The left twist cables (LTC) and right twist cable (RTC) are worked in mirror-image pairs, one pair at each outer edge of the panel. Twisted cables are worked with an interesting trick: instead of crossing the cables as usual, you actually put the 4 cable stitches on a cable needle, then twist the entire needle end-for-end, then knit the stitches in reverse order. Naturally, twisting the stitches around 180 degrees in this manner means the stitches show their purl sides when you knit into them, but the purls really won't show on the cable surface. If you don't use cable needles, you get the same effect if you slip the stitches to be twisted off onto a holder, twist the holder, replace the stitches on the left needle in reverse order, and then knit them. LTC is twisted away from you, RTC towards you. You've done it right if LTC appears to slant upwards to left,  RTC appears to slant upwards to right. If yours are reversed, twist them the other way. 
The act of twisting the entire 4-stitch assembly makes these cables very 3-D: they really stand out above the fabric. Because they are so very architectural, they can't really be spiraled like ordinary cables, this would overly distort the fabric. Instead, each individual cables waves back and forth like seaweed, first twisting one way, then the other, rather than always spiraling the same way.  

Here are the written directions and the charted directions for this component of the panel:
Written and charted directions for twisted cables component of the complex panel
Also refer to symbol and instruction key, above

 With these mirrored twisted cables, the action is fairly simple: both cables twist on the same row. Then, on every row except the twist, you simply knit the knits and purl the purls. With only two kinds of action, this panel is like the simple cables discussed in part 1: circles (plain rows) and boxes (crossing rows) are enough to encode what you need to do. 

Here is the box and circle chart for this component of the complex cable panel. 

box chart for twisted cables, 12 row repeat with twisting
action on cable rows 6 and 12 (boxes)
circle = knit the knits, purl the purls on that row of the cable

The charted directions here, like many charted directions, do not show the wrong side rows--that is made explicit in the note below the chart.  However, the written instructions do include the wrong side rows.  The point is, when making a box chart from a symbol-chart, make sure to include provision for all the rows, right and wrong side, whether charted or not, extrapolating the non-charted rows from the notes or from the written directions.  In a box -and-circle chart, every row knit gets a shape to check off. 

Zig Zag ribbing:

Here are the written and charted directions for the LT/RT zig zag ribbing component of this complex panel.

written directions for zig-zag ribbing

charted directions for ribbed zig-zag component of panel

Zig-zag rib is a species of cable because its components (Left- and Right twist) involve stitches trading places--what we've called a "cable-cross." As it happens, it is the smallest possible cross--one stitch trades place with one stitch--worked in the most minimal style--no holder, but instead the stitches are merely worked out of order. The two stitch-arms of this cable aren't both the same, meaning, unlike conventional cables where the cable arms are worked in stockinette, this cable has one knit arm and one purl arm. The knit and purl alteration is why this is a species of ribbing. 

The particular manner of working out of order causes the zig-zag ribs to not only twist around one another, but to travel to the left or the right: "Twist Left--TL" and "Twist Right--TR," per the symbol chart and instructions above. The front fabric face rows ALWAYS twist, the back fabric face rows are the usual cable-return: knit-the knits, purl-the-purls. If working in the round, keep reading!

Charting this sort of pattern is where your own personal preferences come to rule. See, the underlying issue with all box-and-circle charts is just how much information to encode. I generally try to encode a bare minimum.  Encoding a lot of information complicates the chart, reducing the advantage that box-and-circle has over an ordinary pattern chart. 

Here are the factors I'd consider: 
  • If working FLAT (back and forth) the knitting itself would tell me whether I was on a backside row or a frontside row.  
  • Because the knitting is a physical reminder of which fabric face I'm working, I personally would consider the TWO rows (front + back) of each twist to EACH be a "plain row." A different kind of plain row, what with that front side twist, but because of the consistency of the twist (every! front side row) both front and back are "plain" in their own way. 
  • Therefore, I would use a circle to indicate both of these rows, on the theory that circle = "plain row." 
So...what deserves a box?  So far, box has always meant "cable cross."  But if you think about it, the larger meaning of box has really been an alert that something different is coming up.  In this meta-view, circle = do the usual, and box= do the UNusual. What's usual in the simple cables we've been looking at so far is to knit the knits, purl the purls.  Usual=circle.  What's unusual in a simple cable is the cross itself. Unusual = box. The question then is, what's UNusual about this more complex pattern? (It isn't the consistent front-side twist--we've already labeled that as being "plain" in its own little way because it always happens, on every row.) 

The unusual thing which would interrupt my rote-like knitting of this pattern is keeping track of where the pattern changes direction--where the zig becomes a zag. The direction change is a disruption of the pattern, and disruption = unusual. Also, it only happens twice in the 24 rows of this pattern, another thing which makes it unusual. Therefore, my bare-bones chart would save the box alert only for the direction change, per below. 

zig-zag ribbing box chart

HOWEVER--and here is the beauty of analyzing the pattern to make your own box charts--if you were working this pattern IN THE ROUND, it would make sense to differentiate the twist rows from the intervening "knit the knits and purl the purl" rows. This is because you don't have the knitting itself to tell you which KIND of plain row you're on: 
  • are you are working a twist row (front) 
  • or an intervening knit-the-knits, purl-the-purls row (back)? 
Working in the round, you're always on the front. Therefore, it would be easy miss that intervening non-twist row and get off-pattern by a round.  So, if working circularly, you might choose to make a box and circle chart which distinguishes between the "two kinds of plain" rows, like this.  

zig zag ribbing box chart differentiating the "two kinds of plain rows" for working circularly

Of course, absolutely nothing is stopping you from using a differentiated chart like this for back-and forth knitting if you prefer it, or from color coding the differentiation. Drawing by hand, I'd probably color-code the two different "plain" (circle) rows by switching between pen and pencil for the two kinds of circles, or two different color pens. And, there's no reason you couldn't use a third shape, as well, as is illustrated in the twisted trellis pattern, coming up next. 

Twisted Trellis
This is the most complicated (and beautiful) component of this complex panel.  Here are the written and charted directions.

written directions for twisted trellis component

charted directions for twisted trellis component (click to enlarge)

Twisted trellis reminds me of a formal line dance, a 19th century Grand Promenade, perhaps. The eight stockinette cable arms of the panel are the partners in this dance.  These dancers, all in a horizontal row, travel from south to north along a large "purl-y" dance floor in a stately repeating pattern. 
  • The eight dancers enter the floor at the beginning of the dance, arranged into four evenly-spaced couples. The dance itself begins with the partners of each of the four couples twirling around one another once--the four separate cable twists along row 1. 
  • Next, they separate, each of the eight individual partners traveling diagonally outwards, one-by-one, on their way to form a new pattern (rows 2-8). 
  •  Once they have reached their new dance-set position, the outermost partners walk along the sidelines, keeping pace, but not twirling. The inner six partners meet to form three new couples, still evenly spaced, still moving north along a straight horizontal line. Each couple twirls once, and then again, a total of two twirls per couple. These three couples each twirling twice = the three evenly-spaced cable twists along the row, performed twice in succession, meaning a line of three cable twists (rows 9-13).
  • After these double-twirls, all partners travel back to their original positions (rows 11-20).
  • When they re-meet, the partners of the four original couples each twirls around one another twice (which brings you to the end of the charted and written directions) and then once more time (begin the repeat again) for a total of four couples, twirling three times each = four evenly-spaced cable twists along the row, performed three times in succession (rows 21-28 plus row 1).
And so it repeats, all the partners proceeding evenly in a horizontal row, moving steadily up the floor from set to set, combining, separating, traveling, recombining and twirling together in a formal and beautiful architecture.

Each of eight partners in this dance is a two-stitch wide stockinette column, and each either continuously travels on a dance floor of purls or spins into a twirl (cable cross). 
  • The diagonal traveling action occurs when one purl stitch crosses behind the stockinette column, meaning, three total stitches trade place, the stockinette two traveling one way, and purl one the other. These are the R-p-C (right purl cross) and L-p-C (left purl cross) of the directions at the start of this post. The purl component of the cable cross is not only hidden behind the stockinette columns, but also merges invisibly into the other purl stitches of the background, making it "doubly-invisible." The result is that each stockinette cable arm-appears to travel magically across the floor on its diagonal journey to the next dance set. 
  • The twirls themselves are ordinary cable-twists, of the same kind common in simple cables: these are four-stitch-wide left front crosses, (LFC)  where two stitches cross leftwards and in front of the two back stitches.
  • The two outer partners are the only ones which ever travel in a straight line: due north along the edge of the dance floor, they pace the three inner couples as those couples twirl around one another three times (rows 9-13)

Analyzing this action to make up a box-and-circle chart, I come up with this: 

box chart, twisted trellis

Here, I have encoded the twist with a triangle, which would be especially useful if this was to be knitted in the round, because working circularly, I might lose track of whether I was on a traveling twist-row, or on a "resting" (knit-the-knits, purl-the-purls) row. If knitted back and forth, you might chose to use all circles, as was done with two versions of the zig-zag ribbing. (The point is, you are the boss! And can make any shapes or conventions you like!)

Putting it all together

This is what the box-and-circle chart would look like with the components all on the same sheet, ready to knit.

As long as you mark off one shape in EACH compartment on EVERY KNITTED ROW, you'll have a clear idea where you are in each individual cable's repeat, while the control "picket fence" tally marks in the very top compartment will give you a cross-check as to which row you are on overall. 

* * *

As with the box-and-circle chart for simple cables (previous post), the final box-chart does not encode the entire pattern. For one thing, the rope stitch (RS) on the sides of the panel is completely missing, because I, personally, can tell which row of rope stitch I am on whether knitting circularly or back-and-forth. But there is nothing stopping YOU from encoding the rope stitch!

More importantly, what is not on the box-and-circle chart are instructions regarding width of cable (how many stitches wide?) formation of the cables (drop forward? back?) how many stitches appear between the various cable components, shaping instructions, the side panels, the bottom bands, and so on. Box-and-circle is a tracking system, not a substitute for the pattern. However, with box-and-circle, you need not consult the pattern very often. In fact, after a few repeats to get your cables established, you probably won't need it until you get to some point of shaping. 

Another similar complex panel, knit many years ago. Same inner panels, staghorn cables instead of twisted cables as borders. This too was tamed in its time by box-and-circle

* * *
If box and circle seems unduly complicated, then the fault is mine.  I expect I've made this all sound a lot more complicated than it really is. Yet, if you persevere, then after internalizing your cable patterns--usually after a few repeats--you can leave the magnet board at home. A box-and-circle chart will be all the instructions needed for that road trip (plus the pattern itself, if you plan to get to the shaping.)

Even better (provided you have carefully made up your box-and-circle chart before you turn on the TV ) even quite complex cable-knitting is tamed and you can binge-watch and knit cables at the same time. Just don't forget to make a tally mark for each row, as well as check off a box or circle (or triangle) in each cable-compartment of the chart, every! time! you! knit! a! row! 

After all:
  • most cable knitting really is "knit the knits and purl the purls" 
  • If you're NOT doing a plain row, this is where your trusty chart alerts you that something unusual is coming up, like a cable cross, or a change in direction. 
  • The chart is made by you, and personalized for your way of knitting. 
    • Knitting in the round? Then for traveling cables, use triangles or two-color circles to let yourself know which rounds travel and which don't. 
    • Knitting back-and-forth? No need to encode which rows travel, because it's always the front-fabric-face cables which travel, while the back fabric face is always our friend, knit-the-knits, purl-the-purls. 
* * *

Til then, good knitting. 


* Panel and written directions adapted from: Men's Serpentine Cable Pullover pattern, from the pamphlet "Aran Isle Classics, booklet 691" published by Columbia-Minerva in 1984. Charted directions, stitch key and twisted cables do not appear in the original. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Keeping track of cables: box and circle method, intro

The goal: knitting complex panels

When different cables are knit side-by-side, knowing where you are can be a challenge.

"Box-and-circle" is a simplified method for keeping track. Today, part 1 of this series shows box-and-circle for simple cables. Part 2 shows box-and-circle for complex panels like this green one. (I'm trying to tempt you to slog through the basics today before we get to complex cables like this 7-part panel.)

Intro to box-and-circle

Back in 2007, I showed a method to track lace knitting via a little trick called chart-charts.  Today, (has it really been 15 years?) its first cousin: box and circle for keeping track of cables.


Suppose you want to knit a single cable, up the side of a sweater, perhaps. 

suppose you want to knit a
single cable, up the side
of a sweater, perhaps...
My previous post showed the mechanics of this kind of simple cable: the "cable part," (center columns knit in stockinette) is bordered by a background worked in purl. 

If you think about it, most rows in these kind of cables are nothing more than knits and purls, helpfully lined up in continuous columns. And, except for the crossing row, that's all there is. Knit columns and purl columns in regular, repeating sequences along each row. 

Distinguishing a knit from a purl in the row below the one you are knitting is called "reading your knitting." It's a skill well worth developing, because once you CAN read your knitting, then all the complicated-looking directions for knitting this kind of simple single cable (except, again for the crossing row) really do simplify down to "knit the knits and purl the purls." And, this is true for both the back and the front of the fabric. That's really it--all those complicated symbols and directions simplify down to this.

It's true that you need the charted or written directions to establish the pattern of which column is a knit, and which a purl. Yet, once the columns are set up, well, you won't need to look at the instructions for cable-knitting, although you will need to for non-cable elements such as shaping, bands & cuffs,  and length. 

The crossing row is the exception. It is the only part of this sort of classic-looking cable which ISN'T "knit the knits and purl the purls." As shown in the previous post, this cross is where, by one method or another, one-half (usually) of the central stockinette stitches switch place by crossing over (or under) the other half. In crossing, each group maintains its original internal order. The cross is then locked into place by knitting a new row across the tops of the rearranged stitches. The crossing of groups then repeats at regular intervals, and generally in the same direction.  In the cabled sweater shown, the cross is always the same kind--a left front cross--and always at 8-row intervals. 

Cable-crossings are the "complicated part" of cable knitting. However, once you've internalized the logic of the cable cross--stitches switching places along a row--the action becomes familiar. The slipping, parking, and knitting all follow a logical and repeating pattern. So, after working however many crossing rows required to burn this into memory, you won't need the chart or directions for how to knit the cross, either. 

What remains to keep track of is the interval between cable crosses, and that's what today's post is about.

* * *

Suppose you're knitting a cable on an eight-row repeat, like the simple off-white cable sweater above. You'd need to keep track of which of the eight rows you are on, with the eighth row being the crossing-row. 

You could keep track with a tally-mark (picket fence) arrangement like this. In this little chart, 6 units of 8 rows have been tallied off: each completed "fence" shows 5 stitches knit, plus the following three single pickets in each group add up to 8 rows knit for each repeat.   Every time you came to draw the eighth "picket," you'd know a crossing row was coming up. 

Box and circle

Or, if you like to draw diagrams, you could keep track with a little chart made up of boxes and circles, checking off one box or circle for each row you knit.  

simple box-and-circle
The circles would represent all those "plain rows" which make up the bulk of the front and back of the cable: simply knitting the knits and purling the purls. The boxes would be where the cable cross happens. As you get ready to knit each row, you check off a shape (either circle or box). Alternatively, you could check off the shape at the end of every row: the only rule here is consistency. 


Multiple cables are where box-and-circle really comes into its own.  Suppose instead of a single cable, you wanted to knit three cables side by side.  
three cables side by side

Suppose further these cables each cross in a different place, so
  • Cable A crosses every 10 rows (10-row repeat)
  • Cable B crosses every 6 rows (6-row repeat) and
  • Cable C crosses every 8 rows (8-row repeat)
Here are the directions, both written and symbolic, for these cables, where "cn" means cable needle.

Symbol Key for Cables A, B and C

Chart for cables A (10 row repeat); B (six row repeat) and C (8-row repeat)

Panel chart.  Row 1 starts on a wrong side (back fabric face)

Written instructions for cables and cable panel

Whether knitting along from the chart or from the written instructions, the first 6 rows of this multiple-cable panel present no tracking problem. Knit row 1 of each cable (wrong side row), followed by row 2 (right side row) and so forth.  But once you get to row 7, things change. Yes, it's row 7 overall, and it's still row 7 for the 8- and 10-row repeats, BUT, it's actually back to row 1 for the 6-row repeat.

By row 9, it's row 9 overall, yes, and it's row 9 for the 10-row repeat, BUT it's row 1 again for the 8-row repeat, and meanwhile, it's row 3 for the 6-row repeat.

By, let's say, row 25 of this garment, it's a three-ring circus, where every cable has been crossed a different number of times, and is at a different row in its repeat-cycle. 

* * *

There are various methods for keeping track of this kind of a mess. Some super-knitters simply remember everything. I have met them, and am in awe. However, we knitters who are mere mortals must chose other methods. 

Some knitters work with pdf charted versions of their patterns, enter that chart into a knitting program, then follow on-screen.
knit to the screen

Some knitters write out cards for every row, showing how every stitch is to be knitted all the way across the whole row for every row of the garment, or at least until the cycles match up and the overall row pattern repeats (which would be all the way to row 120 in the example panel).
old school

Other knitters peer at charts, keeping track by magnets or post-it notes moved up every row. 
move on up

All these methods work. If you use one of these methods and are happy with it, then no need to read further, truly. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," as the old folks say. Innumerable gorgeous cables have been successfully kept track of via these (and doubtless many other) methods.  

If you're still with me though, then IMHO, each of these methods have drawbacks. Tablets or computers are heavy and expensive. Post-its fall off. Cards take time to write up. And none of these methods truly lend themselves to watching TV at the same time. But the real disadvantage to my way of thinking is that ...
--> it's hard to get an overall idea of where you really are with a vertical pattern if all you see is one horizontal line at a time <--

See, the real underlying problem is that cables are VERTICAL elements, but knitting itself is HORIZONTAL. When you cut multiple vertical elements into horizontal slices, each slice captures only a small portion of the vertical element. The coherence of the vertical repeats are obscured. Seen one row at a time, knitting instructions tell you all you need to know about the relationship of each stitch to every other stitch IN THAT ROW, but at the cost of randomizing information about COLUMNAR relationships. Stated simply: because cables are a column-by-column phenomena, row-by-row instructions hide the ball. 

Of course, the situation isn't as bad as all that: most knitters do get an idea of where they are by periodically stepping back and assessing progress, by peeling the post-its off the chart or zooming out on the screen to see how things are going overall. And of course, the piece of knitting in your hand displays the vertical as well as the horizontal elements by just looking. But these are round-about methods of adapting horizontal instructions to vertical elements. And worse than that, these are horizontal instructions you really don't need to track all that exactly, since, per above, most cable-knitting is "plain rows" where you knit the knits and purl the purls. 

Box and circle is light on information about the the horizontal elements, but it does tells you EXACTLY where you are in the vertical progression of an individual cable. So, what if we adapt the box-and-circle method for multiple cables? what if we make it into a system for keeping track of both vertical AND horizontal information?

A chart with a separate box-and-circle set-up for each cable would show just where each cable in the knitting was, is, and is going to be. It encodes the vertical past, present, and future at a glance. By this method, each vertical cable tracks as an independent whole, rather than as a disjointed and random-seeming component of the horizontal knitted row in which it happens to appear.

However, keeping track of the vertical component is "necessary, but not sufficient" as logicians like to say, because in addition to keeping track of each cable independently, it is also necessary to keep track of overall row count. It would be just as bad to slice horizontal information with a vertical knife as slicing vertical information with a horizontal knife.  

See, cables do not exist in a vacuum, and the fundamentally horizontal nature of knitting means that row count dictates things like shaping ("decrease every sixth row") and matching (one sleeve should be the same length as the other).  However, by tracking horizontal information in addition to, but independent of the vertical--by tracking row count separately from cable repeats--there's no confusion about where you are in the cable repeats. Overall row count also provides a back-up cross-check. If the overall row count differs from the sum of the cable rows, or the sum of each cables' rows aren't all the same, there's a problem! 

So, in addition to keeping track of each cables via its own box-and-circle set up, the box-and-circle system shown below also charts total rows knitted. This is done at the top of the chart, via the tally mark system, the picket fences drawn earlier. This yields row-count in easy-to-read groups of 5. 

Here's how cables A, B and C (the 10, 6, and 8-row cables charted above) progress using a box-and-circle system. The handmade charts shown below, drawn on the back of old envelopes, are pretty typical.  However, per part 2 (the next upcoming post), you can go quite elaborate with the box-and-circle with a graphics program, if you prefer.

Before any knitting, here's what the chart for the three repeating cables looks like. The tally marks for total rows knit go on top, like a control system. Then, each cable gets its own individual area, its own little compartment. The individual cable compartments happen to be set up as columns on this chart, but that's just because my envelope-back was long and narrow. In fact, the compartments for each cable could really be any self-contained area of the chart. 

 Unused chart showing set-up

A brand-new, never-used box and circle chart for the 
cables A, B and C (click to enlarge)
Just to be clear before we set off, each individual cable's compartment of the chart is set up the same way. 
  • inside each compartment, any shape to check off (circle or box) one worked row of that kind of cable, a knitted row. One shape=one knitted row.
  • circle = plain row of that kind of cable, meaning knit the knits, purl the purls.
  • box = cable crossing row of that kind of cable 
  • inside each compartment, each chart row one cable repeat of that kind of cable. So, for cable C, one chart row of 8 shapes = one repeat of that eight-row cable.  Similarly, for Cable B, one chart row of 6 shapes = one repeat of that six-row cable.
I've used red text to highlight the difference between a KNIT ROW (a single box or circle in each cable-compartment) and CHART ROW (all the cable rows which make up each full repeat).  When talking about "rows" it's easy to get real fuzzy, real fast, unless you distinguish. 

OK, now back to the chart. After making a tally mark at the top, I personally check off one shape in each compartment of my chart before beginning each (knitted) row, but the knitting police won't come for you if you prefer to mark the end. The only real rule is be consistent.

The chart after knitting row 1 and before beginning or marking for row 2
Total rows knit =1 (one tally mark on top). 
ALSO, one check mark made in EACH compartment of the chart.

I started the work by knitting a bottom band in seed stitch--a band which was not in the instructions, but which I added so you can see the knitting better. In the below picture, I've just finished working row 1 from the panel chart and/or the written directions near the top of this post, to establish the pattern of 3 purl columns between each cable, and a 3-st purl border either side.  Stitch markers mark each cable, the purls lie between. Before setting off on row 2, the chart will be marked again. 

one row knit, second row coming up

Geek note:  it's only coincidence that in this sample, each cable is as many stitches across as it is rows high. Cable WIDTH (stitch count) and HEIGHT (row count) are only loosely correlated. Too few repeats on a narrow cable looks like a plant starved for light, too many repeats on a wide cable overly scrunch the fabric, but within these wide parameters, many variations are possible.

After knitting seven rows, and before beginning or marking off from row 8

Seven rows have been knit, as shown by the tally marks. The only excitement coming up in the next row to knit, row 8, is the crossing row in cable C: there's a box coming up in that compartment of the chart.  As the chart shows (by the circles) the rest of the knitting across the other cables of the panel is plain (knit the knits, purl the purls). Also evident from the chart is the past history of the other cables. Cable B was crossed on the last front-side row, and this next row coming up will be a row 2 of that cable, while cable A has not yet been crossed. 
Each row worked above the seed-stitch band has been marked off with a tally mark and also a red check in each compartment-area of the chart.  If wondering "am I still in pattern?" this chart answers "yes." The seven total check marks for each cable within its own compartment equal the seven tally marks at the top (and each other!)

seven rows knit, ready to knit row 8

After knitting 9 rows and before beginning or marking off for row 10

The excitement coming up in row 10 is the first crossing of the widest cable as shown by the upcoming box in the compartment for cable A, a box which is waiting to be marked off when the knitting starts again. The rest of the upcoming knitting in this knitted row is all circles, all the way across the panel, meaning for cables B and C it's the default routine of "knit the knits, purl the purls." 

nine rows knit, row 10 coming up

After knitting 25 rows and before beginning or marking off for row 26
The number of red-checked chart rows = the number
of cables crossed, compare chart to knitting, below

twenty-five rows knit
After twenty-five rows, the fuller overall pattern is becoming evident, both from the chart (the number of chart-rows checked off in each compartment) and from the knitting itself. This particular pattern appears unbalanced, but would look well if it were mirrored on the other side of a central panel of, say, stockinette or seed stitch.

Partial repeats, especially on old patterns

The examples we've been looking at, both charted and written, all start the cable off on a row 1, with the cross coming at the end of the design. That's easy to understand, but it's an old fashioned way of writing a cable. Cables usually look best if the first cross isn't too far up the pattern, so the old pattern writers would start a cable with a partial repeat to compensate. This usually takes the form of a few rows of stitch-by-stitch directions, followed by directions for full repeats of the general cable pattern. If you get an old-school pattern like this, you can extrapolate with partial repeats on your box-and-circle chart to show exactly what's going on.

starting with partial-repeats (circled) extrapolated from 
older-style written directions

Newer patterns generally avoid this problem by re-conceptualizing the cable pattern so the cross comes in the middle of the repeat. If that's the case with your pattern, simply track the written or diagramed directions exactly by putting the crossing-box in the middle of the chart-row--as shown in part 2 of this series, the crossing box is often in the middle of the row, especially in complex patterns with several crosses to each full repeat.

The limits of a box chart

Nothing is all roses, all methods have drawbacks, and box-and-circle is no exception. 
One drawback already mentioned, you must be 100% comfortable "reading your knitting" meaning, identifying stitches in the row below, even when distorted by crossing. Otherwise all those circle-rows where you "knit the knits and purl the purls" are more likely to produce anxiety than a handy short cut.
Another drawback is the incompleteness of what ISN'T on the chart. As pointed out earlier, the ACTUAL DIRECTIONS for the cables themselves are not included. (This is the same limitation as the  chart-charts for lace--those don't give the directions for the lace knitting either.) So, for example, the box-and-circle for a cabled panel does not tell you whether to drop the crossing stitches to the front or in back, or how many stitches across each cable measures. The box chart also does not track non-cable elements such borders and backgrounds--in the above examples, the purl stitch borders and backgrounds from the written and charted directions for the panel are not tracked on the box chart at all. For these finer details, the pattern must be on standby. 

In short, a box-and-circle chart does not encode the entire  pattern. It is, however, a pretty nifty tracking device as to where you are, overall, in the (vertical) progression of the main cables, and the overall (horizontal) row count. 

Pro-tip for sleeves, socks, mittens, or anything made in pairs

For pairs of things knit the same, there's no need to make two box-and-circle charts. Use check marks for the first time through your box-and-circle chart.  To make the second item match the first EXACTLY, use the same chart, but this time marking off each circle or box in the other direction (and perhaps with a different color, also) turning the check into an "X." Result: a perfect match from the same chart. The front and back of a sweater made in parts can also be matched in this way, at least to the point of the shaping.
The previous chart, reused a second time, this
time worked up to row 11 via purple checks and tally marks
(click to enlarge)

* * *

This is part 1 of a two-part series.  The second part shows where box-and-circle really shines: keeping such good track that you can watch TV while knitting even the most complex panels, even traveling cables, like on the pretty green one at the top of this post. 

Good knitting!