I usually cable free hand -- without a cable needle. It's a skill I learned when I was very young, probably right after casting on and knit stitch, as my mom believes a sweater is not complete until there is a nice fat cable running the entire length. I can easily do up to 4x4 in any variations, slip the stitches off, knit the next set of stitches, slip the dropped stitches back on, knit. The only time in the recent years I had to use a cable needle was for one of the squares in Great American Aran Afghan, where the cable had three layers with one stitch between the two sets crossing.
The Plaited Poncho I'm working on has a smart design. The increases are worked into the cables, so in every set of cable there is an increase between the crossing. The increases are completely invisible, and the poncho grows bigger every few rows. The cables start at 2x2, go up to 7x7 towards the bottom. I was able to free-hand the cables till 5x5 when a stitch dropped and I had to fish it up with a crochet hook. No more hero, here comes my treasured designer wooden cable needle.
What's your experience with cable needle? Do you have a favorite one? If you want to try free hand, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube to show different ways. Of course, that means one less gadget to play with.
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