You know that old saying, "Measure twice, cut once"? It reminds us to take time in the prep stage of work to save time later on. When it comes to aran designs, this adage couldn't be more true. But before you can swatch, you need to choose some cable stitch patterns to try out together.
Choose a main cable stitch. Focus first on finding a main cable stitch to go on either side of the front button bands. It will be the widest of your cable stitches and will be the one to attract the eye first. It will establish the overall feel or mood of the sweater. However, since this is a cardigan and we're designing in quadrants, don't let this pattern be too wide or you won't have room for anything else (unless that's the effect you want). In my cardigan, with a finished bust size of 36", my main cable has 20 sts, not counting any purl stitches added at the sides for definition (for more on those, see below). I chose it from Melissa Leapman's "Knit Stitch Pattern Handbook", p112, called the Inishmore Cable.
Choose some possible accompanying smaller, simpler cable stitches. These need to play well with the main cable stitch. I like to choose ones that are easy to memorize. That way I can focus my attention on reading a chart for my main cable, then work the smaller ones on autopilot. If your main cable is airy and lacy, then you won't want something heavy to accompany it. If your feature cable utilizes seed stitch to fill in motifs, then you may want to use smaller cable stitches with some seed stitch elements. But sometimes contrast works well. You could have a main cable with big, curvy lines and a smaller, angular one. To really know how cable "siblings" get along, you'll have to swatch them together.
Pay attention to row repeats. It's important to select accompanying cables with row repeats that are factors of the row repeat of the main cable. For instance, my main cable has a 16-row repeat. Therefore, I ruled out any smaller cables that didn't have repeats of 2, 4, or 8. Of course, you can do what you want, but sticking to this arithmetic will simplify your knitting. You'll have enough going on without having to keep track of non-syncing stitch patterns.
Does symmetry matter to you? Some cable patterns are symmetrical or almost-symmetrical, and some are not. Look at the classic celtic cable in the centre of Hedgewood.
If you were to draw a line down the centre, each side would be a mirror image of the other. Same goes for the OXO cable. The braid cable is what I like to label "almost-symmetrical". It's not perfectly symmetrical, but it's close enough that when you see it on either side of the sweater front, you don't notice that the one on the left isn't the mirror image of the one on the right.
In a cardigan, the main cable pattern will appear on either side of the button band. It will be literally in your face, so to me it begs to be either symmetrical or mirror-imaged. You can see that the Inishmore Cable I've chosen (on the right below) is NOT symmetrical. It weaves and bobs. For my taste, it screams out for mirror-imaging.
Here you can see the mirror image charting of the same cable.
Vertical Reversibility Here I'm referring to whether a cable stitch looks the same when worked bottom up or top down. In this relatively simple shape with modified drop shoulders, the body will be worked bottom up before the sleeves will be worked top down. Going back to Hedgewood, the OXO cable in that sweater is a good example of a cable that works in both directions. Not so the braid. In that pullover this was a non-issue because the whole thing was a bottom-up raglan. But in this design project we will have to keep in mind that whichever cable(s) are intended for use in the sleeves need to have the characteristic of up and down reversibility.
Decide how you want to separate the cable stitches. Cables stand out because they exist on a background of purl stitches. Elizabeth Zimmermann was right when she asserted that aran patterns are nothing more than fancy ribbing. It's quite common simply to separate cables with a couple of purl stitches. My favourite method is to insert a 3-st divider: p1, KB, p1. I only knit in back on the RS rows. The result is a pleasant twisted stitch that firms up the fabric and frames the cables. Sometimes you see a 4-stitch divider: p1, 2-stitch twisted rib, p1. Look at lots of aran sweaters and see what appeals.
Chart your cables on graph paper. If you're lucky, your stitch pattern library will have charts. If not, you'll have to do the charting yourself. I like to use paper and pencil. Then I cut out the various stitches and play around with them before taping them together for a swatch "audition".
Time to get swatching. Choose a needle size that suits your wool. I used a 5 mm 24" circular needle for my swatches. Be sure to add several inches worth of whatever your filler stitch is at one side. To keep things easy, I chose stocking stitch as my filler stitch. I also generally add one plain knit stitch at the other side as a selvedge. The goal is to be able to get an accurate measurement of the entire cable panel, as well as a gauge per inch of your filler stitch. My entire panel measures 7 1/4" and I am getting 4 stitches per inch in stocking stitch. Armed with that, I can plan the rest of the cardigan.
Blocking your swatches. I made four swatches before I was satisfied with the end result of my cable combos. As I completed each one, I soaked it in warm water and Eucalan for about 20 minutes (enough time for the fibres to fully absorb the water), than squeezed it and patted it out until it looked nice. I did not try to achieve any particular dimension. I pinned down the edges and let it dry atop our radiators.
Don't worry about ribbing yet. How ribbing plays into cabling, and whether you even need ribbing at the lower edge of an aran cardigan is worthy of an entire blog post. Next time... Part 5 is here.
P.S. You might find the following charts and key from Hedgewood useful as a guide to common charting symbols.