How to read knitting patterns

A step by step tutorial on reading knitting patterns and follow instructions the right way for beginners.

Knitting is an amazing hobby. It helps you to create your own garments based on a couple of basic stitches and knit them in the size and color your want. While it is fairly easy to knit a beautiful beginner’s scarf in garter stitch all by yourself, you will soon come to a point where you will need help. And that’s probably the point you are right now and it made you wonder how to read knitting patterns? Does it actually make sense?

Maybe you already saw all the free patterns on my blog, and then you will know that knitting patterns are like the recipes every cook knows. They will tell you exactly how to replicate the results of a different knitter and possibly how to adjust the instructions so you can knit to measure.

reading one of my knitting patterns with a work in progress next to it

But at first glance, these knitting patterns can be confusing and it might even seem like they were written in a foreign language. Mostly, that’s because a lot of them heavily rely on abbreviations. In the days before smartphones and printers at home, that was necessary to fit as much text as possible on a page. Modern patterns are often a bit more legible.

Let’s take a close look at how to read them.

Note: If you are just starting out, make sure to check out my free knitting school where you will find easy to follow tutorials for all the most important techniques. And don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter, so you don’t miss any new tutorials and free patterns.

The basics of reading knitting patterns

First of all, patterns are read the same way you would read a normal western book. You start in the top left corner and work yourself all the way to the bottom right corner. And if there are a couple of columns then, just like in a newspaper, you read from right to left as well.

So, far so good.

Now, knitting patterns are not really standardized but a good pattern should have the following:

  1. A legend with abbreviations
  2. The actual knitting instructions & sometimes a chart
  3. Gauge & size information
  4. Materials you need
  5. Pictures/schematics

I’ll talk you through each and every one of them below. Not all patterns will have all of these 5 parts – especially vintage and free patterns will be often a bit more cryptic with less explanation.

1. Abbreviations

reading a knitting glossary part of a good knitting pattern

Let’s start with the probably most confusing part: deciphering the actual text. As you proceed along your knitting journey, you will learn to appreciate that not every single simple knit stitch you have to knit is written out. It saves space and gives you the possibility to have the whole pattern on one page you can put into your project bag.

Here’s what you need to know:

Every single knit stitch typically has an abbreviation, here are the most common ones:

  • CO: Stands for “Cast on“. Before you start the actual knitting you have to create a row of preparations stitches.
  • K: Is the abbreviation for the knit stitch.
  • P: means purl or purl stitch. It’s the second most common knitting stitch. Most basic patterns are a combination of knit and purl stitches.
  • St: Stands for stitches. Like “cast on 7 stitches” turns into “co 7 st”.
  • RS: This refers to the “Right Side”. Not all knitting patterns are reversible. That’s why it’s important to label the side of the knitting that matters (like the front of a sweater).
  • WS: The back of a project is called the “Wrong Side”. There are some reversible patterns where the distinction doesn’t matter.
  • BO: This means bind off (also cast off) and refers to a special technique used to keep a finished project from unraveling.
  • R: Can either mean row or round. Usually, you knit from right to left. If you knit all stitches on your needle, then you have finished one row. You then turn the project and start a new row. A pattern will keep track of these turns by counting these rows.

There are many more such abbreviations. Usually, there is a legend at the beginning or the end of a modern pattern that will tell you exactly how the individual stitches are abbreviated in this pattern. If there isn’t, a knitting stitch glossary will be your best friend.

Over time, you will learn these shortcodes by heart and you’ll be babbling with your knitting friends online or offline like you were born that way. Just give it a bit of time. And always, remember: Google is your friend (I guess this would be the time to shamelessly plug my website here, where you do indeed find tutorials for almost all important knitting stitches).

2. Understanding the knitting instructions

Reading a knitting chart

Knowing the abbreviations is, however, only the first step to truly understand a pattern. Think of it as knowing the words of a language with no grammar.

Don’t freeze and stop breathing. Reading a knitting pattern is really easy once you get the hang of it and you only need to know a couple of basics. You don’t have to learn millions of tenses, articles, and cases. Here’s what else you need to know:

Note: Some patterns are not only written instructions. Read this tutorial if you want to find out how to read a knitting chart.

# Rows

I already mentioned that you knit in rows. So, your pattern will (usually) tell you exactly which stitches to knit in which row.

It typically looks like this:

  • Row 1: Knit all stitches
  • Row 2: Purl all stitches

Of course, the pattern could also abbreviate it to “R1:K, R2:P” and that’s something you will also often find.

While in most cases it does not say so, you will have to turn your project around after you finished each row and start knitting the other side. If your project is knit in the round, then it will typically say round 1, round 2, etc. instead of rows.

# Numbers

Numbers aren’t only used to count the rows, but also stitches. So, in patterns, you will often find something like “K7”, which is the abbreviation for knit 7 stitches, and means you have to knit 7 knit stitches in a row. With that knowledge, the repeat of a typical 2×2 rib stitch will probably make more sense to you:

  • Cast on 10 stitches
  • Row 1: K2, P2, K2, P2, K2
  • Row 2: P2, K2, P2, K2, P2

You only have to be careful that there are some abbreviations that actually involve numbers. Knit two together is often written as k2tog or M1L and M1R, so pay extra close attention if there’s a comma separating the stitches or not.

# Brackets, asterisks, and Paranteses

If you take another look at the above example of the 2×2 rib stitch, you will notice that it’s basically just repeating one general theme over and over again: K2, P2. If you cast on 10 stitches, then it’s no problem to write out. But imagine you are knitting a big sweater (like my love sweater) where you knit 50 or more stitches in the same pattern. Writting all that out would be cumbersome.

To solve this dilemma and save quite a bit of space, repeating knit stitches are usually put in between two asterisks. What is written between these little stars is thus referred to as a “repeat”. Let’s take a look:

  • CO 50 st
  • R1: *K2, P2*
  • R2: *P2, K2*

It means these stitches have to be repeated over and over again. If there is no further information, it means you have to repeat these stitches until you reach the end of the row. But they can also appear in the middle of a row.

  • CO 50 st
  • R1: K5, *K2, P2*, K5
  • R1: K5, *P2, K2*, K5

This would be a way to knit a garter stitch edge (often used to prevent curling in knitting) and means you would have to stop knitting the ribbing 5 stitches before the end of the row and just knit those last stitches.

Instead of asterisks, you may also find brackets to indicate a group of stitches you have to repeat. Often, brackets are used if it’s a specific number of times you have to do so (but I have seen asterisks used in these cases as well). Then there will be a quantifier directly behind the brackets:

  • R1: K5, [K2, P2] 4 times, K5
  • R2: K5, [P2, K2] 4 times, K5

And last, but certainly not least, you can also stumble across a repeat put in parentheses. Typically these are stitches you will work in the very same stitches like bobbles or popcorns. This could look like this:

  • R1: K5, (K1, P1, K1), K15, (K1, P1, K1), K5
  • R2: K5, k3tog, K15, K5

Sometimes, parentheses are also used to count repeats as well. Like K2tog (6 times), which would mean you have to do a knit two together 6 times in a row.

Note: Sometimes a pattern will also tell you to repeat a certain number of rows/rounds a couple of times to save printing space and to avoid repeating the exact same text 10 times. So it could be:

  • R1: K
  • R2: P
  • Repeat rows 1+2 6 more times,

In this case, this essentially would mean you have to knit 8 rows in stockinette stitch.

# Italics, Bold, etc

Good patterns will also have bold parts to highlight and structure a text. But you might also come across a text in italics. In my patterns, I use this to provide further information that is not fundamental to the pattern. Here are two examples:

  • CO 20 st
  • R1: Knit
  • R2: P
  • R3: *K2, k2tog* (15 stitches)

In this case, I provided the new stitch count so you can double-check you really decreases the right way and did not skip any stitches. And sometimes there are rather complicated sections in a pattern or just things you might really appreciate knowing like the following:

  • CO 20 st
  • Row 1-15: knit
  • Row 16: *K2, P2* (you may want to change to one needle size smaller so the ribbing will be extra crisps)
  • Row 17: *P2, K2*

Use your common sense when reading these extra tidbits and decide for yourself what to do with them.

# Right side / Wrong side

Not all stitch patterns are reversible and not all knitting produces projects that are reversible. Take a sweater for example. There is (usually) just one way to wear it and that is certainly not inside out.

So, patterns will use the terms right side and wrong side liberally to indicate where certain steps have to be taken. Something like that:

  • On the right side: Pick up 20 stitches around the neckline

And of course, very basic knitting stitch patterns will not give you a row by row rundown of the stitches.

  • RS: *K2, P2*
  • WS: *P2, K2*

This would be the repeat for a very easy scarf in 2×2 rib stitch and it just tells you that on every right side you have knit the indicated stitches above and on the wrong side some other set of stitches.

3. Gauge & Size

blocking a knitted swatch with water and soap on a blocking mat
Blocking a swatch to check the gauge

A very important section of every pattern is gauge and sizing information. Sadly, a lot of knitting beginners skip this section for all the wrong reasons. Mostly because they don’t fully understand it and, I guess, they want to save time and start knitting right away. But here’s the thing:

If you ever go to a live knitting event / local knitting group and look around, you will soon notice that no two knitters truly knit alike. The way you hold your needle, the way you tension your yarn, and so many other little factors differ. As a result, even 10 simple rows in double moss stitch using the same needle size and the same yarn will probably not have the same size if two different people knit them.

But if you want to knit a sweater, then you really need to knit it to measure. You don’t want to be running around in a potato sack with way too long sleeves that only reaches your belly button. And, following the line of thoughts of the previous paragraph, this means that even if a designer tells you to cast on exactly 50 stitches for a size L, you still might end up with a sweater that doesn’t fit you. Simply because you might be knitting a bit looser.

To combat this problem, a good pattern will give you a gauge. Gauge is (usually) measured based on a swatch – a little practice piece you knit as preparation. Typically you will find three vital pieces of information:

  • Size of the swatch
  • Pattern for the swatch
  • Resulting row & stitch count

And what can you do with this information? If the pattern says that a 5×5 inches swatch in stockinette stitch results in being 20 stitches wide and 28 stitches high, you can modify your knitting until you can produce a swatch with these exact dimensions. And once you did this, casting on the aforementioned 50 stitches, will also result in a size L.

You could pick a thicker or thinner yarn, you could go one needle size down or up, or even try to knit with a higher or lower tension (the latter being more difficult).

But if you skip this part of the pattern, knitting the right size becomes a game of chance with the odds stacked against you.

Sizing

A lot of patterns will give you a couple of different size options. Based on the swatch and your measurements, you get to decide in which size you want to knit that sweater, hat, or mittens. Typically, a pattern will provide different sizing information using diagonal slashes. It could look like this:

  • Size S/M/L/XL
  • CO 50/54/58/62 st

And what you have to do in this case would be picking the size you want to knit. Let’s say an L. And then you would know that you only have to pay attention to the stitches provided after the second slash. In this case, this would be 58.

Tip: I recommend you to take a pencil and go through a pattern before you start knitting, and cross out all the sizing information you don’t need, or circle the ones you need (whatever you prefer).

4. Materials

the materials you need for this sock knitting pattern

Good patterns will also list a full list of all the materials you will need to finish the project. So, there will be the brand and name of the yarn that was used for the sample knits, the needles that were being used, and any additional tools you might need (by the way, here’s a list of 25 tools every knitter needs).

This information matters because, again, knitting with a different yarn will result in different results and even the needles you are using may influence the finished project.

Important: Don’t treat this information as a “Okay, I need to buy all this to finish the pattern”. Rather use it as a basis to adjust the pattern according to your own prefercences.

If the pattern recommends a beautiful mohair yarn, then picking a slick super-wash sock yarn will look totally different and instead of a lot of well-blended fluff, you will get the perfect stitch definition. If you don’t want that, then you should probably pick a mohair yarn as well. But maybe from a different brand that is more to your tastes. etc.

5. Pictures & Schematics

picking up one extra stitch between flap and insole
A picture showing you how to pick up stitches for the heel of a sock

And last, but not least, patterns will usually provide you with pictures and sometimes even instructional detail-shots. These probably need no further explanation. They are just further visual clues to how a finished project might look like. Sometimes, very difficult to understand steps are supported by a picture that shows you how the author did it.

One thing you can also do before you start knitting a pattern is looking around on the internet or social media if somebody else already knitted that very same pattern. This will serve two purposes:

  1. You can get inspired by the yarn choices of other people
  2. And you will see how the finished project looks like if a (maybe) less skilled knitter follows the instructions.

Common mistakes when reading a knitting pattern

I want to close this article with frequent mistakes. With all my patterns being knitted all around the world, not a day passes by where I don’t receive a comment or an email with a question. While I do prefer comments, because other people get the chance to read about other people’s mistakes and learn from them, there are a couple of questions that always pop up:

1. Accidently adding or substracting stitches

One very common mistake I see is that people don’t treat a yarn over or a KLL/KRL as their own stitch. While all these stitches make use of a previous or next stitch in some way, in a pattern they will still be noted separately.

So, if there is a line that says *K1, YO, K1, YO, K1*, that’s altogether 5 stitches you are knitting and 5 you should have on your needles. I don’t know why, but a lot of knitters believe yarnovers are part of the knit stitch that follows or something. Every abbreviation that is between a comma is a different stitch.

2. Not reading the complete knitting pattern

It might sound trivial, but believe me, it isn’t. A lot of people ask me questions they could have answered themselves if they read the full pattern. While I don’t necessarily mind helping my readers, a lot of patterns will not give you an easy and fast access to the designer.

Sometimes a pattern provides you with further options to navigate around difficult parts (or vice versa). Also, at the end of a pattern might come a portion that has implications to parts earlier in the pattern.

For example, you might have to use the cast on tail to sew together the project. But if you only left a tail of 2 inches, that’s not going to work out.

So, it’s really important to read the full pattern.

3. Not keeping track of your progress

using a post-it to keep track of the current row of a knitting chart

I’ll never truly understand how my brain works. I can tell you what I wore as a guest on a wedding 20 years+ ago, but when I cast on knitting stitches I barely can count beyond 20 before I lose track. It’s infuriating.

So, assuming you don’t have some super-brain, I really advise you to meticulously keep track of the progress in your pattern. Use post-its to mark the current row you are working or use a pencil to cross out stitches/rows you have already knitted (or both).

You never know when you are going to pick up a project again. Life happens. While the last stitch you knitted might still be fresh the next day, you could get a call forcing you tore-schedule your plan for tomorrow. And two weeks later, you don’t remember if you repeated those two rows 6 or 8 times.

Certainly, if you know how to read your knitting, you can sit down and count things out. But a simple mark or note with a pencil could have given you the same information in 1 second. Also, you avoid accidentally knitting a row twice.

So, take this advice from a knitter who’s been there and frogged quite a lot – take notes 🙂

Anyway, that’s it. That’s how you read a knitting pattern. I hope I was able to show you everything you need to know. Feel free to ask your questions below.

how to read a knitting pattern

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