A helpful tutorial on reading knitting charts the easy way so you can follow your pattern flawlessly.
After your first couple of projects in garter stitch and easy patterns, you finally decided to tackle a more complicated project. Congrats! But now you realize the pattern has no written instructions and you have no idea how to read a knitting chart.
Well, then you came to the right place. In this tutorial, I’m going to show you exactly what you need to understand to follow any knitting pattern. I’m also going to debunk common myths and provide you with tons of helpful tips so you’ll end up preferring charts over written instructions.
It’s true. Most experienced knitters I know (and I count among them) find working with charts to be much easier and more intuitive. But it takes a while to get there. So, let me take you by the hand and help you along.
And fear not. The first time I saw a complicated lace knitting chart repeat I had a total “What the f”-moment. Some knitting charts cover more than one page and they can be intimidating. It takes time to feel comfortable with them.
So, let’s dive right into it.
Note: Read this guide if you still need to catch the basics of how to read a knitting pattern.
What are Knitting charts and why do you need them?
Charts are abbreviated graphic representations of knitting instructions. When applied correctly, they are both more condensed and will give experienced knitters visual clues on how the final project will look like. This makes printing instructions and spotting mistakes much easier – especially as they are read right to left (which is, unlike our western reading order, the way you knit).
But let’s take things slower and analyze why you need them and why alot of advanced knitters love them.
Let’s suppose you want to knit two rows in the 1×1 rib stitch. The written instructions would look like this:
- Cast on 10 st
- RS: *K1, P1*
- WS *P1, K1*
Sounds and looks familiar, eh? A knitting chart for the same pattern would look like this:
Now, we’ll get into how to read this chart in a second, for you might wonder what all these numbers and dots are supposed to mean. But if you set that aside, you can clearly see 5 ribs going upwards – just the way a rib stitch might look.
As you proceed along your knitting journey, patterns will get more complicated. Maybe you want to knit a beautiful project in a cable stitch. If you made a mistake, it will be much harder to spot admits that endless row of cryptic abbreviations.
And if you move forward to even more complicated projects, like a lace shawl, the chasm will get even bigger. Imagine a big, complicated lace shawl with 400 stitches per row. It would be one alphabet soup nightmare. Obviously, you need to be able to read charts, but that’s what the next section is all about.
Plus, one should never forget that there are at least two different kinds of people: Those who need pictures/videos to understand instructions and those who prefer written text/spoken word. Luckily, a chart is both (yes, truly!).
Understanding the basics of reading a pattern chart
In a knitting chart, each little box represents one stitch. It is filled with a symbol. A legend will tell you what this symbol represents. The numbers on the right and the left side will show you the rows, while the numbers on the bottom on top will help you count the stitches.
Let’s decode this chart together.
Did you enjoy maths in school? Yes? No? Mabye. Well, I don’t need you to do any true math, but I do hope you remember the principle of charts.
A chart has a horizontal axis and a vertical axis. A knitting chart has these as well, and instead of the values of a formula, it tries to visualize stitches in a grid line style, where the horizontal axis counts the stitches and the vertical axis the rows you need to know. Is your mind already churning? Wait for a second, please!
For example, if you want to know which stitch you should knit as the 5th stitch in row 5, you would start at the very bottom right corner of the chart, then count 5 stitches to the left and then 5 rows to the top and that will give you the stitch (or vice versa, doesn’t matter if you start with the counting the rows or the stitches).
A quick glance at the legend will tell you that it is a yarnover. See the picture above and follow the red arrows. After a couple of times of doing this, I’m sure you’ll know the abbreviation by heart.
And this can be extremely helpful when you need to spot a mistake. Because when you are knitting a complicated pattern, you will sometimes spot a weird-looking stitch a couple of rows further down below your current row. And since the chart displays your knitting pattern 1:1 you simply have to move your finger to the same position in the chart and check if you did a mistake.
Now, how do you read a chart if you want to start knitting?
Well, then it’s important to realize that knitting charts almost always start in the bottom right corner (very rarely they don’t, we’ll talk about that later). The reason for that is quite simple: You usually start knitting in the bottom right corner of your project as well. That’s where you place your very first stitch on the far right of your knitting needle. You don’t start on the left, do you? Like I already said, charts are not complicated on purpose. They are actually really easy once you get behind them and make so much sense if done right.
So, to start, put your finger on that line and take a look at the first box. That is your first stitch. Remember the legend from above? It said it’s a purl stitch. So, you knit a purl stitch. And the second stitch is blank, which usually indicates a knit stitch (or sometimes the predominant background stitch).
After each stitch you knit, you move your finger one box to the left, see what it says, and knit it.
So, what happens when you are finished with the first row? How do you continue reading?
Well, this depends a bit on the kind of project you have got in front of you, but let’s start with a basic project knit flat. Take a look at the first two rows of the following example.
Once you finished the first row, it’s time to turn your project around and take a look at the second line. You’ll see a little “2” on the left of the chart. And this tells you, that you have to start reading that line from left to right (I’ll talk about different charts further down below in case your chart doesn’t look like this).
Sounds confusing? It isn’t. Because the chart depicts how the finished projects (or parts of it) will look like from the right side. Seen from the right side, you knit the return row left to right. If a chart would mix these two sides, you wouldn’t be able to see the finished pattern at a glance because your eyes can only look at one side to spot mistakes as well.
But now comes the only truly difficult part: Because the chart depicts the right side, but you are indeed knitting the wrong side, the symbols you previously learned, mean something different in the return row. Most legends will show you how you need to knit them in the return row.
In the above example, you can see how the legend says “RS (right side) knit, WS (wrong side) purl.
Now, you could balk at that. But one a second glance, it’s very simple as well. Remember stockinette stitch? Here you are purling all knit stitches in the return round as well and on the right side you have a smooth surface of pure knit stitches. A 1×1 rib and almost all other patterns behave in the same way. So, with very few exceptions, you will end up knitting all purls and purling all knits in the return row and that’s actually very easy once you did it a couple of times.
Most complicated knitting increases and decreases are based on knits and purls as well. So, a p2tog leaves a purl stitch and a k2tog tbl a knit stitch, and in the return row, you will just knit them the way they appear (in 95% of all cases).
The key to reading knitting charts
The key to understanding a knitting chart is realizing it is just another language you need to learn. This might sound a bit academic, but please bear with me and let me state the following:
A knitting chart is just a super abbreviated written instruction written from right to left with symbols that look like the actual stitches.
Let me elaborate a bit on that so you can truly understand it.
Do you speak a different language? I speak 4 of them (some more fluent than other *grin*). In German, a purl stitch means Linke Masche (“Left stitch”) and there are many more words for the very same stitch in different languages.
The most important takeaway is that none of them actually have anything in common with the physical stitch. A purl stitch doesn’t look like the actual physical world “purl”, unlike words like cuckoo where the word itself emulates the natural sound this bird emits.
Now take a look at how a k2tog is usually abbreviated in knitting charts. It’s usually a “/” because this is a right-leaning decrease. Much like a “:-)” emoji, the abbreviation gives you a nice hint of how the final stitch will look like.
The reason why “p1, yo, p1” (purl one stitch, do a yarnover, purl one stitch) makes sense to you, is that you learned these words and their corresponding abbreviations.
But let me take you on a little journey. Deciphering handwriting is often a bit difficult, and most people develop some quirks over the years. You start to abbreviate and find your own style. Take a look at the following example:
I tried, and I hope I was successful, to show you how charts are actually an evolution of written instructions. They are not really a different thing.
In the times before computers and printable pdfs, knitting designers were forced to use the possibilities of typewriters and letterpresses. And that is actually the reason why most traditional charts use alphanumeric symbols you could find in any other book as abbreviations.
And like any other language, you need to learn that. Nobody was born speaking English. You need some time to learn “Knittish”.
I know a lot of people who take charts and then translate the instructions one line and one box at a time on a piece of paper. While you can do this, I’d rather recommend you studying all those abbreviations until they feel natural to you. Take an hour or two and look at a lot of charts, print out the legends, and learn to read it.
Because, as I said, there really is no big difference between “p1, k1, p1” and “•| |•”. If you showed it to your partner or a friend, they wouldn’t be able to understand either of them. But if you showed them a finished project and either told them “p” or “•” stands for this stitch right there, they might begin to understand the instructions. But I guarantee you that the world “purl” itself, without context, won’t lead to an epiphany.
Treat charts as language and different ways to write and not like an obscure math phenomenon or cryptic enigma. Because they are not.
Different types of knitting charts
#1 Knitting in the round
Now, I already show you a basic chart for knitting flat. But there are others. If you want to knit in the round there is not wrong side. You’ll only knit one side. As a result, the numbers of the rows will be only counted on the right side of the chart (that’s your knitting direction).
Once you are finished with a row (use a stitch marker), you can move your finger to the row directly above and continue knitting from there. And if you think about it that makes a lot of sense, because these stitches will be directly above each other.
So, from the position of the row counts alone, you can already tell what kind of chart it is. If it is knit flat or in the round. And accordingly, you will have to read it a tiny bit differently. The important part to remember: You’ll read the chart the way you look at your knitting from the right side.
And obviously, the legend will not give you instructions for how the stitches are knit on the WS because there is no wrong side knitting happening when you knit in the round.
Note: Some flat knitting patterns start on the wrong side, so the first row (the number 1) might be on the left of the chart.
#2 Colorwork charts
But there are other knitting charts as well. You can also use them to plot intarsia patterns (take a look at my love sweater to get a better idea) or Fair Isle. These projects are usually knit in plain stockinette stitch so the focus of the chart lies not on telling you which stitch comes next (as it’s only knit stitches on the right side and purls on the wrong side anyway).
Instead, it will tell you which color comes next. Imagine that as written instructions. You would never get the full picture from “K5 in teal, then k4 in burgundy”. The chart will show you exactly how your finished masterpiece will look like and you can simply count the boxes to get the number of stitches you need to knit in that color.
Note: Some colorwork charts even feature stitch numbers so you don’t need to count the boxes if there are long stretches in one color.
#3 Cable and Lace charts
And the last important category of knitting charts belongs to lace and cable patterns. The charts are actually fairly similar to the ones mentioned above and can be knit either flat or in the round.
What sets a lot of these patterns apart is that they only chart the right side rows. You can tell that by the fact that there are only odd-numbered rows on the right side of the chart (and it usually says so in the description).
Why the hell would anyone do that? Quite simple. Most of these patterns will knit all stitches the way they appear on the wrong side. The difficult increases and decreases are all on the right side. There is literally just knits and purls on the wrong side. And why inflate the chart with twice as many lines of dots and blanks? It will make it just so much harder to print it, etc.
And it actually means you don’t have to look at the chart for the complete return row. Instead, just focus on your knitting and knit the stitches the way they appear. If you see a purl bump, purl that stitches, and if you see a knit “V” you knit it (the only possible exceptions are yarnovers, which are usually purled but check your pattern).
#5 Incomplete charts / repeats
Sometimes you will find heavy lines or boxes in a chart. These are basically the chart equivalent to asterisks or brackets. They usually show you a repeat. So in the above example, you would knit the 4 selvage stitches in 2×2 rib and then repeat stitches 5-12 as many times as the pattern tells you to and then add another 4 selvage stitches on the other side.
Lace charts are often designed like this because the chart would just get too big for that. So, you’ll get a pattern for the center of a shawl, and maybe some for the beginning and the edges and they are all separate and you need to mentally join them.
Helpful tips for reading a knitting chart
And now that you hopefully understood the basics, I want to give you some additional tips to working with charts.
One trick that will prove invaluable is (printing out the chart and then) use post-its to keep track of the current row. Once you are finished with a row, you can then use a pencil to cross it out so you never lose track.
There are also apps (like stitchfiddle) that have an inbuilt pattern tracker, but this only works if you create your own patterns or enter it once again.
And I would also like to highlight that the stitch abbreviations are not standardized. So, it really makes sense to take a very close look at the legend (which often can be found at the beginning or end of a pattern) or even print them out and put them next to your chart before you get started.
German pattern will have an entirely different set of abbreviations as Japanese, and that remains a slightly confusing fact. I wish someone had the balls to unite the knitting world one day, but I am not seeing that in my lifetime. lol
And on a last note, charts will often have a short text to go along. Study this carefully because there are often very important hints you might need to truly understand a chart – especially with complicated patterns.