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 other easy knitting stitch patterns, you finally decided to tackle a more complicated project. Congrats! Yet, 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. You might even end up preferring charts over written instructions – just like a lot of other advanced knitters.
It’s true. Most experienced knitters I know (and I myself 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 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. And here’s a post with the knitting tips for better results.
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. This makes printing instructions and spotting mistakes much easier – especially as they are read right to left (after all, this is, unlike our western reading order, the direction you knit).
But let’s take a step back and analyze why you need them and why a lot 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 now, you might wonder what all these numbers and dots are supposed to mean. If you set that aside, you can clearly see 5 lines of dots 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 it amidst endless rows 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 yarn over. See the picture above and follow the red arrows. After doing this a couple of times, 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? As 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.
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 was a purl stitch. So, you knit a purl stitch. And the second stitch is blank. This usually indicates a knit stitch (or sometimes the predominant background stitch).
After each stitch you’ve knitted, 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 side 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 from the right side. Seen from the right side, you knit the return row from 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 at 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. Yet, 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 behind 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 others *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 word “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 what 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 study 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 them.
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 no 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. Picture that as written instructions for a second. 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 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.
Important: Double knitting charts work a bit differently. As it’s a two-faced fabric, each square stands for a color on the front side and automatically the second color for the backside. So, if there’s a teal square, it means you have to purl the next stitch in purple (or whatever your second color is).
#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 are 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). Here’s how to read knitting.
#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 for working with charts.
One trick that will prove invaluable is (printing out the chart and then) using 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 you enter them manually.
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 (often can be found at the beginning or end of a pattern) or even print it out and put it next to your chart before you get started.
German patterns will have an entirely different set of abbreviations from 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.
32 thoughts on “How to read a knitting chart for beginners”
Thank you susan! 🙂
This is a very comprehensive and well done tutorial! I’m sharing it with others. Thank you!
PS – thank you for the porcini mushroom pattern, it will add some fun to my knitted gnomes!
so happy to hear you like my tutorial and my mushrooms! And thank you for sharing it. 🙂
I have a chart that has the normal things such as purl, knit. K2tog, etc. but it also says no stitch. What do do here?
you don’t do anything. You just skip that box. Think of it that way. each little box of a chart gives you an instruction. And if there is no instruction, aka “no stitch”, then you skip onward to the next box (or next row if it’s at the end of a row).
I’ve been baffled by this until reading your article this evening. Thank you very much.
so happy to hear I succeeded in teaching you! Happy knitting
This is very helpful thank you! One question about cable pattern repeats, what if the repeat involves a C2 over right at the beginning and end of the repeat, but the repeat line is drawn through half of the full 4 stitches – do you do a c2 over right since there’s half at either end of the repeat? Thanks!
sorry for commenting a bit later. Was on vacation. I couldn’t possibly say this as I don’t know the pattern. I would take a look at the pattern and see how it looks like in the final product.
There are quite a couple of different ways to chart cables. In most cases, a cable is not “interrupted” so, you would have to add the other half…Typically that is indicated by a meandering red line..or grey squares or so.
but hard to tell and that’s why I made it a rule to not comment on other designers patterns.
I have seen charts that included a “no stitch” symbol /stitch in the pattern. For whatever reason, I just can’t seem to wrap my head around how to interpret this. Some explanations are just to ‘do nothing’ at that space. I still don’t understand. Can you clarify this for me? Thank you I find your tutorials so clear and helpful.
The answer to this question is pretty straightforward. Skip that box and continue with the next little box that has information.
Here’s the problem. A chart is a square but your knitting or your repeat might not be. So as a designer, you are “forced” to squeeze the pattern into the chart. But what happens if you decrease towards the top of a head or so? That’s not a square anymore.
So that’s why there are no stitch symbols
I recently found your YouTube and now your blog when I was trying to learn intarsia for the first time. Your tutorials are super in-depth and help a semi beginner like me out.
I was wondering if you could do a tutorial on a rippenschal pattern (or any pattern that does crossed ribs). I’m having a hard time comprehending how to do it.
And if I missed a video you posted on it, please forgive me. I did try to go through all your videos which is what led me to this pattern reading one here.
Thanks in advance!
I am not sure what you mean with Rippenschal? You mean a simple scarf in a 2×2 rib?
Norman, “Thank You” so much for this very comprehensive tutorial. I have been “running” from chart reading for quite some time. I saw a sock pattern today that came with a chart and decided to take the plunge and Googled chart reading. I have watched and learned from several of your videos so when I saw your name, of course, I clicked the link. You completely demystified chart reading for me and I am open to learning a new language. Thanks again for taking the time to put together such an easy to understand tutorial. Best wishes always.
I understand stand some of the chart patterns
Thank you! I took one look at a chart and said, “no way.” My daughter asked me to make her a sweater using a particular pattern that includes a chart, and I almost passed out. I tried to make sense of it, but to no avail. After watching your video, I reread the chart and understand it so much better now. Thank you!
Happy to hear that, DIane. I will take a bit of practise but then it’s soooo helpful!
Thank you, Norman, for taking the “fear” out of chart. I joined a knitting group so I could get some real-life assistance but your video does it so much better. Knowing that the second row reads left to right has made a huge difference. I appreciate your in-depth explanation and clarity. Well done!
Why would a row end in a yo? I don’t understand what would happen to that yo when you begin the next row.
well, it would unravel – except the pattern is in the round. You could use a backwardloop instead. that won’t unravel.
Wish I’d read this BEFORE knitting 5 inches on a sweater reading chart left to right, left to right, left to right. A simple notation regarding this in legend would have saved me a ton of agony and a week lost on this project.
Neglected to say THANK YOU. Sorry, pretty frustrated. I guess I’ll look at this 5 more times before I restart the sweater!
Hi Norman, thank you very much for your expertise. I love watching your U-tube videos and reading blogs. I was hoping you would be able to point me in the right direction for understanding a red line repeat of the pattern, that suddenly shows the red repeat line shifted to the right or left? I’ve search for an answer on how to knit this.
Thank you in advance!
that is usually done if the motiv is not centered but you only have limited printing space….so you basically continue knitting according to the chart until you hit the red line…and then you repeat what is in between the red lines.
Thank you so very much, I’m going to try it tonight.
Have a Happy New Year. I’ll be watching your U-Tubs while the New Year rolls in!!
I’m knitting a lace shawl and am confused that the pattern has numbers inside some of the boxes. For example, there is a series of 3 boxes then a box with a number 4 inside it, followed by 2 more boxes and then a 3 x 3 (which I know how to do) and 6 boxes after that. Does the number inside the box mean I should knit a total of 9 stitches before the 3×3?
I cannot tell for sure as I am not seeing it. Could be two things: Either it means you need to repeat what’s in that box that many times or it is simply counting the stitches as a little help (say there is a big stretch of stockinette stitch, then they sometimes put a number like 8 to make counting those 8 stitches easer). I have seen both.
Thank you so much Norman. I’ve watched a few of your videos and they are the best! This one is also concise but covers everything I was wondering about. Thank you for all your help.
Hello! This may be a stupid question, but, with a chart how do you know how many stitches to cast on? Thanks, Annie
Hi Norman. Thank you for this really helpful tutorial. It’s great and helps to demystify charts for me. I know you have answered two questions above about this, but I have a sock pattern that has an 11 st x 18 row chart pattern that is repeated in the round. On rows 1-16 there is one ‘no stitch’ at the end of the rows, and on row 17 only, there is one ‘no stitch’ at the beginning of the row (so you knit 10 stitches on each row. Do I assume that row 17 is slightly offset to all others (there is a 1 st cable to be completed at the end) and that the end of row 17 overlaps with the beginning of row 18? If so, I’m a bit confused about what I do at the beginning of row 18. I hope I have written clearly enough for you to help. I would consider myself an advanced beginner and am wondering if I have bitten off more than I can chew with this pattern. Thanks!
I think what is confusing here is that people think that “no stitch” stands for “don’t knit”. Instead, you should regard as it as “don’t read, skip to the next box, and treat it as your next stitch”.
I am not sure if this is truly offset. Rather, a cable stitch typically needs 2 boxes. Probably only there to accomdate that at the beginning/end of the row.