Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to read a knitting chart

When I started the Year of Knitting Dangerously on Ravelry, one of the fears/challenges that immediately cropped up was knitting from a chart. This was a bit of a mystery to me. You just read the chart, knit the stitch and go. What’s so tough about that? Duh, this is just Knitting101, how could you not be able to knit from a chart? Then I cast on 2 projects with charts and realized that if charts were Knitting101, it’s the secret class that no one ever tells you about. Like the Mason’s secret handshake, charts are one aspect of knitting that is never explicitly taught or explained. Chart writers assume you know how to knit from a chart and assume you have a certain level of sill, proficiency and spatial understanding. Knitting fro a chart is exceptionally straight forward, if and only if you take the time to apply the information the chart is providing and is NOT providing.

When I started knitting I was fortunate enough to have a needle craft walking encyclopedia at my side. This woman wrote her thesis on the socio-economic implications of the Bayeux Tapestry for god sakes! And to this day, I’m not above whining “Mommy fix it!” as I toss my botched knitting into her skilled hands. Since not everyone has a Fix-it-Mommy for the knitting woes, herein lines my tutorial on how to read a knitting chart, soon to be followed by how to knit from a knitting chart.

Step 1 – Read the whole pattern.
Pour yourself a tasty beverage and read the entire pattern. The ENTIRE pattern. Don’t even tough your needles net. Some patterns will say something like "Cast on 100 Stitches. Follow chart. Cast off and weave in ends.” Other patterns will have you establish your knitting then use the chart for specified sections only. So you need to know what those specified sections are.

Things to look out for – Does the chart repeat? Does the whole chart repeat? How any times? Do small sections of the chart repeat? Is there knitting to be done (like ribbing, garter stitch boarders) before or after the chart section? Are there any special instructions? Go a head and highlight or underline important instructions in your patter. I don’t mind and I won’t tell if you write in your knitting book.

Step 2 – Familiarize your self with the Key.
All knitting charts will have a legend or key telling you what the marks and squiggles mean. And every chart writer and every pattern company uses a different system (there is some movement in the community to standardize this, but for now, you have to learn a new key with each pattern).

Things to look out for - How is a “knit stitch” represented? A “purl” stitch? Any funky stitches you need to know about like “K2tog” or “ktbl”? Is there an “M1” on the chart? Now check the pattern instruction, how exactly does the writer want you to “make 1 stitch”?

Tricky Tip: Pay particular attention to the symbol for the knit stitch. Since the knit stitch is the most common stitch, it may not have a designated symbol. It may just be represented by a blank square. If it has a symbol, take a quick look at the chart itself. Are there any blank square? If so, don’t panic. You will skip this square, performing no action as if it wasn’t there and go right on to the next stitch as if nothing happened because, well, nothing happened. If there is a decrease in a row without a corresponding increase in that same row, the chart will be short a stitch and the empty box serves as a place holder until the increase is executed.

Step 3 – Get to know the chart.
So now you know what every square is supposed to mean. Now you just have to put it all together. Is every row represented on the chart? Sometimes with lace knitting, only right side rows are represented in the chart. The instructions will tell you “WS, purl all stitches” So now you know all RS rows are on the chart and all WS rows are purled and are NOT on the chart. Is there a section of the chart that repeats? Lace stoles might have a boarder on both sides and a center pattern that is repeated. So now you know what’s a head of you and what stitches you will need to execute, where and how many times. You are almost ready to cast on!


  1. (psst - you have kept up the glass family tradition- namely, there are a few spelling errors - but that's another topic.)
    Another suggestion would be to watch if the number of stitches change in the row - particulary in lace. I write the number of stitches I should wind up with right next to the chart row - just to be sure I did it right.
    Another hint is to get out the colored pencils and color code the key to the chart. If you are quemish about writing on the pattern - make a working copy.
    Sometimes you run into a big black square instead of a blank one - without an explanation in the key - that indicates a stitch has been removed in the previous row - not to worry, somehow you'll get it back.
    Most of all - have no fear - it will make sense once you get going - and Ravelry is always ready to help - 24 hrs a day!

  2. AND (a big one!)
    charts (even when when it is for stuff knit flat (and turned at the end of every row) ONLY SHOW the front (outside/public side of the work)

    and no stitch is often a gray box (if the knit stitch is a plain box)--this can be particularly confusing with color work --(where did the grey come from?)

  3. Oh sure now you post this!!! I could have used this the first time I did a chart! Great instructions, would have saved me a whole bunch of swearing and tearing!!!