How to Read a Knitting Pattern

Updated on January 8, 2019
KCO profile image

Katy has been knitting and crocheting for 10 years and selling her items at local craft shows in Colorado for 3 years.

You're so excited to knit that beautiful something but can't understand the pattern. You know you have all the skills but just can't figure out what the pattern is telling you to do.

Sound familiar?

This guide to reading knitting patterns will help you follow any pattern. I include all the abbreviations and terms pattern authors use. You'll learn to translate from their pattern to your actual project.

Choose a Knitting Pattern

First, let's cover what to look at when picking a pattern.

This is especially important when buying a design. You need to look at the general information without all the details.

Here is some information the pattern will give:

  • Yarn Weight/Needle Size: The yarn and needle used to make the project and the gauge.
  • Gauge: Number of stitches and rows to make a length and width (in or cm).
  • Yardage: How much yarn you will need, at the given yarn weight.
  • Sizes: The sizes available.
  • Skill Level: Beginner, intermediate, or advanced.
  • Pattern Type/Construction: Whether the item is knit flat or circular.

Knitting Abbreviations

Sometimes the only thing that stands in the way of you understanding a pattern is all those abbreviations!

Common Abbreviations

Stitches

  • k#: knit # stitches
  • p#: purl # stitches

Decreases

  • k2tog: knit 2 together
  • ssk: slip, slip, knit

Other

  • yo: yarn over (used to make holes in lace)
  • sl: slip stitch
  • yf: bring yarn to the front
  • yb: bring yarn to the back

This is no where close to all of them! But it will give a novice an idea so they can start reading patterns.

You can always search for the abbreviation with the words "knitting pattern" if you don't know it. Usually, a definition and a good how-to will come up.

Knitting is so relaxing once you get the hang of the pattern!
Knitting is so relaxing once you get the hang of the pattern!

General Pattern Format

When you first download or open a knitting pattern, get familiar with the format.

Identify:

  • How many stitches to cast on.
  • The sections of the garment (for a hat it might be brim, pattern, top/decreases).
  • Any color changes.
  • Any pictures to help you orient yourself.

Before you cast on, research any techniques or abbreviations you're not familiar with. Even if you don't learn them right away, you'll know what to expect.

Written Pattern

Written patterns all convey information in a similar format. Learning how to read that format is a big step toward understanding patterns.

Row Instructions

One line represents one row of the pattern. If you're knitting flat, the line might start with (right side) or (wrong side). Or (RS) and (WS) for short.

Commas separate instructions within the same row.

Let's look at an example of a scarf that is knit flat:

Row 1 (RS): sl1, k7, p3, k8
Row 2 (WS): sl1, p7, k3, p8

The first row starts on the right side of the item and builds on the cast on stitches. You slip 1 stitch, knit the next 7 stitches, then purl the next 3 stitches, then knit the last 8 stitches.

The second row starts after the work is turned and you're looking at the wrong side of the item. You slip 1 stitch, purl the next 7 stitches, then knit the next 3 stitches, then purl the last 8 stitches.

That would create a stockinette scarf with a garter stitch strip down the middle.

Repeats and Stitch Count

Ready to learn more?

Good!

Because pattern authors will jam even more information into a single line, they have a shorthand to show you repeats and stitch counts.

Asterics represent pattern repeats. You need to repeat the instructions inside them.

A row instruction often ends with the final stitch count in parenthesis. Some patterns have this on every row; others only include them increasing or decreasing.

Let's look at an example that uses repeats and stitch counts:

Row 30: k around (100)
Row 31: k5, *k2tog, k8*, k2tog, k3 (90)  
Row 32: k around (90)
Row 33: k4, *k2tog, k7*, k2tog, k3 (80)

This shows an item knit in the round with decreases on every odd row.

Row 30 simply knits all the way around the row for the 100 stitches.

For row 31 knit the first 5 stitches. Then knit 2 stitches together and knit the next 8 stitches. Repeat that sequence of knit 2 together and knit 8 stitches until there are 3 stitches left in the round. Then knit the final 3 stitches.

But why is the stitch count 90?

The final stitch count is after the row is complete. You should have removed 10 stitches in that round, so the count is now 90.

Row 32 is another knit row, with the 90 stitches.

Row 33 is a decrease row with slightly closer spacing than row 33. The stitch count continues to decrease.

Knitting Pattern Terms

Aside from abbreviations, there is some knitting jargon that is handy to know. It makes reading patterns much easier when you understand the language.

Bind Off or Cast Off

At the end of a garment, your pattern might direct you to cast off. Casting off and binding off is the same thing.

There are also cases where you will need to bind off in the middle of a row. Do this by knitting two stitches and then slipping the first stitch over the second on your right needle. Continue for as many stitches as you need to bind off.

Patterns will have you bind off in the middle of a row to great an intentional gap. You'll find this in thumb holes, buttonholes, and armholes.

Pick Up Stitches

Your pattern might direct you to pick up stitches. This means adding needles from the garment back to your needle so you can knit them again. It's a technique that lets you change the direction of a knit garment.

You'll usually need to pick up stitches in projects that create angles. Sock heels, thumbs in gloves, and arms in sweaters are common examples.

Patterns usually have you pick up stitches from an edge you bound off before.

Picking up stitches is fairly easy. Insert your left needle into the first stitch to pick up and knit it as if it were a normal stitch. The rows you create on top of that will form knitting from the bound off edge.

Fingerless gloves that needed a bind off and pick up around the thumb
Fingerless gloves that needed a bind off and pick up around the thumb

Chart Patterns

Many patterns come in chart form instead of using a written pattern. This is especially common for Fair Isle and lace. It's rare that the entire pattern is in chart form. There are just too many things that can't be communicated in a chart.

More often, the chart shows the repeated design or motif to help visual knitters.

How to Read a Chart

Reading a knitting chart is fairly easy. Each row corresponds to a row of knitting. Each square represents a stitch. Begin at the lower right corner of the chart.

Each chart has a key that goes with it. The key will tell you what symbol represents what kind of stitch.

Charts can be tricky for beginners though, especially if the item is knit flat. You have to remember that the chart shows you the right side of the item. So if you're knitting flat, you'll have to use the opposite stitches (knit instead of purl, and purl instead of knit).

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • KCO profile imageAUTHOR

        Katy Medium 

        3 weeks ago from Denver, CO

        Thanks for the comment Poppy! I've always been envious of knitters that can make soft toys. So adorable!!

      • poppyr profile image

        Poppy 

        3 weeks ago from Tokyo, Japan

        My mum is always knitting. She makes jumpers and soft toys. Thank you for this article, it reminds me of her.

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