Knitting charts are one of those things others find utterly perplexing while others take like fish to water. For visual learners they can be quite intuitive: a knitting chart is a simplified representation of your knitting be it in colorwork, texture, cables, or lace.
When I started designing knitting patterns, I thought surely everyone finds it easier to work from charts and written instructions wouldn't be necessary. Not the case! Some people's brains are just wired differently and learning to read knitting charts can be an obstacle that's too high to climb. That's why I now include both charted and row-by-row written instructions in all my patterns (except for colorwork). Most of the example charts in this post are from my patterns — either upcoming or already published. If they're not, I've included links to the sources.
If you're interested in learning how to read knitting charts, here are my top 5 five tips to get you started.
Tip #1. Charts are read in the same direction as you're knitting
For Westerns used to reading a sheet of text starting from the top and progressing, line by line, from left to right, learning to read knitting charts can first feel completely backwards. Most knitting charts are read from bottom to top and from right to left… but there are exceptions to the rule (see tips #2 and #3).
Locate the first stitch of the first row in your knitting. Compare that to the chart and you'll start to see the similarity. When reading a knitting chart, start with the bottom right corner — that's where your cast-on tail is!
If you're knitting in the round, charts are always read from right to left, just like you're always knitting with the right (working) needle progressing to the left (unless you're left-handed or doing mirror knitting).
If you're knitting flat, right-side rows are read right to left and wrong-side rows left to right. But here's where things get a little complicated… On to Tip #2!
Tip #2. Charts show the work as seen from the right side
Most knitting charts you see today are laid out in such a way that they represent the knitted piece as if seen from the right side. This makes it easy to compare your knitting to the chart and confirm that you've worked it correctly.
Some charts may even skip wrong-side rows completely and only show every other row. Often the interesting stuff happens on right-side rows and stitches on wrong-side rows are simply worked as they present. Skipping wrong-side rows in charts saves space and reduces clutter in the pattern. There's a great example of this on the tin can knits' blog.
Things are easy when you're knitting in the round: just work the symbols and their corresponding stitches one by one. You're always working on the right side, progressing in the same direction, and in the same order. When you reach the beginning of the round (often abbreviated BOR) in your knitting, move on to the next line in your chart.
Knitting a charted pattern in flat can throw a bit of a curve ball if you're just starting out with working from charts. If charts show the work as seen from the right side, what do you do with wrong-side rows? Mental gymnastics! I'm not kidding: for wrong-side rows, you have to mentally flip the instructions for the symbols so that knits become purls and vice versa. That's why you often see these double instructions in the chart key. If double instructions are not given, work the stitch the same way on both sides of the work.
However, there are some older charting conventions that buck this norm. I once knitted a garter-stitch and lace shawl in which wrong-side rows, although still read from left to right, were charted as they were worked. Being so ingrained in doing mental gymnastics, it took me considerable effort at the beginning of every wrong-side row to remind myself not to swap the instructions.
But these charts are very rare. Unless you're working from a vintage pattern, in 99% of the time when you encounter an in-the-flat chart, be sure to flex your mind to prepare for some flips and somersaults of the brainy kind.
Tip #3. The row/round numbers next to the chart indicate where to start
Remember when I said that charts start at the bottom right corner? That's most often the case… but not always. For some patterns worked flat, the chart might start with a wrong-side row first, in which case you start in the bottom left corner instead.
But how do you know which kind of a chart you have? Follow the little numbers!
These little numbers stacked on top of each other indicate both reading direction and starting point for each row or round. For in-the-round charts, all round numbers are to the right of the chart as all rounds are read from right to left. However, for flat knitting charts, row numbers alternate sides. Right-side rows with a number on the right are read from right to left. On the contrary, wrong-side rows with a number on the left are read from left to right.
Sometimes you'll see charts with columns of numbers on both sides of the chart, or in-the-flat charts with all numbers stacked up on the right side. These are usually the work of inexperienced designers or someone not having a good handle on the charting software they're using. In these cases you'll need to peruse the pattern text for clues on how the chart is to be worked. A well thought-out pattern should reflect the reading direction and whether the piece is worked in flat or in the round also in the way the charts are laid out.
Tip #4. Each square represents an action
In the most simplest of cases, one square on the chart equals one stitch. This is true for straightforward texture patterns that are made up of knits and purls, like in the example charts used to illustrate tips #1 through #3.
But more often one square equals an action that may or may not involve multiple stitches — or no stitches at all! For example, a yarnover is an action that's performed between two stitches, yet its symbol occupies one square in the chart (except in DROPS charts, see bonus tip below). Similarly, decreases are often drawn within one chart square although they use up two or more stitches (and result in one), like in the example above.
Charts can also be laid out so that the width of the symbol indicates how many stitches are involved in the action. In this lace chart from Naomi Parkhurst's String Geekery blog, the symbol for the double increase KYOK occupies the width of three squares but the single and double decreases (K2tog, SSK, and CDD) are still drawn within one single-width squares. I highly recommend following Naomi's blog — it's a source of endless inspiration (and knitting geekery)!
Tip #5. Skip the "no stitch" symbol
The "no stitch" symbol can be super confusing — not only for beginners but even for more experienced chart users. Many knitters' first instinct is to do a slipped stitch but that would throw off the whole pattern. The right course of action is to treat the "no stitch" square as if it isn't there. Just ignore it and move on to the next symbol on the chart.
Here's the thing: whenever you see the "no stitch" square on a chart, there literally is no corresponding stitch in your knitting. The "no stitch" symbol is a technical aid to make the chart line up (for example in lace patterns in which the stitch count doesn't remain constant) or to represent a three-dimensional object with a two-dimensional drawing. It's a placeholder for a stitch that's either been decreased previously (like in hat crowns or mitten tops) or will be increased on a future row/round (such as in top-down circular yoke sweaters).
The best analogy I've seen is that the "no stitch" symbol is like a space: on its own it carries no significance but itjustmakesthingseasiertoread.
Bonus tip: reading DROPS charts
These days many publishing houses and knitting magazines use just a handful of charting software (Stitchmastery being the most-widely used) that have pretty much standardized how charts are laid out and which symbols represent which stitches. Unfortunately, the Norwegian yarn company Garnstudio DROPS — with thousands upon thousands of free knitting patterns — uses their own charting convention that sometimes makes them a little difficult to decipher.
The major differences in DROPS charts (compared to Stitchmastery-like charts) are:
There's no internal consistency when it comes to chart symbols so pay extra attention to the chart key. The symbols used can — and will — vary from pattern to pattern even for basic stitches. For example, here are four different ways to represent a purl.
There are no row/round numbers. Repeat stitch counts are indicated either below or above the chart.
Decrease symbols take up as many squares as are involved in the decrease, for example, two for single decreases like K2tog or SSK, three for double decreases and so forth.
Yarnovers are depicted with an oval drawn between two squares; filled (black) ovals are to be worked through the back loop on the following row/round.
Decreases and cables can both be charted either with slanted lines or triangles. These can be easily confused so, again, check the key.
Ready to tackle your first knitting chart? Sound off in the comments!
If you're on my mailing list, these tips might sound familiar. This article in an extended version of a post that appeared on my 2021 advent calendar.
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