I’m about to teach you how to read a knitting chart. It’s not hard at all – in fact, it is more intuitive than knitting from a written pattern because a chart is a visual representation of the item you’re knitting, just as you would see it when looking at the finished object. It’s a simple schematic, like the assembly instructions you get with IKEA furniture – a little boxier than real life, but basically a picture of real life (ok, maybe even simpler than IKEA instructions).
First of all, you need to start thinking of your knitting as a grid. The stitches on your needles are a row, and the stitches directly above and below any given stitch form a column. When you start thinking of your knitting as a grid, it becomes easier to notice mistakes. For instance, it’s hard to misalign a cable when you notice whether or not the cable is directly above the previous one as you go along.
This is a chart for Old Shale (also known as Feather and Fan), a popular lace motif.
Your left needle at the very beginning of a row.
Your stitches are formed from right to left. Notice that the first stitch you knit comes off your left needle and gets pushed towards the right as you continue to knit across the row. And your rows are formed from bottom to top. Notice that the first row you knit ends up at the bottom of your fabric by the end.
Thus, we start reading a chart in the bottom right corner and work our way across from right to left, then from bottom to top. Row #1 and all odd/right-side rows are read from right to left.
Next, notice that when you turn your work, you’re immediately knitting right back across the stitches that you just knit.
Thus, Row #2 and all even/wrong-side rows are read from left to right. Note: If you’re knitting in the round, you always read from right to left because you’ll come back across the stitches you just knit without ever having to turn your work!
Next, notice that when you’ve turned your work and you’re knitting across the wrong side, you’re knitting the opposite stitch to what you want to appear on the front of your work. When you purl, you make a knit on a front side, and vice versa. Remembera chart is a simple picture of what your knitting should look like on the front side.
Thus, the meaning of a symbol depends on whether you’re on the right side or the wrong side. So, you can think of a symbol as having two meanings, or as instructing you to do whatever stitch or opposite stitch will produce the correct appearance on the right side of the fabric.
This chart includes the even rows, but you can see they’re all blank, so the chart could be made more concise by excluding them.
Fortunately, most patterns are written with most of the work done on the right side. Sometimes in lace charts, wrong-side rows aren’t even included – this is an indication to purl every stitch on the wrong-side row. Just check the row numbers at the edges of your chart. If 1 and 3 are right next to each other, without a row in between, then purl across the even rows.
Charts often only depict one design motif in a repeating pattern.
If you see bold, vertical lines on either side of the chart, that is an indication to repeat what’s in between the lines several times before moving on to the next row (just like brackets in a written pattern).
Here’s a chart with a pattern repeat indicated by the bold vertical lines. If you repeat the section between the lines, you’ll have a wide seed stitch panel flanked by cables. The pattern would tell you how many times to repeat a section of a chart.
That’s it! The only thing left to learn is what the symbols mean. There are several systems of symbols which are commonly used in charts from different sources. Barbara Walker invented the set which American knitters are most familiar with, but you can figure out what most symbols mean if you recognize some common themes – and the fact that knitting symbols aren’t arbitrary – they are meant to resemble the stitches they represent.
Here is a handy infographic which should begin to guide you to the symbols you’ll find in knitted charts. You don’t need to learn them all, though – a chart will typically come with a key clearly defining every symbol used in the chart!
It is possible to be a pretty competent knitter without understanding how to read your knitting, but knitting may be an entirely more frustrating experience than it has to be! If you know how to look at your knitting and determine whether the stitch you’re working into is a knit, a purl, a yarn-over, a knit-two-together or a make-one, you will be much less likely to make mistakes, and you will be able to easily “memorize” patterns. In reality, you don’t have to memorize anything or even mark your place in the pattern if you understand how stitches are constructed and can determine what stitch to make next based on those you see below.
Tip 1: Notice that when you knit a stitch, you’re actually altering the stitch below the new one you’re creating.
Here is your left needle at the beginning of a new row. The knit stitches are highlighted in yellow, and the purl stitches are highlighted in pink. The grey stitches on the needle are still indeterminate stitches. They will become knits or purls as you’re knitting the next row!
Now you’re halfway through the row. You decided that the indeterminate stitches from the photo above would become knit stitches, so I’ve highlighted the knit stitches and those that are about to become knit stitches in yellow.
Tip 2: Notice that knitting and purling are exactly the same thing, worked in reverse. Thus, a knit is a purl if you turn the fabric over, and vise versa.
This is the same swatch as above, flipped over. Again, knit stitches are highlighted in yellow and purl stitches are highlighted in pink.
Tip 3: Knitting means pulling the working yarn from back to front; purling means pulling the working yarn form front to back.
This is a knit stitch that you just popped off of your right needle. See how the yarn comes through the stitch below from the back to the front?
And this is a purl stitch that you just popped off of your left needle. (It’s actually the exact same stitch as in the previous photo, flipped over.) See how the yarn comes through the stitch from the front to the back?
Tip 4: If you’re working into a knit stitch, you will see a V shape below the loop you’re working into. If you’re working into a purl stitch, you will see a horizontal bump below the loop you’re working into.
You’ve introduced some purls alternating with knits in the previous row, and you’re knitting every stitch in the current row. I highlighted two rows this time: the current row and the previous row. The yellow stitches on the left needle aren’t knits yet, but they’re about to become knits. Notice how you’re about to work into a knit, then a purl, then a knit, then a purl…
Tip 5: The purl bump is actually the top of the stitch.
Now, you want to count how many rows you’ve completed in order to figure out whether you’re on a straight knitting row or a knit, purl row. You should pull the fabric taut because knit and purl stitches distort each other. Notice that there are two knit rows between the rows with the purl bumps, and also two knit rows above the previous row with the purl bumps. That means you’re ready to work a knit, purl row.
It’s useful to think of your knitting as a grid, especially when reading and writing charts. But as it turns out, knit stitches aren’t equally proportioned like the graph paper you used in math class. Knit stitches are typically wider than they are tall, and whether you’re working in stockinette stitch or garter stitch has a major impact on your stitch proportions too. Furthermore, stitch proportions can be affected accidentally by gravity, or intentionally by blocking.
In stockinette stitch, knitted stitches are typically 4/5 as tall as they are wide. That means that if you cast on a number of stitches, then knit the same number of rows, your knitted swatch will be about 4/5 as tall as it is wide (say 5 inches wide and 4 inches tall).
In garter stitch, knitted stitches are even squatter at 1/2 as tall as they are wide. Conveniently, if you count the ridges instead of the rows, you’ll typically find that an equal number of stitches and ridges will produce a nearly perfect square. That’s why modular knitting is typically worked in garter stitch and lays neat and flat when you pick up one stitch per ridge along the side!
We usually only measure the height and width of our stitches, but knit stitches live in a 3-dimensional world! It’s the depth of the stitches that explains why garter stitch requires more yarn to cover the same area. In garter stitch, your stitches are deeper. More yarn goes into making a thicker, stretchier fabric. The image on the left shows the same swatches as above with three rows of stockinette colored orange and three ridges of garter colored magenta.
Here’s when you want to keep stitch proportion in mind:
When you’re checking your stitch gauge and row gauge. Stitch gauge refers to stitches per inch measured horizontally. Row gauge refers to stitches per inch measured vertically. Many patterns only require matching a stitch gauge for sizing because they instruct you to knit for 10 inches as opposed to 50 rows, for example.
When you’re picking up stitches along a side edge. Skip every 5th stitch (or every 2nd for garter stitch) along the side for a smooth, unpuckered fabric.
When you’re seaming a cast on/bind off edge to a side edge. Skip every 5th stitch (or every 2nd for garter stitch) along the side edge for a neat seam.
When you’re designing a chart for colorwork or surface decoration. If you use regular graph paper (like a cross stitch chart), remember that the design will appear vertically squished.