How to Read a Knitting Chart

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.

Let’s begin!

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. Remember a 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!

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Written by Lauren Chesis

Lauren Chesis

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