Reading Your Knit Fabric

When I owned a yarn store, I had a customer who freaked out when she made a mistake, and each time I would show her how to fix her knitting. And every time I did so, I advised her to learn how to visually track her work by “reading” her knitting. In other words, what the stitches look like, and how the stitches interact with each other within a pattern. Learning to read your knitting, and how to count stitches and rows helps you to avoid and recognize mistakes, but most importantly you’ll understand how the fabric is growing on your needles. This skill takes practice, but gives you the confidence to try more difficult projects.

Reading the Basic Stitches

Knitting stitch patterns can look very complex, but what’s fascinating about a knit fabric, is that there are only two stitches, a knit and a purl stitch. Different combinations of knit and purl stitches, along with other techniques create a multitude of patterns. As you learn to knit, you’ll notice that the appearance of these two stitches are different.

The Knit Stitch – A formed knit stitch looks like a “V”, wider at the top than the bottom.

The Purl Stitch – The loop formed when making a purl stitch appears like a slightly raised “bump”.

what a knit and purl stitch looks like

Note: Every stitch in a knit fabric has two sides. One side, whether it’s the right or wrong side of the work will appear as a knit stitch, and the other side appears as a purl stitch; both sides of the same stitch. When you look at the knit and purl stitches of your fabric, the horizontal “bump” (purl stitch) is the top loop of the knit stitch as seen from the reverse side.

A knit fabric is formed by interconnecting the cast on stitches in a horizontal row for the fabric’s width. These rows build on top of each other as you knit to form the fabric’s length. The stitches line up in a grid-like fashion.

visual of columns and rows of knit and purl stitches

How does reading the basic stitches help with knitting?

By noting how the stitches visually interact with each other, you will understand how a pattern stitch is formed, and whether or not the pattern is developing correctly. The example below is a pattern stitch with a 16 row repeat. By making note of how the stitches visually interact, you’ll notice certain things like the blocks of stockinette stitch and lace alternate positions every eight rows. You’ll notice other stitch relationships, and as the fabric grows you’re more apt to recognize mistakes and be able to figure out which pattern row you’re on.

visual of pattern repeat

Counting Rows From the Knit Fabric

Once you’ve developed the skill of understanding how a pattern stitch is formed, this also helps you to count rows. For most projects it’s recommended to use counters or pen and paper to keep track of rows as your knitting progresses. Doing so saves time, because you don’t have to continually go back to the beginning of the piece and count. Tracking rows is more efficient, as there is less chance of losing your place.

There will still be times when it’s necessary to count rows on the knit fabric; for dropped stitches, ripping back your work, losing your place, and when measuring gauge. For these instances it’s important to understand how the pattern stitch is formed, and to recognize multiples and repeats. A multiple is the number of stitches required to form one complete pattern stitch or motif, horizontally. Stitches and rows are repeated in a sequence to create the pattern.

The easiest pattern stitch to count on the knit fabric is stockinette stitch or reverse stockinette stitch. The number of “V’s” running horizontal is the stitch count, and the number of “V’s” running vertical is the row count. Each purl row on the back side of stockinette stitch can be counted as one row, but I find it easier to count the “V’s”.

Garter stitch looks the same on both sides. Every ridge of stitches is equal to two knit rows, because you knit every row.

Rib patterns form columns of knit and purl stitches. There are many variations of rib patterns, and the simplest is single rib, alternating columns of one knit stitch and one purl stitch. I find it easier to count the column of “V’s” or knit stitches.

Seed stitch patterns are not aligned in a straight column like rib patterns. As with rib patterns, there are other variations. I call seed stitch a broken rib, because the knit stitches are made over purl stitches, and purl stitches are made over knit stitches. This action forms its “pebbly” appearance. Each purl “bump” and knit “V” are counted as one stitch within a row.

counting stitches on the 4 basic pattern stitches


These are the most basic pattern stitches, and the simplest to count. As you practice knitting more complicated stitch patterns, and develop the skill of reading your knitting, you’ll gain the confidence to tackle projects. Even with experience, mistakes will be made, but the difference now is you can deal with them.