Deciphering Knitting Charts

Are you a text or chart person? I’m more of a text person when it comes to reading pattern instructions, but charts are a convenient way to follow colourwork, lace, cable, and other complex stitch patterns. Charts take up less space on the page than row after row of text. Because a chart resembles the actual look of a pattern, it aids in visualizing unfamiliar stitches, and helps to keep track of a complicated pattern.

Chart Language

Knitting instructions are represented by symbols in charts. Symbols replace text and abbreviations and chart the pattern stitch visually. Although symbols are universal, they are not standardized. Some reference books list common symbols, but I find that these vary greatly between sources. The following symbols seem to be the most consistent among references.

common chart symbols

Charts are used for colour knitting, for textured patterns including combinations of knit and purl stitches, lace, and cables. The following are characteristics common to all charts. Charts used in pattern instructions contain a key for the symbols. All charts are read in a similar manner. Each row of symbols in a chart represents the appearance of the stitch pattern on the right side of the fabric. Each square represents a stitch or coloured stitch, and each line of squares represents a row. A chart is read from bottom to top, starting at the lower right hand corner. When knitting back and forth, the right side or odd numbered rows are read from right to left, and the wrong side or even numbered rows, from left to right. Rows are numbered to either side of a chart, and the odd numbers are usually written on the right side of chart. The even numbered rows are usually on the left side of chart. There are rare exceptions; if the odd numbers are on the left side of chart they represent wrong side rows.

The multiple or pattern repeat is enclosed by heavy parallel lines; the equivalent of the asterisk (*) in written instructions. Sizes are also indicated with solid lines. This ensures that the motifs, colours, and stitch patterns are centered for each size. You want to start and end as indicated by these lines.

No adjustment to charts is needed for circular knitting, because a chart represents each stitch as viewed from the right side, so read charts from right to left on every round. To make knitting easier, some circular knitting charts write all the row numbers on the right side of the chart.

Colourwork Charts

Colourwork charts are easy to read and provide a visual guide as to the placement of motifs. Colourwork patterns are charted on square graph paper or knitters graph paper. The advantage of using knitters graph paper is the grid is proportionate to the gauge, so the finished pattern looks the same in the knitted piece. The motifs look slightly elongated on regular graph paper.

The colours are coded as symbols or shaded colours in a chart, with a key as to what each  represents. Unless otherwise indicated, colour charts are worked in stockinette stitch. A blank square usually represents the main colour. Repeat lines are used to show the stitch count for a “motif”. You can think of repeat lines the same as in written instructions; “rep from * or rep between *’s or [ ]”. Knit each colour as indicated in the chart, or work large areas of colour, then go back and work small areas of colour in duplicate stitch. This is a good method to use with argyle patterns. The long narrow lines dividing the diamonds are easily worked in duplicate stitch, rather than adding small bits of colour that need to be woven in.

example of colour chart in knitting

Cable Charts

Cable charts are trickier to read, but the basics remain the same as described above. Cable symbols cover the total number of squares (stitches) in the chart that are required to make the cable. The lines slant in the direction of the cable (right or left). The simple chart below contains a 4-stitch cable that slants to the left, and is made as follows: slip next 2 stitches to cable needle and hold to front of work, knit 2, knit 2 from cable needle. Most cable charts describe how to make each type of cable.

example of cable knitting chart

When circular knitting cable patterns, every round of a cable chart is read from right to left. Remember that most stitch patterns in a round will consist of a full repeat; there are no extra stitches outside of the repeat or multiple.

Lace Charts

I find lace charts the most difficult to read, and the instructions for them may only contain charts, particularly projects using fine yarns. Lace charts are read the same, and utilize repeat lines as for the other types of charts. In addition, lace charts may use a no-stitch symbol to keep the pattern aligned, and makes it easier to read. No-stitch symbols are not worked, you just skip them and work the other symbols as indicated. They show that one row of a lace pattern has fewer stitches than another.

For large lace projects like shawls, placing markers between repeats (this works for cables as well) will allow you to follow the chart for the number of stitches within each block between the markers. This also prevents you from losing your place.

example of lace knitting chart


More Tips

Sometimes you may want to enlarge charts with a photocopier for easier reading. You may also find it easier to mark your chart rows with a highlighter as you finish each row, or simply use a ruler with a magnetic board. Some pattern instructions consist of multiple charts. I often write the chart row numbers on a separate piece of paper, checking off each completed row, and at the same time use a row counter to count total rows. Organize this according to what works best for you. It is also important to work the stitches of all charts in the correct order across a row. Markers are useful, marking each group of stitches or repeats. Ideally you should finish a chart row or round before putting your project away.

Charts can be intimidating to read, but they are a practical and convenient way to follow complex stitch patterns. Regardless of the pattern stitch and symbols used, the majority of charts are read in a similar fashion. Carefully read the symbol key and make notes as needed. Go ahead and try a chart!



One Comment Add yours

  1. ReginaMary says:

    For colorwork and cables, I’m a chart gal, for lace, I am inclined to be more successful with a written pattern. Go figure!

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