Designing Charts For Colour Knitting

Basic Supplies For Making Custom Knitting Charts

So you want to design a sweater with Fair Isle motifs, or maybe you want to knit one with a large graphic image. These types of colourwork patterns are best charted on graph paper, which provides a visual guide as to what the finished motif or image will look like on the knit fabric. Charts are also much easier to read than written instructions. How does a knitter turn a motif or a favourite image into a charted pattern?

There are different ways to custom design a knitting chart. Because knitting is a grid based needle art, the simplest way is to hand draw your motifs and images onto graph paper. This is the simplest way to design charts without spending money on unnecessary design software. When learning to create charts, using only the basic tools will prevent the beginner from being overwhelmed by too many details, and avoids the high learning curve required of other methods of generating charts. These other methods include using design software or image-to-knitting pattern conversion tools. However, if you are comfortable with tech, and are familiar with design software or other tools, go ahead and use them. My focus of this post is using the basic drawing tools, graph paper and pens, to help you understand the process and to ensure that you will be pleased with the final result.

Colour Charts

Just a quick recap on reading charts. Knitting instructions are represented by symbols or colours on a grid, rather than reading row after row of text. Charts are a convenient way to follow complex stitch patterns and colourwork, and they also take up less space on the page. The advantages of colour charts is that they are easier to read, but most importantly they serve as a visual guide as to what the finished motifs or images will look like on the knit fabric.

Each square of the grid represents one stitch or colour, and each line of squares represents a row of knitting. Typically, the right side or odd-numbered rows of a chart are read from right to left, and the wrong side rows or even-numbered rows are read from left to right. If you are designing a chart for circular knitting, all the rows are read from right to left. A chart is read from the bottom to top, starting at the lower right corner. 

Colourwork patterns are charted on square standard graph paper or knitters graph paper. If your patterns are drawn on knitters graph paper, the grid is proportionate to the gauge, so the charted pattern will look the same on the knitted piece. Motifs look slightly elongated on standard graph paper, because stitches aren’t square. However, small motifs as in Fair Isle patterns work fine drawn on standard graph paper. I most often use regular graph paper for my designs.

The different colours in a chart are coded with symbols, shaded colours or a combination of these, and a key shows what each symbol or colour represents. Blank squares often represent the main colour. I find coloured motifs easier to read than symbols, but it’s up to you which type or combination to use. Symbols are preferable for large graphic images, as it is tedious colouring many squares. 

The basics including graph paper and pencils are all that’s necessary for designing motifs and intarsia charts. Let’s look at how you can turn a motif or image into a custom knitting chart.

Basic Materials

  • coloured pencils or markers
  • artist black pens (my favourite) and coloured pens
  • standard graph paper, which come as pads in a variety of sizes
  • knitters graph paper; you can custom make your own to match the gauge
  • tracing paper
  • pattern paper like the kind used for sewing
  • not necessary, but I love my LED Light Pad; useful for tracing designs


For small pattern motifs, like those in Fair Isle knitting, I just use standard graph paper; my favourite is a grid size of 8 squares per inch. Grab coloured pencils or pens, one for each colour of yarn you plan to use. Start shading the graph paper squares to form the motif; each square equals one stitch. When you’ve finished your design, you must knit a sample swatch of the charted pattern to calculate the gauge, and to see how the coloured yarns work together. If you are pleased with the results, and have calculated the gauge (stitch and row counts), you need to determine the placement of the motifs on the knit pieces, repeat lines, as well as where you want to begin and end the rows.

Intarsia and Graphic Images

Years ago I designed samples for a local fashion designer who requested sweaters with large graphic images (shown above). For projects like these, I make a line drawing of the image directly onto full scale (finished measurements) sweater pieces, which I have drawn out on pattern or tracing paper. This is so I get the correct placement of the image. If the image is a photograph, it can be traced onto the piece; you may have to adjust the size with a photocopier or draw it free-hand to the correct size. 

You need to calculate the gauge before plotting the design onto graph paper. Knit a large swatch incorporating some coloured areas representative of the finished knitting. If the coloured blocks are quite large, the gauge probably won’t be different from a swatch made with one colour of yarn.

Now it’s time to draw the full size garment pieces on graph paper or knitters graph paper according to the gauge. There are large pads of graph paper available, but it is likely you will have to tape sheets of graph paper together to accommodate full size garment pieces. The next step is to place your line drawing of the image underneath the graph paper and trace the shapes. Once the line drawing is transferred to graph paper, outline the squares of each colour section along the lines of the image with a pen. A light pad is very useful for doing this.

A photocopier comes in handy for copying grids directly onto tracing paper. The tracing paper can then be placed over the photograph or motif and used as a guide for plotting colours, or outlining the squares of larger images. Copiers can also be used to resize charts so they are easier to work from.

Basic drawing materials and graph paper is all that’s necessary for designing motif or intarsia charts. As a beginner designer, plotting out a whole project to scale on knitters graph paper is helpful in placing the motifs and images on full size pieces, and prevents disappointment with the finished result. As for designing any project, making a swatch is crucial to calculate stitch and row counts, that are necessary for the plotting the designs on graph paper. Once you’ve designed charts from scratch with the most basic tools, and if you find that making them is your cup of tea, then by all means challenge yourself and try some computer design tools.