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How to Read Knitting Patterns

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Learning to read knitting patterns can be a little daunting, especially when they look like they’re written in another language. Take on any pattern with this ultimate guide to understanding knitting patterns.

1. Pick the Right Size

Understand the Size Formatting

Patterns that come in multiple sizes are typically written with the smallest size first and the other sizes in brackets or parentheses like S (M, L, XL). When reading the pattern, wherever the numbers differ between sizes, they will be listed in the same format, and you will keep track of your size based on that.

If a pattern tells you to cast on 10 (12, 14, 16) stitches, and you want to knit the size L, you would cast on 14 stitches because that is the number that corresponds with the size L in the parentheses.

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To choose the perfect size and get the best fit, you’ll need to reference the schematic measurements or list of final measurements, which are also frequently formatted in parentheses.

To be sure that you've picked the right size, check all of the measurements that correspond to your size and compare them to your own measurements. Knitting patterns have their own standards, and simply picking the size that you’re used to wearing in store-bought clothing won’t always work for you.

Ease and Choosing a Size

When choosing what size to knit, it’s important to understand ease. Ease is the amount of extra fabric that allows for drape and movement. A sweater with zero ease will match your measurements exactly. A sweater with two inches of ease will be slightly looser. A garment has negative ease when it’s smaller than the wearer, and because knits are stretchy, you can comfortably wear sweaters with negative ease for a snugger, more fitted look.

Although ease is most frequently mentioned when referring to garments, it's also important to understand the amount of ease you prefer in accessories. Headbands and hats fit snugly with negative ease and are unlikely to slip out of place, but hats with positive ease are less likely to crush your hair style.

To get an idea of what amount of ease you like to wear, measure some of your store-bought sweaters and accessories and compare them to your own measurements.

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A pattern’s schematic lists the final measurements of the project, and when you’re looking at it to choose your size, you’ll have to keep in mind the amount of ease you prefer, as well as the pattern's recommendation.

Let’s imagine we have a sweater pattern that includes sizes S (M, L, XL). The schematic lists the finished measurements as 34 (38, 42, 46) inches. If you have a 40 inch bust and you're trying to choose a size when the pattern recommends 2–3 inches of negative ease, you’d want to knit the size M with a 38 inch bust measurement. If the pattern recommends 2–3 inches of positive ease, you’d want to knit the size L with a 42 inch bust measurement.

Some patterns will include measurements “to fit” when listing the sizes. These measurements have the recommended ease incorporated into them, and you simply need to pick the size with measurements that most closely match your own.


2. Choose the Perfect Yarn and Needles

Weight and Gauge

Yarn comes in a variety of sizes known as weights. The most common names for the sizes from smallest to largest are lace, fingering, sport, DK or double knit, worsted, aran, bulky, and super bulky. Yarns often don’t include their weight on their packaging, and it can take some experience and practice to learn the different weights.

When substituting yarn in a pattern, look at the recommended needle size and gauge in the pattern and compare it to the recommended needle size and gauge on the yarn’s packaging. This will help point you in the right direction for most patterns.

However, designs that feature fine yarn at an extra-loose gauge, or bulkier yarn at an extra-dense gauge can steer you in the wrong direction, so it’s helpful to look up the weights of the recommended yarn and potential substitutes on the manufacturer’s website or Ravelry’s yarn database.

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Fiber

Different fibers have different qualities, and it’s important to keep that in mind when you substitute yarn. Choose yarns with similar fibers or with similar qualities. Here are some of the more common fibers you'll run across:

Fiber Qualities Best For
Wool Elastic, “sticky,” and warm Fitted garments, winter accessories, and colorwork
Cotton Inelastic, washable, and smooth Summer tops and household goods
Acrylic and Nylon Elastic, hard-wearing, and washable Sturdy projects
Silk Drapey and smooth All-season projects
Alpaca Drapey and warm Winter accessories

Swatch

Before you dive into a pattern, you need to knit a swatch to make sure that the needles and yarn you choose will give you the recommended gauge. The entire pattern is calculated based on the recommended gauge, and if you’re knitting with a different number of stitches and rows than what is recommended, your project will end up too big or too small. Being off by just fraction can ruin a larger project because those fractions add up.

For the best results, knit a large swatch and wash and block it. Many yarns bloom or grow when they’re first washed because of the spinning process and/or their fiber content, so it’s important to wash your swatch if you plan on ever washing your project. Once your swatch has dried, measure your gauge over a larger area.

If your gauge is too big, try knitting a new swatch on a smaller needle size. If you gauge is too small, try a larger needle size. To save time, I like to knit two or three swatches with different needles all at once so I can wash and block all of my swatches together.

Although it can be frustrating to go through this process when you’re ready to dive into a new project, it will spare you the grief of knitting a whole sweater only to have it turn out gorilla-sized after you wash it for the first time.


3. Understand the Language

Abbreviations

Abbreviation Meaning
BO Bind off
CBN Cable needle
CC Contrast color
CM Centimeter
CO Cast on
Cont Continue
Dec Decrease
DPN Double pointed needle
FT Feet
G Gram
IN Inch
Inc Increase
K Knit
KFB Knit front and back; one stitch increase
K2Tog Knit two together; one stitch decrease
K3Tog Knit three together; two stitch decrease
KWise Knitwise
LP Loop
M Meters
M1 Make one; one stitch increase
MC Main Color
MM Millimeter
OZ Ounces
P Purl
PM Place marker
P2Tog Purl two together; one stitch decrease
PSSO Pass slipped stitch over
PWise Purlwise
Prev Previous
Rep Repeat
Rev STST Reverse stockinette stitch
RND Round
RS Right side
SL Slip
SM Slip marker
SK2P Slip one, knit two together, pass slipped stitch over; two stitch decrease
SSK Slip, slip, knit slipped together; one stitch decrease
SSP Slip, slip, purl slipped together; one stitch decrease
ST(S) Stitch(es)
STST Stockinette stitch
TBL Through the back loop
Tog Together
WS Wrong side
WYIB With yarn in back
WYIF With yarn in front
YD Yard
YO Yarn over; one stitch increase

Commonly Used Phrases

Phrase Meaning
* ; Rep from * Repeat the instructions in between the asterix and the semicolon as many times as stated.
[ ] X times Repeat the instructions in the bracket as many times as stated (X).
At the same time Work these instructions at the same time as the previous instructions. This instruction is most frequently used when shaping or colorwork needs to be incorporated at the same time as other instructions. Pay close attention and be sure to read ahead.
Continue to work as established Repeat the general instructions of the previous set of rows. You may see this instruction when you’re working sets of short rows with each row one stitch longer than the last, when you’re working one shaping row and a handful of plain rows a certain number of times, or when you’re simply repeating a stitch pattern.
Reverse shaping This instruction is typically included for pieces with a matched left and right. Work the shaping opposite as before, moving increases or decreases from the left side to the right or vice versus and switching left slanting stitches like SSK with right slanting stitches like K2TOG and right slanting stitches with left slanting stitches. This will create mirrored pieces.
Work as for X Follow the same instructions as for the given piece or section (X).
Work even Work in the given stitches patterns without increasing or decreasing.
X to end Work to the end of the row or round using the stitch or stitch pattern given (X).

Reading Charts

Whether they’re lace, cables, or colorwork, all charts typically show the right side view of the stitch pattern and have to be used accordingly. Working from the bottom up (like how your stitches appear on your needles), right side rows and all rounds are read from right to left.

Wrong side rows are read from left to right, and the wrong side equivalents of the stitches are used. A blank square is typically used to indicate a knit stitch on the right side and a purl stitch on the wrong side.

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The sample chart is as follows when worked flat:

Row 1: P1, k1, yo, k2tog.
Row 2: P3, k1.
Row 3: P1, yo, k2tog, k1.
Row 2: P3, k1.

When worked in the round, it’s read slightly differently:

Round 1: P1, k1, yo, k2tog.
Round 2: P1, k3.
Round 3: P1, yo, k2tog, k1.
Round 2: P1, k3.


Get Knitting

With this guide at your side, and our series of fundamental knitting skills, you're ready to try a fun pattern. Knit one of the gorgeous patterns on Tuts+, like a flirty cropped sweater, a colorful headband, or a cute cabled beret!

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Are you a beginner knitter? Let us know if you have any questions or comments about reading patterns.

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