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How to read a knitting chart

June 6, 2014

Charts are graphic representations of knitting instructions.  They are a compact way to illustrate more patterns that would take much more space if described in text instructions.

Charts also illustrate how a lace, colourwork or cable pattern will look once it is knit up, and this means that when you use charts, it is easier to see where you are in a pattern, and identify errors early.

After a bit of practice, most knitters find working from charts much more intuitive, quick, and simple than working from line-by-line text instructions.

Botany Shawl by TIn Can Knits

Chart motif from the Botany Shawl … this is an extreme case where writing out line-by-line instructions for this large-scale motif would be entirely impractical.

Each square is a stitch ::: start with the key

In a chart, each square represents a knitting stitch, similar to the way that each abbreviation in text instructions does (for example k2tog or p1).  The first thing you should check when you start knitting from a chart is the key or legend, and chart notes if they are included.  This will explain which symbols represent which kind of stitches.    Often, an empty square means to knit the stitch, and generally, a yarn-over will be represented by an O in the square. However, each designer may have a different format and set of symbols.  Once you understand the meaning of each of the symbols, you can proceed to knitting the chart.

Chart Key

The key (and chart) for our free beginner lace pattern, the Gothic Lace Cowl or Scarf… check it out!

Are all rows shown… or just the RS rows?

Charts will either show all rows (or rounds) or only illustrate one side of the work, usually the right side.  If the chart shows only right side rows, text instructions will be given for how to work the wrong side rows.  The omission of wrong-side rows is common in lace charts, because many lace patterns are simply purled on wrong-side rows.  As you can see from this illustration, the structure of the lace pattern shows up much more clearly when the wrong-side rows (which aren’t conveying much information) are removed.

Reading Knitting Charts

The Gothic Lace pattern shown two ways – with all rows shown, and with WS rows omitted. As you can see, the chart is more compact and relates more clearly to the structure of the knitted fabric when WS rows are omitted. Check out the free pattern here!

But how do I actually knit following a chart?

Once you’ve reviewed the key and chart notes, and determined whether all rows are shown, or just the right-side rows, you can get started knitting from the chart.

Typically, for right side rows, you will work the stitches one at a time from RIGHT to LEFT.

So where only right side rows are shown, this means that you read each row shown in the chart from RIGHT to LEFT.  To work the wrong side rows, follow the instructions given in the text or chart notes.

Reading Knitting Charts

If the chart shows BOTH right side and wrong side rows, you will work the RS rows from RIGHT to LEFT, and the WS rows from LEFT to RIGHT.

If you think of the chart as a picture of the finished fabric taken from the right side of the work, this makes sense, as the RS rows are worked one stitch at a time from right to left, and the WS rows are worked from right to left too… but on the opposite side.

A careful reading of the chart key is crucial in this case, because often chart symbols are worked in one way on the right side of the work, and in another way on the wrong side of the work (for example, knit on the right side, purl on the wrong side).

Reading Knitting Charts

What are the heavy lines?

Commonly, stitch and row repeats are indicated by heavy lines (or boxes) in the chart.  This is similar to the use of brackets in text knitting instructions.  So you would work the edge stitches one time, then work the ‘repeat’ stitches as many times as possible (always reading the set of instructions from right to left on right side rows), before ending with the edge stitches at the end of row.

Knitting Chart Repeats

Our free beginner lace pattern Gothic Lace has a pattern repeat that is 8 stitches wide, and 12 rows tall.

What do I do when I get to the end of the chart?

After you’ve worked the last (top) row of a chart, you would typically begin again at the bottom at row or round 1, if the stitch pattern is repeated several times.  The text pattern instructions will let you know how many rows / inches to work following the chart.

How to Read a Lace Chart

Lace patterns are often described only in charts, as they may have large stitch and row repeats can make writing out (and reading) lace patterns quite cumbersome.

At Tin Can Knits, 90% of our lace patterns use charts that only illustrate the RS of the work, because we find these types of patterns much more intuitive, simple and satisfying to knit.

How to Read a Lace Chart

The lace chart for the Sunflower Shawl shows RS rows only. You can see clearly how the chart motif corresponds to the knitted fabric.  You read the RS rows from right to left, and follow text instructions for the WS rows.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, and when both sides of the work are charted, you will work the RS rows from right to left, and the WS rows from left to right, making sure to check the key so you understand how stitches are worked on the RS vs the WS of the work.

How to Read a Lace Chart

The lace chart for the Kits Kerchief includes both right side and wrong side rows, because they are required to work the lace motif.  You read RS rows from right to left, and WS rows from left to right.

How to read a Colourwork Chart

Fair-isle stranded colourwork is usually worked in the round, so that the RS of the work is always facing, you are working the knit stitch most of the time, and you can easily see the pattern forming as you work it.  However, there are some exceptions to the rule in which colourwork is worked flat (in rows).  Either way, charts for colourwork patterns will generally illustrate every round (or row).

If the pattern is to be worked in the round, then you will read every round from right to left.

How to Read a Colourwork Chart

Our free ornament pattern – Fancy Balls – includes three simple colourwork motifs, knit in the round. As you can see, all rounds are shown on the chart.

 If the pattern is to be worked flat, then you will read the right-side rows from right to left, and the wrong-side rows from left to right (in the opposite direction); in order for the pattern to form as designed.

How to Read a Colourwork Chart

The Goldfish cardigan is knit in rows. You read the RS chart rows from right to left, and the WS chart rows from left to right.  Because the fabric is stockinette stitch, you will knit all stitches on RS rows, and purl all stitches on WS rows, using the colour indicated.

As fair-isle colourwork is typically stockinette stitch (knitting all sts on the RS, purling all sts on the WS), the chart key will typically describe which colours to work each stitch with, rather than the kind of stitch to work.  So when you see a square that corresponds to CC1, you will knit one stitch with contrast colour #1.

How to Read a Colourwork Chart

The chart for the North Shore pullover includes several contrast colours, as shown in the key. You will knit all stitches in the colour indicated, unless the stitch is a decrease… as shown by the symbols for k2tog and ssk in rounds 19 and 21.

How to read a Cable Chart

Cable charts may either show every row or round, or show only right side rows, with instructions for ‘keeping in pattern’ given for the WS rows (typically you would knit the knits, and purl the purls).

One special feature of cable charts are the symbols for cable turns.  Cables are worked over more than one stitch, so the symbols for cable turns are more than one stitch wide.  As you can see from the antler cable below, c4b and c4f – cable 4 back and front – are worked over 4 stitches.  Be sure to review the chart key before you cast on!

How to Read a Cable Chart

This cute free hat pattern – Antler Hat – is knit in the round, following a chart which illustrates all rounds. Each round is read from right to left.

Know somebody who’s struggling with charts?

We’ve created this tutorial for you and your friends!  Help us continue to provide these great resources by sharing with your friends, and joining the chat on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Ravelry!

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Do you have a specific question or concern about reading charts?  Let us know in the comments, and we will do our best to point you in the right direction.

Charted Delicacies from Tin Can Knits:

North Shore PulloverBotany ShawlSnowflake Pullover

51 Comments leave one →
  1. Lizz Cook permalink
    March 29, 2015 5:11 am

    I have been knitting for well over 60 years and have never understood lace charts although l can follow written instructions and colour charts. In fact we made our own colour charts to knit a pattern on the back of mittens at primary school, boys included and then knitted them. I knitted a lace pattern hot water bottle as well before l left but from written instructions. Got into awful trouble for reading at the same time and making a mistake. We got thumped if we made knitting mistakes. Thank you for making it so clear.

  2. Laura Gibson permalink
    March 8, 2015 9:21 pm

    Am knitting first lace, a sweater, and it is in the round. Starts row one of chart with three sts then the repeat begins. Of course, there are increases, so now there are 11 sts outside the rpt. After 14 rows I have to repeat row one, etc. The sts are K K YO. So 2 sts into 11, I have one left over before the repeat. Should it divide evenly, or ?

    • March 9, 2015 3:28 pm

      Hi Laura – I’m afraid I’m not much help without knowing the pattern. Do you mean there are 2 knit sts and a yarn over within the repeat? That doesn’t sound right because your repeat would create a lot of increases.

  3. Debbie permalink
    March 2, 2015 11:58 am

    I’m knitting a lace pattern for the first time. I have six edge stitches then a ten stitch repeat pattern. I don’t understand how to keep the ten stitch pattern correct when I need twelve stitches to complete all the increases and decreases. Am I missing something here?.

    • March 2, 2015 6:45 pm

      Hi Debbie -maybe, it’s hard to say without looking at the pattern. Is it possibly that the number of sts changes? It’s also important to remember that decreases take 2 or more sts to work, but only appear as 1 symbol, and yarn overs take no sts to make but also appear as 1 symbol. Perhaps the pattern uses different symbols than us?

  4. Faye permalink
    February 26, 2015 12:36 pm

    I have a really stupid question… Is the first row of my chart the cast on row and how do I know if the next row is a knot or a purl row?
    Thanks so much for the fantastic tutorial.

    • February 26, 2015 10:34 pm

      Hi Faye-the cast on doesn’t count as part of your chart, the first row will be the one after the cast on and that row can be either a RS or WS row, the pattern will tell you

  5. CLD permalink
    February 22, 2015 5:55 pm

    Hi! I am a beginner knitter and hope you can help me… My pattern (from Classic Elite) calls for purl on right side and knit on wrong side then continue knitting in a repetitive pattern. How do I purl on right side and knit on wrong side? (I though we were always knitting on right side and purling on wrong side…) Thank you for your advice!

    • February 25, 2015 9:40 pm

      You can knit or purl on any side, I suspect the pattern has the purl side ‘showing’ or as the right side?

  6. February 22, 2015 9:33 am

    Hi working on a lave pattern shawl and I am confused because my markers do not seem to stay in place. So I am confused as how to proceed. Can your markers move and the knitting be correct?

    • February 25, 2015 9:41 pm

      You may want to double check that if you have Yarn Overs right before or after the marker that they are staying where they should, that you aren’t moving the markers by misplacing the Yarn Overs.

  7. Lynn Giampetroni permalink
    February 15, 2015 5:55 am

    I am working a cable pattern that starts row 1 ws on left side of chart. should the chart be read with odd rows left to right and even rows right to left?

    • February 19, 2015 12:04 am

      HI Lynn – I’m not sure, since I don’t have your pattern and chart in front of me. Have you read the chart notes or instructions? I would guess that row 1, WS should be read from left to right, and then the following row (row 2, RS), would be read from right to left. But every designer choses their own chart ‘conventions’, so there’s no way for me to know 100% how your specific chart is meant to be read without seeing it.

  8. February 8, 2015 4:11 pm

    Hi –
    I have a question….

    I am working on a sweater where the back is three panels and has three different charts. One chart for the left, one for the center, one for the right of the back. I’m assuming that when I turn the work to work the wrong side rows that I also change the charts order. So for the wrong side I would use the left chart first, then center, then right. Is this correct? I’m about six rows up and wanted to make sure I’m doing this correctly. I am reading from left to right on each chart on the wrong side row. Thank you!

    • February 9, 2015 6:31 pm

      Yep, on the RS you would work right side chart, then the middle chart, then the left chart. On the back you would work left, center, right.

  9. February 2, 2015 9:45 am

    For some reason I am able to knit from charts, but each time a new chart pops into my knitting I need a refresher course on HOW to actually use them. Your tutorial is amazing. Thank you for this incredibly useful post!

  10. Aideen O'Kane permalink
    January 28, 2015 4:09 am

    If working a colour chart for fairisle do you just look at the chart and then write it out so it is easy to follow?

    • January 28, 2015 8:53 am

      I wouldn’t ‘write it out’ – I would simply knit following the chart. That way you can refer to how the chart looks, and see if your knitting is matching.

  11. January 21, 2015 5:55 am

    my chart reads “K2tog, yo, yo,k2tog” How are the two yo done? Thanks Edith

    • January 22, 2015 9:20 am

      You work two yarn-overs in a row by simply wrapping the yarn TWICE around the needle, rather than just once as you would for a regular yarn-over. On the return row you would work into this double wrap twice (typically… unless pattern states otherwise), purling the first yo, then knitting the second yo. Hope this helps!

  12. Meagan permalink
    January 13, 2015 1:14 pm

    This is a very useful, straightforward tutorial! Here’s a question I’m not certain about.

    As I am left handed, should I read the RS rows left to right instead or do you think it will matter? That would be the natural direction my knitting would follow…

    And for any sort of directional stitch, should I likewise attempt to do the opposite? I.e. ssk to k2tog, m1R to m1L, and vice versa? Thanks.

    • January 14, 2015 11:52 am

      Hi Meagan

      I’m not 100% sure. When I teach knitting, I teach everyone the same, because knitting is 2 handed, like playing the piano. Sometimes lefties throw with their left like I do (I’m right handed but do some things with my left). So I suppose my question is how you do it backwards. Is the right side still facing you?

      • Meagan permalink
        January 16, 2015 9:21 am

        Yes, the right side is facing me while I work, I just knit from left to right rather than right to left. I guess that would be called mirroring?

        I get the feeling that I would switch some directional stitches as I have encountered that issue before, especially with the M1’s.

  13. Debbie Widner permalink
    January 9, 2015 10:12 pm

    Have begun Antler Hat pattern. Knitting size L. After doing “set up” round is where I’m confused. I want to follow written directions for cable. Need some help please understanding what to do next. Thanks.

    • January 12, 2015 6:29 pm

      For the Antler Hat you are working a number of purl sts (either 3 or 5 depending on your size) between the cables. So you will purl in the purl section and work row 1 of the chart or written directions in the cable section.

  14. Magpie permalink
    January 3, 2015 5:51 pm

    This was so helpful! Thank-you so much!!!

  15. December 26, 2014 3:02 pm

    I used google and it actually came up. So now I know what ‘NO STITCH’ means. Thank you.

  16. December 26, 2014 2:27 pm

    Can someone tell me what it means when I chart has 2 squares in a row and the key says “no stitch”?

    • Alexia permalink
      March 30, 2015 7:08 am

      I’m not clear when I read this in a pattern chart for knit in the round a cowl : Begin chart 1 and repeat the pattern 16 times and then knit chart 1, rows 1-6 3 times.
      I casted on 60 stitches and the chart has 6 rows. I would like to know how many times do I have to repeat the chart.Thanks.

      • March 30, 2015 9:17 pm

        Hi Alexia – I’m not really sure without reading the pattern. Possibly there are 6 charted rows but a ‘relief row’ (like a knit round) in between? What are the chart rows numbered?

  17. December 22, 2014 3:59 pm

    I think I need some help with these
    I have the chart and am unsure how to actually DO it, do I cast on ALL the stitches ((60)) and continue with that? Or do it separately and stitch all together? Or knit it in the round? I know the big red line on it is where you do the thumb. But other then that, I’m not sure how to do this. I’m going to start it working the entire thing in the flat, putting the ‘thumb’ stitches in a bit of spare yarn and then taking it up once done. Its just a bit confusing as there is nothing BUT the chart and red lines that’s it.
    Thanks for the time.

    • December 23, 2014 10:34 am

      Are there chart instructions? I would hazard a guess that they are knit in the round. Usually patterns come with both written instructions on how to work the mitten, how to insert the chart, etc.

  18. Amanda permalink
    November 15, 2014 5:49 am

    So when working a pattern in the round you remain on the right side of the work, so you would consistently read the chart from right to left?

  19. Candi permalink
    November 6, 2014 2:39 pm

    Thank you so much for this lovely tutorial! Your careful descriptions and illustrations gave me my “Aha!” moment. As I can’t afford “real” classes, I greatly appreciate the time you took to write this.

  20. Anne A. permalink
    November 6, 2014 12:57 pm

    I have a chart for a shawl called Tipperary. The first line of the chart is numbered 1 on the left, line 2 on the right. Do I knit left to right on line 1 and right to left on line 2? Thank you for your help.

    • November 6, 2014 11:31 pm

      I’m sorry, I don’t really know, usually charts are right to left on the RS and left to right on the WS. Is the side of the work specified or are there any chart notes? You may want to contact the designer for more details.

  21. Roberta Zacharias permalink
    October 17, 2014 5:39 pm

    OMG I’ve been knitting for years and couldn’t figure out how to read a chart! I just figured it out reading this page! The light went on!!! So excited! Roberta

  22. Renee permalink
    October 12, 2014 4:46 pm

    Also I am knitting in the round trying to follow the graph.

  23. Renee permalink
    October 12, 2014 3:19 pm

    In knitting a sleeve for a gansey sweater, in following the chart, pattern says right-left-right. Does this mean not reversing the graph?

    • October 17, 2014 2:36 pm

      He Renee

      Sorry, I’m not much help without actually seeing the pattern, is it knit back and forth or in the round?

  24. Marie permalink
    September 23, 2014 6:04 pm

    If the legend shows a square as K on RS. Purl on WS
    A dot as purl on RS. knit on WS

    and the chart has row 1 blocks
    Row 2 dots
    Row 3 blocks
    Row 4 dots
    Does this mean you knit the first 4 rows?

  25. Candice permalink
    September 5, 2014 10:15 am

    What do you do with the symbol that says “no stitch?” Skip these? Slip these? I don’t understand

    • September 5, 2014 8:28 pm

      Good question, just skip them. They are usually put in to help show the pattern, but you can just ignore them.

  26. Priscilla Dow permalink
    July 22, 2014 5:41 am

    Your site has most complete lesson on charts. Was so glad to find it.

    This is one chart that becomes lop-sided when I follow it. I have found others. Is there a technic that I do not know. Designer says there are no errors and just follow chart.
    Have been asking on other sites and on some google says my acct. Has been deleted.
    That’s another can of worms not to be done today.

  27. June 6, 2014 12:04 pm

    Hello this is really helpful but I do have one question: if you are knitting in the round (rather than rows worked back and forth flat) do you work each round in the same direction (ie right to left)? I’m assuming yes because you’re never going in 2 opposite directions… Thanks in advance! 😄

    • June 6, 2014 12:19 pm

      Also are you meant to reverse the stitches on the WS? I’m confused!

      • June 10, 2014 10:17 am

        Can you be more specific about your question? Each chart is slightly different…

    • June 10, 2014 10:17 am

      Yes! When you are knitting in the round, you will read all chart rounds from right to left (in the direction that you knit). Good luck!

  28. June 6, 2014 11:31 am

    Wanted to say thank you for all that you do for others.

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