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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!

Tin Can Knits on FacebookTin Can Knits on Instagram Tin Can Knits on Twitter Tin Can Knits on Pinterest Tin Can Knits Email Updates Tin Can Knits on Ravelry

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

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Priscilla Dow permalink
    July 22, 2014 5:41 am

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

    http://tashaknits.blogspot.com/2014/01/janury-estonian-lace-shawl-pattern.html

    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.

  2. 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!

  3. June 6, 2014 11:31 am

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

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