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Reading Multi-Size Knitting-Pattern Instructions

October 8, 2020

Knitting patterns can seem like a dense thicket of numbers, numbers, numbers, and more numbers – all corralled by several types of brackets. For a beginner, this is understandably confusing, so we’ve written this tutorial to answer some of the questions you may have as a new knitter. Remember…with each project you knit, this will get easier!

This post is part of our How to Read a Knitting Pattern tutorial. Follow the links below to read the other topics.

Knitting-pattern text instructions

Once you’ve determined what size you’ll be knitting and gathered the materials you need, it’s time to move on to the pattern text, which explains how to knit the project, stitch by stitch.

The first thing you’ll find under the pattern heading is a bit of information about how the project is constructed. In the free Wheat scarf pattern it’s simply one line:

The Wheat scarf is worked from end to end.

In the free Flax sweater pattern, however, more information is given:

This sweater is worked in the round from the top down. You cast on at the collar, the yoke is knit, sleeve sts are placed on hold on waste yarn, the body is completed, then sleeves are knit last.

This description helps you orient yourself within the context of the overall project, so you know which part of the knit you’ll begin with, and which direction you’ll be working in.

A diagram of a top-down sweater project
The Simple Collection’s free, learn-to-knit patterns include construction diagrams to help you visualize the process – and to help you understand where you are in the project at any given point along the way.

Pattern sections

Next come the instructions you’ll follow line-by-line to work the project. In a garment pattern, the pattern text is broken down into sections, for example yoke, yoke separation, body, sleeves, etc. For a simpler pattern, all instructions may fall under the pattern heading.

Reading and understanding the text instructions that make up a knitting pattern take some practice because, often, many sizes are described in a single instruction – and there are so many different sorts of brackets!

Multiple sizes in the same instruction – brackets, brackets, and more brackets

Once you’ve identified and learned the abbreviations that apply to your pattern, you’re ready to jump into the pattern text. But first you’ll need to know a few things about how brackets, both (round) and [square], are used in knitting patterns.

Brackets that list instructions for multiple sizes: small (medium, large)

Tin Can Knits patterns use the convention of round brackets ( ) to indicate the instructions for multiple sizes. In the free Barley hat pattern, there are three child sizes and three adult sizes, listed in this order: Baby (Toddler, Child, Adult S, M, L). The first size, in this case the baby size, is always listed outside the round brackets. The other five sizes are placed inside the bracketed set and separated by commas. We bold the adult sizes. The pattern begins:

Using smaller needles, cast on 66 (72, 78, 84, 90, 96) sts, PM and join for working in the round, being careful not to twist the cast-on.

This means that you will cast on 66 (or 72, or 78, or 84, or 90, or 96) stitches. You’ll need to identify the number of stitches that corresponds to your size. Don’t cast on 66, then 72, then 78; find the number for your size, and cast on that number. So, to work an Adult S, which is the first of the bolded sizes and the 4th number listed, you will cast on 84 stitches.

When you see this same set of six numbers in other parts of the pattern, you’ll again use the number that corresponds to your size. The sets of numbers may describe a number of stitches to work, a number of inches (a length), or a number of times to repeat a pattern.

Further examples from the free Barley hat pattern include:

Set-up round: k22 (24, 26, 28, 30, 32), PM, knit to end

This instruction means that you will knit 22 (or 24, or 26, or 28, or 30, or 32), stitches, place a marker, then knit to the end of the round. For Adult S, you would work k28, PM, knit to end. Learn more about knitting abbreviations here.

Work rounds 1-2 until piece measures 4 (5, 6, 7, 8, 8.5)” from cast-on, measured at the stockinette side of the work, for a beanie.

This instruction means that you will work rounds 1-2 until the knitted piece of fabric measures 4″ (or 5″, or 6″, or 7″, or 8″, or 8.5″) from the cast-on point. For the Adult S example, you’ll work as described until the piece measures 7″ long, and then proceed to the next instruction. The instruction ‘Work rounds 1-2’ means that you’ll continue to repeat round 1, then round 2, then 1, then 2, then 1, then 2 – in pattern, until the desired length is reached.

Essentially, whatever portion of the pattern is being described, you can determine which instruction to follow from the format of the round brackets: sizeA (sizeB, sizeC, sizeD, sizeE, sizeF). Simply choose the option that applies to your size and ignore the rest.

Pro tip: highlight your size

If you’re working from a printed pattern or book, it helps to go through the pattern before you begin and highlight or underline all the instructions for the size you’re working. This will help you quickly identify the number that applies to your size as you’re working. You can also do this digitally using a PDF reader program.

excerpt from a pattern with a size highlighted
An excerpt from the free Flax sweater pattern, with the instructions for size Adult XL highlighted.

Brackets that indicate you will repeat an instruction: [repeat this]

To indicate a repeated a set of instructions, Tin Can Knits patterns use square brackets [ ], round brackets ( ), or both. The set of instructions is called a repeat. Here is an example from the free Barley hat pattern:

Establish ribbing: [k1, p1] around

This means that you’ll repeat the pattern k1, p1, k1, p1, k1, p1…continuing in this way for the entire round. Some repeats are worked a specific number of times, and others are worked ‘around,’ ‘to end,’ ‘to next marker,’ or ‘to last 4 sts’ – as many times as needed to fit to a defined point in the row or round.

This complex example contains a repeat within a repeat, using both square and round brackets:

Increase round: k6, [k1, m1, (k2, m1) 3 times] to end

This means that you’ll first knit 6 stitches, and then repeat the pattern within the square brackets – k1, m1, k2, m1, k2, m1, k2, m1 – again and again until the end of the round. The round bracketed repeat (k2, m1) is set inside a square bracketed repeat [k1, m1, (k2, m1) 3 times] to save space and to make it easier to read. This level of complexity is not very common in our pattern writing, but it does exist!

Interpreting both uses of brackets within a single instruction

Brackets are starting to seem a little complicated about now, eh?! Well, we need both kinds because we often must describe both repeats and multiple sizes within the same line of instruction. Here’s an example from the free Barley hat pattern:

Set-up round: [k9 (10, 11, 12, 13, 14), k2tog, PM] around
[6 sts dec, 60 (66, 72, 78, 84, 90) sts]
Markers now separate the work into 6 equal sections.

This means that to work the set-up round, you will repeat the instructions contained within the square brackets as many times as you can within a single round because ‘around’ means the same as ‘to end of round.’ For the Adult S example, you would k12, k2tog, PM, and then repeat that same pattern – k12, k2tog, PM – as many times as will ‘fit’ in the 84 sts you have on the needles. Because this repeat uses 14 stitches, it will repeat 6 times, i.e., 84 total sts / 14 st repeat = 6 repeats).

The conventions described in this tutorials are the ones used for Tin Can Knits patterns. However, keep in mind that while all knitting patterns require ‘repeating’ of instructions, different pattern writers use different conventions. For example, it’s relatively common to use an asterisk * instead of brackets to indicate the beginning of a repeat. For example:

Next Round: k3, *k3, yo, ssk, k2tog, yo, repeat from * to last 6 sts, knit to end

This would be worked the same as k3, [k3, yo, ssk, k2tog, yo] to last 6 sts, k6.

Brackets around stitch counts

Not to be confused with repeats or multiple sizes, brackets are also used to define stitch counts within our patterns. Stitch counts are often given after an instruction that results in a change to the stitch count on the needles. For example:

[2 sts decreased]
[12 (14, 16, 18, 20) sts]

These brackets aren’t really doing much but visually separating the stitch counts for the rest of the active pattern instructions.

Nearing the finish line!

Now that you’ve learned how to interpret the pattern size and materials section, how to read pattern abbreviations and charts, and how to read the pattern text itself with its many sizes and types of brackets, we have just a couple more tips to help you make sense of knitting-pattern finishing instructions.

We hope this in-depth review of pattern reading is helpful to beginner knitters who find the semantics of patterns difficult to follow!

~ Emily and Alexa

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