How to Read Japanese Knitting Patterns

It’s fascinating how Japanese knitting patterns can convey lots of information in a succinct form of a drawing with a few notes. The biggest challenge, of course, is to decipher it into actionable instructions. It is especially challenging for those of us who are used to written instructions because Japanese patterns are very different in both the way they provide information and the way they are structured. 

Let’s take a look at one of the patterns and try to understand how to read it. The pattern I’ll be using as an example comes from the book Japanese Knitting: Patterns for Sweaters, Scarves and More by a renowned Japanese designer michiyo. 

All 23 patterns featured in this book have an unmistakable minimalistic aesthetics that we often see in Japanese designs. Several projects have an unusual construction that allows them to be worn in a few different ways. 

The poncho/cardigan pattern that we are going to analyze in this tutorial is one of those projects. It’s a poncho that has a hidden fastener at the neckline. When you close the fastener and turn the poncho to the side, you can wear it as a loose cardigan.

In addition to an uncommon construction, this poncho/cardigan is knit using several stitch patterns and stripes in three colours. Even though the project is quite complicated, the pattern takes up only two pages – an outline of the materials required for the project, two drawings with notes and one chart.

The section that explains what yarn, needles and notions we would need for this project is quite easy to understand. No hidden messages there 🙂 

The only thing that struck me (in a good way) is the fact that the designer not just tells you what yarn she used, but also explains how to substitute the yarn in case you decide to use a different yarn. I find that very helpful and knitter-friendly.

A short section of written instructions is also pretty straightforward. It provides a general overview of the knitting process and notes about finishing. This section is followed by a small chart that shows cm-to-inch conversion. It’s very helpful if you think in inches because the measurements provided in the pattern are in centimetres.

And then we get into the uncharted waters of pattern drawings.

Here’s a video tutorial that demonstrates each of the steps described below.

When we first look at a Japanese pattern, those drawings and charts could seem a bit scary at first, but once we find the starting point, the instructions unveil in a logical easy to understand way. The starting point is the key!

Don’t let the unusual representation overwhelm you. When you look at a Japanese pattern, find the words “cast on” first, and then find an arrow that shows the direction of knitting.

It all starts to make sense from there. Place your finger on the cast on and slowly move it in the direction of the arrow (here’s how). As you move your finger, pay attention to the changes in the pattern.

In our example, you will see two lines that mark sections worked in different stitch patterns – first in ribbing, then in stockinette stitch, and eventually in a textured stripe pattern.

Look at the right and left sides of the pattern, and you will see how long you should work in each pattern. As you see from the photo above, the pattern instructs us to use the yarn in main colour and work in 2×2 ribbing for 4.5 cm (12 rows), then in stockinette stitch for 3 cm (8 rows).

Another thing you can see from the first part of the pattern is that when we work in 2×2 ribbing, we should start with 3 knit stitches, then work 2 purls, 2 knits and so on. All that information is shown in form of little vertical and horizontal stripes at the bottom.

If you are not familiar with charts, all symbols are explained in the “Knitting Basics” section at the back of the book. Here’s a tutorial that explains the general guidelines for reading charts. I hope you will find it helpful.

Knitting symbols are used quite often in Japanese knitting patterns. For example, instead of explaining that we should “work in established pattern to the last 4 stitches, then make a “knit 1, slip 1, psso” decrease and knit the last two stitches”, the pattern shows three simple symbols that illustrate a decrease and two knit stitches at the very edge of the neckline.

And of course, the stitch patterns are also shown as charts. Because this project is worked in several colours, the chart shows stitch patterns and colours at the same time. This way of visual representation makes it almost impossible to forget to change the colour. Just one quick look at the chart will help you understand how colours are arranged and when it’s time to move between colours or/and stitch patterns.

To make the chart less cluttered, the designed even omits numbers of most rows. She assumes we are smart enough to see that each stripe is made by four rows, so she doesn’t see the need to number every one of those rows. I find that incredibly empowering 🙂

In many ways Japanese patterns are like puzzles – they seem mind-boggling at first, but bring lots of joy once we understand how they work and put all pieces together in the right order. Considering that knitting in general also brings us joy, following a Japanese pattern is a “joy to the power of two” 🙂


If you enjoyed this tutorial,
here’s something else you might find helpful:

“Neat Side Edges” Book

Learn twelve ways to make side edges of a knitted project nice and tidy. Plus, ways to fix side edges, and a way to improve edges of finished projects.


Happy knitting!

Maryna Shevchenko - www.10rowsaday.com

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How to read Japanese knitting patterns | 10 rows a day