Whether we accept it or not, the truth is - knitting is heavily based on math. We constantly count stitches, add, subtract and multiply them, then divide them into pattern repeats. And same as we do in math, we use formulas in knitting. These formulas record the stitch patterns or colour patterns we use.
There are several ways to write these formulas:
a) with words - for example, [knit 2 stitches, make a yarn over, knit 2 stitches together], repeat brackets to the end of the row;
b) with abbreviations - for example, [k2, yo, k2tog], rep to end;
or (c) with symbols, like it is shown in the picture below
That representation is called a knitting chart.
WHY ARE THE CHARTS SO WIDELY USED?
The obvious reason is - charts are more concise than the written instructions. As you see in the photo below, the written instructions for the "candle flame" stitch take much more space than the chart that shows the same stitch. (I found it in "Encyclopedia of Knitting" by Donna Kooler)
Another reason - charts are more visual, they show how the stitch pattern looks, and that makes them perfect for more complicated stitches like the "candle flame" stitch above or lace stitches.
Let's run a little experiment. Cover the photo of the swatch and the chart on the above photo of the "candle flame" stitch. Now that you see only the written instructions, can you guess what does the stitch look like? Hardly.
Now cover the photo of the swatch and the written instructions, so you can only see the chart. Does it give you any idea of what the pattern looks like? Even if you've never worked with a chart before, you can probably see that the pattern looks like leaves divided by narrow vertical stripes.
That leads us to the most important reason - because charts show the stitch as a whole, we better understand it, can recognise the stitch pattern in our knitting and quickly catch mistakes (if they do happen).
Of course, you can do all that only if you understand how the charts work and you know what to look for. So let's take a look at the basic guidelines.
WHAT DO THE CHARTS MEAN?
Remember, charts are just a different way to record a pattern. They don't add or remove the vital information, they just show it differently.
Each little box in a chart represents a stitch.
The symbol inside that little box shows what kind of stitch it is. All symbols are explained in the "Stitch key" / "Key to chart" that comes with that chart.
In individual patterns, the stitch key will be right next to the chart (or somewhere close by). In knitting magazines and books the key is usually provided on one of the last pages, and normally shows all symbols used in all charts printed in this magazine or book. So you will need to find the symbols used in the chart you are working with.
Unfortunately, there is no unified system of symbols, so they could vary, and you have to find the stitch key to read the symbols correctly.
The pattern repeat is typically put in a bold frame (often in red colour), marked by arrows or highlighted by colour. You can see all three ways in the photo below.
There are probably other ways to mark a pattern repeat, but the 3 ways mentioned above are the most common ones.
Now that we know Why? and What? let's get to the big question:
HOW TO FOLLOW A KNITTING CHART
We'll start with a simple chart shown in the photo below (it comes from issue 54 of "Filati Handknitting" magazine).
First, look at the chart and the stitch key and understand what each symbol means.
Note, that the pattern repeat is marked by two arrows at the bottom of the chart. There are no markings at the top of the chart to tell us the number of rows in the repeat. That means the full length of the chart (8 rows) is one repeat. So here we have a repeat of 2 stitches (marked by arrows) and 8 rows.
Also, pay attention to the stitches outside of the two stitches marked by arrows. There is 1 selvedge stitch on the right side of the arrows, and 2 pattern stitches + 1 selvedge = 3 stitches on the left side. Altogether that makes 4 extra stitches we need to cast on in addition to the pattern repeats.
That means, that if you want to make a swatch with 5 repeats, you will cast on:
5 x 2 (the number of stitches in a repeat) + 4 (the extra stitches)
= 14 stitches
Of course, if you follow a pattern, you don't need to make these calculations. The pattern will tell you exactly how many stitches to cast on and what to do with them to complete the project. But it does help to know how to come up with the initial number of stitches in case you decide to test the stitch pattern before embarking on the project itself.
Now let's get back to our chart. Cast on 14 stitches and start working each stitch as it is shown in the first line at the bottom of the chart. This line is marked as "1" at the right side of the chart.
That means two things:
1. This line shows us how to knit stitches in the first row.
2. Because the row number is at the right side of the chart, we read this line from right to left.
According to the chart, here's what we do in row 1:
Knit 1 selvedge stitch (there are several ways to work selvedge stitches, the easiest is to knit the first and the last stitches of every row),
Then knit 1 stitch and purl 1 stitch - that's our pattern repeat, we repeat it until we come to the last 3 stitches (the "extra stitches" on the left side of the pattern repeat).
When we get to the last 3 stitches of the row, we stop working our pattern repeat and follow the chart again. The chart tells us to knit 1 stitch, purl 1 stitch and knit 1 selvedge stitch.
At this point your work should look similar to what I have on my needles:
Now turn your work and let's get to row 2.
When it comes to recording wrong side rows in a chart, there are two possible scenarios - the chart either shows the wrong side rows, or it doesn't.
Our chart follows the first scenario and shows us what to do in rows 2, 4, 6 and 8. We read it the same way as we did when we worked on the first row, but because the row number is at the left side of the chart, we read the chart from left to right.
Here's what we do in row 2:
Knit a selvedge, then knit 1 stitch and purl 1 stitch (the "extra stitches" on the left side of the pattern repeat), then work the pattern repeat (knit 1 stitch, purl 1 stitch) and repeat it until you get to the last stitch. Finally, knit the last stitch as selvedge (the "extra stitch" on the right side of the pattern repeat).
This is how our little swatch looks now on the wrong side of the work:
Keep in mind, that many charts don't depict wrong side rows. Usually, wrong side rows are omitted to eliminate unnecessary boxes and symbols and to simplify the chart. If the wrong side rows are quite straightforward, the pattern will simply instruct you what to do with them. It could be something like "On WS rows, k the knit sts and p the purl sts" or "Work the WS rows as purl".
Because the chart we are following shows all rows, we don't have to worry about special instructions in the pattern. We simply continue to follow the chart row after row until we finish row 8 - the last row of the pattern repeat.
Once you do that, your swatch will look approximately like this:
Then you start again from row 1 of the chart and keep knitting until you are happy with the length of your swatch.
1. To better see the row you are working on, cover the rows above it with a Post-It note or a magnetic guide. You can find one on Amazon or make it yourself.
I made a short video to show you how you can make your own magnetic guide at virtually no cost at all. Click here to watch the video
It is important to cover the rows above the current row (not the rows below it) to better see how the pattern builds up and how stitches are placed relative to the stitches in the previous row.
2. In some charts, there are boxes marked as "no stitch". It happens in cases when the number of stitches varies from row to row (there could be different reasons for that), and designers use "no stitch" to compensate for missing stitches in certain rows. If that happens, simply ignore the "no stitch" box and move to the next stitch in the chart. "No stitch" literary means "no stitch" :-)
3. If you work with wide and/or complicated repeats, it helps to divide repeats with stitch markers in your knitting. This way if you make a mistake, you will know it at the end of the same repeat because the number of stitches will be off. And as you know, the sooner you catch a mistake, the easier it is to fix.
To wrap up this topic, I want to tell you a few words about
THREE TYPES OF KNITTING CHARTS
It's not something you absolutely have to know to work with charts. But it definitely helps to understand what kind of chart you are dealing with, and what to expect from it.
The first and most common type of charts is used for recording stitch patterns (like the one we successfully conquered earlier in this article).
Other charts are used for recording colour patterns. Because many colour patterns are worked in stockinette stitch, a chart often doesn't have any symbols, just colour-coded boxes showing what colour to use when you knit each stitch in a row.
The third type of charts is used for showing how the project is shaped. Most often you will see a chart like this when you are making a sweater. The chart usually looks like a pixelized version of the front and back of the sweater, and you can easily tell how the stitches are increased or decreased at the sides.
Quite often two (or all) of these types are used together. For example, some charts show both the stitch pattern and the colours each stitch or row should be worked in.
Or a chart that shows both the stitch pattern and shaping of a shawl, like a chart shown in the photo below (it comes from "Vogue Knitting", winter 2011/12)