Reading Knitting Charts

I love knitting from charts! A Knitting chart takes up much less space than written directions and it is a visual representation of what the pattern looks like.

In this article, I’ll cover the basics of reading standard knitting charts. Color work techniques such as fair isle, intarsia, and double knitting are usually done in stockinette stitch and the charts usually only show the colors changes. I’m not addressing those charts in this article.

Knitting Chart Basics

Knitting charts depict the right (or public) side of the fabric. Therefore, in the key you will see 2 instructions for some stitch symbols: one for the right side (RS) and another for the wrong side (WS).

This is often confusing to the beginning chart knitter, so it’s worth repeating. Remember, the chart shows the right side of the fabric, so each stitch symbol can have 2 different stitches associated with it: one for the right side rows and another for the wrong side rows. (Think about the fact that a knit stitch on the WS appears as a purl stitch on the RS.)

Each square in a chart represents one stitch. Some stitches, such as cables, span more than one stitch. Each stitch symbol is the width of the total # of stitches it spans.

The key (or legend) shows the symbols for the stitches used as well as the definition of the symbol. Sometimes the definitions are abbreviated in standard knitting pattern abbreviations, sometimes they are fully explained.

If you are using a paper pattern, highlighter tape will be very helpful. For charts, I position the highlighter tape right ABOVE the row I’m working on. That way, I can clearly see the current row as well as the rows below it that have been completed.

How to Read a Knitting Chart

Reading a knitting chart is slightly different when knitting in the round versus knitting flat.

When knitting in the round, read every line from RIGHT to LEFT. You always use the RS instructions for each symbol because when you are knitting in the round, you are always knitting on the right side.

When knitting flat, read the right side rows RIGHT to LEFT and the wrong side rows LEFT to RIGHT. In addition to remembering which direction to read the chart, you also have to remember whether to do the RS or WS stitch for each symbol.

Many charts have the RS row numbers on the right of the chart, and either omit the WS row numbers or, for pieces worked flat, they have the WS row numbers on the left side of the chart. That is a nice visual reminder for which side of the chart to read from.

Some charts omit the WS rows altogether. This is common if all of the wrong side rows only contain purl stitches. If a chart only shows odd numbered rows OR even numbered rows (but not both), it is only showing the RS rows.

Color Coding Makes Chart Knitting Easier

I like to color code my charts. You can use one color to highlight the RS row numbers and RS instructions and another color for the WS row numbers and instructions. You can also highlight stitches to help you see them better.

This graphic shows how I might color my chart:

  • Red for right side (RS) rows (and if there were specific RS row instructions, I would highlight them red too)
  • Blue for wrong side (WS) rows and instructions (and if there were specific WS row instructions, I would highlight them blue too)
  • Yellow for cable 4 left
  • Purple for cable 4 right
Knitting chart highlights

My RS and WS highlights might be redundant in the above example. In this example, the RS row numbers are on the right and the WS row numbers are on the left. However, some charts omit the WS row numbers or include them on the right in a single column with the RS row numbers.

More Visual Cues

I like charts for flat pieces that are number like the example above because the row number is on the side that you should start reading the chart from. It’s a nice visual cue to remind you which side of the row you should be starting on.

Notice also that the cables in the above chart are 4 stitches wide. You can tell this by looking at the chart because they take up the same amount of space as 4 individual stitches. You can also tell which way they lean by looking at the chart. The left-leaning cable has a wide strip leaning to the left. The right-leaning cable has a wide strip leaning to the right.

Many chart symbols look like the stitches they represent.

Pattern Repeats in Charts

Pattern repeats in charts are usually outlined in red. This is an example of a simple chart repeat:

Repeat the stitches outlined in red once (for a total of 2 pattern repeats).

The written instructions to make a swatch from this chart would be:

Cast on 18
Row 1: K1, p1, k1, (p3, k3) 2 times, k1, p1, k1
Rows 2 & 3: Repeat row 1
Row 4: K1, p1, k1, (k3, p3) 2 times, k1, p1, k1
Rows 5 & 6: Repeat row 4
Repeat Rows 1-6 until your desired length.
Bind off

In cases where there is a pattern repeat, the pattern instructions will tell you how many times to repeat the section outlined in red. In this example, the “(p3, k3) 2 times” in row 1 and the (k3, p3) 2 times in row 4 match the the pattern repeat instructions with the chart.

Using Charts In Combination with Written Instructions

Sometimes a pattern will have instructions such as:

Rnd 1: Work 18 stitches from chart A, p4, k6, p4, work 18 stitches from chart B
Rnds 2-5: Repeat row 1
Rnd 6: Work 18 stitches from chart A, p4, cable 6 left, p4, work 18 stitches from chart B

In this example, every round is the same except round 6. In cases such as this, I recommend you:

  1. Mark your chart every 6 rows to remind you to do the cable on those rows/rounds.
  2. Use stitch markers to help keep track of where you’re at. Refer to our Using Stitch Markers blog post for a full explanation of how and why to use them

Your First Chart…

I recommend that you start with at simple chart that also has written instructions. Grab some left over yarn, cast on 18 stitches, and try knitting a swatch from the chart in the “Pattern Repeats in Charts” section above, knitting the pattern repeat twice.

Cover up the written instructions so you are not tempted to cheat. If you get stuck, review this article to see if you can figure it out before looking at the written instructions.

Reading charts can be intimidating at first, but with a little practice you will get the hang of it and be whizzing through them with no problems.

Some of the projects in the Knit Along Club use charts. In addition to guiding you through every step of the pattern, our lessons help you to mark and make sense of those charts. Visit https://knitalongclub.com/ to learn more about our innovative way to help you become a faster, more confident knitter.

2 thoughts on “Reading Knitting Charts”

  1. When reading a chart as a left hand knitter…
    You need to read the charts “backwards” from left to right… Correct?

    And do cables opposite. I hold my work in the back when a right hander would hold their work in the front.

    1. Brooke, I believe you are correct on both counts. You would read charts in the opposite direction that they were intended to be read by most knitters, and you would do your cables oppositely (as well as doing ssk instead of k2tog and vice versa).

      For the benefit of other readers, I want to clarify that you are referring to a truly left-handed knitter; not someone who knits Continental style holding the yarn in their left hand and “picking” — as opposed to an English knitter who holds the yarn in their right hand and “throws”.

      Both Continental and English style knitters are typically knitting right handed. Left handed knitters (who knit in the same styles as right handed knitters, but with the opposite hand) need to transpose nearly all patterns, as you have alluded to in your comment.

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