How to read knitting patterns: 9 top tips

Whether you want to make something for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, knowing how to read a knitting pattern — whether it is a text version or a chart — will help you achieve success!

If you’ve ever been disappointed in a knitting pattern because the instructions are not clear, let me help you decode the language of knitting in this blog post so you can achieve the effect you desire!


1. Knitting pattern basics

Knitting patterns state the materials required for each size (if more than one size is available).

It’s important to select the correct materials: sufficient yarn, the weight of yarn, matching dye lots, knitting needles, etc.

If there are several sizes, the instructions will given the larger sizes in brackets: cast on 54 [58, 64] means cast on 54 stitches for the first size, 58 stitches for the second size and 64 stitches for the third size. Where only one number is given, it applies to all sizes.

Here’s the front page of a Crafty Cavy knitting pattern, which shows a photo of the finished item, the materials and equipment needed and other relevant details. 

Knitting pattern example

2.​ Tension

Tension (US gauge) is important as it will determine the size of the finished item. Do not make a larger or smaller size if your tension is different! Change the needle size until you achieve the required tension. Tension is usually given as a specific number of rows and stitches over 10 cm (4 inches) in the pattern stitch, although some patterns will give the tension in stocking stitch or garter stitch.

It’s best to work a tension square with more stitches than specified for the tension square so that you are not measuring right up to the edge stitches as this may give an inaccurate reading. Tension is important to achieve a garment that is the right size. As I’ve already mentioned, don’t work a larger or smaller size if your tension is too tight or too loose! While the bust or chest measurement is important for a good fit, the length of the arms or the width of the shoulders needs to be in proportion, so it’s important to work the right size with the correct tension. 

In some patterns (for example, the knitted forget-me-not) tension is not critical as the finished item only needs to be an approximate size.

Knitting - measuring tension (gauge)

3. Abbreviations 

Most patterns use standard abbreviations for common stitches: K = knit, P = purl. The abbreviations will also include increases and decreases if required. Where there are specific techniques, these will be listed as special abbreviations and could include cable stitches, bobbles, knitting into the back of a stitch, knitting into a stitch in the row below, for example.

Abbreviations for knitting patterns

Many abbreviations are standard, such as “k” for knit and “p” for purl. Sometimes there are stitch variations that are used for a particular pattern, and these are listed as special abbreviations. In the forget-me-knot pattern, for example, there is an unusual decrease that is used, so there is a description of how the stitch is worked and it is given its own abbreviation. This saves writing the description in full every time this particular stitch is needed.

Special abbreviations for this specific pattern
In patterns with more than one colour, the different colours may be specified (e.g. blue and yellow for the forget-me-not design) or identified as main colour (MC) and then a number of contrast colours (C1, C2, etc) within the pattern.

4. Pattern pieces 

In a pattern for a garment, the individual pattern pieces will be given, stating how many are to be made, for example for a cardigan: back (make one), left front (make one), right front (make one), sleeves (make two). Some patterns will give a schematic diagram to illustrate the shape of each pattern piece, together with the measurements for each size.

Knitting pattern piece diagram

5. Reading the pattern

Usually knitting patterns are written using abbreviations as outlined above. Sometimes charts are used in addition or as an alternative to written instructions.

Written patterns are read as a series of steps, one after another, starting with casting on, following the directions for each row, then finally casting off.

If there are several different pieces, the pattern will include assembly instructions.

The forget-me-not design is a little different, in that the remaining yarn is threaded though the final stitches rather than casting off.

Knitting instructions

6. Reading knitting charts

Knitting charts are read from the bottom up, so that the chart appears as the knitting will look on the knitting needles. A knitting chart will give an idea of what the finished pattern will look like, which is a bonus.


Knitting chart

7. Lacy wave pattern

The first thing we need to do is familiarise ourselves with the abbreviations that appear in the pattern, whether we are using a written pattern or a diagram. Some designs will use both; this can be helpful in clarifying how the item is made.


  • K = knit
  • K2tog = knit 2 together
  • K2tog tbl = knit 2 together through back of loops
  • P = purl
  • yo = yarn over
  • * marks point from which to repeat
Grey knitted shawl

Cast on a multiple of 11 stitches, plus 2 (one edge stitch at each side). Note that this does not mean cast on a multiple of 13 stitches.

  • For a single pattern, cast on 13 stitches (11 plus 2);
  • for two pattern repeats, cast on 24 stitches (11 times 2, plus 2);
  • for three pattern repeats, cast on 35 (11 times 3, plus 2);
  • for four pattern repeats, cast on 46 (11 times 4, plus 2)…
  • etc, adding 11 stitches for each pattern repeat.

The tension will help you decide how many repeats are needed (e.g. for the width of a scarf, or he width of a jumper).

Repeat the four rows of the pattern until you have the required length.

  • Row 1: K1, *(K2tog, K2tog, yo, K1, yo, K1, yo, K1, yo, K2tog tbl, K2tog tbl) repeat from *, K1
  • Row 2: K1, Purl to last stitch, K1
  • Row 3: Knit to end
  • Row 4: Knit to end

8. Reading the chart 

Read the chart from the bottom to the top (as working the first row, then the second row).

Read the first row right to left, then the second row left to right.

Some patterns will only give right side rows if the wrong side rows are the same (e.g. purl only).

The pattern repeat is outlined in bold (matching repeat from * in the written pattern). 

Now we can see how the written pattern means the same as the pattern diagram, it’s just presented in a different way.

Knitting chart

The first row of the written pattern:

  • Row 1: K1, *(K2tog, K2tog, yo, K1, yo, K1, yo, K1, yo, K2tog tbl, K2tog tbl) repeat from *, K1

uses abbreviations that describe the stitches shown in Row 1 of the chart.

The written pattern is worked the the top down — in the way we normally read text.

The pattern chart is read from the bottom up, reflecting how the knitting is worked.

Although the written pattern and the chart look quite different, they are just alternative methods of describing the same stitches.


9. Adapting the pattern

You might want to create a border around the lacy wave pattern, for example garter stitch at each side and at either end for a scarf or a wrap.

Garter stitch border

Add additional edge stitches to make a garter stitch border (multiple of 11 stitches plus 10, for 5 each side). 

Work several rows of garter stitch to create a border before and after the pattern (top and tail). 

Repeat the four rows of the pattern until you have the required length. Cast off after garter stitch border has been worked.



10. Summary

As you can see, knitting patterns can be written in standard abbreviations or using diagrams. Whichever you prefer, follow the instructions carefully to achieve the desired result. As you gain in confidence, you can adapt patterns to suit your personal preferences!

If you’re interested in learning to knit, or polishing your skills, I’ll be happy to help you in my classes.


Knitting pattern Collage
Simple Leaf - 2078

11. Browse Patterns

If you are looking for some patterns to get you started, why not browse the Crafty Cavy pattern shop?

Why not try the pleated headband? A free design from my pattern shop. Simple to make using on knit and purl stitches.

Another pattern that is easy but effective is the simple leaf; a crochet design to make in spring or autumn colours to decorate hats and scarves!

You might also be interested in joining the Crafty Cavy community, or pop along to my Crafty Cavy page, both on Facebook!

Share your comments

Do you prefer written knitting patterns or diagrams? Can you reading knitting patterns with ease, or do you feel you need a dictionary? Please share your ideas and feedback in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you!

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