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Decoding Knitting Patterns

Decoding Knitting Patterns

While they don’t really use secret code, knitting patterns can appear as written in one. It can be especially daunting when the project involves new techniques, something you have never tried before but is essential to the design. This is what I am talking about today.

The conscientious knitter starts reading through the pattern, as often recommended, and soon feels quite uncomfortable because there is so much the knitter does not understand. Right there in the second paragraph the knitter is stumped by an explanation that ABSOLUTELY does not make sense. Doubt sets in. “Will I be able to do this? This is much too complicated.” Reading further only confirms what was already suspected: “This is too difficult, I cannot do this” and the lovely lace shawl/sweater/cowl (insert accordingly) project gets discarded.

This is quite a sad story, don’t you think? I know I cannot set a benchmark for what you should knit, but I do know about patterns. I can tell you ‘this is not a difficult but rather tedious technique’ (see the difference?), ‘this lace pattern is not difficult as long as you make sure you pay attention and count’ (so it is not TV knitting, but absolutely doable) – you only have to be willing. Willing to try and willing to learn.

Just to clarify, I am not talking about abbreviations used in knitting like CO, BO, k, p, k2tog etc., what I am talking about is paraphrasing the pattern itself.

Let’s start with very common use of phrases you are going to read in a lot of patterns:

Work in pattern/evenly until piece measures xx inches  This means that the piece should measure a certain length before you go to the next step in the pattern; please measure somewhere in the middle of your knitted piece and NOT along one edge. Edges tend to be a bit looser (hence: longer) than the rest of the knitting and you could be lulled into thinking you are already there, while when measured in the middle you are missing 3/4 of an inch. “In pattern” means do exactly what you have done so far, be it stockinette stitch, seed stitch or a cable pattern, just continue as started. 

– …ending with a WS row means exactly what it says: stop knitting after finishing the wrong side row. Then do whatever the pattern says next.

– *Knit to last 3 sts before marker, ssk, k1, sl m, k1, k2tog; rep from * 3 times more This is a very common description of raglan decreases, though the * is often used to describe something that needs to be repeated. You do as the pattern says, once you have arrived at ‘k2tog’ you start over at ‘knit to…’ until you have worked the required number of repeats, in this case 3.

 Repeat these two rows 4 times Read with care and figure out exactly what needs doing: you have worked 2 rows as instructed, be it decreases, increases or something else completely, and the pattern asks you to repeat what you did 4 times more. There.

 Repeat decrease row every 2nd/every other row 3 times more, then every 4th row 7 times more I picked decreases, it could be increases or any other shenanigan of the pattern, what it means though is: you just worked a decrease row, most probably on the right side of the knitting, since this is where decreases are usually worked, you are going to knit a wrong side row (which would be the ‘other’ or ‘2nd’ row), and then repeat your decrease row. You do that until the number (3 here) are complete. Then you work another decrease row, but instead of just knitting 1 wrong side row, you are going to work 3 rows even before you decrease again.

– Turn work I don’t know why, but this throws many people off balance. It means exactly what it says: turn the work. I think it is because we usually do it automatically, we read too much into it and think it means more than it does.

– With RS of work facing and beginning at the lower edge of right front... Some knitters read this and something in their head goes ‘information overload! cannot process!!’ Not so. First information is ‘RS of work’ – now every knitter knows what the RS of their project is, so go from there. ‘Facing’ means you look at it. If you don’t look at it, it is not facing you. ‘Lower edge’ – if you have been knitting on it, you’ll know where the bottom and the top is located. Here we are looking for the bottom. ‘Of right front’ – now, I will admit that can a be a bit tricky when you overthink it. You want to locate the piece that makes up the right front of your knitting when you are wearing it. If you pick the right front while the piece is lying in front of you on the table you are sure to pick the LEFT. Once you get all this sorted out – and it is easier than you might have thought – off you go!

– On beginning of next 4 rows BO 4 sts Other than decreases, bind-offs have to be worked at the beginning of the row. So at the beginning of the next row you bind off 4 sts, then you repeat that 3 times. Done.

 Using (insert according method) do whatever This means the designer has found a method she or he particularly likes for this part of your knitting. It doesn’t mean that it is a better method all over, it just means at this particular point for this particular design it is a good thing to use. If it is something you have never done before, well, here’s your chance to widen your knowledge once again.

Most knitting patterns rely on the same information in one way or another. Sure, some are more complicated than others, but the more you try, the better and easier you are going to understand the subtle variations and will know how to deal with them.

One of the best examples for puzzling instructions is the garter tab pick up for the beginning of a lace shawl. If you have ever knit a triangle lace shawl there is a good chance you were stumped by instructions like these – which in return are describing a quite simple thing:

CO 3 stitches.

Knit 6 rows.

Turn work 90 degrees and pick up 3 stitches into garter ridge edge – 6 sts.

Turn work another 90 degrees and pick up 3 sts into cast-on edge – 9 sts.

What it essentially means is that you knit a little garter tab (knit 6 rows) and then pick up stitches on two more sides of this tab to add to the three that are already there. To do this you have to rotate your knitting so you get access with your needle to pick up stitches and that you do twice.

Yes, I know. It still sounds like ‘blah, blah, blah’, so sit down and do it! If it seems that what you want to do is different than described in the pattern, do it anyways. Use your common sense  – I know you have it! – to try what you think is right. Sometimes only trying and trying again will get you to understand what to do – especially when there is no one around to help just this minute.

Another fact of my knitting life is that there are things I read in a pattern before I actually am at that point in my knitting and I go ‘HUH?’. Trust me when I say that most of these ‘huh’s’ go away on their own once your knitting has caught up and you realize that there is really just one way how to follow the instructions and that is how you are going to do it.

What you should never forget is that knitting gives you the perfect opportunity to try out new things. If it is wrong, you can undo. If you have to do it three, four or maybe even five times until you figure it out or it is perfected, that is ok also. And if you are really, really stuck – we’re here to help!

Originally published on January 31, 2013. Updated on March 23, 2022.