Free EBooks



Knitting Patterns: To Read or Not to Read?

Jul 6, 2009

Yep, I'm the new girl here. It's my first week on the job in the Loveland office, and what do I find? A pile of books sitting on the desk. Of course, they're piled according to size and there at the top sits this little very bright green book of cartoons--It Itches, by Franklin Habit. I'm really not a big cartoon kind of person, but I it's so cute I have to flip through it. And what do I find? Appropriate KD content that is directly related to the post I was writing today! So I'm sharing two of Franklin's cartoons because they are just too darn close to my experiences with today's subject: Reading Ahead.

This was my process during the first year or so of my knitting career:

1. Choose a project.
2. Buy yarn, needles, etc.
3. Read the first line of the pattern.
4. Start knitting.

Although there are several problems with this process, the one I'm going to focus on is step 3.

Sometimes we're so excited about a new project that we dive right in and start knitting without reading through the pattern. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten to a point in the pattern and realized I needed to rip back because I didn't read what was coming next, or because there was some information hidden in the pattern in a place I didn't expect, or I thought I knew what kind of decrease to do but as it turned out, I didn't.

And let's face it, not all patterns are created equally. Designers have their own, unique methods of imparting information (which is part of the fun of knitting from a variety of designers' patterns). One time when I was knitting a pair of socks, I came across a line that said something like "if you're doing a larger size, add one or two stitches between each lace section of each line of the chart." This was on PAGE 3 of the pattern. That's right. Page 3. So, I had to rip out to the toe. Sad for me!

Lesson learned, though. I've changed my process to include reading through the entire pattern before I start knitting. I don't read word for word, I skim the pattern looking for key items like "AT THE SAME TIME" or "if you're knitting size L or XL" or "place X number of stitches on a holder," and while I'm at it I make sure I know what the heck the designer means when he or she says SKP or PSSO.

This has saved me from the frog pond so many times; it's worth it to spend that extra five or seven minutes reading. Let's make it a Knitting Daily standard practice: READ BEFORE YOU KNIT!

So that's my post for today and I'm quickly packing my bags to wing back home. But I grabbed It Itches off the desk and shoved it into my purse (I think it was meant for me to keep. . .) because it's perfect plane reading. And I'm hoping that my seat partner just might ask me why I'm laughing out loud so I can share some of It Itches with her or him. Grab a copy for yourself--it' a great hook to introduce someone to our wacky sense of fiber humor.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, I've also added the gauge swatch to my process, but that's another topic.)

Related Posts
+ Add a comment


LaurieA wrote
on Jul 15, 2009 12:56 PM

Dear Lovely Ewe--I HATE HATE HATE frogging, so I usually read the pattern 6 or 60 times, depending on complexity, and then underline the pattern, using a colored see-thru marker, and note any weird stuff in advance.  Sometimes, I write the rows on index cards for tough lace patterns, and make sure to put the cards to the back when I'm done with them.

Kathleen--you have some big shoes to fill (not that Sandy's feet are that huge!) and you seem to be doing a lovely job!  I also love the upper left-hand cartoon, and I have two cats who always try to insert themselves into my knitting!  It could be worse--my sister has seven!

LovelyEwe wrote
on Jul 8, 2009 10:34 AM

Kathleen Cubley has a wonderfully funny way of stating the obvious.  Which one of us hasn't over-zealously started a project without reading the pattern through and then frogged the whole thing and started over?  I plead "GUILTY"!  Thank you Kathleen for allowing me to laugh at myself and to know I am not alone.

SusanH wrote
on Jul 8, 2009 6:05 AM

Sometimes you even have to read other books before you start a pattern!   When I made my very first sweater, I read all the instructions, circled the appropriate numbers for the size I was making, and oh, so carefully worked my way through to the end where it blithely instructed me to sew up the seams.   At that point,   I found myself sitting on the living room floor with at least 3 different knitting reference books opened to the pages about sewing up seams.  A few paragraphs into the section of one of the books came the most important words suggesting that this whole process would be easier if you add one or two plain knit stitches at each end as you knit.  I spent the entire finishing process muttering and cursing and saying "Thanks for nothing."  Of course, now I always use these selvage stitches.  Unfortunately, I also still mutter, curse and shake my  head violently when I take that first sweater out to wear.  

on Jul 7, 2009 12:36 PM

You are right on!  I once knit a beautiful lace shawl, all the time thinking it didn't seem very big but hoping it would get bigger as I went along.  I was very dissappointed when I finished it and it was nowhere near the size of the one in the picture.  In rereading the finishing instructions, I found information on doubling its size at the very end.  I had skimmed the instructions before I started but missed that tidbit.  I would have had to take it out completely and start over so I gave it to a friend who uses it as a doily on an end table.  I hope someday to have the right yarn to try it again now that I learned from my mistake.

Lorraine@54 wrote
on Jul 7, 2009 11:33 AM

i have been there and done that!!!!!!!

MiaJ wrote
on Jul 7, 2009 11:26 AM

I also make a copy of every pattern before I start it and highlight the instructions for my size.  But I also love to read through patterns and envision them as they come off the needles.  I often read through patterns I know I will never knit for myself just because I am intrigued about how the designer created that look.  When I knit socks, which I have made dozens of times, I really enjoy the challenge of a new and complicated pattern, but I have the baseline knowledge of what the shape should be.  I think a lot of knitters jump to very complicated designs without getting that foundational knowledge that protects them from disaster.  

Mary Beth@10 wrote
on Jul 7, 2009 10:57 AM

This is my favorite Knitting Daily e-mail yet!!  I read the pattern first, also.

Linchad wrote
on Jul 7, 2009 10:22 AM


Now that I've made my unasked for comments, I'll respond to the question at hand!

I almost always read through the beginning page or two of the pattern, and then skip to any special element involved (perhaps it has a large collar, unusual bottom treatment, etc.). If I find they're straightforward, then I don't bother reading the middle pages until I work to that point. I love reading how a garment is "finished" - much like how a novel turns out! BUT, I never read  the end of a novel ahead of time.

Recently I was knitting a lovely lacey sweater/jacket that was knitted from the top down. No problem - those are fun. Unfortunately,when it got beyond the sleeves, it took a turn much like the first cartoon you published! I'm pretty experienced, but I never could see a way that made sense, so ultimately ripped the whole thing out.

I'm looking forward to reading your articles and wish you the very best!


VeronicaH wrote
on Jul 7, 2009 9:00 AM

Oh, how I wish that I could have a job like that,

JuliaH wrote
on Jul 7, 2009 5:26 AM

This article is well done!  I love the knitting daily articles, and am glad to see that your articles are obviously as educational/entertaining as Sandi's.

JoyJ wrote
on Jul 7, 2009 4:13 AM

that cartoon at the top left.. made my DAY!!!!!!!!

but on topic - I normally like reading a pattern before I start... helps me to visualize how it will look like. I have (recently) learnt to circle/underline the size I am knitting, so that I have underlined all the changes in stitches, length that I will have to knit.. so if I am making medium, I will underline everything that is needed, from stitches to cast on, length to reach, so that I can easily know my place.

Jeanne-Anne wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 10:15 PM

I read this and immediately went out to my public library's web site to put a hold on It Itches - and found someone else put a hold on it today, too.

I wonder . . .  : )

Thank you for the charming post and good reminder!! (I have got to start doing gauge swatches, too.) I am also enjoying all the other comments!

Lorette@2 wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 8:30 PM

You have raised a good point. A pattern that has secret elements that need to be brought to light ahead of time are obviously not well written. I have noticed that many  if not most of the pattterns offered as freebies are indeed not well written and need to be deciphered before launching into them. It is for that very reason that I am reluctant to buy the patterns offered by the same people as I suspect that they will be difficult to follow. I expect a pattern to tell me what to do when I need to do it. Just seems logica to me.


DianeD wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 6:10 PM

Dear Kathleen:   Welcome to Interweave - I hope you enjoy being here, there and everywhere and hope you enjoy reading all the comments as most of our knitters here have some great comments and great questions.    

We all loved how Sandy would pick one small item to teach us or get us to comment on, and I'm really glad you are continuing the galleries as they are fabulous for learning about knitting for different sizes and shapes.

I'm so glad you chose this topic about "reading a pattern"  as I've never used a chart before (and I still don't know how to use one) and I've always used patterns line by line (spelled out).  So possibly in one of your future posts, or videos, you can show us how to do that.  There are so many beautiful patterns out there and they all look so complicated on the pattern chart, I don't know where to start.   It would be very much appreciated.

I'm happy for Sandy and wish her well in her new endeavours, I'm looking forward to keeping up with her blog and I'm also looking forward to reading your posts and getting to know you as well.

Welcome again, and  Happy Knitting !!!    Diane

MyraJ wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 6:03 PM

Kathleen, you are doing a great job. Welcome to Knitting Daily. I hope you will come to love all of us, even those who hit send without reading what we wrote. Years ago I dubbed knitting without reading through the directions as knitting blind. I, of course, applied this label after several informative learning experiences. But, I am a process person as opposed to a product person so I viewed those experiences as more for my money. I am a huge proponent of swatches (that is my name for UFOs) and notebooks. My advise to new (and other knitters) is keep a notebook and most importantly make notes beginning the moment you begin the project. When you discover this UFO some months later you will really appreciate the notes.

on Jul 6, 2009 5:20 PM

BarbS@13 : I know what you mean. I don't really READ the pattern, but I skim it for those key words and phrases I mention in my post. That way, I'm not surprised when I come upon something I didn't expect.

on Jul 6, 2009 5:19 PM

Linchad: What an interesting comment. . . Your wish to see garments on different people is why we do the galleries. We'll have a new gallery when the Fall Interweave Knits magazine comes out and you'll be able to see lots of different sweaters on lots of different bodies.

Sandi is blogging on the site now, so you can look for her blog once a week.

BarbS@13 wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 5:09 PM

I'm sorry, but I just get discouraged AND confused when I try to read the entire pattern. I do much better if I go one step at a time. I've never had problems with this method.  Perhaps I am just a different sort of person than most?

Linchad wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 4:24 PM

What has happened to our other charming editor? I know, I receive this Daily - but am not good at remembering names, nor at reading all the comments


I'm sure this new editor will be delightful, but I really don't see why we needed a new one. Most of the knitting contributors are smallish, so, to be politically incorrect, wouldn't it be more prudent to have a smallish person as an editor?

Forgive me for my crass comment, but when we knitters look at patterns and envision how they will fit, we like to have someone average size to be our "comparer".

Certainly nothing personal about this very lovely person - beautiful smile! - but a valid question, I think.

My subscription to Interweave Knits has expired, but I keep meaning to renew and will. I have copies all  the way back to the first one..

I'm not being critical, just very observant.

Good work!

Linda Chadwick

on Jul 6, 2009 4:18 PM

I am 61 years old and have been knitting since I was 8, my Norwegian grandmother taught me and I can honestly say that I knit every day.  Whenever I start a new project, because I have not the best eyesight, I sit at my table and write the pattern out by hand in terms that I can understand with my size on a large tablet with a dark gel pen, put it in a see thru plastic sleeve with original in back and use a post it flag to keep my space on the plastic sleeve.   Sometimes I find that to be as exciting as starting the project.   Thanks for the great articles......

shiphrah wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 4:16 PM

This segues into one of my pet peeves (I have so many!) so excuse me while I rant: If it isn't charted and doesn't have schematics, I won't knit it. Period. The thing of it is, Knits used to be great about supplying both -- not perfect, as I'm thinking of the Ballet Wrap a few years back -- but now ... not so much. Yes, I know about the limitations of space and advertising and yada yada yada, but I could live without a two page spread on a garment if it meant that I could have the chart. F'rinstance, I love Annie Modesitt's tiered quasi-entrelac skirt and would have cast on in a trice -- but no chart. Wade through 3 pages of line-by-line "k3, skp, p2, yo, s2kp"? No way.

Okay, I'm done now!

Jamie wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 3:36 PM

I've learned to make a photocopy of the pattern and then use a highlighter to mark the directions for my size.  I also make notes on the margins about the exact number of rows I knit (it is far easier to sew together two garment pieces if they have the same number of rows!) and any modifications I make to the pattern.  I used to use post-its, but they sometimes get misplaced.

As back-up, I use a pocket calendar as my "knitting diary".  I keep track of what I am knitting on any given day and keep an extra set of notes about stitch and row counts.

For those patterns with errors (some DO exist), reading ahead and keeping notes of the changes/corrections I make is the only way I've found to still make a successful garment.

jbandmt wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 3:20 PM

It is so funny that you wrote this column just now, because my hubby's 90-year-old grandmother recently told me, quite firmly, to NEVER read ahead in a knitting pattern! She was adamant about this. She said I would just get confused if I tried to read ahead. I'm a beginner knitter, so I'll listen to anyone who has ever knit 1 and purled 2. But I have found that I can't NOT look ahead. I just won't tell Grandma.

Joan Leonard wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 3:19 PM

Other key words I look for when reading a pattern are, "but first..."  That one always gets me!

doc4dolls wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 3:08 PM

My daughter got me the book, "It Itches" and I love it. I also use my Knitting hand book all the time. I also have the Crochet one. They fit right in my bag where they are in reach. Linda

DebB wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 2:46 PM

Huh. My knitting process is more like:

Spend an entire day on Ravelry finding new patterns;

Go online and buy scads of yarn;

Fantasize about all the great stuff I will make while I wait for the yarn....

And then wonder what I was planning to do with it when it finally gets here. And then decide to go to Ravelry to look up projects, go online to buy yarn.....perhaps you can see a pattern developing

LeslieH@2 wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 2:24 PM

I have taught hundreds of beginner knitters though and I tell them to not read the pattern first.  It will just scare them because knitting is a new language.  You have to read the commas, spaces periods--all of it!

KiyokoT wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 2:18 PM

I think the advice to read before starting is more valuable the more experience one acquires with knitting patterns.  Sometimes a person just needs to work out the issues with needle and yarn in hand.  What my mind can't comprehend can become more easily understood when I actually work the instructions.

on Jul 6, 2009 2:16 PM

Madnitter: Love your attitude! I don't know if I'd be having the time of my life if I were facing those sorts of issues with a pattern. You must really be a fearless knitter!

VeronicaJ@6 wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 2:15 PM

Loved your article - it was dead-on. How many times have i started projects only to have to rip it out when further instructions were imbedded in the pattern. I'm an impatient knitter and want to start as soon as I get the yarn. I've learned.

on Jul 6, 2009 2:15 PM

LindaW: The cake story is hilarious. What a waste of some good whiskey!

on Jul 6, 2009 2:14 PM

Hi Sharon. When I see AT THE SAME TIME (it's usually in caps in the pattern), I expect to see something like armhole shaping and neck shaping being done at the same time. The armhole shaping is done on one end of a row and the neck shaping is done on the other end of the row. "AT THE SAME TIME" is a key trigger for me to read the directions carefully and be prepared when I get to that section of the pattern.

madnitter wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 2:04 PM

Sometimes it's not enough to read (skim) the pattern.  Sometimes it's necessary to check the math (yup).  Friends and I are having the time of our lives checking out a  lovely sweater pattern that doesn't add up,  Nothing in the published errata lets you know that (a) quantity of yarn is incorrect (b) no. of stitches after increases is incorrect on 5 of the 7 sizes listed (c) the number of  pattern repeats is incorrect except for the smallest size .  When we have it finished we likely will publish it on ravelry  along with photos of the sweater as re-written and as published.  

PatK wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 2:00 PM

@SharonR: I don't know about Kathleen, but when I see "at the same time," I usually get out the graph paper and start charting. Even for a relatively simple pattern, setting it down on paper almost always clarifies what's often confusing to my brain.

LindaW wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 1:57 PM

Since every designer has their own way of writing out patterns, I find that it's in my best interest to read, re-read, and then I type it out in a way that I can understand - using a large font, with lots of space in between lines. It takes some time, but it keeps me sane!

This reminds me of a non-knitting story. My aunt gave my mother a whiskey cake recipe, which read "after it comes out of the oven sit cake on the stove".  My mother took the cake pan, put it on a burner and lit the burner - only to find that the cake became so burnt that it had to be thrown away.  Hmmmm...she called her sister, who explained that since she had no counter space she let the cake cool on the stove!  

Always read - and ask questions if confused!


jane@209 wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 1:53 PM

What good advice! I am a new knitter (less than a year) and the introduction I had was when my mother attempted to knit me a sweater when I was about 11 years old. She completed the project when I was 13 and, of course, the sweater didn't fit. I have made every mistake possible including not reading through a pattern, and have learned from each one. Your website is wonderful and a great resource for me. Thanks! :-)

SharonR@2 wrote
on Jul 6, 2009 11:01 AM

I am interested in what you do next when you read the pattern and see the phrase 'at the same time'. I am always flummoxed by this phrase.