The Chart’s the Thing: Tips on Reading Knitting Charts

Sandi’s recent blog (“What’s on My Needles“) got me thinking about what’s in my UFO (unfinished object) pile.

My “pile” is less like a pile and more like a parade of different sizes of Ziplock baggies overstuffed with yarn, patterns, and projects on the needles—all shoved on a shelf in my storage room. (No wonder I don’t have any 7s available! I must organize my stash and UFO situation, but that’s a different day and a different post!)

Among several items in my UFO collection, I found a lace cardigan. It’s black, which I think is the main reason it’s still in the UFO pile. I love the pattern and the idea of a black lace cardigan, but my old, tired eyes have a hard time seeing the stitches. Lacework just compounds that problem for me.

I’ve worked on just a few big lace projects, and the majority of those have been written out line by line. For some reason, most of the projects I’ve worked on that could be charted (cable and lace projects) have row-by-row instructions instead. And if a chart is offered as well, I opt for the written directions instead.

I can use colorwork charts with no problems, but pattern charts are harder for me because I’m not that great of a “memorizer.” I have to really make an effort to memorize charts, pattern repeats, phone numbers, you get the picture. (Maybe that’s why I can’t play a single song from memory on the piano after years of piano lessons. . .) I find myself constantly going between the symbol key and the chart, losing my place visually. Simple colored squares are so much easier to follow!

I’ve taken to coloring in pattern charts and coloring the keys to match, somehow that color cue makes it easier for me to memorize. It might be the years of cross-stitch I did before taking up knitting. Whatever, though—it works!

I was looking through my back issues of Interweave Knits recently, and I came across this article on reading charts, “Making Sense of Symbols: A Guide to Reading Charts,” in Interweave Knits Summer 2000. Ann Budd wrote it, and as with all of her information, it was very helpful for me. In her article, Ann says, “Charts have several advantages over row-by-row knitting instructions written out in words: They let you see at a glance what’s to be done and what the pattern will look like knitted; they help you recognize how the stitches relate to one another; and they take up less space than written instructions.”

Armed with this information, I picked up my black cardigan, situated myself under a light, and used the chart instead of the written instructions. The symbols were easy to recognize since I already had a couple complete repeats done. As I worked the row, I could see the pattern emerging and I found I was anticipating the upcoming stitches. The visual aid of the chart was helping me memorize the pattern. Bonus!

So check out Ann’s article, I think you’ll get some good tips, too.

And here’s a tip from me: Use a Post-It note to keep track of your rows—if you place it above the row you’re currently working on you can see the rows already completed on the chart. These will correspond to your knitting, so you can see the pattern on both the chart and the knitted piece.

And take some time every once in a while to look through your old magazines—I usually find a few gems I didn’t notice the first time!






Other Things You May Like to Check Out:


Knitting Daily Blog, Reading Patterns
Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

61 thoughts on “The Chart’s the Thing: Tips on Reading Knitting Charts

  1. I have found that when working with black, either black fabric for counted cross stitch or a dark yarn lacy pattern, it helps to have a light above and below, especially if you’re knitting in a room that is not all that well lit (such as when my husband is watching TV and doesn’t want the bright overhead light on – go figure). It really helps see the pattern emerge.

  2. Kathleen, I’m not surprised you’re having a hard time seeing your stitches–the yarn color and the needle color are too similar. I’d suggest you switch to a needle of a contrasting or at least a much lighter color. I’m having the same problem right now with plum-colored yarn on dark red needles, unfortunately the only ones I have in the right size in my collection. I’ll be in my LYS this weekend hoping for silver.

    Kathy Almeida

  3. I alwasy make a copy of the chart that I then color in. As I finish a row I can cross it off with a black marker. That way I can safely leave a project and not worry about remembering where I was when I pick it up again.

  4. I bought a solid black music stand with a light and tied a thin piece of elastic around it. The music stand has a tray which hold various small items I need. I move the piece of elastic up and down the page to help me stay on the correct row.

    Now I have a specific place to put my pattern, it doesn’t fall off the small table, my lap or anything else. I can leave it and come back and everything is ready to work with exactly from where I left off.

  5. One handy transfer from counted cross stitch to working on knitting charts is a magnetic board. I use mine to keep track of the row I’m on, just like in cross stitch.

    I like charted patterns. I have a pattern written in Danish, and without the chart, I would be lost. This way there’s no question about when to decrease, or what stitches to do. (I don’t speak or read Danish, and the pattern is DMC but not printed in English.)

  6. Thanks for the tips on working with dark yarn and chart symbols… I think we older knitters face ‘sight’ challenges that younger knitters don’t. I’ve often been tempted to enlarge patterns so I can read them more easily with my 56-yr-old eyes. Or so I can read a knitting pattern AND watch TV without constantly flipping reading glasses on and off.

  7. about charts- you can also get a small magnetic board & magnetic strips to mark your row as you go. this works well & the magnets are pretty strong. the boards are also white eraser boards, so you can make notes!

  8. Thank you Kathleen for the wonderful article!
    I am just getting into reading charts and this article and tips from your followers will be so helpful in the near future. I wonder what your cabled cardigan will look like when you DO finish it SOON, hint-hint.

    Also, where is a pic of the complete cardigan? I may try my hand at something like this someday. Thank you again for the article, I do enjoy reading them.

  9. I just love getting your emails. I have been knitting for about 55+ years (amazing isn’t it) and I just always find something so interesting. YOu should be commended on your clear and insightful thoughts. Your tips are always helpful and your enthusiasm is catching.
    Keep up the good Work. Opening your email is one of my favorite things to do!
    Lindy Redmond

  10. I don’t remember where I got this idea but it works really well for me. I copy the chart; usually enlarging it so it is easier to read. I make as many copies of the chart key (which I sometimes have to reduce) as there are rows. Then I cut the rows into strips and paste each row onto its own 3×5 or 4×6 card (depending on the complexity of the project) with a copy of the chart key and number each card with its row number. I punch a hole in the upper left corner of the cards and clip them together. I use a small carabiner, but a key ring, curtain rod ring or something similar would work too. Then I just flip the cards as I do each row. I find it so much easier than trying to keep a note, magnetic strip, etc. in place. I always know what row I am on by which card is on top. I also copy and paste a picture of the pattern on the back of the last card. I love the idea of coloring the chart to make it even that much easier to recognize. I am off to do that now for all my charted knitting cards which I keep to re-use. Thanks Sandi for the tip.

  11. I also think the fact that I learned to crochet (written instructions) when I was a child and no knitting until I was 20 influences me to use the written knitting instructions rather than the charts. I can use a chart, I just don’t like to.
    Ruth Spears

  12. Hi Kathleen, could you show us a photo of your black lace cardigan and tell us how to get the pattern? Sounds like something that would be perfect for my wardrobe. Thanks!

  13. With my “aging” eyes, I find I can knit with black only during daylight hours. For me, sunlight is the best light for knitting dark colors — even better than the lamps that mimic sunlight. Regular incandescent or fluorescent lighting do not provide the same great contrast, no matter how high the wattage.

    Also, re the charts. I have long done the same as you — coloring them in — but first I enlarge them on my computer printer. Another convenience for the eyes. More important, the process of coloring the charts helps me to understand the pattern and makes me look up any unfamiliar stitches before I start knitting.

  14. Kathleen, I *love* lace…and apparently, I love *dark* lace. But you’re right: that *is* challenging on the eyes. Try placing a light background underneath your knitting and see if that helps any. I discovered this while working lace in bed….with my white comforter on my lap!

    Hope this helps some. 🙂


  15. I take lace charts to a copy place and enlarge them to 129% or so and then I color code the sections so it is easy to keep my place and to visualize the pattern. I thought that everyone did this!! Enlarging the charts and coloring them are great tools for making complex lace patterns easier.

  16. Thanks Kathleen! I also have a hard time memorizing and working the correct cable when there are several in a pattern. I bet the color coding will help! This has been a big “duhhh” moment for me!

  17. As a longtime subscriber, I am always glad when you refer to a specific issue, thereby validating my huge stash of I.K magazines. I also enjoy the T.V. show.


    Carolina Moon

  18. Thank you, Kathleen! This article and some of the others you’ve been writing recently have been soooo helpful!
    I’ve stayed away from chart patterns because I’ve been a bit unsure how to tackle them. Reading directions is easier for me but there’s some nice patterns out there all done in chart form.
    I downloaded Ann Budd’s article. Thanks for that, too. There’s so many valuable articles in Interweave Knits.

  19. There is no need to memorize anything! I don’t understand the need some knitters have of ‘memorizing’ a pattern. Why? It’s right there in front of you.. nothing to memorize. And the chart is indicative of what the stitch looks like: the YO is a circle, or sometimes shown as an inverted U, just like the stitch; the single decrease shows two stitches joined into one, leaning to the right or left just like the stitch, the cables are crossed, just like the stitches, etc. It’s so easy! And as you say, you can anticipate the next stitch or two because you can see the rows below, especially with lace. It’s very intuitive. There simply is no need to use written instructions ever. I can’t understand them anyway. It’s a waste of time, and paper.

    Oh, the joys of working with black yarn! I could only work in daylight –no matter how bright the lights were at night, I just couldn’t see it well enough to work on that lace of 1200+ stitches! Thank goodness for charts!

  20. Kathleen- finding you has been pure JOY! As a “novice” knitter, I never feel alone or stuck- you always help me out! I love lace knitting, but I am not a memorizer- I opt for written instructions too. Put a new afghan project on the UFO shelf- because no written instructions! But, now I think my tired eyes will find that color coding very helpful! THANK YOU

  21. When I work on a project that has multiple charts each with a different number of rows, I make up an excel spreadsheet showing which row I should be working on on each chart. I’m currently making Alice Starmore’s St. Ciarian and ended up with 7 pages of this. I can now put my knitting away and work on an easier project for a while but can come back to this shawl any time and pick up where I left off.

  22. For those of you with iPhones or iPod Touches, there’s a great application for keeping track of your knitting. It’s called Stitch Minder and will keep track of Rows Completed, Pattern Row, Pattern Repeats and Increase Row. It is easy to use and the screen stays up so you don’t have to keep turning the phone on. Another great app is KnittyBag, which lets you list all the needles in your collection. There are separate lists for Straight, Double Pointed, Circular and Crochet Hooks. In addition there is a glossary of abbreviation that is very helpful. I love this app because it keeps me from buying duplicate needles when I’m at the yarn shop.

  23. I’m the opposite: if a pattern doesn’t have a chart, I won’t knit it! I get soooooo lost trying to keep track of line-by-line instructions — can’t keep track of what line I was on and where in the line — uch! Charts are way easier. And when I’m interrupted — which I always am! — I can see at a glance what I was doing and where I was.

    Frankly, I just don’t get why people are so afraid of charts. There are only a few symbols to learn — and they look just like what you’re doing — and only occasionally an oddball maneuver, which you’d want to look up anyhow. What’s the problem?

  24. I find a post it works great for small repeat patterns but if you are doing a large row without a pattern like an afghan I have some clear plastic flexible rulers in various sizes. I attach one with bulldog clips to the chart right above the row I am working on. This way I can see not only what I need to do that row but can see that I am doing it above the right stitch.

  25. I love lace, but have decided that it isn’t for me.
    I can’t follow the chart and keep loosing my place. It is so frustrating.
    Your idea about color coding is giving me some hope.
    I will definitley try it.
    Thanks again, Kathleen, I have learned so much from you.

  26. I use a magnetic board that cross stitchers use when I knit from charts. They come with a magnetic ruler so is perfect for keeping your place. I’ve tried using sticky notes, but the sticky goes away and they fall off – hence losing my place. The magnetic ruler stays in place!

  27. with lace paterns, what I do is get a stack of index cards and number them, writing one row of the pattern on each card. THen I punch holes in the corner and join them on a ring.
    When there is a pattern on both sides (that is, not just purling back), I use 2 different colors of index card, one for the knit rows and one for the purl rows. I don’t use symbols, I just write everything out. If there are a lot of pattern repeats I use stitch markers or wond a piece of aaste yarn between the repeats.

    Works for me.

  28. Since you used to do cross-stitch you probably know this but other readers may not have thought of it; a white towel in your lap can help a lot in showing you where the “holes” in your lace knitting are and go.

    Also, highliter tape is fabulous for lace charts! It is see through so you can see the rows above or below (wherever you are placing it) and it lasts a little longer than post its do for me. Don’t you hate that feeling when you lift the pattern and the post it floats gently to the floor?

  29. Kathleen,

    Thanks for the great advice! I am a chart person the whole way. I used to afraid of them when I started knitting, but when I started knitting lace I realized that I would get lost with written patterns. I am a very visual person so charts help me to keep track of the stitches better.

    I will usually copy the pattern, or print it out if it is a download. Then I keep track of my progress by simply using the back of the paper. For example, if a pattern calls for me to repeat rows 1-20 of a chart ten times, I write the numbers 1-20 in ten columns and check them off as I go. If I have more than one chart to follow then I label them(i.e. Chart A, Chart B etc.) This way I know before hand how many I need to do and don’t have to keep checking.

    BTW, Knitpicks has this great little chart holder with magnets that you can place right below the row you are working on so you don’t knit the wrong row.

    Happy knitting,


  30. Thanks for the idea…coloring in the chart sounds like something I would do, if I had ever thought of it before! And the post-its to mark your place…I use those things for everything!!!
    Thanks again!

  31. Great tip, Kathleen. I prefer using charts and the post-it note to keep track of your rows is a good idea but I’ve found an easier way. I print my chart and slip it into a clear sheet protector, along with a thin 8″ x 10″ magnet board behind the chart. The chart doesn’t get curled on the edges and I can move the long, thin magnet along the rows easily. With the post-it method, I find the post-its need replaced when they start losing their stickiness.

  32. I put the pattern in a clear sleeve, and clip the sleeve into a 8.5×11 clipboard. Then I use a butterfly clip to clip a very thin ruler to the sidef of the clipboard. (Any thin but not floppy piece of straight plastic would do) and. I just loosen the clip and move the ruler from row to row.

    I know it’s hard to believe, but I only learned about magnetic boards a couple of months ago …


  33. Personally I’d prefer to be given the choice and was bitterly disappointed when my Nancy Bush books arrived in the post and they had only charts, no line-by-line patterns. I understand that free online patterns may have one or the other, but a published book? I’m now hesitant to buy Interweave books for fear that this is the case for all of them.

  34. Kathleen — tried to use the reference mentioned in your Sept 30 Knitting Daily, leading to Ann Budd’s chart knitting tips, only to find : “access denied”. What’s up with this and how do I get to your advice????? Thanks, claire

  35. once I became familiar with the symbols on the charts that I was using, it was really hard for me to go back to the written out instructions, sooooooo, I have taken it upon myself to transpose the patterns I plan to use into charted format. It is a bit time consuming initially, but certainly expedites the knitting of my project. I think that the time spent creating the chart balances out the amount of tinking I do if I don’t chart. Does that make sense?
    Here’s to ‘knitoglyphics’!!!

  36. Thanks for the tips. I do get lost in some charts and even with row counters, if I put my project down for a few days, oh no!

    Suggestion. If you are working on black, put some light/white colored cloth on your lap to you can see the stitches more clearly. I tried this with some socks and it was a eye-saver.


  37. I read thru’ all the comments and found that several people have discovered the magnetic board. My trick is to slip not only the chart, but the magnetic board into a clear sleeve and then it’s all together when you have to set it aside.

  38. I find that post-it notes don’t cover the entire row of a chart, I prefer using highlighter tape (any coloured, removable tape) all the way across so that it’s easier to see the whole row.

  39. I read somewhere that when your working in black yarn, it is good to place a piece of white cloth over your lap so that when you look down at your work you dont have any distractions of patterns/colours of your clothing, also the white cloth reflects light back at your knitting making it less of a strain on your eyes…..
    You might like to try that and share with us all if it works…..


  40. I like your comments on reading charts, but here is another hint. I use painter’s tape (it is usually blue) to mark rows. Post-it’s often fall off afer a few rows but this tape works great! You can cut it to the width of the chart, it’s not expensive and is sold in most department stores and hardware stores. So if you take your knitting projects along, painter’s tape stays on the paper more securely. Happy Knitting!
    Rita in Maine

  41. Gracias por su ayuda ,mi lectura en ingles me es dificil si pudieran dar la opurtunidad de que pudiera tener en espanol lo basico para tejer medias seria de mucha ayuda a aclarar mis dudas en mi lectura en ingles.No me pierdo un solo programa de ustedes me ayuda solo que en las medias estoy perdida.Su programa es exelente gracias.

  42. I use the Post-a-note trick also, but I enhance it a bit. I copy the chart and insert it in a plastic sheet protector, that way the Post-a-note does not pull off any of the toner and fade the chart over time. I also clip the sheet protector/chart on a clipboard. Thus it is easy to find and remains stable.
    Do you know about tieing a piece of string or thin crochet cotton on you sticth markers so that you do not lose it? This works very well on lace, and of course any thing else you happen to be knitting. I knit as much in the round as possible, and I use the stitch markers for the beginning of the row.
    L. Haverty

  43. Good to know about the white towel (my black cat will LOVE that!). I have a halogen headlamp always in my knitting bag that allows me to get a little extra light for dark knits any time, any place (usually in my or someone else’s home). And of course I have a daylight lamp by my knitting chair.

    I also swear by removable highlighter tape to mark my place in charts. It highlights my current row and doesn’t obscure the ones above and below, so I can see how my current stitches relate to those before and after them.

  44. kathleen…color seems like such a great idea….i can relate to the inability to memorize…or just “make sense” of where the y/o are needed….to “read” my work. anyway…….it’s the lac e pattern for the black cardigan that’s great….where can i get the chart for that lace???………thanks for your columns……look forward to all your tips………….j c

  45. I am a ‘Bobbin Lace’ lacemaker as well as knitter. Your comments on coloring a
    chart (or graph) are valid. Lacemakers are well acquainted with the use of color coding for recognition of stitches. Not only is the color code a great idea, but in lacemaking it is an international standard and accepted method of standardizing patterns.

  46. About reading charts, I also use a long post it strip to mark what row I am on and I also enlarge the chart on the copy printer so the symbols are easier to see.

  47. when i’m working with a chart( I love it!) I make sevral copies , then I color in with a marker as I go along, this way I don’t make mistakes and I always know where I am!

    Happy knitting!


  48. I read this article about reading from a chart and I have to say that I still find can knit best from written out directions. Could be some of us just have a problem visualizing chart instructions. I have been knitting for almost forty years and have only knitted from written directions. The charts (to my eyes and brain coordination) are confusing. With the written word there is no doubt what the stitches are and I can visualize the pattern from reading the written directions just fine. I have been crocheting for about 45 years and ditton on written crochet directions over a charted pattern. Guess some of us are just wired that way.

  49. Could you please tell me which issue of Interweave Knits Ann Budd’s article was in. Also, if the pattern is on the purl row as well as the knit row, do you read R to L and then L to R?
    Thanks, Margaret

  50. I know I’m responding to this late–I’m way behind on my e-mail but I couldn’t help but comment about the “chart” discussion. I am actually very good at memorizing patterns and for things like cables I find charts are useful. BUT!!! The big problem with charts from my perspective is that you have to A) read back and forth if you are knitting flat and B) you have to translate from knit to purl and also reverse other directions at times. That drives me absolutely nuts! It is spelled out in written directions but in a chart you have to consider, oh, gee, this is on the wrong side so it’s not a k2tog but a …..!