Staying Sane When The Instructions Get Crazy

Note from Sandi: Welcome to my little corner of Knitting Daily! Every Thursday, I'll be sharing stories of my knitting adventures, as well as some tips and tricks I've learned along the way. Thanks for coming by!

Reader comments: I loved the comments from last week! You all made me smile with stories of your own mistakes and how you dealt with them. Many of you also wrote about the tradition common to many cultures of putting a "deliberate mistake" into the work as a sign that "only God the Creator is perfect." In this day of factory-produced everything, sometimes it is reassuring to see a mistake–because a mistake means a human being, with actual hands and a heart, created that piece with intention and thoughtfulness, instead of a mindless machine. What a reassuring thought: Mistakes can actually connect us together in our creativity and humanity…


Twenty-Two Reasons to Let Your Husband Drive:

Row 1 (RS): Knit.
Row 2 (WS): Purl.
Repeat Rows 1-2 until 22 rows have been worked.

Hee! We're doing lots of long drives back and forth to the new house, which is an hour away, and I love those times. We get to be together and chat, I get to knit on the Star Light, Star Bright blanket, and poof! All those boring stockinette rows get finished before I know it. On to the next row of stars!

And now… Back to the little black Bolero from Interweave's lovely book Feminine Knits:

I thought I'd dive into the right front of the Bolero, since it was small and didn't have  a zillion rows of 2×2 ribbing to start off with. Good knitting after a long day of packing, right? I got all comfy in my knitting chair, got out a fresh ball of the lovely yarn, read through the instructions…and oh, rats.

I had forgotten that the instructions for the fronts of this bolero are rather intense. In order to achieve the graceful curve at center front, and the raglan shaping, and the side shaping, the instructions have you doing several things at once. You know that tricksy phrase "and at the same time"? It's in this one piece THREE times…"Do X, and at the same time, do Y, and when the front becomes Z inches long, do another thing, and at the same time as that, do A"… And Uh-Oh.

These sorts of instructions show up all the time in patterns, so many knitters have concocted ways to keep track of all this. I use my trusty Knitting Notebook (ta-da!) and usually I make little check boxes and whip through all that shaping in no time, enjoying the rhythms of the knitting as they change from row to row.

However, I'm in the middle of packing to move. I'm also going to Sock Summit this week, and a few little check boxes aren't going to do it for me this time.

Tips for dealing with "multi-tasking" knitting instructions

Maybe some of the following will seem obvious to some of you…but maybe not. If you have a method for dealing with complex pattern steps, share it with us in the comments! Meanwhile, here's how I go about making things a bit more manageable.

First, I write the pattern name and the pattern piece at the top of the page, and row numbers down the left side. It's a small thing, but it forms a structure for what comes next.

Then I start matching actions in the instructions with the row they are supposed to happen on. Example: If the pattern says: "Work an increase on the first row and every 4th row thereafter" then I write "incr"  on Rows 1, 5, 9, and so on.

It is important to note down each action on all indicated rows through the bind-off row BEFORE moving on to the next phrase and the next action. That way, you know you aren't missing something critical…like an armhole. 🙂

I continue noting down each subsequent action on the appropriate rows, adding rows numbers as the pattern requires. I keep track of right-side and wrong-side rows carefully, just in case I space out and miscount my rows (as I did with the stars on the baby blanket).

All of this takes a great deal of time and concentration, but I end up with specific row-by-row instructions for working the entire right front. And since I did the same thing earlier for the left front, I can compare the two row-by-row patterns to make sure the pieces are the same length, and to ensure that I have placed the increases and decreases correctly so that the pieces properly mirror one another.

And then…I sit back and knit away, not a care in the world…until I lose the notebook.

Rule Number One: Never Lose Your Knitting Notebook.

(I found it. The kitten had taken the spiral binding in his teeth and dragged it off to his lair, where he proceeded to curl up and take a nap on it. Very adorable. Very annoying, but very adorable.)

What knitting am I taking with me to Sock Summit? I am not taking the baby blanket, because it's white and I think six days and five nights with a bunch of sock knitters is just asking for Trouble Spilled on All Things White. I am not taking the Bolero, because there is no way I can follow all those intricate instructions while listening to Barbara Walker talk about her life. I'm taking a simple little project with me…that I haven't decided on yet. I don't know…what do you think? How about…a sock? 🙂



Knit with joy,
– Sandi

Next week: I'll give a little report from Sock Summit–I'm taking classes from Judith MacKenzie McCuin and Abby Franquemont, two Interweave authors; plus there's going to be Famous Knitters there, such as Barbara Walker, Meg Swanson, Cat Bordhi…and oh, yes. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, our beloved Yarn Harlot. Stay tuned!

P.S. Let me know what you think! You can leave a comment below or even email me at

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22 thoughts on “Staying Sane When The Instructions Get Crazy

  1. Hi Sandy,
    I’m afraid I’m chicken when it comes to difficult patterns–I admit that I don’t even begin! 🙁
    I do have a treasure trove of wonderful patterns for ‘someday’ (like your list on the receipt/now notebook) but, it won’t be any time soon….my 5 children range in age from 21 down to 7; everyone’s still at home (which is a blessing! but they keep me hopping) We’re a busy family and my usual knitting time is just before bed–when I’m so tired I’m cross-eyed! ha ha!
    I’ve resigned myself to simple patterns and lots of them–for at least the next 6 or 7 —10? years.
    Happy knitting to you! (and do tell us about Sock Summit–sounds like it’ll be fun.)

  2. Reason # 293 I love Ravelry: a blanket I am going to make required just such plotting out in a knitting notebook, but I didn’t want to take the time to do it, so I still haven’t cast on. Found a bunch of other knitters who have done this project already, and one had her plotting done in an Excel spreadsheet, and very kindly emailed it to me, thus saving me the trouble. Yay, sharing! Yay, social networking!

  3. Hi Sandi, first time commenter, long time reader, and I’ve got an even more neurotic solution that ought to make you feel better: I chart those suckers out in Excel, row by row. I’m a visual person so it really helps me to just SEE what’s going on and I can make lines through the rows I’ve done and, if I know the gauge and am unlazy enough to do some math, I can even put length “checkpoints” to make sure it’s going well as I go along. Plus, you can get color-coding crazy!

  4. I have a notebook too!

    I went from Post-It Notes, to a notebook to a notebook with graph paper. Now all of my little check marks can be kept in a row, and if I ever go to do the project again, my ‘notes’ are there waiting.

    Enjoy the Summit!

  5. Dear Sandy…nice to know I’m not alone…as a very long-time knitter, my knitting friends have ofter heard me whine about a pattern…”you know it’s one of THOSE patterns….you knowi ..t’s an AT THE SAME TIME pattern”…as if this pattern writer thinks that everyone enjoys the challenge of multi-tasking…I finally realized it’s just that designer or publisher don’t feel like writing out row by row instructions either!!!…I’ve basically used the same trick as you over the years… just need the patience to write out your own row by row instructions one segment at a time…once you’ve done that it really is a breeze….when I’m done I staple my notebook instructions with the pattern for the future….now that I use many patterns stored on my computer instead of paper patterns, I’ve started to do the same process on an excell spreadsheet and then save that in the pattern file….I encourage everyone to do one of these patterns at least once….you’ll be surprised to see how great you feel figuring it out..!!!!!

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has to write things down! If it’s a short repeat I just put it on a card by my knitting with a stitch holder to show the rs. For my long projects I create an Excel spreadsheet for the whole project. I am knitting an afghan that has 3 complex patterns, along with a right side and a left side. I just use the measurements to calculate the number of rows then create the Excel chart. Fort the cable I make footnote for a reference guide. I then print the whole thing, stick it in a clipboard with a pen and I can watch TV and not even worry about getting lost or missing a row. It just took a long time to figure out how to “Excel” 🙂 with my knitting!

  7. well….after reading about all you clever ladies and your cusomized notebooks and spreadsheets, I’m going to have to re-think my chicken-heartedness!!
    There may be hope for me yet.

  8. Helllo Sandy, Glad I’m not alone also when it comes to at the same time. Sometimes it is confusing, But I use a note book all the time. I hope you do let us know about the sock summit. Linda

  9. Great ideas Sandi. I don’t know how you manage to do all of this at the same time (moving, packing, knitting etc. etc.), especially with the Sock Summit going on.

    It was a pleasure having lunch with you at the Summit. I hope your move goes smoothly. The row by row instructions in a notebook is a great idea, I never really did it but I often get in trouble, so I will give your idea a try next time! Thanks!

  10. I love the notebook idea. I normally work out the instructions for the more complicated sections on a random scrap of paper, but it would be great to keep everything neatly in one place (why didn’t I think of that…)

    Sometimes my SI gets impatient when I knit in the car because he says I am missing the scenery. Grrr.

  11. Ok, so I’m on row two of a new sweater and this sounds like a great Idea and it might even make me forgo a frogging or two. My pattern calls for incs at about the same place. Have fun at the Summit, just take your needles they’ll have plenty of cool patterns and sock yarn there! You may want to put kitty in a carry on, much more comfortable and all that yarn…a cat’s paradise. LOL

  12. Dear Sandi,

    Fabulous idea. Thank you! This falls under the category of “why didn’t I think of that?!?!?!” I’m right in the middle of one of those patterns with lots of those pesky words “and at the same time” in it. I have been sooo very tense working the pattern, not enjoying myself as I could, because I’m terrified of missing a piece. I’m going right home tonight to write it out row by row. It will be sooo worth it to be able to finish the rest of the pattern with enjoyment!

    Thanks again!
    Danyelle in sunny Calif

  13. Hi, Sandy.

    I also use Excel to work out the multiple directions for complex patterns. I love to knit lace and this happens often in items like scarves where, working across a row, there is an edge, a border, a main pattern, the border again, then the edge again. With the sections repeating over a different number of rows. I label the top of the columns in the spreadsheet with the pattern section (edge, border, center, etc) then number the repeats down the column for one section, then go across to the next section and begin the different numbering. And so on. Eventually, most patterns will either end, or all the rows will align and I can begin at the top. And repeat down through the rows again.

    This system works well because I can use a magnetic board to keep track of the different repeats. I have a virtual “folder” on my computer where I keep all the spreadsheets I have made in the years. I also use this system to map out my own patterns. It helps me plan how the patterns repeats will compliment (or not) each other.

    Thanks for having this blog. I, too, have missed the voice of Sandy.

  14. Hey y’all! I just returned from Jamaica for 2 weeks 🙂 where it was too hot to knit – I’m happy to be home with my yarn, online knitting communities and Sandi in my inbox! I also find it really helpful to handwrite complex patterns, but I do it as I knit from a printed pattern or one saved on my computer. I like to keep track of what I’m actually doing as I’m doing it because I often make changes to the original pattern. This allows me to have a record of what I did so I can either repeat it exactly or make changes for future projects. I’ve been using Debbie Stoller’s “Stitch ‘N Bitch: A Knitter’s Design Journal” for a few years now and find it to be a great tool and resource. It even comes with a needle gauge and swatch ruler, which makes knitting a gauge swatch just a little bit easier to get through 🙂 This journal definitely keeps me more organized – I just have to remember to write it all down…
    <3 buddhafly

  15. I love that you use a notebook to keep track of intricate patterns. I am a pretty new knitter and have been using a notebook for all of my patterns until I get better at following along with the directions. I find it very helpful to be able to keep track of each row of a pattern and also note down any mistakes I’ve made of changes to the pattern.

    I also love knowing that I’m not the only one to lose my notebook!!!!

  16. I think whatever you decide on some extra yarn and paper for notes in case you want to make something they have there. but I do love doing socks. although right now I have 2 baby dresses working up. my own design. I have made 3 so far now and still have to make the other sizes to have at least 4 sizes if all sets work out.. fun!!

  17. ok after reading all of the posts I would love to know how JLC does a virtual notebook?? also how do you do charts for patterns in excel? I cant read a chart but I think I need to learn. making one out might actually help me learn if you use the same symbols?
    Thank you