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Reading Stitch Patterns for Knitting

Once you know how to knit and purl, you can combine these stitches in a seemingly endless variety of textured stitch patterns, not to be confused with garment or project patterns.

Stitch patterns are based on repeats — stitch repeats and row repeats. A given stitch sequence repeats horizontally across a row. A series of rows of given stitch sequences repeats vertically. Together they make up a stitch pattern that determines what your knitted fabric will look like: smooth or bumpy, cabled or striped, or gracefully lacey. Stitch pattern instructions show you the stitches and rows that make up a single repeat. For example, seed stitch has a 2-stitch repeat (knit 1 stitch, purl 1 stitch — k1, p1) and a 2-row repeat (knit 1, purl 1 for one row; purl 1, knit 1 for the second row).

Stitch patterns begin by giving you a multiple of stitches that make a complete repeat of the pattern — sometimes requiring a few extra stitches to complete a specific stitch pattern. When you make a swatch of a pattern in flat (row) knitting, cast on a number of the multiple plus the extra stitches the pattern calls for. For example, if the pattern calls for a multiple of 12 stitches plus 6, you'll cast on 18 (12 + 6) stitches, or 30 (24 + 6) stitches, and so on — just as long as it's 6 stitches plus a multiple of 12. In circular (round) knitting, cast on only the multiple of the stitch pattern.

Directions for stitch patterns can be given in two different ways: in written form and chart form. Written instructions tell you what to do with the stitches in each row as you come to them. A chart shows a picture of each stitch and how it's worked. Some people prefer written instructions, and others like to follow a graphed "picture" of the pattern. Nowadays, the trickier the pattern, the more likely it is to be charted out. Not true for vintage patterns, however. Being familiar with both ways of describing a pattern enables you to convert a chart into written instructions if you find it easier to work with words and, conversely, to convert into graph form a convoluted set of written instructions.

Following written stitch patterns

Written instructions give you row-by-row directions for a single repeat. They follow certain conventions and use lots of abbreviations. The key to understanding written instructions is paying attention to commas and asterisks.

What is written between commas is a single step. If you read the instructions "Slip 1 with yarn in front, k5," you would slip a stitch with the yarn on the front side of the work and then you would take the yarn to the back in order to knit 5. The instructions don't ask you to knit 5 stitches with the yarn in front. An asterisk (*) indicates that whatever follows gets repeated (rep) — usually the (*) indicates that what follows is the stitch repeat.

The following example shows a stitch pattern in written form:

Row 1 (right side): *K2, p2; rep from *.

Row 2 (wrong side): *P2, k2; rep from *.

Translation: On the first row (the right side is facing you on the first row in this pattern), you knit 2 stitches, purl 2 stitches, and so on, to the end of the row. (Your row would have to be a multiple of 4 stitches for these instructions to come out evenly.) On the next row (wrong side facing now), you begin by purling 2 stitches, then knitting 2 stitches, and so on, repeating this sequence to the end of the row.

Reading charted stitch patterns

Charts use a square to represent each stitch and a symbol inside the square to indicate how to work the stitch. Though there is no universally used set of symbols, each pattern that uses a chart will give you a key to reading it. Always begin by finding the key to the chart. Generally, if the first row is a right-side row, charts start in the bottom right-hand corner and read to the left. (If the first row is a wrong-side row, the first row of the chart reads from left to right.) If there is patterning on the wrong-side row, the second row is read from left to right. If the wrong-side row is a plain purl row or a knit row, the wrong-side row will not be charted and all the rows will be read from the right to the left.(

The most important thing to remember about charts is that they represent the pattern of the knitted fabric as you're looking at it — the right side of the fabric. This means that on wrong side rows (from left to right) you must purl any stitch that has a knit symbol and knit any stitch that has a purl symbol. This isn't difficult once you get the hang of it. The pattern key will remind you. Of course, if you're knitting in the round, you can follow the chart without worrying about whether you have the wrong side or right side of the fabric facing.

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