Decoding Knitting Patterns

Today there is no picture. Today is all about the written word!

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) pattern gets discarded and the knitter goes back to what she knows.

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.

When I have to do something like this I rely heavily on my experience and my common sense. Far be it from me to insinuate that knitters who do not understand these instructions have no common sense, I rather assume that they are so intimidated by them that it is just not available at this moment. I won’t deny that experience helps too, but then again instructions are written so that every one should be able to do whatever needs to be done.

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. I know I am repeating myself, but because it is true: look up this or any other technique you are not sure about on youtube.

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 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 ready to help!

Happy knitting, as ever!

– Mona

21 thoughts on “Decoding Knitting Patterns

  1. Laura says:

    Mona, I generally love your posts, peppered liberally with your sense of humor, and this was no exception! I laughed out loud when you write that we’re sometimes too intimidated by the instructions in a pattern that common sense just isn’t available to us at the moment. Priceless! Thanks for your great tips.

    • Tess says:

      Hello. I am stuck on a sweater pattern. It states repeat rows 3-4 for 20 more rows. Does that mean knit rows 3-4 10 times? ☹

      • Mona says:

        Hello Tess,

        Yes, that is exactly what it means. Good luck with your sweater!


  2. espacetricot says:

    Mona – LOVED this post! You managed to cover so many of the most common pattern-related questions we’re asked in the store – addressed in your own unique (and hilarious) style. Thanks, as always!

  3. Carolyn says:

    Mona: Here is my problem: I am making a sweater. I am at the raglan sleeve part. The pattern is telling me the following: “keeping patt correct , cast off 3 sts at beg. of next 2 rows”.
    My pattern is as follows: P1,(TW2L) K into back of 2nd st on left needle, then K into front of 1st st and slip both sts off needle together, P2 and repeat the TW2L. My question is: Do I make my cast offs over this pattern or do I just cast of with knitting. Any help would be appreciated. Carolyn

    • Mona says:

      Hello Carolyn,

      When a pattern asks you to ‘keep the pattern correct’, it usually means that even when you have to bind-off or decrease that the rest of the stitches need to be worked in the pattern as before.

      For your specific pattern it means the following:

      P1,(TW2L) K into back of 2nd st on left needle, then K into front of 1st st and slip both sts off needle together, P2 and repeat the TW2L.

      You are supposed to bind off three stitches – that means the p1 and the TW2L will be gone, and the next stitch after binding off is p1, the second of the P2. The rest of the row you continue the pattern as you would before. The next bind off will be on the wrong side, same spiel, just reversed (knit is purl and purl is knit – got it?)

      If you would feel better about binding off in pattern, then by all means do that. By working the stitches as they appear you are binding off in pattern and don’t have to worry about how they look. I usually bind off knit wise on the RS and purl wise on the WS – if it is a sweater piece that gets seamed to another, that is.

      I hope that helps!


  4. Christina says:

    You are awesome! I’m working on my first project where there are decreases and I hit an absolute wall when I read “work a decrease every 2nd row.” Whaaa? Does that include the WS rows? Is it two RS rows? And you clarified it PERFECTLY. Thank you so much!

  5. Debbi Gibson says:

    Hi Monaco,
    I am working on a cable cushion pattern and the instructions show an
    ‘a’ with ^ above it, followed by €.
    I have no idea what this means.
    I ve Google it but can find no explanation.
    Can you help?

    • Mona says:

      Hello Debbi,

      This sounds like the you are working a cable pattern from a chart, and whoever prepared the chart used combinations not commonly used in a chart.
      Frankly, I have no idea what this could mean, this is the first time I have heard of a ‘symbol’ (if you will) like that.

      I am very sorry that I am not able to help you with this,
      Kind regards,

  6. Julia says:

    Working raglan shaping pattern says
    Next row P2 K3 K2togtbl pattern to last 7 st K2tog K3 P2
    Next row keeping pattern correct work with no dec Repeat these 2 rows 19 times more, then work 3tog for raglan dec 7 times
    Does this mean 3tog on every row or alternate as the first bit?

  7. Margie says:

    Hi Mona:

    I just read your article about Decoding a Pattern which I thought was a God send because I’ve been trying to understand a section of a raglan sweater pattern for days. The pattern says to dec on 3rd (9th-5th-5th-1st-1st) row and every following 12th (10th -6th-4th-4th) row 2 (2-4-4-7-7) times more 57 sts.
    Can you please help me understand. I have an idea what I’m supposed to do, but the numbers in parentheses confuse me.

  8. Erica Cuthbert says:

    Hello , I’m knitting s jumper and am completing the front (I have knotted the back). So I am up to the shape neck and it states “cont in pattern without shaping until work measures same as back to beg of shoulder shaping , ending with a same pattern row” . Whilst I understand all of that except for the last part that states ending with same pattern row???? Not sure how to continue thank you erica

    • Mona says:

      Hello Erica,

      All it really means is that you knit the front exactly as the back – same number of rows, which should end with the same pattern row as the back!
      Let’s say the pattern is made up of 10 rows, and you started the shoulder shaping of the back on row 7. That means you want to start the shoulder
      shaping (or whatever the pattern tells you to shape) also on row 7 of the pattern.

      I hope that helps!

  9. Wendy says:

    I am knitting a pair of capri pants for my granddaughters barbie…I do not understand what is meant by this statement….please help me.
    Work 4 rows garter stitch (every row knit) Change to larger needles
    Work 4 rows ss
    Inc 1st at each end of next and every following 6th row to 22sts ending wrong side Work 2 rows ss*
    I have done the 4 rows garter and 4 rows ss but not sure how to proceed from there.

    • Mona says:

      Hello Wendy,

      At the point you are now with your knitting, you are going to start with the increases.
      “Inc 1 st at each end of next row” – this is the RS row and you want to work an increase (kfb, m1 – your choice) after the first stitch and before the last stitch
      “and every following 6th row to 22 sts” – before increasing again, you are going to work 5 rows after the last increase row and then increase again as before until you have 22 sts
      “ending wrong side” – after your last increase row you work 1 more WS row
      “work 2 rows ss” – work two more rows in stockinette

      That’s it – I hope this helps you along!


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