table with pattern, yarn, needles and finished knitted dishcloths

How to read a knitting pattern

Often new knitters avoid knitting patterns because they don’t know how to read them. Sound familiar? Let’s be honest, knitting patterns look like they are written in a foreign language, and in a way they are. The good news is that patterns are not nearly as complicated as they look. The abbreviations are logical and easy to google, and the asterisks and brackets follow an easy set of rules you will soon learn to understand.

In this guide, I will use a new beginner pattern I published a few days ago and go through it step by step. It’s a set of three dishcloths, and it is available for free. Go ahead and download the pdf, if you haven’t already. This guide covers the things you need to know for a beginner level pattern. I will write a follow up at some point for more complex designs with shaping and fit.

Content

The Pattern information

The first page is simply a front page with pretty pictures, but the second page has a ton of relevant information: The knitting skills required to do the project, the size of the finished knitted piece, the yarn and needles used in the design, the gauge, and a list of abbreviations used. A good pattern should make the information about needed skills, size, and materials available before you have to pay or download anything. That’s because you need that information to decide if this is a pattern, you want to do. A good pattern should most certainly also have a list of abbreviations, but unfortunately not all do. Luckily, we have google. Let’s dive in.

Skills needed / difficulty level

The Three Easy Dishcloth patterns only require you to know how to cast on, knit, purl, and bind off. These are the basics of knitting, and you are ready to follow a beginner pattern once you have mastered them. If this is your first project, and you haven’t actually tried to bind off yet, don’t worry about it. It’s not difficult, and you can learn it when you get to it.

A general rule of thumb is to pick patterns where there are no more than one or two techniques that are unfamiliar to you. It can be very overwhelming if there are 10 new things to learn at once. Start by googling the unknown techniques. Look at a few YouTube videos to see if it’s something you think you can do and if necessary test the stitch or whatever it is on a small swatch of 10 or 20 stitches. It’s always safer to practice new things on a test swatch than in the middle of a sizeable knitted project.

Cast on

Most knitting patterns will not specify which cast on you should do. That means you are free to choose whichever cast on you prefer. I recommend long-tail cast on for beginners. It’s relatively easy to master, and it’s versatile and works for most knitted projects. Once you’ve gained a little knitting experience you can experiment with different cast on’s, for example, you might want a stretchier cast on for a ribbed border.

Knit and purl

The first stitches a new knitter learns is garter stitch and stockinette. Garter is where you knit all the stitches, every row. Stockinette is where you alternate between knitting a row, and purling a row. For most patterns you will also need to know how to switch between knit and purl within a row. The three dishcloth patterns are all about learning how to do this, and how to read your knitting so that you can recognize a knit stitch from a purl stitch. Note that the skills listed do not specify that you will need to know how to change from knit to purl and back. It’s assumed that you already know.

Sketch of 1x1 ribbing and seed stitch
Learn how to switch between knit and purl stitches, avoid mixing up ribbing and seed stitch, and how to achieve good tension between knits and purls. Click image.

Bind off

Binding off (sometimes called casting off) is how you get your knitting off the needles in a way that ties up the live stitches and secures your work. Binding off is step one in finishing a knitted project, but you also need to know how to weave in the tail ends. If you are knitting something more complex, like a cardigan, you might have to wash and block, seam together pieces of knitting, sew on buttons etc.

I have written a short article about finishing simple knitted projects, where I am covering binding off and weaving in the tails, as well as a guide to blocking.

Size

A pattern will typically list the size of the finished knitted piece or garment. Note that this is usually the size after washing and blocking which depending on the type of yarn and the stitch pattern can be quite different from the size when it’s just off the needles. As a beginner, it is best to pick patterns that result in the size that you are interested in. When you are more experienced, you will learn how to adjust a pattern to achieve the size you want.

Yarn and needles

The pattern will always tell you which yarn and needles the designer used. If you want the same result, you will want to use the same yarn, or at least a yarn with similar weight (= thickness), fiber content and gauge. If the pattern is on ravelry, you can check other ravelry users projects from that pattern, and see which yarn they used, and how that turned out. You can also find alternative yarns that will work well for the project on yarnsub.com. You simply enter the yarn the pattern suggested, and the website will list and describe similar yarns, possibly helping you find a cheaper alternative.

The needles listed are a suggestion, and they are the needles the designer used for this particular pattern. Note that they might be different size needles than the ones on the yarn label. The designer most likely has an intention behind knitting with a different needle size. Larger needles will give you a looser knit, and smaller needles a tighter knit. Therefore your starting point should be the needle size recommended in the pattern. That being said, tension is unique to the knitter, and that goes for designers as well. That brings us to the topic of gauge.

Gauge

Each knitter has a different style of knitting. While some hold the yarn more tightly, resulting in tight knitting, others are more relaxed, and their knitting tends to be looser. The knitting tension will affect the size of the finished knitted project. This is why patterns will give you the gauge, a measure of how many stitches and rows of knitting fit within an inch. It’s usually listed over 4 inches because it’s more precise to measure over a longer distance.

drawing of stockinette stitch with arrows indicating the size
Shown here is a drawing of 2 by 2 inches of stockinette stitch. If the pattern gauge says 20 sts / 32 rows = 4 inches, it means that there are 10 stitches horizontally and 16 rows of stitches within the 2 by 2 inches square, and there are 5 stitches and 8 rows within an inch.

Before you start to worry, gauge is not important for typical beginner projects such as dishcloths and scarves, because the exact size doesn’t matter. All the same, I will introduce the concept. The gauge of a pattern is indicated by a measurement. For example, for the dishcloths, the gauge is 20 stitches / 32 rows = 4 inches in pattern. That means that using the yarn and needle from the pattern information, the designer obtained a 4-inch square by casting on 20 stitches and knitting 32 rows in the pattern. If your tension is a little tighter or looser, you can adjust your needle size to obtain the same gauge as the designer. For now, all I want you to do, is measure the gauge of the dishcloths, once they are finished. Just to get a feel for how it’s done. VeryPink Knits shows you how:

I will write a detailed article about gauge, how to measure it, and why you should knit gauge swatches, but first I have to finish the guides needed to complete the dishcloths.

Abbreviations

Knitting patterns are full of abbreviations, but you will quickly learn the most common ones. Usually, the pattern will have a list of what the abbreviations mean. For the dishcloth patterns, there’s only a short list of abbreviations that are used. Take a look at them now.

list of abbreviations from pattern

You will notice that the abbreviations are all simply the first letter(s) of the word(s), and that makes them easy to remember. You should always check that you understand the abbreviations and that you are familiar with the stitches or knitting phrases they represent. Here’s a list of common knitting abbreviations from Yarnspirations. If a pattern has unfamiliar stitches or phrases, google them and find a tutorial on YouTube.

Right side and wrong side

You should be familiar with the meaning of the abbreviations in the dishcloth patterns, except for maybe the concept of a right side and a wrong side of knitting. The right side is the side of the fabric that faces outward on a sweater, and the wrong side faces inward. Of course, when you knit a flat piece such as a dishcloth or a scarf, there’s no outside and inside, but there’s still a front and a back, and to get the pattern right, you need to be able to tell them apart. The pattern will define which side is the right side by adding the abbreviation (RS) to one of the rows of the pattern, or alternatively, it will define the wrong side. It’s a good idea to add a locking stitch marker to the right side to help you keep track. Usually, the right side is the one that has more of the flat V’s you know from stockinette stitch.

If you take a look at the three dishcloth patterns, you will notice that the seed stitch dishcloth does not have a right or wrong side defined. That’s because that particular pattern is reversible, i.e. it’s the same on both sides, so you don’t need to keep track of it.

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Understanding a knitting pattern

We’ll use the pattern for the diagonal dishcloth as an example. The first instruction reads “CO 40 sts (long tail cast on was used)”.

CO is short for cast on, so you cast on 40 stitches. Although long-tail cast on is suggested, you are free to choose another cast on, if there’s one you prefer. Note that if you are using a method with a slip knot, the slip knot counts as the first stitch (unlike for crochet). Double count when you are done casting on to see that you have the right amount of stitches on your needle. Most patterns will get messed up if you are off by a single stitch. That also means it’s essential to keep checking that your stitch count remains unchanged as you are knitting. If you have experienced before that you seem to gain extra stitches, you need to spot the mistake early and fix it.

A border of garter stitch

The second instruction is “Work 7 rows in garter stitch”.

This means you are supposed to knit all stitches for 7 rows. It takes a bit of practice to count garter stitch, so I suggest you do the 7 rows in one sitting, keeping track with tally marks on a piece of paper or a row counter.

All three dishcloths have a border of garter stitch. They start out with 7 rows of all knit stitches, then every subsequent row begins with 5 knit stitches and ends with 5 knit stitches, and the final 7 rows are all knit stitches. This creates the nice, symmetrical border you see in the photos of the dishcloths. The dishcloths are designed this way, because garter stitch is a flat fabric, and it prevents the cloths from rolling up at the edges.

Slipping the first stitch

On the pattern information page, there is a tip about slipping (sl) the first stitch of every row as if to knit it (except the first row and the bind off row). If you want to try this, you simply change the pattern so that the first five stitches is “sl1, k4”, instead of “k5”. It’s completely optional. If you want to keep it simple, don’t worry about it.

On the other hand, if you have already done a practice piece or another beginner project and you had problems with uneven edge stitches, this might solve that problem for you. It’s worth a try. Here’s a video from Wool and the Gang of how to slip a stitch knitwise.

The Diagonal pattern

The body of the diagonal dishcloth is made up of stockinette stitch with diagonals of purl stitches breaking the monotony of the stockinette. As seen from the right side of the cloth, the purl stitches move one stitch to the right in every row. As seen from the wrong side, the dishcloth is reverse stockinette (purl bumps) with diagonals of knit stitches, moving one stitch to the left every row.

I’ve chosen to begin the row count with the first row of the diagonal pattern to highlight that this is a 6-row repeat. The first row of the repeat reads

(RS) Row 1: k5, *k5, p1; rep from * to last 5 sts, k5

(RS) defines this to be the right side of the work. This is the side of the work where you will be doing mostly knit stitches, and a few purl stitches to form the diagonals. A number after a knitting instruction means that you repeat the stitch that number of times. So, k5 means knit 5 stitches, and p1 means purl 1 stitch.

Asterisks

Knitting patterns are written to be as brief as possible, so it’s easier to see the big picture of the pattern. This is where asterisks come in. Often a sequence of stitches is repeated across the row. Instead of writing the instructions out, stitch by stitch, an asterisk (*) indicates the beginning of a repeat. So, *k5, p1; rep from * 5 times, is the same as the instruction k5, p1, k5, p1, k5, p1, k5, p1, k5, p1, but it’s much simpler to read and follow. In the diagonal dishcloth pattern, the same instruction is written *k5, p1; rep from * to last 5 sts. This is even easier to follow because you don’t have to count your repeats. Instead, you pay attention to how close you are to the edge, and you stop when there are 5 stitches left, which are to be all knit on both sides to form the garter border.

On row 2, you are working on the wrong side, so you will be mostly purling, except for the diagonals and the border stitches. You k5 (knit 5 stitches), then do the repeat 5 times, consisting of the 6 stitches p1 (purl 1), k1 (knit 1), p4 (purl 4), followed by k5 (knit 5) for the border.

Read your knitting, not the pattern

At this point, you will already begin to see the pattern emerge. Rather than counting which row you are in, and following the pattern row by row, you can read your knitting to know what to do next.

Make the dishcloth square

The aim is to make the dishcloth square, and it works out if you repeat the 6-row repeat, 8 times, so a total of 48 rows. There’s no reason to count your rows if you place stitch markers in the way suggested by the pattern, between the 6-stitch repeats. That will ensure you always know when you are on row 6 because the final stitch of the stitch repeat is a knit stitch. You can easily count how many row repeats you have made. Simply count the number of purl bumps in a single column on the right side of the work.

Ring stitch markers

I suggest you use ring stitch markers or hanging markers to keep track of where you are in the pattern for the diagonal dishcloth. The instructions for where to place the markers are written below the pattern, but it can also be written into a pattern using the abbreviations pm (place marker) and sm (slip marker). Rows 1 and 2 would then look like this

  • (RS) Row 1: k5, pm, *k5, p1, pm; rep from * to last 5 sts, k5
  • (WS) Row 2: k5, sm, *p1, k1, p4, sm; rep from * to last 5 sts, k5

This is very common for more complicated patterns. Still, for beginner patterns, you are often left to figure out for yourself if there’s a way to place markers that will help you. For this diagonal dishcloth pattern, you will probably do just fine without any markers at all, but I find that you discover mistakes much faster if you use the markers. Each time you get to a marker, check that the previous stitches were done correctly and that you still have the correct amount of stitches between two markers. Mistakes are easier to fix when you discover them straight away. If you have only done a few stitches incorrectly, you can knit backwards with what is called tinking (tink is knit spelled backwards) and correct the offending stitch(es).

If you are brand new to the use of stitch markers, I have a guide about how and when to use stitch markers.

Please ask questions

If you have made it to the end, well done! You should have no problems understanding the knitting instructions for the Three Easy Dishcloths, or any other similar patterns. If you do, that’s on me, and I would love to know what’s causing you trouble. Please leave a comment, and I will get back to you. Only with your help can I improve this guide for the next new knitter that comes across it.

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