The Knitting Pattern

Published February 18, 2016 by estherknit

A knitting pattern is a set of instructions which the knitter can follow in order to create a knitted garment.  A pattern could also be instructions for a type of stitch structure such as lace or cable.  If you follow a commercial knitting pattern, it should be possible to create a garment equally as attractive and well fitting as the one in the pattern picture.  The secret lies in being completely objective about the design you choose, just as you would when selecting ready to wear clothes.

Ribbed Vest 1

Most patterns are given in a variety of sizes.  Where a design is given only in certain sizes, it is usually because the designer feels that it would not be suitable for the other sizes.  One example of this is a pattern for a baby’s matinee coat which is given in baby sizes only.  When only one size is given it may be because the pattern used for the design covers a large multiple of stitches and another whole repeat or pattern, to give a large size, would not be practical.

The Design

A knitwear designer starts with the design brief.  The design requirements are then converted into written and/or charted knitting instructions.  This will include:

  • identification of tension and use of appropriate size knitting needles for hand knitting or tension dial setting for machine knitting.
  • accurate size, shape and style features
  • variation of stitch structure and colour to achieve design requirements
  • use of standard abbreviations and symbols
  • choice of yarn
  • estimation of yarn requirements and cost
  • clear presentation of written pattern, charts and diagram

The Pattern

When you find a suitable pattern, be sure to read right through all the instructions before beginning to knit.  Pay particular attention to tension and making up as these are very important sections of the pattern,  Knitting publication styles vary considerably but generally all instructions fall into three sections.

  • materials required, tension or gauge, finished sizes and abbreviations
  • working instruction for each section
  • making up or finishing details, edges and trimmings

Tension / Gauge

This is the vital key to success.  Make sure that you match the tension stated in the pattern.

Ribbed Vest Tension


All knitting patterns are abbreviated into a form of shorthand and every knitter soon comes to recognise the terms and their meanings.  The same term may be abbreviated in a slightly different way in different patterns but there should always be a ‘key’ to the abbreviations.

Working Instructions

Each section will be given separately under an appropriate heading, such as ‘back’, ‘front’ and ‘sleeves’.   Each section should be worked in the correct order as it may be necessary to join parts of the garment together at a given point, before you can proceed with the next stage.

Ribbed Vest Pattern

Measuring Knitting

When measuring knitting it is necessary to lay it flat on a table and use a rigid ruler.   Never measure whilst the knitting is on the knitting machine or on the needles and never measure around a curve.  Where there is a curve for an armhole or sleeve, measure the depth in a straight line – horizontally or vertically.

Making-up / Finishing 

If the finished garment is to be a success the making up or finishing or the separate pieces must be looked upon as an exercise in dressmaking.   Details are always given in the instructions as to the order in which the sections are to be assembled, together with any final instructions for edgings or trimmings.  Pressing and blocking instructions will also be given in this section and, if a substitute yarn has been used, it is essential to check whether or not it requires blocking and pressing.

Types of Knitting Pattern

There are different types of knitting pattern:

  • a pattern in words
  • a graph or chart pattern
  • a diagrammatic or schematic pattern

Pattern in Words

A pattern in words is as it says – a pattern written in English for the knitter to follow.  It has all the instructions required for the knitter to knit and make-up the pattern.  The number of stitches and rows, the shaping instructions and the finishing instruction will be included in the pattern.  A pattern in words is in a form of shorthand and so there will be a list of abbreviations which are used throughout the pattern.  It is likely that a certain amount of prior knowledge will be expected.

For example, the pattern may tell you to ‘decrease one stitch fully fashioned at each end of the next row’ but it will not tell you how to achieve this.  It will also be possible to knit the same garment using different techniques.  For example, there are many ways to decrease or to cast off, and many of these techniques are almost interchangeable.  The pattern will have been written to a specific tension or gauge and little or no guidance will be given to the knitter who cannot match this tension or gauge.

A Graph or Chart Pattern

Double Rib Chart

Graphs or charts are an economic way of passing on information to the knitter.  A Fair Isle Chart, for example, will have a great deal of information about colour, pattern and stitch construction as well as size and shape.  Other stitch structures will have their own notation and instructions.

A Diagrammatic or Schematic Pattern

Here, the shape of the garment pieces are drawn out on a piece of paper.  There will be a shape, for example, for the back of a sweater, for the front of a sweater and for the sleeves.   On the front of the sweater the neckline shape will be drawn.

Ribbed Vest Diagram

These shapes may be annotated with information about the size of each pattern piece and a type of ‘shorthand’ to represent the stitch and row instructions.  For example, an instruction such as:

+S 6/R X28

will mean

‘increase one stitch every 6th row 28 times in all’

Your First Pattern 

If you are not sure what to knit, it is a good idea to start with a scarf, a child’s garment, or a simple sleeveless top with little shaping.  It will not take much yarn, it will not take long to knit, and it will be bound to fit someone whatever size it turns out to be.  For your first garment, you should do a tension swatch or square as instructed in the pattern, but you should not worry too much about the sizing at this stage.  The first job is to get to know how to knit a garment and how to follow a pattern.

Here are some points to keep in mind.

  • always knit a tension square for the stitch pattern used in the garment and measure the tension square accurately
  • do not cast off stitches if these stitches can be used again. For example, do not cast off at the shoulder because you can knit both shoulders together or graft the stitches together.  You can take the stitches off onto waste yarn ready to be used later
  • keep a notebook beside your knitting to jot down notes as you knit. You will invariably change the pattern in some small way as you knit, so keep a note of this for future reference.  Also, keep a note of what yarn you used and how much yarn you used, what tension you knitted the garment at and which size you knitted.  This information will be useful if you decide to knit the garment again later.
  • make sure you have all the tools you require before you start to knit and make sure that they are clean and well maintained
  • we all work best in pleasant surroundings and even if you only have a small corner of a room for your knitting, you can make it look most attractive if you keep your knitting area neat and tidy. Use attractive plastic boxes to house your tools and a box file for your information and knitting patterns.
  • do not tackle a knitting pattern which is too difficult for you. Before you start to knit your garment, knit a small sample of each techniques in the garment, for example, the round neckline, the pocket, the sleeve shaping etc..  If you are having trouble with the samples then find a simpler garment for now and go back to this garment when you have had more knitting practice.
  • if you are using a knitting machine, do not leave knitting on the machine overnight. Plan you time so that you will finish a piece of knitting and not be in the middle of something when you run out of time.  If knitting is left on the machine it will stretch the knitting.  When not in use, your machine should be covered with either a material of a plastic table cloth to keep the dust to a minimum.  If you are hand knitting, do not leave your knitting in the middle of a row.  If there is a pattern repeat, say a four row repeat of a lace pattern, then finish the pattern repeat before you leave your knitting.  You will then know where to start when you come back.


Ribbed Vest 3

Do not be too adventurous.  The most important thing for your first project is to make a success of it and learn some new techniques.  Then you will be encouraged to start another project and you will soon be an accomplished knitter.  So have fun and get knitting!


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