A knitting chart is a graphical representation of knitting or knit fabric, most often used for stitch patterns such as lace, cables, or colourwork. Charts condense the information given in a written-out pattern into a concise visual version, making it easier to understand how the stitches work together to form a pattern. Although they may appear intimidating or difficult to use at first glance, learning to read knitting charts is a rewarding way to gain a new perspective on your knitting. Even if you prefer knitting from row-by-row directions, understanding how charts work will help you keep track of your rows, diagnose errors, and deepen your understanding of knitting.
A chart is a grid, where each square represents one stitch as it appears on the front of your work. Symbols are used to represent different stitches, and their definitions appear in the chart key. Each symbol usually has a definition given for both the RS and WS, so the stitch you work depends on whether you are on the RS or WS.
Note: Although many chart symbols may appear similar across different publishers, it’s important to double-check the chart key to make sure that each symbol means what you think it does.
Each row of the chart corresponds to a row of knitting (with some exceptions), and is worked in the same direction as you knit: once you have cast on, you work across the needle from right to left, and the fabric grows below your needles. So you will begin reading the chart at the bottom right corner, and read the first row from right to left.
When working flat, right side rows (usually odd-numbered) are read from right to left. Wrong side rows (usually even-numbered) are worked from left to right. Right side rows are numbered on the right-hand side of the chart, while wrong side rows are numbered on the left-hand side.
Beginning at the bottom right-hand corner of the chart, work the stitches to the beginning of the pattern repeat.
Then, work the pattern repeat the number of times necessary, or until there remain only enough stitches to work the left edge sts. Then work the remaining stitches.
When working in the round, the front of your work always faces you. So when working from a chart in the round, every row of the chart will be read from right to left (just as how you knit). This is usually represented on the chart by row numbers all on the right-hand edge of the chart.
The red box around the center X sts indicates a pattern repeat, as shown on the chart key. These stitches will be repeated across the row as needed, while the stitches outside of the pattern repeat will only be worked once - at the beginning and end of the row.
The pattern repeat may be worked the same number of times on each row, such as for a sweater. Or, the number of pattern repeats may change as you work through the project, such as a top-down triangular shawl with increases. You might need to look at what comes after the repeat box to work out when to stop repeating, as shown below:
Sometimes WS rows are omitted from charts, such as when all WS rows are purled or otherwise worked the same. In this case, the row numbers are all on the right-hand edge of the chart, but only every other number is shown.
“No stitch” shading is used in charts as a placeholder, for where increases or decreases change the shape of the chart. The no stitch placeholder helps keep the chart tidy, and maintains the visual connection between the chart and your work. Simply skip the “no stitch” box and continue to the next stitch.
In this pattern several rows are worked with only decreases, before one row that has lots of yarn over increases. The total number of yarn overs and decreases balance out, and the stitch count on row 1 and 8 is the same, but it reduces between rows 1 and 5.
Without the no stitch boxes this chart would have wavy edges and it wouldn't show you that the paired decreases stack on top of each other in columns.
There are lots of ways to keep track of your place in a chart. Depending on the size of the chart, you could try:
Tip: place your post-it tape or magnetic marker above the current row so that you can easily see how the stitches you're working line up with those on the previous row.
When working from row-by-row-directions where charts are also given, you can use the chart as another source of information to check your work against. Referring to the chart while knitting from row-by-row directions, especially on the first repeat of the pattern, is a good way to ensure that your stitches are stacking up the way they should.
This also helps you identify issues later on, such as missing yarn overs that should be stacked on top of one another. For more in depth discussion on this check out this post from Ysolda.