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Cracking the Code: Following Written Knit and Crochet Instructions

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Cracking the Code: Following Written Knit and Crochet Instructions

Technical editor and yarncrafting expert Kj Hay joins us for a series on understanding the different elements of patterns.

Cracking the Code: Following Written Knit and Crochet Instructions | Lion Brand NotebookKnit and crochet patterns provide a wealth of information. At first, understanding written instructions can be as intimidating as learning a foreign language or deciphering a secret code. Over the next several weeks, we’ll discuss different elements of written patterns. Hopefully, the following explanations and tips will help you overcome any pattern reading fears you have.

Skill Level

Patterns typically specify a skill level needed to comfortably complete the project. Because of the wide variety of stitches, techniques, and constructions used in knit and crochet patterns, an appropriate skill level is very difficult to determine. Accordingly, it is best not to rely to heavily on the indicated skill level. Instead, scan through the instructions to help determine if you have the skills needed or are willing to acquire them while working on the project.

Expert tip: When scanning the pattern to determine if the skill level is appropriate for you, pay attention to any special stitches or techniques used, the quality of the yarn used (novelty yarns can be a little trickier to work with than smooth yarns), the tools used (smaller hooks and needles, and double pointed needles can be trickier to work with than larger hooks and needles, and straight needles), and the language used (e.g., AT THE SAME TIME, reverse shaping, and as established).

Not sure what the terms mean? On, the abbreviations at the bottom of the pattern are live links that take you to an explanation of the term in the Learning Center.

For more articles by Kj, click here.

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  • Okay, I have been knitting regularly for about five years and I am a relatively uninhibited knitter as far as designing my own stuff, but this is exactly the sort of writing about knitting that strikes me as “boy some of those people who write patterns go out of their way to be mean to the rest of us!”

    If it is hard for you to tell how easy a pattern is, why not ask someone who is a beginning pattern reader, or a slightly more than beginning pattern reader. If they start looking at you like you have two heads and both of them are angry, then either you did a lousy job explaining what you meant, or it is not a beginner pattern! There are plenty of new knitters around, at least if you haven’t scared us all away, and that includes some people who are learning to read patterns.

    If it is a challenge to you, then mark it expert, and if you are very comfortable with it but the novices turn pale, then it is an intermediate pattern.

    It would be very helpful to me if a pattern would say for example, that if you are not comfortable making cables, you can replace the big cable in the main panel of this sweater with so many stitches of stockinette stitch or something, too.

    Because there are never enough beginner or intermediate patterns! Everybody designing seems to want to show how to do intarsia or entrelac or lace or cables. I want to learn how to make boot socks with woolease thick n quick that keep my feet warm and dry this winter, and how to adjust the size to fit exactly so I don’t get blisters.

    I can make a scarf with pockets at the ends to stick my hands in if I forgot my gloves, or a combination hat and scarf in one so the wind doesn’t blow my hat or scarf off, but I don’t know how to write the pattern to share it with others. Both are easy projects, one step up from beginners, in my opinion, but I see more difficult looking stuff labelled as beginner, so maybe they are beginner patterns. But why don’t patterns say what the complexities are right up front, or describe alternate techniques. For example, I can make the scarf end pockets by folding the ends over and sewing seams, or by double knitting, or by casting on additional stitches and knitting in the round, on circulars or double points, and perhaps do a three needle bind off at the end. Or several other ways.

    I can read some patterns fine and they come out looking like the picture. Other patterns I can’t even guess what they are telling me to do. To the point where much of the time, it is quicker to just take the yarn and the needles and make it my own way than trying to figure out what the pattern means. I am having fun making my own designs but it would be nice if some more of the patterns made sense.

    I did make one sock out of woolease Thick N Quick from a Lion Brand pattern, and it was definitely a sock of overall the right size, but it didn’t fit the shape of my foot well enough to bother making a second one, because I was never going to wear them. I am sure I followed the pattern correctly, but my foot is a different shape, well both my feet are mirror images of each other and neither is shaped like the sock. Why don’t more books tell you how to make clothes fit right?

    • I do agree with you…And being a “lefty” at times the patterns seem to be way
      beyond my capabilities. I do not know anyone who crochets or knits…so I am

      totally on my own trying to understand any pattern.

      • Often looking at the picture rather than reading the instructions is helpful. I am a lefty & have been knitting for the past 70 years. First project ever – argyle socks

        • I have found that teaching a lefty a stitch, sit them across from you and have them follow what you are doing instead of side by side. This has worked for me and them. It may not work for everyone, on patterns, I don’t have a clue…………….I have taught several to do something visually.

          • Jennifer,
            that is so true, my mother who was left handed taught me to crochet several years ago, she did exactly what you do to teach me as i am right handed.

      • i will help you if you want i crochet quite a bit and i can understand most of the stitches.

  • Thank you! I have only knit scarves and potholders in the past because I have never been shown how to read instructions. I’ve taken several knitting classes, but they just teach knit & purl. Which isn’t enough to follow a pattern…

  • I have done shawl patterns knit and crochet. They were difficult at first I got the hang of it
    and away I went! My mom could knit socks with her eyes closed. I haven’t tried that yet! Uh
    knit a sock, not with my eyes shut. 🙂

    • I am trying my first pair of socks. It is more difficult than I thought but is fun!

  • That’s the whole article? Really?

    However, it did say, “over the next few weeks.”

    My tip for reading a pattern: think of it as a food recipe. Do you have the correct ingredients (yarns)? Are you familiar with and/or comfortable with and/or wanting to try using the cookware necessary, like a double boiler (OR double pointed needles.) And if not, do a little research by asking fellow knitters, reading articles, and watching videos. See if it’s something you think you could tackle.

    I like to pick patterns that have ONE thing I’m not familiar with. That way it’s only ONE thing I’ve got to figure while having confidence with the rest of it. A few patterns later, you’ll feel more like an intermediate than a novice!

    • Hi Amy, Kj wrote over 2,500 just for the first part of the “Cracking the Code” series, so since it’s such an in-depth piece, I as the editor have chosen to split it up so that it’s easier to read section by section. Do stay tuned over the next several weeks!

  • If Lion Brand is telling us not to rely on the indicated skill level, why does Lion Brand put them on patterns???
    I should be able to look at the pattern and use the listed skill level to make a decision as to whether it is as easy or hard as another pattern of the same level. As Kit suggests, it would be more useful to explain what element got the pattern classified as beginner, intermediate, etc. I may be particularly skilled at one type of crochet but couldn’t do a second type to save my soul. You may be the reverse so you will code patterns as hard when I find them a snap.
    I don’t get the point of this article – in fact, I have trouble calling it an article because it has so little substance. There’s no ‘there’ there!
    Could you also explain why my log-in name and password from your site don’t work here? Instead, I have to log in to another system to leave a comment. It’s just another annoyance in my day.

    • They’re telling you that those designations are just guidelines. If many intermediate knitters are comfortable with cables, but you haven’t tried it yet, you have to decide if you want to learn something new with this pattern. Like buying a garment in a size medium — if you try it on, and it’s too big or too small, it’s not your medium, and you need another size. There are more than three levels of expertise, lots of ways to define beginner, intermediate and advanced. The article says to read the pattern before deciding if you’re up tto it.

  • As someone who has been using patterns for 50 years (knitting since age 7, always with a pattern), I’d say Lion Brand patterns are exceptionally clear. Also, you can send them a question, and they’ll respond. (I did that when I made Flattering Sweater and didn’t understand that the fronts were shorter than the back, although the schematic showed that — just counterintuitive). What I’d like to know is, what is the yarn in the picture with this article, and is the crochet part of a pattern? I love the colors. Thanks!

    • Hi greening, it’s Cotton-Ease and it’s just a swatch of a stitch pattern, but not an actual pattern. I’d recommend this shell pattern (but with a bigger hook for a looser gauge) to get a similar look:
      Hope that helps!

  • I would like to learn how to Crochet please…

  • I think this is great! I consider myself a relatively skilled knitter , in Swedish! Now i’m trying to figure out pattern in english, so this will be a help for me.

  • Content? This says nothing!

  • When I first learned to knit, it was reading patterns, and I always choose to do that instead of charts, which scare me! There is almost always a little chart at the end of each pattern that explains the abbreviations used and how to knit any unusual stitches. I just learned to do nupps by watching a video lesson that included both charts and the written pattern, and I’m still most comfortable with the written version. I guess it depends on how you learn to knit.

  • Why can’t designs with patterns be printed with line-by-line instructions, rather than having to count tiny squares on a graph? Surely with computers it would be easy to adjust patterns for different sizing. Having to decipher a graph before beginning a project really puts me off many projects.

  • Looking forward to the “next several weeks” – I am a beginner and appreciate all information possible.

  • I’ve found the pictures of the item to be most helpful when choosing a pattern. The picture of the item is my ‘carrot’ so to speak in encouraging me to learn whatever new stitch(es) I must in order to obtain the finished ‘prize’. I’ve found reading through the whole pattern first is helpful for me; also paying close attention to punctuation marks: parentheses, commas, and asterisks is critical to my success. I’m a hand knitter, and would love to have “flying” needles in order to finish projects faster so I can tackle more challenges (new projects) that I see on the Lion Brand site. I look forward to more info. on “Cracking the Code”. Thank you for providing all you have, and all you will in the future!

  • I have experienced unclear/misleading instructions in many knitting patterns. Many times I have thought, This is a mistake in the pattern — when it was actually hazy instructions and/or my understanding of them. I have found that some patterns just take for granted that you can read the designer’s mind, or that the knitter just “knows,” While the abbreviations in patterns are clear to me, (and most patterns will explain the abbreviation and describe the technique) what seems to be the problem I encounter most often, is poorly-written instructions in the pattern. And of course, what might be as clear as mud to me, might be a no-brainer for the next knitter.

    I completely agree with this statement in the article: “it is best not too rely to heavily on the indicated skill level. Instead, scan through the instructions to help determine if you have the skills needed or are willing to acquire them while working on the project.” I think the indicated skill level is a gives a good idea of the level of difficulty of the project, but ultimately the knitter can decide if they wish to breeze through the project or is up to a little challenge.

  • I am looking forward to learning some of the terms and their meanings. I have been knitting and crocheting for years but have always stuck to the basics because I wasn’t sure of some of meanings of the instructions.

  • I have been reading some of the comments about the skill level recommendation on patterns. I have been knitting since I was 7. I didn’t knit much in the past 20 years….raising a family working full time etc. I have never considered myself even an intermediate knitter.
    Years ago, I made an aran knit sweater for my mother. The pattern (when you had to buy pattern books) listed the pattern as advanced. But as I read through the pattern, the most difficult thing about the pattern was the number of different stitches used in a row. Seed stitch, cables (right and left), etc, As a read through the pattern, my thought was…I know all these stitches, so all I have to do is be able to count stitches and rows. I used a row counter and stitch markers.

    I guess what I am saying is don’t look at the skill level, read at the directions. When I am looking at patterns, the picture is worth a thousand words. Then I read the pattern and decide if I want to attempt it or not.

  • I learn by reading and diagrams of how the stitch is done. I have always found Lion Brand patterns to be well written. I also have learned a few new stitches from the site as well.This has given me the confidence to take a pattern and change it to what I want the result to be. I am currently working on the Favorite Afghan, except that I changed it to only four colors. I am also working it as one piece, instead of three block strips sewn into nine patch squares, which are then sew together for the afghan. It’s turning out great. Thank you Lion Brand for all that I’ve learned from your site.

  • […] Technical editor and yarncrafting expert Kj Hay joins us for a series on understanding the different elements of patterns. Read the first installment here. […]

  • If a pattern is free, then it makes a certain amount of sense to say just read the pattern to see if you have the skill level, although it does take some time to download the pattern to read it. Even then, some of the difficulties in a pattern are not obvious to a novice until you try following the instructions and what ends up on your needles is a hopeless tangle. Unfortunately this may not occur until you are many knitting hours and skeins into the project, Even if I think something may be tricky and make a swatch to try it out, it may turn out differently when I get to that row, because of something I did one or two rows back that I did not realize would make a difference in how this row comes out.

    For a silly example I know how to make a yarn over. I know how to knit front and back. I am not sure whether making a yarn over in one row would affect the result in the next row of knitting front and back on an adjoining stitch. I don’t know if it is possible to knit front and back on the stitch over a yarn over. How can I tell whether that is more complicated than doing the two types of stitches in separate areas of a pattern? I have never tried these combinations, nor have I ever seen them in a pattern, but I do see unfamiliar combinations of relatively simple stitches, and I don’t know whether they are harder because they are done in combination.

    I have also found that some stitches are harder to do in some yarns. Fluffy or highly textured yarns produce different effects than tightly spun smooth yarns which in turn produce different effects in looser roving type yarns. So I cannot judge the difficulty just by the stitches in the pattern without considering the characteristics of the yarn. This is also impacted by how tight my tension is. A pattern designed by someone who keeps a very tight tension will be different from a pattern by someone who keeps a very loose tension. If the yarn for which the pattern was written is not available any more and I am trying to substitute a yarn, most substitution charts act like any yarn in the same weight category, for example, DK or worsted or bulky, will substitute for any other yarn in the same weight category, but some worsted yarns knit up very differently from other worsted weight yarns and do not substitute well.

    And then there is the fact that some patterns come as kits, and you have to buy the kit to even see the pattern. So the pattern might cost you anywhere from $10 to $80 or more before you get to see the pattern.

    Or you are buying a book of patterns before you know whether the gorgeous sweater on the cover is one that you can make right away or in about a million years.

    Even if I am only paying two to five dollars for a single pattern, it is disappointing when it is not one I can tackle any time soon.

    I have hundreds of dollars worth of pattern books that I have not tried a single pattern from. Maybe I will some day when the patterns eventually come back into style. No actually the patterns going out of style is not usually my problem, it is the complexity of the patterns, coupled with the fact that if the book promised a few easy patterns those patterns are either too easy Cast on ten stitches, knit ten stitches, repeat until scarf measures 60 inches long. Or the pattern is not easy. Or the pattern is for something I have no interest in, like a cover for a tissue box. Knit four plain rectangle and one rectangle with a slot in it and sew them together. If I actually wanted to make a tissue box cover I would at least knit one rectangle that covered the top and two opposite sides, and only have two sides to sew up.

    I have one kit I bought that I am working on that is fairly easy and looks like the result will match the picture and the garment will fit. I have one where I made one sock of the right size but the wrong shape for my foot. And several that I may be able to do someday.

    How do I judge the difficulty of patterns I have to buy before I read?

  • I agree with several of the posts regarding Kj’s 1st article. I was taught to K & P when I was about 11 yrs. old (I’m now 61 yrs. young) and stopped because crocheting was quicker and easier. But in the last 5 years I’ve regained my interest in knitting again and have only completed 1 piece, a sweater that was very easy because I only had to do straight K throughout the entire pattern and the sweater was made in sections which made it very easy for me. Anyway, I’ve searched for patterns on that would be easy for me to follow the instructions, and the patterns marked as Easy were anything but easy. What has helped me was YouTube because I can watch someone demonstrate the technique I’m learning. Has anyone noticed that satalite/cable TV has stopped airing any craft shows? I used to watch shows like Uncommon Threads, Kitty Gritty, Carol DeVaul (DirecTV told her she has to retire), That’s Clever to name a few. If Dish Network, DirecTV, Time Warner, etc. would air those and other craft programs that could be a way for me and other beginner knitters to learn techniques….I’m just saying..

    • You might check your local PBS station. There are a few craft shows that are on mine.

  • Over the years, the most helpful hints to understanding patterns include photos of what the stitch is supposed to look like. Most patterns are so stingy with photos, only showing one angle at a distance of the final products. This certainly makes me hesitant to tackle challenging projects.

  • What is the name of the crochet stitch in the picture of this blog post? I am currently attempting to make a blanket with this stitch and the person who showed me doesn’t have written instructions. I would like to have instructions to make sure it is made correctly. Thanks.

  • […] Technical editor and yarncrafting expert Kj Hay joins us for a series on understanding the different elements of patterns. Click here to read her earlier blog posts. […]

  • Sometimes, I find a pattern wit a beautiful stitch, but I would like to use it in a bigger item. For example, a baby blanket to a twin sized blanket. I don’t know how to increase the beginning chains to get a balanced pattern.

  • I’m curious…. the article is titled “Cracking the Code – Following Written Knit and Crochet Instructions”. But it certainly doesn’t tell you how to do that! It tells you to scan the pattern to see what stitches and tools are required for the project… .okay… but HOW does that tell a beginner how to follow the actual pattern??? I am taking a beginner’s crochet class and so far we have not been taught how to read a pattern. We are doing very basic stitches right now – chain, single and double crochet so far. Most of us would like to be able to read a pattern by the end of the 6 week class, but since we are halfway through it already it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting around to reading and following simple beginner patterns. I sure wish your article had given us some information about this. The title of the article is misleading…. it didn’t teach me a thing about how to follow a written pattern 🙁

    • Hi Donna, as it says at the top, the article has been broken up to be shared over several weeks (it’s quite long). See this page for the latest posts that have been shared so far and keep an eye on the blog for more posts over the next few weeks:

      • Thank you, Zontee! I will try to keep an eye on this page in the weeks ahead.
        I really do want to learn how to read and execute simple crochet patterns for the beginner. 🙂

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