Next-level basics: Knitting pattern shorthand

So, in the last couple of decades, the internet has happened, which means that we are in a unique moment compared to the previous century, in that we can access many decades worth of knitting patterns very quickly and easily. Patterns that aren’t available as digital downloads can often be found through online sellers or EBay. Patterns that were only available in print copy at first are sometimes made available as digital copies later, sometimes with updated notes but more likely in their original version. Plus, many of us still maintain mini libraries of books and vintage patterns as collections. It’s really neat.

What this means is, there is going to be a wide variety in the style and format of the patterns you will personally encounter as a knitter. And any pattern instructions are going to be reflection of the person (or publisher) who wrote them, and the time and place in which that happened. So, the written conventions the pattern uses will also vary – sometimes subtly, and not usually among patterns by the same publisher – but variation will happen.

Mar2-Lempicka

One of the easiest examples of this is the stitch instruction “ssk,” which is currently a very commonly used method for a left-leaning decrease. (“K2tog,” probably the most common decrease stitch overall, is a right-leaning decrease.) A couple of decades ago this wasn’t in common use. The “skp” stitch was used instead – it’s not identical but produces a left-leaning decrease in a different way. Conventions change. If you love the skp you can still use it in place of ssk, once you know that they are designed to have the same overall result, as long as you know to make that swap in your head (or scribbled in the margins) when you’re working the pattern.

There are other conventions that have been around for a while that encompass a bigger set of tasks than a simple decrease stitch. Some of them simply allow the designer/publisher to save some ink, because they allow the instructions to be a bit briefer in that section than if each of these moments were spelled out intricately step by step.

These are also a kind of hand off to the knitter. It’s a way of saying “hey, you got this. Your brain knows what to do here, I don’t need to give you every single detail. Keep going and I’ll catch up with you in a bit when something different happens.” These conventions assume you are not a beginner, that this is not the first time you have read this instruction, and that you know what to do when you see it because you’ve practiced it before.

However, if you ARE super new to knitting, these instructions will be confusing the first time you encounter them. You may even think unkind thoughts about them. (I can tell you I have personally been the recipient of angry emails about some of these, which just as an FYI is not the most fun part about being a designer, in case anyone was curious.) The good news is that the more you keep knitting, the more these kinds of instructions will start to feel like second nature, and your brain will just fill in what you need to do each time you see them.

Interweave Knits back issues

“Work stitches as they appear”

This is probably one of the first shorthand instructions you’ll encounter as a knitter. What it essentially means is “knit all the knit stitches and purl all the purl stitches”. It means that instead of spelling out each row of ribbing, for example, the pattern will tell you the first couple of rows of ribbing and then tell you to “work stitches as they appear” for another X rows or inches.

In order to do this you need to be able to “read your knitting” and be able to tell at a glance what a purl stitch looks like on your needles and what a knit stitch looks like. The book Stitch n Bitch has a good explanation of this. There are some good blog posts about this here, and here, and this one shows you visual examples of both this instruction and the opposite.

This is the kind of thing that is just confusing as all effing get out, the first time you see it, but after a couple of times you just read it and understand it and your brain doesn’t even question it anymore.

“Work according to charted patterns”

If you’re working on any project with a chart (for cables, lace, or colour-work), such as the centre panel of a sweater, or a long scarf or stole, the knitting pattern may not spell out for you every single row of the pattern that includes the chart. What is more likely to happen is that it will start you off by setting up the placement of the chart, explaining how it goes for the first few rows, and from that point you need to just follow the charted stitches once you get to that place in the row.

This means that you need to be comfortable working from a chart, or learn how to do so. Some patterns will give you written instructions as well as a chart, but many will not. Charts are very compact ways of presenting knitting information, that for many designers and publishers it makes sense to save the space in the pattern by including only the chart and not writing it out row by row.

If you need help learning how to read charts, there are a few blog posts on that subject here, here and here, as well as this whole book on the topic.

You may also encounter a pattern that is basically just a chart with very few written instructions. The iconic Mary Maxim sweater patterns with intarsia pictures on them are done like this. In this kind of pattern you may be given just the number of cast on stitches, what yarn and needle size to use, and then just follow the chart for the full sweater pieces. This is a much rarer encounter these days, but again, these patterns still circulate and it can be jarring when you’re not expecting it.

“Continue to work even”

This is telling you to keep going in whatever pattern you’ve already established, be it plain stockinette or garter stitch, or a set of charted stitch patterns, but without doing any decreases or increases. This will probably come after a set of decrease or increase instructions has happened and it’s telling you to keep going in the established pattern and no other changes.

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“At the same time”

This instruction often appears in all-caps as AT THE SAME TIME, because they really really really don’t want you to miss it. The quick definition of this from Vogue Knitting is “Work the instructions that immediately follow this term simultaneously with those that immediately precede it.”

If you’re new to this, let’s do a quick example with a sweater. Do a quick visual check of the scoop-neck or v-neck sweater or t-shirt that you’re wearing (or that you have in your closet). Do you see how the neckline exists in the same horizontal space as the armholes? What this means is, as a knitter working across rows (horizontally across, not vertically up and down), you are going to have some rows that encounter BOTH the neckline shaping decreases AND the armhole shaping decreases.

There are two choices for this: One, write out the instructions for that several inches of the pattern row by row (about 20-40 rows depending on the pattern, gauge, and complexity of the instructions). Or, two, give summary instructions for the neckline shaping (how many decreases at the neckline edge, how often) and the armhole shaping separately (how many decreases at the armhole edge, and how often), and let the knitter track them how they wish.

The second option is the most typical. It is also the most confusing for knitters who have never done it before. If you’re in this boat, know that there are many others who have come before you and successfully gotten the hang of it. What this means is you need your own tracking system to count that you’ve done the armhole – making notes on the margin, using row counters, making little tick-boxes on a post-it note (this is my fave) and checking them off, whatever works for you. There are good blog posts with more explanation and tracking ideas for ‘at the same time’ here and here.

“Reverse all shaping”

I saved the best for last. This one is rarely seen in current pattern lingo, or even in the last decade or so, but it’s a big one in knitting patterns over time because it is the ultimate space-saver. It’s the kind of instruction that can reduce your pattern page count by a third, and that might be the difference between that pattern making it into the magazine publishing space and getting cut from the issue.

What this means is “do the same thing as this other piece you just knitted, and work all the right-slanted decreases as left-slanted decreases and vice versa, and put the neckline shaping on the other side of the front and same with the armhole shaping. Make it a mirror image of the thing we just did. Figure that out whichever way works for you.”

Fun, right? The main time this comes up is when you’re making a cardigan and each front needs neckline shaping (for a v-neck or scoop-neck), armhole shaping, and possibly also waist shaping decreases and increases. There may also be unique placement of pattern panels X number of stitches away from the side edge or centre edge. To do this you need to be able to understand how all that was accomplished on the first front piece, and then do it all opposite on the other – turn k2togs into ssks, place charted patterns at a different place on the row, and so forth. Doing this kind of legwork on your own was more common, but more significantly, pattern writers were more likely to use it as a space-saver. Less ink to write, fewer lines to check and edit, less printing to do.

If you need any single indicator of how much knitting pattern expectations have changed in the last 10-20 years, let this instruction be that indicator. Most of us would now never dream of including this instruction, because we know that most knitters are not used to working out this kind of thing for themselves, and they’ve happily paid for the pattern so a designer could work that out for them. Digital publication technology also means that taking up another page or two to write both front pieces instead of just one is also more feasible – a digital download costs the same no matter if it’s a couple of pages longer. And print publishers know to expect that this is not something the knitter audience will expect, so you won’t see it much in magazines or books anymore.

New stash

Any single one of these is enough to confuse the first time you encounter it – and you’re not alone! If you reach that point in knitting, remember that thing first – many of us have been there, and we have gotten out of it. Google is your friend, so are your reference manuals, and so are your knitting friends. When in doubt, the answer is usually a click or a knit night away.

Have a great weekend knitter friends! May it have very little confusion in it – or at the very least, as little as possible.

 

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16 comments

  1. Brilliant explanations! As a newish knitter I’ve experienced several of those issues which is very frustrating. I’ll bookmark your post because I’m sure those links will come in handy.
    Thanks,
    Abbe

  2. Thank you so much for this explanation! You so easily explained so many questions students often have!

  3. Thanks, Glenna. The “knit stitches as they appear,” for some dumb reason has always made me feel unsure … because I know what’s appearing was actually a P or K on the previous row. Talk about “over-thinking,” geeze.

    For the “whatever it’s worth department,” this post was a tad too long for me. Could have used it for 2 posts, Part 1 and 2? But, maybe it’s because I’m tired right now! And, truly meant as a help, not a criticism, under the “Work Stitches as they Appear” paragraphs, the 2nd “here” is a dead link (the little hand doesn’t engage) so can’t click on it. Again, meant as a help. You know I love your blog!

  4. Wonderful explanations. Even after years of knitting the instructions to “reverse all shaping” will stop me from using a pattern.

  5. Great explanations, but a little confusion is good for the brain.

  6. Oh I love this!!! You said it better than I could. Do you mind if I share on my blog???? I’ll give you full credit!

  7. Lots to learn here. I’m bookmarking this post.

  8. This is so timely for me! As a relative newbie (one year under my belt), I have encountered many of these. I received a gorgeous knitting book as a Christmas present; however I am dumbfounded by the way the designer wrote the pattern instructions with charts. Hopefully, I can go back and try to figure it out now 🙂 Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  9. I made the mistake of starting a cardigan without reading through the pattern all the way (from a fairly newish book)…got one side of the front done and then found that lovely “reverse all shaping” instruction. Arrrgghhh! That project has been sitting in a bag for three years waiting for me to have time to work the reverse shaping out. 😉

  10. The famous AT THE SAME TIME, no longer stymies me, as I have learnt through experience to go to Excel and start a worksheet. I start with the first instruction, and enter it in the relevant row. I then do with the second instruction, and continue on. Sometimes it takes several pages to get all the repeats in, but it had saved my project on more than 1 occasion. I also add a stitch count, and have it update line by line.

    But probably the biggest advantage, is that you have to think about what you are doing, and visualize the instructions before you knit a stitch in order to construct the spreadsheet. It is an hour or so well spent, As somebody who the “charge ahead, it will all work out in the long run” (IT DOESN’T) type, the spreadsheet is a game changer.

  11. Kim Hargreaves still uses “reverse shaping” and while I love her designs, I’ve gradually stopped knitting them because while I can figure this portion out, knitting is supposed to be my fun hobby as opposed to the source of more ranting

  12. Else Gyldenkærne · ·

    Thank you for your great post! I am fairly new to this game, but I have actually managed to work out the meaning of most of these short instructions (with some help from Google 😉 ). But a few days after reading your post, I have now met an instruction, I don’t really understand:
    I am knitting a cardigan. The sleeves are knit in the round on dp needles. When the decreasing starts, it says “Close 3 stitches in each side”. Where are the sides in a circle?! They don’t mean on each needle, as you are going to decrease a total of 6 stitches.
    And how can you place them even, when it is 3 stitches? 2 on needle 1 and 3, and 1 on needle 2 and 4?
    And how do you work decreases in a k2p2 ribbing?
    I haven’t made sweaters before, but from sock knitting I know, that there is a difference between k2tog and ssk – here I am not told which to use (actually I would understand “close (x) stitches as “bind off” – but that wouldn’t make sense when knitting in the round, would it?)

    Well, I haven’t come that far, I have only just begun on the body, so maybe I will be able to work it out by “try and error”. 🙂 But sometimes it would be nice, with some more help from the written pattern.

    PS: I have just knitted from a sock pattern where _Every_Single_ Row_ was written out! That was maybe just a bit too much 😉

  13. GeniaKnitz · ·

    I just Googled those instructions, and for the very first time, was told they had no idea what it meant!

  14. almost every time I start a new pattern I have to look up the the stitch combos, so I make sure I know what I am doing

  15. Reblogged this on theYARNmart and commented:
    I have wanted to write a blog post about knitting pattern shorthand for ages now but haven’t gotten around to it. Then Glenna wrote exactly what I wanted to say!

  16. This is a truly juice blog post especially for us newbies. I love how you explained those issues out. I’m pretty sure I’ll reading this again soon..

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