Knitting 101: Reading a Pattern


With so many great knitting adventures out there, where do you start?

Now that you’ve got the basics of knitting, I’ll bet you’re ready to tackle a real project. The first time with a pattern can be a little overwhelming if you don’t know what to expect.

What should you choose? There’s always the go-to beginner project: a scarf. There’s nothing wrong with a scarf for a starting project, but it can get a bit tedious. I vaguely remember a turquoise scarf-ish shape knit on bamboo needles. I quit knitting for about 4 years after that experience. The project after that? In 2010, I dove straight in and started a cabled blanket, which I quit after 2 feet.

My point is, find something you think you’ll like. I’m a diehard fan of fearless knitting, but it’s not for everyone, especially at the start. Go to Ravelry and browse. In the search area, scroll down to near the bottom of the page. You can adjust the pattern search by Difficulty. Pick where you feel comfortable.

I think hats, fingerless mitts, and cowls are great first projects. Knitting in the round is very easy once you get the hang of it, and if the project is stockinette, you just have to knit round and round and round. Prefer flat? There are seamed hats, mitts, and cowls, too!

Ready? Let’s get started.


You don’t have to follow these steps, but this is how I approach a pattern.

1. Yarn: Take a look at the yarn. The pattern should tell you what weight. If not, check out the name and brand of the yarn and do an Internet or Ravelry search. You can usually find the weight that way. If you’re going to use a different yarn than what the designer chose, make sure your yardage matches up. More yarn is always preferable than running out of yarn before you’re done. I usually buy one skein/hank extra specifically for the swatches.

2. Needles: What size needles are recommended? That’s right, I said recommended, not required. I’m a loose knitter, so I know I need to automatically start 2 sizes smaller. You? You might be the same, you might knit tighter. Needle size is more of a suggestion.

3. Notions/Tools: Will you need a cable needle? Stitch markers? Buttons or safety eyes?

4. Gauge: The gauge swatch is how you find out what size needle you’ll actually use. Why swatch? I don’t worry too much about the gauge when working on something that doesn’t have to fit a body (like a blanket or toy). If I’m making a hat, mittens, or a sweater, I need to know it’s going to fit the intended person.

So how do you swatch? Easy. Look at the gauge in the pattern. It should say something like so many stitches (horizontal measurement) by so many rows (vertical measurement) for a 4 inch by 4 inch square. Guess which needle you think you’ll need based on the pattern. Cast on a few more stitches than what the horizontal measurement calls for. Knit in stockinette stitch until you have a square. Cast off.

Some people knit a long swatch, changing needle sizes at different points, like what I did when showing you how to knit. I have a hard time with my measurements that way, so I keep everything separate. Go up a size for one swatch and down a size for another swatch. When I need something to fit, I make 3-4 swatches.

Now, block the swatch. This seems like a long process, doesn’t it? I mean, you’re dying to get started! I’m dying to get started. If it needs to fit, though, you (and I) need to just suck it up and go through the process. Once the swatch is dry, measure. Pick the needle size that got you the proper or closest to the proper gauge size.

5. Abbreviations: Read on in the pattern. There should be a list of abbreviation definitions. Here are some examples you might run into:

  • K: Knit
  • P: Purl
  • K2Tog: Knit two together (type of decrease)
  • SSK: Slip as if to knit, slip as if to purl, knit the two stitches together (type of decrease)
  • PM: Place (stitch) marker
  • KFB: Knit front and back in one stitch (type of increase)
  • TBL: Through the back loop, usually but not exclusively knit
  • M1: Make one new stitch
  • YO: Yarnover
  • PSSO: Slip one stitch, knit the next stitch, pass the slipped stitch over the knit one (type of decrease)
  • RS: Right side, usually the knit side of stockinette
  • WS: Wrong side, usually the purl side of stockinette

If I run into an abbreviation I don’t recognize, I’m off to YouTube. I know I’ll be back when I actually get to that stitch in the pattern, but I find it helps to know what’s coming ahead of time.

6. The Instructions: I don’t do a close read at this point, though I probably should. I’m mostly looking to see if there are going to be any surprises. Is the project knit in pieces and seamed? What kind of assembly is required? Anything weird I might have to look up later? Are the instructions asking for a certain kind of cast-on and cast-off?

Deep breath. You have your yarn, with at least one extra skein for safety. You’ve picked out your needles. You’re familiar with the pattern. Now’s the fun part. Get started!

For those who have already been knitting: What was your first project?

14 thoughts on “Knitting 101: Reading a Pattern

  1. My first project I can’t even tell you about. My first finished project was a hat. That was much too big. I even swatched. Sort of.

  2. I shared a link to this blog on my “Free Baby Knitting Patterns” page on Facebook. Good information!

  3. I know lots of people who suggest starting with a dish cloth because it’s small and a simple size, and there’s some quite fancy and complicated ones if you want to try fancier stuff. They’re also both useful and popular as gifts!

  4. I have been knitting for about 30 years (after learning as a child from my grandmother) and I love this blog! If I have one piece of advice, based on many ripped out projects, is to really read the pattern and instructions in advance. I knitted an Aran sweater for my (very large) significant other in the fall and I think I had to re-start it about 5 times before I realized that you were supposed to read the Aran pattern chart from right to left (which is counter-intuitive for us in North America)…I eventually solved the puzzle but I could have saved myself alot of time & frustration if I had spent 10 minutes at the beginning 🙂

  5. I learned to knit from my Mommom when I was a little girl. She helped me make simple doll sweaters, baby booties, and afghan squares. I taught myself to crochet and got sidetracked with that for years because I found it easier.

    Then, when I was newly married, I fell in love with a knitting book at the bookstore and bought it. It was “Knitting Vintage Socks” by Nancy Bush. I can’t believe my first “all by myself” project involved itty bitty yarn and a handful of needles! Miraculously, the pair of socks actually fit me and I haven’t put down my knitting needles since. 🙂

  6. My Mum taught me to knit when I was 9 and my first project was a pair of woolen soakers for my baby sister, born just after I turned 10. (I’m dating myself seriously here, so for those who are younger, ‘soakers’ were the woolen precursors to plastic pants and were worn over a diaper to ‘soak up’.

    My second project was a pair of mittens for myself (Mum helped with the thumb); I honestly can’t remember if I finished them; if I did, I have no idea what happened to them. Likely they were passed down to a younger sibling.

  7. Pingback: Knitting 101 – Hats: The Calculations | For the Knit of It

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