Reading patterns seems to be one of the things that many newbies struggle with. We often hear “I can crochet, I make a ton of blankets/scarves/hats, but I’ve never been able to follow a pattern.” While being able to think structurally and create something from nothing is a gift, following a pattern can help increase your basic crocheting/knitting knowledge as it helps you learn new stitches, shaping, techniques, and may help with your creativity and ability to adapt pieces that aren’t quite working for you.
So how do you read a pattern? You start at the beginning and you practice.
Crochet and knitting patterns are most often written using a form of abbreviations, think of it as a type of specialized shorthand. The abbreviations represent terms that are commonly used in crochet/knitting patterns. Some of them are easy to remember: K = knit, P = purl, SC = single crochet, for example. Others can be more easily forgotten.
It’s ok to keep a reference sheet or book handy to use as a cheat sheet and to refer to the ones you can’t remember. And for most stitchers, over time, they stop needing to reference their cheat sheet, unless they’re working on a special stitch, or learning something new. For example, cable, brioche knitting, and tunisian crochet have their own special abbreviations, and most of us need to refresh our brain when we start a new pattern using their less commonly used abbreviations.
The abbreviations can often be a stumbling block for beginners. Don’t let them hold you back. By clicking through the following links, you can find a listing of the common abbreviations and symbols for crocheting and knitting. Print them out, or keep a book or magazine with them listed in your project bag. Refer the the cheat sheet when you’re reviewing a pattern. Read the pattern out loud, using the words instead of the abbreviations (sc = Single Crochet, not “ess see”). Hearing the words for which the abbreviations are used often jogs your brain enough to make the pattern more understandable.
Look at your pattern, most of them will follow a similar structure. They will start with a brief intro - what you’re making, why it has a silly name, etc. It could be as simple as “Jane’s Hat, this pattern will make a basic girl’s hat”, or much more elaborate. They should also start with a list of requirements, including the yarn, needles or hooks, extra notions, and any vocabulary they expect you to be familiar with. Somewhere at the beginning there should also be a size guide that includes the measurements and often the gauge of the completed item. All of this information will help you complete your project successfully.
After all the technical specifications, comes the actual pattern. This part is followed like a recipe, do the first step first, and then follow through the steps in the order given. That sounds trivial, but it’s true. Therefore, it’s advisable that you read through everything once, so you learn the basic structure and what the designer/ writer’s style is like. Just like reading a recipe, you don’t want to be mixing something in bowl A only to find out two steps later that you need to add more ingredients than you have room for into bowl A, and that bowl B should have been the smaller bowl. Reading ahead in your pattern will help you visualize your steps and why you’re doing the stitches and steps that you’re doing now.
But that’s where many of us run into problems. Because, often, to save space, or fit everything on a page or into a predetermined format (mostly when using patterns from books or magazines), the instructions can be difficult to follow.
Here’s what I mean, the following 3 examples all detail the same crochet instructions:
Rnd 9: Ch1, sc in same st as join and
in next 28 dc, 2 sc in next dc, sc in next
6 dc, 2 sc in next dc, sc in next 34 dc,
2 sc in next dc, sc in next 6 dc, 2 sc in
next dc, sc in next 5 dc, sl st in first sc
to join - 88 sc.
Round 9: Ch 1, sc in same st as join and in next 28 dc, 2 sc in next dc, sc in next 6 dc, 2 sc in next dc, sc in next 34 dc, 2 sc in next dc, sc in next 6 dc, 2 sc in next dc, sc in next 5 dc, sl st in first sc to join - 88 sc.
Round 9: Chain 1, single crochet in same stitch s the joining stitch and in the next 28 double crochets, make 2 single crochets in the next double crochet, single crochet in the next 6 double crochetes, make 2 single crochets in the next double crochet, single crochet in the next 34 double crochets, make 2 single crochets in the next double crochet, single crochet in the next 6 double crochets, make 2 single crochetes in the next double crochet, single crochet in the next 5 double crochets, slip stitch into the first single crochet to join the round. You should have 88 single crochets.
(Excerpted from “Love of Crochet” Summer 2017)
The first example is spaced to fit into a magazine column. The second doesn’t have the column restraints, and the third is fully written out without abbreviations. Personally, I find the middle example the easiest to follow. It’s just how my brain works; I am already familiar with the abbreviations, and having only a few lines to read and follow make it easier for me to comprehend and keep track of.
Honestly, I don’t think it’s so much that people can’t read a pattern, but that they get lost on the page. Let’s be honest, all three above examples do not look like something that should be “read” the same way you’re reading this paragraph. But once you’re a seasoned stitcher, just like hearing the tune in your head when you read the lyrics to your favorite song, the first two examples get “read” as the third example is presented - with all the abbreviations spelled out.
So how do you follow something when it looks like a bunch of alphabet soup on a page? Here are a few tricks, tips, or tools you can use to help you keep your place:
Highlighter tape. This is a removable, see through, bright tape that you use to mark where you are and reposition it as you go. It also works on touch-screens, so if you’re using a .PDF on a device, you can place the tape, leave it there, and scroll your pattern along to position the part you’re working on under the tape. And you can still use your touch screen! (available at Darn Yarn)
Magnet system. There are pattern “readers” available that use a metal base and magnetic strip to hold your pattern in place. You use the magnetic strip as a guide.
Make a copy of the pattern and use a highlighting marker as you go. Sure the entire page will be pink by the time you’re done, but it works.
Similar to 3, cross off each step as you complete it or on a separate sheet, keep track of the rows/rounds as you complete them.
Rewrite the pattern so you can read it. This is terribly time consuming, but I have known a number of people to take the time to reformat a pattern in a way that they can follow.
Regardless of you you keep track of your place in a pattern, it’s the practice that will help you gain confidence with pattern reading. So find a few patterns; check out some magazines or books, use Ravelry.com's pattern database. Look them over, read them (out loud if you have to, we won’t care, we’ve all done it), and get going! There’s a whole world of projects out there to explore.