How to Understand a Knitting Pattern

Basket full of yarn
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When you're just starting to learn to knit, it can be difficult to know how to read a knitting pattern. They often seem to be written in code, full of abbreviations that the pattern just assumes you know the meaning of and terms that can be difficult to decode.

Luckily it's not that difficult to learn how to read a knitting pattern to set yourself up for success and limit your frustration. It's a great idea to read through knitting patterns first before you decide if you want to knit them, and this guide will take you through what you can expect to find.

Pattern Basics

The trouble for new knitters can begin before you even get to the knitting instructions, but once you can decipher this information, you'll know a lot about whether the pattern is right for you.

  • Skill level: This is often one of the first things you will often see on a pattern, after the name and a picture of the finished piece. This is great news for beginning knitters because you know right away to skip the ones that say "advanced" or even "intermediate." Some companies have a scale of one to four that indicates difficulty; one is the easiest, so stick to those for your first projects.
  • Size: This is important if you are making a fitted piece, but it is not so important in beginning projects since you'll probably be making scarves, blankets, and other pieces that don't require fitting. As you get more skilled, you'll want to look at the measurements for a pattern to make sure it will fit you. For sweaters and other fitted items, a range of sizes are usually given, and the instructions will vary according to the size you want to make.
  • Gauge: This is also much less important in beginning projects because they aren't shaped and fitted, but you should get into the habit of checking your gauge before you start making more complicated garments; you'll be glad you did when your first sweater fits.
  • The gauge of a pattern is indicated by a measurement, something like six stitches and 10 rows equals 4 inches in pattern stitch on size 13 needles. That means if you were to knit in whatever the pattern stitch is across six stitches and 10 rows, you should get a 4-inch square. Try it. If your size isn't quite right a different sized needle can be used to get the right measurement.
  • Pattern information: This will tell you what kind of yarn was used in the pattern and what size needles and any other special tools you might need. It will also indicate how much yarn you need to buy. You don't have to use the exact yarn that was used in the pattern, but a yarn of a similar weight or thickness would be helpful for the best results.

Once you've made it through the top of the pattern, you can move to deciphering the pattern itself. If you're having trouble telling your Ks from your Ps, read on.

After you've gotten through the introductory material and learned that this is a pattern you would like to make and that fits with your skill level, read the pattern and make sure it makes sense to you.


Most patterns are heavily abbreviated, and it can be difficult to understand what you're supposed to be doing, but most of the abbreviations you'll come across are pretty easy to explain. Here's what you need to know as a beginner:

  • CO means cast on and is the foundation for your project. This is the number of stitches you will need to complete the project.
  • K means to knit the most basic stitch. Patterns for beginners may be all knit, also known as garter stitch.
  • P means purl, the second-most-common stitch and essentially the opposite of knitting. Many basic patterns employ alternating rows of knitting and purling, also known as the stockinette stitch.
  • RS is the "right side," meaning the front of the project. When a pattern is reversible, like the farrow rib, front and back don't matter, but on many projects, there is a distinct front and back.
  • WS, then, means "wrong side," or the back of a project.
  • BO can be used to indicate binding off, which is how you finish the project so you can take it off the needles and not have it unravel.

These are the most common abbreviations you will find in patterns designed for beginners, but if you're looking at more advanced patterns and don't understand what they mean, check out the "translations" for common knitting abbreviations.