VKC: Charts & vintage stranded knitting patterns

Hi everyone! Let’s talk about stranded knitting and charts.

A bit about charts and stranded knitting

Modern stranded knitting pattern use charts to convey the colorwork part of the pattern. Sometimes they’ll use multiple colors in a colored chart, sometimes just shades of gray, or different shapes to represent different colors, or some combination thereof. Here are a couple of examples.

{Source: charts from Ogiku beret and Olympic Reindeer hat}

If there’s anything particularly complicated in the chart, there is usually a key or legend.

{Source: legend from Ogiku beret}

The good news: Many vintage stranded/fair isle patterns have colorwork charted, too!

The bad news: Some vintage stranded/fair isle patterns do not have colorwork charted. Boo, hiss.

How do you knit with vintage stranded patterns with no chart?

When there’s no chart, you read every single row individually, following along with written explanations on when to change color. And it looks like this.

Each capital letter represents a color. Say R is red, M is maroon. (Your pattern will indicate what letter represents each color.)  * k 2 R, 1 M, 1 R, repeat from *  would mean k2 in red, k1 in maroon, k1 in red, and repeat until the end of the row. You follow each individual row as you would for any pattern that’s written out row-by-row, just making sure to change colors when it tells you to.

Personally, I would never be able to knit this way. It’s just too tedious for me. So I prefer to make my own chart for a pattern. You certainly don’t have to! Even if you only use it to plan out your colors and you prefer to follow the pattern as written, it’s a useful resource and a good exercise. (And I dare say kind of fun, but I’m a geek, what can I say.)

How to chart out a stranded pattern with no original chart

You can do it by hand with graph paper and colored pencils, or with spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel (that’s what I use), Google Docs (a bit clunky for this purpose), or OpenOffice (free). I prefer to use the computer because when you start off, you may find you need to move things around a lot to get them lined up right. Copying and pasting is easier than erasing and cursing.

The goal is to chart one repeat of the pattern. Not every single stitch in the pattern, just what’s repeated, i.e. the stuff between the asterisks or parentheses. So you may find that your chart ends up 16 stitches wide, or 8 stitches wide, or maybe 30 stitches wide.

These are just some general steps. Of course every single pattern is different, so consider this a guideline. Your mileage may vary. 🙂

Step 1. Setup a chart that’s around 30 or 40 cells wide by about the same number of cells tall, and put a black border around those cells. This is an arbitrary size, you can add rows or columns as you go along. I just give myself a little more room than I think I’ll need. I like to make the cells small. Knit stitches are slightly shorter than they are wide, so I usually do the same on the chart.

Number the right-hand column of the chart. It helps you keep track of what row you just charted when you’re flipping back and forth between the chart and the written pattern.

Step 2. Begin with the first colored row for either the instructions for the back or the front (if it’s a cardigan I select the back). Read past any ribbing instructions until you get to the part where the colorwork starts. Start on the right-hand most cell of the chart in Row 1, working right to left. Read the row in your pattern, and chart it out stitch by stitch. In this case, the row was just one color. An easy way to start.

Step 3. Move to the next row. Keep in mind, odds are the pattern is written flat. You’ll know because every other row will be purled rows in the pattern. If that’s the case, you will need to chart Row 2 left to right. All right-side rows are charted right to left, and wrong-side rows are charted left to right. (In the end it won’t matter if you knit it flat or in the round, as your chart still needs to look the same.)

See how I highlighted the border on the first and last stitch in pink? You can see in this pattern, each row starts off with a stitch before the repeat (the part in the parentheses). In row 2, that’s “P 1 R” below (purl one in red). So I highlight that as a reminder to myself, so I don’t forget about it.

Step 4. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve finished charting the colorwork. You’ll know you’ve finished the chart because it will say something like “These X rows comprise the pattern“. Eventually with some tweaking, you’ll find you’ve charted one or two repeats of the pattern, like this.

Step 5. The last step is to make sure you only have one repeat of the pattern charted. This makes it much easier to knit with the pattern, and easier to use the smallest number the pattern is divisible over if you’d like to change the size or gauge of the pattern.

Eyeball the chart until you can see where it begins to repeat itself. Below, what is not grayed out is the repeat.

So I’ll cut out the other cells, and be left with the pattern repeat to knit with! Now I can print this, or look at it on my iPad.


If the pattern has shaping in it, keep that in mind in the beginning of the rows. You’re not trying to chart every stitch in the entire sweater, just the repeat, so don’t include increase stitches in the body.

Pay attention if the pattern has you finish off a repeat of the chart with slightly less stitches. If you don’t notice it you’ll start to realize your chart isn’t looking quite right because you’re one or two stitches mis-aligned every other row. Look out for rows that end with “…until the last 7 stitches” or start with “…in the first 7 stitches“. Sometimes this is done when there is shaping in a pattern, because then not every row has a full repeat at the sides. It may sound confusing now, but it will make more sense when you sit down with a pattern and try it out yourself.

Aren’t sure if what you have is a full repeat? Make a bigger chart, and copy and paste the repeat directly next to itself, so you have two side-by-side. You’ll see if it lines up, or if it doesn’t.

You can tell the one below looks funky in the middle. Clearly the pattern doesn’t line up, so I would need to play with it a bit more, or see if I accidentally skipped a column when I selected the stitches I thought formed the repeat.

Compare it to the below chart, which is correct. This would confirm for me that I’d created the chart right and was well on my way to knitting.

Don’t get frustrated, and remember this isn’t a precise science. Refer to the pattern picture frequently, and if you’re not quite sure or want to change it slightly for some reason, use your creative freedom to tweak it a bit.

When you like what you see, you’re done!

A few final thoughts on charted patterns

Even though many vintage stranded patterns are charted, I still take the time to re-chart them if they have multiple colors. Partially because it’s so much easier to work with a colored chart than trying to distinguish different colors in different rows represented by simply shades of gray or black and while.

But I also do it because it’s way easier to play around with color schemes when you can simply click a few buttons to fill little squares with whatever color you’d like to see.

Bestway 82, the pattern I’m knitting, is actually charted. Consider the below a sample of what we’ll talk about in my next VKC post… playing around with colors and yarn. Depending on your perspective and a bit of luck, that can be the most frustrating or the most fun part! 😉

Have a great weekend!

Filed: Knitting, Knitting Tutorials

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