A knitting pattern is a set of instructions on how to hand-knit an item (usually a garment or a blanket) or a pattern (such as a cable). Most knitting patterns are essentially a low-level program, dictating what to do stitch by stitch. Unlike a sewing pattern, the visual element (pictures and shapes) is not essential. Many knitting patterns have diagrams for additional reference, but the coded instructions are enough to make the item in question.

Elements of a Knitting Pattern

  1. Calibration (sized patterns only)
  2. Instructions
  3. Making Up (garment patterns only)

1.   Calibration

Any knitting pattern that requires that things come out a certain size (like a sweater) has a problem. Although knitting needles and yarn are standardised, knitters are not. Different people keep the yarn at different tensions, which means that the final size can vary widely.

To compensate, garment patterns start with a measurement of a sample size, usually 10 stitches by 10 rows. Before starting a project, you're supposed to knit up a 10 x 10 sample and compare measurements. If your sample is too small, use larger needles or thicker yarn. If it's too large, go down a needle size or two, or use thinner yarn.

2.   Instructions

When you first look at knitting instructions, they look like machine code. How's this for gripping reading?

Row 3 - k2tog 4(yo k2tog) p3 yo k1 yo psso k2

The instructions are a row-by-row, stitch-by-stitch instruction for knitting the item in question. Each row should account for all of the stitches from the previous row. It will either have the same number of stitches, will create and destroy stitches to retain balance, or will use increases and reductions to shape the piece.

Here are the commonest knitting terms, with a brief explanation.

  • kn   knit n stitches
  • pn   purl n stitches
  • k2tog   knit the next two stitches together
  • p2tog   purl the next two stitches together
  • sl1   slip one stitch from the right needle to the left without knitting on it
    This will either be passed over the next stitch (see psso), or be used to create a hole in a lacy pattern.
  • psso   pass the last stitch you did over the current stitch
  • yo   pass the yarn over the left needle to create another stitch
    This also creates a hole for a lace effect.
  • inc   increase the number of stitches in the row by creating two out of the given one
    This usually requires knitting into both the front and back of a stitch. Since no method is specified, it is left to the knitter's choice.
  • dec   decrease the number of stitches, usually by a sl1 k1 psso or a k2 tog
    The fact that no method is stated means it is left to the knitter's preference.
  • n (...)   repeat the instructions in the parentheses n times
    Sometimes repetitions use asterisks rather than parentheses.
  • cn   cable needle
    The pattern may refer to stitches knit onto a cable needle, to be lifted from their original place in the sequence and passed in front of the work.

3.   Making Up

This is a relatively dull part of the pattern, merely telling you what to sew to what to create the garment. I include it for completeness only.


As you can see from the above, a knitting pattern is purely character-based. This has led to copyright problems throughout knitting history, as commercial patterns have been copied down by hand, typewriter, and photocopier.

However, it was not until the Internet that pattern piracy went big time. There are now numerous knitting webrings, and it is well known that not all the patterns on them are original. Very few publishers are willing to crack down on the site owners, though, since they are generally sweet church-going matrons. Bad press.

So the next time you're trying to explain open source software or Napster, to your granny, try talking in terms of knitting patterns. You might even get some sympathy.

Thanks to JerboaKolinowski for the nodeshell challenge, and for the comparison to programming languages.

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