Knitting patterns, like recipes, can be incredibly detailed, or they can be a mere suggestion of how to proceed. Some, Italian patterns in particular, are no more than a chart showing the number of stitches per row, colour variations or increases and decreases by coded symbols. The common denominator, however, is that they all use shorthand. Stitch, for example, is never written out, but always abbreviated as “st.” or sometimes just “s” as in ss., meaning stocking stitch. (Stocking stitch is one row plain and one row purl, giving a smooth, even appearance as one might expect in stockings.)
Knitting has only two stitches: plain and purl. They can be compared to the notes on a piano keyboard – black and white. But add a few frills and arpeggios, and you can produce a musical work that is rich and complex. The same is true of knitting. By manipulating the basic stitches one can produce lacy works of incredible delicacy or the robust cable patterns of Aran jerseys.
Learning to read a knitting pattern is like learning a new language. Fortunately the vocabulary is limited, so it does not take too long to learn. However, “knitting” needs to be read and understood on two levels. First, you have to be able to take the printed pattern and interpret the symbols in such a way that you can translate them into action wit your needles. That is, you need to be able to wrap the wool around the needles in exactly the way the pattern expects you to. If you can do this, the garment you are trying to make will look like the illustration on the cover of the pattern.
To be sure that you are doing what the pattern wants you to, you also need to be able to read the knitting. You need to be able to see where you have made a mistake. This is actually the most fundamental skill in acquiring any new skill – to know it is wrong, and to know how to make it right.
When you first start knitting, you should find a pattern you like; get exactly the wool or yarn recommended and follow the directions absolutely. This includes the very important step of knitting a swatch to test your gauge. Gauge means the number of stitches per inch. Obviously, if your knitting is loose and you have fewer stitches per inch, your garment is going to end up too big. If your knitting is tight and you make more stitches per inch, your garment will be too small. You compensate for differences in gauge by changing the size of the needles.
As you become more adept at reading patterns, it is possible to use yarns other than those recommended. It is, however, always necessary to test your gauge. Then with a bit of mathematics, you can figure out how to adapt the number of stitches to produce a garment of the desired size.
You can really call yourself a knitter when you can look at a picture of a jersey, figure out the stitches used and calculate the number of stitches per inch needed to fit you. In other words, you are a real knitter when you can write your own pattern.