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How to read written pattern instructions is a skill that’s often overlooked. On pages 82–85 of Skill Set: Beginning Knitting, Ann and Kay cover the essentials. 

Let’s build those skills! Whip out one of your MDK Field Guides—I’ve got Field Guide No. 7: Ease handy—and join me for a pattern reading primer. 

Start at the back

Always look for the abbreviations list. 

The Field Guide Abbreviations list is at the back of each booklet. It explains terms like “pm” and “sm,” and also provides instructions for special stitches that pertain to that Field Guide.

If there’s a term or technique you’re not sure about, and you need a bit more detail than you find in the Field Guide, then the next place to look is on Do a quick search, and you’ll find lessons and information and tutorials from me and Patty Lyons and other teachers and designers.

Here’s where I’m going to sound like a bit of a grump: there are lots and lots and LOTS of videos and tutorials out there on the internet. The challenge is that they’re not all of the same quality, and a random video can sometimes send you astray. It’s best to stick with a known source like Jen Arnall-Culliford!

For example, in the Sail-Away Shawl pattern in Field Guide No. 7: Ease, you see the word “blocking” used a lot. Not sure how to do it? Check out this primer!

For this pattern in particular, measurements and gauge are provided both pre- and post-blocking. The pre-blocking measurements are very useful if you’re working with exactly the same yarn as the designer used; if not, you can ignore them and focus only on the post-blocking measurements. 

Survey the landscape

Always skim through the intro and the pattern, before you cast on. I never actually read the whole pattern—a lot of the detail just won’t make sense until you’ve actually got stitches on your needles—but I always do a quick scan to make sure I know what the key words and milestones are in the pattern. (Yes, I also check ahead to know where the coffee shops are, when planning a roadtrip.) And I like to see what techniques and stitches are explained up front, so I know where to look when I need them. 

Notes Notes Notes

Make lots of notes. Lots. Even if I think I will absolutely remember something really obvious, I’ll write it down anyway, just to be sure. I recently picked up a crochet blanket project after a few months and I honestly could not remember what row I was on. When you put a project down, note down where you stopped. If you used different colors than the sample, write down which you used for A and which you used for B. 

In your own words

Write out instructions in a way that makes sense for you. If you need to expand on something so you find it easier to keep track of, or understand, do it! For example, in Section 1 of Sail-Away Shawl in Field Guide No. 7: Ease, there’s an instruction to Rep Rows 1 and 2 eight more times. 

I write out the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 in my notebook, and cross them off when they’re done. 

Grab yourself a notebook and your favorite pen, or use a digital annotation tool, and take notes as you do it, counting off each of the 8 repeats. 

However you like to do it! 

And if you need reminders on things to make it easier to follow a pattern, use them. For example, if you’re working a pattern that uses the M1L increase, add a note where you need it in the margin of your pattern or in your notebook to save you having to flip back to the Abbreviations list each time. 

I hope this is helpful. If you’ve got specific questions about reading the Modern Daily Knitting Field Guide patterns, let us know so I can address it in a future column.

About The Author

Kate Atherley is a teacher, designer, author and technical editor. She’s also the publisher of Digits & Threads, a magazine all about Canadian fibre and textile arts.


  • I like using post-It notes on my patterns. to mark off repeats and such. Then I can stick it right below what I’m working on.

  • Thank you for this info, helpful even though I’ve been knitting for awhile now. Especially the need to make notes! I don’t always do this til I’m well into a pattern then discover that making a note or a schematic would make dealing much easier. I also need to start noting What needle size I used instead of what was called for in the pattern. So thanks!

    • “while at the same time” always has me grabbing the notebook. I list the rows and mark every 6th row for its task and every 4th row or whatever is called for. Then I check it off as I go. This also helps for picking it up again after time off.

  • I photocopy and keep a pencil handy to tick off rows and make notes. If it’s significant it gets written in the original. Also – circle all stitch counts for the size you’re making.

    Nice to hear the Great Kate marks things as well!

  • I have trouble when complex areas of patterns are written in run-on paragraphs instead of a series of separate lines of text. It’s all too easy to get lost. Using the pdf, I will cut/paste into a new file, breaking things down in way that is clearer visually… then I can move a piece of paper down the rows as I do them, even marking off each one.

    • This sounds like a great idea.

      • It also helps to actually do what the pattern says, not what you think it should say! Now why did she design a lopsided dishcloth??

  • PreCovid I took a sweater class at my LYS. we started out by receiving a small notebook and writing out the specifics for our size including repeats and at the same time. This was invaluable to me and I have continued with the notebook ever since. Thanks for reinforcing the importance of this practice.

  • I rewrite each step on a big piece of paper, separating the steps with lots of white space. Somehow handwriting it helps me understand better what’s going on. It’s like I’m living in the pattern, really getting into it. And I use lots of colorful post-its and check off each row.

  • You are so right Kate: I must start using a notebook. I often reprint a mislaid pattern, and then the notes I’ve made on the first copy are lost. Being able to look back at previous pattern choices, swatches, problems and solutions has value too.

  • Thank you so much for calling attention to this important step in the process.

    I photocopy the original so I can comfortably mark it up. You can also enlarge the print. (And if things get really confusing I still have a clean copy of the original.) Highlighter pens are my friends.

    Ditto on circling all the instructions for my size. Ditto on listing out the instructions. If they “are at the same time” I put them side-by-side so I don’t forget to follow both sets.

    I also check to be sure all the steps in the process make sense. I once knit a wrap sweater with a long cast on edge. The directions called for a provisional cast on. (And why did I do this? I thought perhaps there would be some “fancy” finish at the end for the cast on.) When I got to the end, the instructions stopped with the binding off of the remaining stitches on the circular needle. There were no instructions for the provisional cast on. I called the pattern store/company to request additional guidance. The customer service person told me it was a mistake in the pattern. She suggested I could just start over. Not helpful.

    I was able to just bind off the live stitches, but it would have been nice to have just skipped the whole “misunderstanding” part.

  • A notebook is essential just as you have shown. Interruptions to knitting that last over a couple of days can lead to “where was I?” so write it down! Simple!

  • I like your way of keeping track on those repeats. I mark on paper every row, as I knit. Then I put comas after each repeat is done. I have to go back ever so often to see how many I’ve done and still need. Yours looks so much easier and faster. Thanks for the tip.

  • I invested in a magnetic board so I can use a magnet to mark where I am in the pattern. I also photocopy the pattern, in part so it will lie flat on my board, but mostly for the scribbles. The more notes the better!

  • I, too, have developed the helpful habit of making notes all over my pattern photocopy. Now I have a bit of a stack of the notated patterns, which I think I’ll put in a binder. That will make sure I don’t lose my notes if I want them for future reference, but it also is a heart-warming memory book of all the things I have made for people I love over the years. Hm, maybe I will snip a bit of the yarn and tape it to the pages too so I will remember that as well.

    • I have multiple notebooks. One for sweaters, one for hats, one for socks, etc. I use clear plastic sleeves to hold the pattern, the yarn label, and a piece of the yarn. The pattern doesn’t go in the sleeve until the project is finished since I write all over the pattern while I am making something.

  • Excellent article, Kate. I alway have some highlighter tape at hand to keep track of rows. I have kept repeat row counts on the pattern, however it would make more sense to have a notebook. And putting the M1L where you are using is makes so much sense. I guess even knitters can develop tunnel vision when working on a pattern. Thanks again.

  • Thanks for all the great reminders. I would add pay attention to commas, periods and the word “and”, as well as reading ALL the words.

  • When my Mama needed to keep track of repeats in her knitting, she’d write the numbers on a piece of paper, but instead of crossing them off with a pencil, she’d poke the tip of her needle through the number as she completed it. I’ve used this system many times and it works great!

    • I love this method of your mom’s! Thank you for sharing this with us!

    • I love this!

  • My favourite new to me knitting tool – highlighter tape. Its removable – so when I’m working on a chart, when I get done a row – I can just move the tape to the next row. And since its semi-transparent, I cN still see what the row before was.

  • I download a pattern, convert it to a Word document and edit it for myself. I eliminate all numbers except those in my size. If I am changing something, I color and Bold those numbers. I use my preferred notation, for instance replacing “Knit 8 stitches” to K8.

    Following the pattern is now a breeze!

    • I like that! Maybe I’ll try it! It’ll also make cataloging it easier!

  • Here’s my chance to clear up a question I encounter regularly: “…Repeat rows 1 and 2 eight more times” reads to me as “knit rows 1 and 2. Then 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8”, for a total of 10 rows. Sometimes the total no. of rows intended is listed, sometimes not.
    I guess I should assume “…eight more times…” means eight rows total. Correct?

    • Hi Rebecca – I interpret this as rows 1 and 2 being a single repeat. So “repeat rows 1 and 2 eight more times” means knit row 3 the same as row 1 and row 4 the same as row 2, one additional repeat, and so on. So, 18 rows in total (eight more times of knitting rows 1 and 2).

  • When I knit a pattern that I know I will make again….and again…I type it up, using my size with st counts, etc. I use different color fonts for instruction changes, etc. This makes it much easier for me to keep track of what I’m doing without all the clutter of extraneous information, eg different sizes, etc.

  • Making Dayflower Scarf by Toni Maddox, and after several errors and sort of off grid frogging, I resorted to typing out each row, cutting them into strips and stapling together to make a little book. Finish a row, turn the page. Lifesaver! (Yeah, I should have done that too)

  • How do you do a search of Also, how do you access the daily emails that you’ve saved?

    • The search function (the magnifying glass icon) is on-and-off successful since the site relaunch, but you might try that first. Google itself is sometimes a more effective search engine, though…just Google “Modern Daily Knitting + Whatever You’re Looking For” and the results usually turn up right at the top of the Google results.

      Regarding saved articles: if you’ve bookmarked them, click My Account and then Bookmarks, where they should show up in REVERSE chronological order (newest saves at the bottom). This feature has ALSO been a bit wobbly since the relaunch, though, so you may or may not see anything at all.

      Like literally everything else…we’re working on it.

  • Completely wonderful!! Thank you so much, Kate, for all of these helpful hints.

  • The owner of my LYS gave me the best tip ever. I had mentioned that I can never remember M1R & M1L. She told me she just tells herself the phrase“Be Right back” for M1R. Once she told me this I don’t have anymore trouble remembering.

  • I started keeping a notebook of my knitting projects. I try to include needle size, gauge, and I add a stapled piece from the wrapper . Also the start & finish date (sometimes even a time out date). I think I might start adding places I traveled white knitting the project. It’s kind of fun to reminded of that long plane ride or road trip while working on a big project. It’s fun seeing how others notetate.

    • I love the idea of turning a knitting notebook into a journal/travelog. Great idea. I’m heading to Europe soon and I’ll do that for my project.

      I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one who takes copious notes. For a sweater, I fill up an entire notebook.

      Taking good notes also makes it easier if you want to do the pattern again.

      I love highlighter tape and recently discovered erasable highlighter markers.

      Thanks for this great article.

    • I love the idea of turning a knitting notebook into a journal/travelog. Great idea. I’m heading to Europe soon and I’ll do that for my project.

      I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one who takes copious notes. For a sweater, I fill up an entire notebook.

      Taking good notes also makes it easier if you want to do the pattern again.

      I love highlighter tape and recently discovered erasable highlighter markers.

  • Thank you for this! I write out where my decreases etc are too (particularly when the instructions contain those magic words “at the same time”). I also sometimes make a note of how many stitches I’m supposed to have, which helps keep track of things.

  • This is good advice to read. I’ve been doing most of these steps, and it feels good that experts agree. I find that I cannot always remember things as I used to (or think I can) so notes to myself are a great help.

  • Sticky notes. Never underestimate the power of sticky notes. I have them all the colors and sizes (except the poster size) and they are amazing. You make little notes that travel along the pattern, or bookmark your pattern, or mark that one spot where you really need to pay attention.

  • These are great tips! I make a copy of my pattern & make lots of notes. I like your suggestions.
    My pattern copy stays w the project in its own project bag in case it gets sidelined for a bit. Once finished I staple my copy to the original (if it’s on a page of its own & not in a book)
    I then file… I set up a hot file box
    With folders labeled HAT, SCARF, GLOVES, ETC
    Easy peasy to drop a pattern inside the appropriate folder…easy to find again and easy to move the hot file box to a shelf or table as needed.

  • Thank you for such great suggestions.
    I also photocopy my pattern because I like to keep the original unmarked.
    I always circle the numbers in the pattern that pertain to my size. I have learned to write down what needle size I used for my gauge swatch and subsequent pattern, what yarn I am using and quantity purchased and dye lot. Also where I purchased the yarn.
    I have a notebook for my projects and I write out the number of rows for each section (if it’s not plain knitting )and cross them off. If I have to make an increase on a row I put a square around that row number so when I come to it I know I have to increase. You can also glance ahead so it is less likely that you go by the row and forget the increase. I also write the number increase it is under the row number. For example , it may be row 15 that I am knitting but it is the 3rd increase. This makes it a lot easier for me to keep track of where I am in my pattern.
    I love all of the tips that have been posted.
    Thank you for the great article.

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