How to Read Your Knitting: The Basics

Reading your knitting means being able to look at a piece of knitting and recognising what stitch was used. Learning how to read your knitting will make it a lot easier to keep track of where you are in a pattern and help prevent mistakes. If you can see where you are in a pattern by looking, you’ll save yourself from lots of counting and it might make it easier to memorise a pattern.

Recognising Knit and Purl

The basic knitting stitches are knit and purl, so learning to tell them apart is the first hurdle. All knitting is made of rows of loops. If the loops on the row below are behind or in front of the current yarn is the difference between a knit and a purl.

Read Your Knitting: Knit Stitches

Knit Stitches ©Rachel Gibbs

Here we have three columns of knit stitches. You can see that the knit stitches form a v-shape, with the sides of the current loop in front of the loop from the row below. You can see the top of the blue loop is behind the black stitches on the needle, that have just been knitted.

Read Your Knitting: Purl Stitches

Purl Stitches ©Rachel Gibbs

Here all the stitches are purls. Now the sides of the loops are at the back and the top and bottom loop are at the front. This causes purl bumps to be seen, as horizontal bars.

Working flat or in the round

Every time you work a stitch, you are influencing whether the top of the loop from the previous row is at the back for a knit, or the front for a purl. This means that if you turn a knit stitch over it looks like a purl stitch because what used to be the back is now the front.

Read Your Knitting: Garter Stitch

Garter Stitch ©Rachel Gibbs

When worked flat garter stitch is knit every row, but the rows of loops alternate between being at the front and the back. Here the blue stitches were knit, but they look like purl stitches, with the top of the green loop in front. That’s because we’re looking at the back of them.

If garter stitch is worked in the round, you alternate between knit and purl stitches. This is because you are always looking at the knitting from the same side.

Random Ribbing Challenge

Reading your knitting takes practice. In ribbing, the columns of stitches should all look the same, either v-shaped knits or bumpy purls. In order to practice telling the difference between knit and purl stitches, try starting with a random sequence and see if you can repeat it every row.

Choose a smooth, plain coloured yarn and cast on at least 15 stitches. Then use one of the methods below to work the first row.

Toss a coin

For each stitch, toss a coin and make a knit for heads and purl for tails.

Use a die

Alternate between knit and purl, making the number of stitches on the die each time until you run out of stitches.

Random Ribbing Challenge Setup Row

Random Ribbing Challenge Setup Row ©Rachel Gibbs

Now the pattern has been set (don’t keep notes), repeat the row trying to match each stitch to the one below. Remember you’re trying to match how they look, not how they were worked. So if the last stitch was purl, when you turn it over it looks like a knit, so you knit the first stitch.

Random Ribbing Challenge

Random Ribbing Challenge ©Rachel Gibbs

You should end up with something that looks like this, with identifiable columns of knit and purl. The edge stitches always end up looking a bit distorted, so don’t worry if you struggle to read those.

Cellular Automata Challenge

Once you’ve mastered the ribbing, try this instead. Cellular automata is a mathematical concept where a rule is used to determine the next row of a grid depending on the state of the previous row. Ribbing is an example of a simple rule where the next row is equal to the previous one.

Elementary cellular automata use the cell below and the two cells either side of that to decide on the value of the current cell. There are 256 possible rules to choose from, some of which are more interesting than others.

Start by generating a random sequence of knits and purls as before, set knit as 1 and purl as 0. Then pick a rule and use that to decide whether to knit or purl each stitch depending on the three below it. Assume all stitches outside your grid are knit.

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