Well, this has been a bit of a hiatus, hasn't it? I apologize for that, but as with almost all of us, knitting is just a hobby, and sometimes making a living has to take priority. But now I'm back, and ready to have a little talk about charts.
Less experienced knitters frequently find charts very intimidating. What are all these symbols? Where do you begin? Which direction do you go? Always, or does it change? These are valid questions, but with a little understanding, charts become a great aid to the knitter.
A chart is, basically, a roadmap to the knitted fabric. It's a stylized representation that shows you both the result and how to achieve it. That sounds pretty neat, doesn't it?
What a chart shows you is the stitch pattern or color pattern as seen from the right side of the finished fabric. How to follow the chart depends on how you're working your item, which dictates how you move across the fabric with respect to that right-side face.
Knitting always grows downward from the needle, from the perspective of the knitter. Therefore, the rows that will be knit first are shown at the bottom of the chart -- in other words, you always start at the bottom.
How you move across the row of the chart is dictated by how you move across the row of the fabric, with respect to its right side. On RS rows, you're moving from the right edge to the left edge, and so you'll start on the right edge of the chart, and work to the left. On WS rows when working flat, however, you're moving from the right edge to the left edge of the side you're looking at, but with respect to the fabric's right side, you're moving from left to right; since the chart shows only the RS of the fabric, you're going to start at the left edge of the chart and work to the right. When you're knitting in the round, you don't have any WS rows; you're going around and around the RS in a spiral, and so you'll work every row from right to left. (A digression: all the "rights" and "lefts" in this paragraph apply to the knitter who works in the majority direction; if you're a mirrored knitter, you'll want to refer back to this previous discussion of how to decide how you'll handle charts.)
Usually the chart itself will give you some clues as to how to handle this, as well; most will give row numbers, and they'll be on the side of the chart where you should start. Some charts will show only the RS rows, if the WS rows contain little or no patterning; you may be instructed to knit or purl all stitches on the WS rows, or to work the stitches as they appear. Check the numbering scheme, if there is one, and read all the pattern instructions. An additional tip: for charts where the WS rows are plain, rather than mindlessly working back, follow your chart for the prior row backwards, checking to see that each stitch you come to is correct for what you should have done at that point, and you'll catch any mistakes while they're still easy to fix.
Now that you know how to move around the chart, how do you read the information that appears there? There should be a key somewhere near the chart, which gives you the legend to your map. But first, take a look at the symbols, and see if you can make them make some sense. If you have a picture of the design or a good idea of what it will look like, and the chart is reasonably well constructed, you should be able to get an idea of what the symbols are for. There's no strict standardization of symbols, but there are some commonalities. Do you have decreases? These are usually a sort of an upside down V or Y, usually slanting to one side or the other -- doesn't that make sense, with the two legs representing the two stitches coming together to make one new stitch, and the slant indicating the lean of the decrease? Yarnovers are usually an O for the holes they create. Cables, usually a sort of jagged line, with one end going up and one end going down, to represent one group of stitches passing in front of another. Take a look at the symbols, and try to see them as stylized representations of the stitches you'll be creating; it will help them look a little less like the letters of an alien language. This is a language you already speak.
Now take a look at the key. Make sure you understand how to do each of the stitches, individually. Most charts, unless they show only RS rows, will have at least a few symbols that tell you to do one thing on the RS, and something else on the WS, for the same symbol. This is not mysterious, and shouldn't be confusing. Remember that the knit stitch is just the reverse of the purl stitch, and when you purl on the WS of the fabric, you produce a knit on the RS, which is the side that the chart shows; therefore, it makes sense to use the same symbol for a RS knit and a WS purl, and vice versa.
Now -- the dreaded "no stitch" box, my nominee for Most Confusing Chart Symbol Ever. It really shouldn't be this hard, but people overthink it. This symbol means exactly one thing: the chart is wider on this row than the number of stitches you actually have on your needles. This is a very common occurrence in lace knitting, and happens any time you have decreases or increases that aren't balanced out within a single row. The pattern designer could deal with this by just making the row shorter, but often that distorts the schematic, creating a wavy edge that doesn't actually happen in the knitting, and makes your roadmap less clear. By putting in blank or blacked-out squares -- "no stitch" boxes -- instead, the designer is able to give you a better picture of what you'll actually see in your hands as you work. It's just a visual device, like the black squares on a crossword puzzle. The way to handle this symbol is very easy: ignore it. Don't slip or skip a stitch or try to do one single solitary thing with the "no stitch" box -- just go on to the next actual instruction, and execute that on the next actual stitch or stitch group.
Finally, some practical suggestions on physically working with your charts:
- Many people find it useful to photocopy their charts, and I do recommend this course of action. Fair Use permits you to make a working copy of copyrighted materials, so that you can mark up the copy instead of your originals; please do respect the intention of this dispensation, however, and not loan out your originals while you work from the copy! If enlarging the charts would be useful to you, by all means do so.
- If the chart contains large numbers of consecutive plain knits or purls, many people find it useful to write the number of these directly on one of the boxes, so they don't have to count them as they knit.
- Some people like to highlight various symbols in different colors, such as making yarnovers yellow, right-slanting decreases pink and left-slanting ones blue; if you find that helpful, by all means do it.
- There are many ways to keep track of your place on a chart. There are magnetic boards, with which you can use magnet strips both to hold the chart on the board and to mark your row. Some people like post-it notes, especially the double-width ones; if I do this, I usually put them above the current line, so I can see what I've already worked. Some people directly highlight their rows on the chart, although this can cause issues if you have to rip back; I like to put my pages in a sheet protector, taped in place so they don't slip around, and write on the outside of the sheet protector with a dry-erase marker. Experiment, and you'll find something that works for you and doesn't drive you crazy. [Edited 9/1/06: I've found an interesting tool for chart marking: highlighter tape! It's see-through, removable, and very handy. I've given you one online source; I've also found this locally at teacher-supply stores.]