Do your palms start to sweat when you catch a glimpse of an elaborate lace chart? Do you want to make that beautiful scarf but are scared away by the endless hieroglyphics in the pattern? You are not alone in these knitting trepidations, but you do not need to be afraid of lace charts. Once the mystery of lace charts is unraveled, you might just fall in love with those yarn over, k2tog combinations. I will admit, however, any project is much easier when you are able to read the instructions- so that's where we will start.
Sometimes a pattern that involves lace will provide both a chart and written instructions. Often, though, this is not the case. Many books and magazines are tight on space and therefore use only the chart to illustrate what stitches are needed in a lace pattern. All charts have keys, and that is a good place to look first. You will notice there are knitting symbols that seem to be universal, but it is still important to study the key carefully. There are some symbols that mean one thing on the right side of your knitting that mean something totally different on the wrong side. (For example, an empty square in a chart might mean knit on the right side but purl on the wrong side.) There may even be special symbols present that represent a unique, uncommon stitch. Below is a key taken from the Craft Yarn Council website that shows many of the common symbols. This chart is by no means exhaustive, nor is it the end all be all list for how things can be written, but it is a good list.
Once you have looked at the key and taken note of any stitches you may need to find a YouTube video to figure out, you can turn your attention to the actual chart. Now, here is where things can get really murky. Traditionally, lace charts are read from the right to the left for right side rows and from the left to the right for wrong side rows. In the made up chart below, the right side rows start with the number 1. You know this because the 1 is on the right-hand side. The next row of the chart is a wrong side row and the number 2 is therefore on the left-hand side.
However, perhaps even more common, is the lace chart that only shows the right side rows. If you look at the numbering on a chart that only shows right side rows, you will see that the numbers are listed on the right-hand side and skip count, including only odd numbers. You would read this chart from right to left, following the pattern. However, when you turn your work to complete a wrong side row, you purl a row. This wrong-side row of purl stitches is implied by the absence of even numbered rows in the chart. Sometimes the pattern will remind you of this fact, often times it will not. Excluding every other row in the chart saves space and makes the structure you are knitting more obvious in the chart. Also, it feels redundant in a chart to have every other row full of blank squares, don't you think?
Shown below are two iterations of the same lace pattern. One includes the wrong-side purl rows and the other does not. Something to note, which I included on purpose, I promise- lace charts typically start on right side rows. In the chart on the left, however, the chart actually starts on a wrong side row. This does happen and you know that it is a wrong side row because the number of the row is on the left-hand side. This means you would read the chart from the left to the right. In the chart on the right, the lace pattern is the same, but the chart starts on a right side row because ONLY right side rows are shown. You know this because the number for the row is on the right-hand side.
The next thing to talk about are repeats within a chart. Repeats are illustrated by a box of a contrasting color or perhaps just a bold line outlining only a portion of a chart. This is used to denote the section of a lace pattern that should be repeated. For example, if you are making a triangular lace shawl, the area of lace gets larger from the point to the base of the triangle. This means that as you knit, you will be adding repeats of the lace pattern to fill the space. It is often the case that an entire row should not be repeated, only a small section of it. It would not be practical for a designer to chart out every repeat of the lace motif as the shawl grew...and it is likely your paper wold not be big enough. Another example of in-chart repeats would be if you are making a scarf that has three repeats of the same lace motif. Instead of making a super large chart to include the same lace pattern repeated three times across the scarf, in addition to whatever border the scarf has, the designer might opt to chart out only the border and one iteration of the lace motif, instructing the knitter to repeat the lace motif three times. An example of an in-chart repeat is shown below in a made up lace chart. The area outlined in bold black would be the "repeat" section of the chart.
Also, if you are exploring lace charts as a designer, a lace pattern will tell you how many stitches you will need to complete the motif. This could look something like "8 sts +5 sts". This would translate to mean you need a multiple of 8 stitches, for each lace motif will be 8 stitches, and you will need to add five to this multiple of 8 for the finishing edge stitches. This sounds confusing, so let's use real numbers. I want to make a scarf with a lace motif I like. I want the scarf to have the motif repeated 4 times. Using the information that I need "8 sts + 5 sts," I would multiply 8 times 4 (because that would give me enough stitches for the 4 motif repeats that I want). Eight times four is 32. I now need to add five stitches to 32 to have the appropriate number of stitches for my final count, giving me the final stitch count of 37. To make the scarf with the four repeats of the lace pattern, I would need to cast on 37 stitches.
Finally, some charts are meant to be repeated in their entirety a certain number of times. This is usually denoted in the written instructions as something like "Repeat Chart A 6x." This means you would repeat Chart A six times. It is often the case with lace shawls that there is more than one lace motif, meaning there is more than one chart. It is important to read through an entire pattern before you start so you have a clear idea of what charts need to be used when.
As always, read an entire pattern before you begin. This includes charts. Look up any symbols you don't know before you pick up your needles. I hope this was a helpful launching point for reading lace charts, please share your experiences if you feel so inclined. Also, explore other types of charts, too! There are colorwork charts and cabling charts...knitting is amazing.