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It started with The Lord of the Rings -- specifically, all of the tree motifs on Gondorian armor and clothing. I wanted a sweater with a tree on it. Unfortunately, the obvious way to get an image on a sweater is through colorwork. I am terrible at colorwork. So I gave up on that idea for a while. Then I came across a twining trees pattern, and I realized that I could do trees as cabled patterns rather than as colorwork.

Having just completed my first cabled sweater, I thought I could design something like that. Unfortunately, cabled patterns are harder to design than colorwork patterns. But I worked out a method that works fairly well.

This article will teach you how to design your own charts for cabled trees. If you want to practice knitting trees before you start designing them, the pattern for Leaves in Relief, a tree sweater I designed, appears in this issue of Knitty.

Our friends the colorworkers have it easy. They just take a sketch and convert it to a chart.

Unfortunately, cable knitters cannot do it this way. Cables pull in a lot. So if we tried to follow this sort of chart, then we would end up with a piece of knitting which puckered and changed its width along with the cabled design. So we have to add increases and decreases to smooth out the fabric.

By measuring a few cabled swatches, I discovered that cables add very little to the width of a piece. For example, a swatch which contains nineteen purl stitches per row, plus a few cables, will not be much wider than a simple rectangular swatch which has nineteen stitches per row. The stitches in the cables (or branches) usually do not count towards the width of the piece. So if we want to add a new branch, unless it runs straight up and down, we should increase by approximately the width of the branch.

But all the increases and decreases make it difficult to write out a conventional chart for a tree. You need the chart to change its width at the start and end of every single branch, and unless you're designing an extremely simple tree, you'll need stitches to appear and disappear from the middle of the design. For a while, I was designing trees by adding and deleting long columns of blank space. This was tedious.

Then I realized that there was no reason why a two-stitch-wide cable should take up two stitches of a chart. Once I'd realized this, design became a lot easier.

Here's the method I eventually worked out. It consists mainly in inventing a whole new system of chart symbols, which are quite different from the usual ones. They are slightly more confusing and harder to work from, but for trees are vastly easier to design with. As a result, while I do all my designing using these methods, whenever I try to publish my designs, I first translate them to a more conventional chart form.

I strongly advise that you do the same.

First, go and get some graph paper, preferrably knitter's graph paper which matches your gauge. Also, get a pencil (not a pen) and an eraser. (I have never made it through an entire design without needing to erase.)

If you are planning on designing your own tree or trees to use with Leaves in Relief, use this. The dark lines indicate placement of the raglan decreases for the three smallest sizes (plus a few stitches as margin for error); if you are making one of the smaller sizes, avoid those top corners.

Otherwise, think about what you want to put your tree on, and about how big you want it to be. Get graph paper in that size, or get larger paper and mark the edges. If you have a sketch of a tree you'd like to imitate, you could use carbon paper to transfer a sketch onto your graph paper. Or, if you're clever with Photoshop, you could put the tree onto the grid before you even print it out. In any case, make sure that the sketch comes out light; you will need to draw over it.

If you're planning to work your tree flat, going back and forth, you may want to mark alternate rows as wrong-side rows, and try to minimize the number of cable crossings on the wrong-side rows. If you're planning on knitting in the round, or if you're adventurous when it comes to cabling on the wrong side, don't bother.

Begin with the trunk. Unlike branches, trunks usually go straight up and down. Thus, they do not pull in, and so the trunk stitches do count towards the width of the piece. So we indicate them by shading in the stitches we intend to knit.

Three to five stitches is a good width. You can use a wider trunk, but it will be much thicker than all the branches. Conversely, you could make your trunk only two stitches wide, but then it would (usually) be the same width as several branches; unless you want an extremely small tree, I don't recommend it.

If your trunk is only two or three stitches wide, you can just stop at the top edge. If it's wider, you may want to taper it off one stitch (or one stitch per edge) at a time. Plan on putting a branch everywhere you taper off.

Now, here's the counterintuitive part. Start drawing branches, but make the branches simple straight lines, not fat rectangles and parallelograms.

Despite the fact that the branches look like lines on the chart, they are going to be knitted as cables, so in your actual knitting, they will be one or two stitches wide. So on a normal knitting chart, they would take up one or two squares.

This means that in your knitting, your branches will be fatter than they look in the chart. Keep this in mind when including particularly short twigs.

The reason I use lines instead of standard symbols is to keep the chart neat. I don't have to go through tediously adding in columns of "no stitch" placeholders. This makes design much easier; however, it does mean that we can't use most chart symbols. So I've invented new ones.

Think about which branches you want to be thin (one stitch wide) or thick (two stitches wide.) Indicate the difference by drawing thicker lines or doubled lines for the thick branches. Or just write the numbers 1 and 2 next to your branches to remind yourself.

The most basic symbols are the lines, which represent cables. To get instructions out of your chart, you will need a special key. It looks something like the key above.

Now, if you tried to follow the chart as you have it written now, you'd be in trouble: when your first branch formed, you would suddenly need to have more stitches than in previous rows. Obviously, to deal with this, you will need use increases and decreases.

I will explain how to do increases and decreases. But first I'd like to warn you about a few things that don't work.

Don't try to make your branches slope too steeply. In particular, never cross a one-stitch branch across two squares at once, and never cross a two-stitch branch across three squares at once.

If you're designing a tree to be worked in the round, try to minimize the number of times you cross a branch across two squares at once. If you cross a branch too steeply too often, then your branches will start to look very stretched out. If you're designing a tree to be worked flat, the problem will usually not arise, as you will usually be alternating rows with crossings with rows that are worked plain.

If you want to cross one branch over another, you'll need to leave yourself space for it. You will need to have the crossing branches run straight up and down beside each other for a row or two or three. Label the line where you would like the crossing to occur, as shown above.

If you have two-stitch cables and an odd total number of stitches, you might want to make some of your crossings five-stitch cables instead of four-stitch cables. Such cables show up often in knitted knotwork, and help preserve symmetry, but are slightly harder.

Also, the branches on the chart look a lot thinner than they will once they are knit up. (This is one of the biggest disadvantages of this style of chart.) Be sure not to make your branches too short, or you'll end up with a design that looks less like a tree and more like a cactus.

Remember, we will need to add one or two increases at the start of every branch, and one or two decreases at the ends.

To avoid confusion, we will want to indicate them on the chart.

It's a good idea to avoid doing two nearby increases in the same row, except in a few special circumstances. Thus, if you want to start a thick branch, you should do two increases on consecutive rows. This includes those designing trees to be knit flat. You will have to work increases and decreases on wrong-side rows.

I prefer to increase by working a yarn over, and then twisting it by knitting into the back loop on the next row. Alternatively, you can substitute an e-loop increase, as suggested by Elizabeth Zimmermann, or experiment with any other type of increase you like.

(I prefer to avoid twisted make-one increases. First, they pull in if you have to start two nearby branches in the same row. Also, if you try to work an increase while cabling, which is sometimes necessary, it can be hard to figure out exactly which loop to pick up and knit.)

There are basically three places where a branch can start: at the trunk, in midair, and in another branch.

If a branch starts in midair, it usually means that the branch will be slanting downwards and away from the trunk. One-stitch branches can be started with a single increase. Two-stitch branches should be started with two increases, in two consecutive rows. The first few rows should run straight; a slant won't really be noticeable and will just make doing increases harder.

Often, a branch will split into two smaller branches. (Most real trees do not split into three smaller branches simultaneously. This is good, as knitting such things is difficult.)

Count the number of stitches in both of the branches above the split. Subtract the number of stitches in the branch below it. (I'll discuss the other kind of split-with two branches below and one above-later.) This gives you the number of increases. So, for example, a thick branch which splits into two thin branches will require no increases, while a thick branch which splits into two more thick branches will require two.

It's generally a good idea to work increases either two rows or two and three rows below the split, rather than in the last row before the split. Mark your increases by drawing a circle around the line in the appropriate row. It's okay to work increases while cabling. You may wish to indicate to yourself that the next few rows will have three or four knit stitches in the branch, rather than the usual two. This will mean that sometimes you will have to do cable crossings which cross four knit stitches over a purl stitch. It also means that you will sometimes have to work increases in the middle of a cable crossing. Don't worry; it's easier than it sounds.
Branching off from the trunk is sometimes much like branching off from another branch. You work an increase or two, a few rows beforehand, and then simply move your cables as you desire. The exception is the case when you want the trunk to be narrower after a branch comes off. In this case, after the branch point, you will want to have one or two more stitches than before, but only one (or zero!) more knit stitches. Thus, one of your increases should be a purl stitch.

I still would do this by twisting a yarn over, but (as shown) I would mark the next row to remind myself to purl it through the back loop rather than knitting it.

Note that it is best not to try to make the trunk too much narrower at once. This generally means decreasing one trunk stitch per branch, and starting the last two branches from the middle of the trunk, rather than the outside.
You will need to get rid of those stitches eventually, usually when your branch ends. Branches end in the same three ways that they begin. Sometimes, two branches come together to form one.

Unlike increases, it's not a good idea to try to do decreases and cable crossings simultaneously. This is because decreases and cable crossings both make your fabric thicker; doing both at once results in a very thick spot. Thus, it's a good idea to do a few decreases just before the two branches join, and then to to get rid of the inside branch by crossing the outside branch over it.

Here's what those decreases are actually doing: they take a knit stitches in a cable -- which do not count towards the width of the piece-and a purl stitch, and convert them into into a single knit stitch which does count towards the width of the piece. We then want to keep knitting upwards until we cable over the stitch in question, so we shade up to the cable line.

On my charts, I indicate such a decrease with a triangle and a D, as shown above. The D is there to avoid confusion: there is another possible meaning of a triangle, which I use for roots and stems.

To end a thick branch, I would decrease the two knit stitches together using either a k2tog or ssk, and then do a p2tog on the next row. I indicate these using a D, as shown at left. To end a thin branch, I would work a k2tog or ssk with a neighboring purl stitch. I indicate this the way I did at left, with branches coming together: with a triangle. Decreasing a branch into the trunk is usually done by doing one or two ssks or k2togs, which I indicate with a D.


Roots are a little different, because we use them to get the trunk stitches. So we do decreases over knit and purl stitches, as we do when turning two branches into one, and indicate them the same way. Sometimes you may find yourself wanting to make a trunk wider without adding a root, or narrower without working a decrease or branch.

It's generally not a good idea to just start knitting into more than one previously purled stitch. (If you're enamored with symmetry, it's sometimes necessary.) The way to avoid this is to use a cable crossing to turn a column of knit stitches into a column of purl stitches. This is the other stitch where the best way to indicate it is with a triangle. Be careful; try not to confuse this symbol with the one for decreases.

Here's a key to the symbols I use for increases and decreases:

Wrong-side directions are provided for "make 3 from 1" and "quadruple decrease" because it is usually necessary to do those on the wrong side. If a symbol for an increase or decrease is superimposed over the symbol for a cable, you will have to work a cable crossing and increase at the same time.

For example, means, on the right side, "Slip 1 to CN and hold in back, work (k1, yo, k1), p1 from CN."




At this point, you should be able to design a simple bare tree, where all of the branches go either straight up or straight down. However, if you're designing a large tree, you have room to add leaves, flowers, fruit, and curving branches.
You may want some of your branches to change direction. This means that you want cables that make U or inverted-U shapes. To do this, I use a technique taken from closed-loop cabling.

A branch that changes direction should be a thick branch. (Thin branches that change direction have to bend at a fairly sharp angle rather than curving, which looks odd.) The bottom of a curve is usually done by doing two double increases, stacked one atop the other. The top of a curve, similarly, is done by doing a quadruple decrease. Note that, if you are designing a tree to be knit flat, you should do quadruple decreases, and the second double increase, on wrong-side rows.

I know I advised against crossing a branch over two squares at once. However, with curved branches, it's not a bad idea to have one or two double crossings to keep the curve fairly flat and smooth.


Leaves are already quite common in lace. They are often made by working two increases (usually yarn overs) every other row, and then working two decreases (or, eventually, a single double decrease) every other row. A normal-looking chart for this is shown at left.

I adapted this leaf form for sweaters by twisting my yarn overs. Note that this sort of leaf does increase the stitch count, without pulling in as a cable would. If you don't make the leaves too big, or have too many of them, this does not pose much of a problem.

I find that the best size of leaf for a tree is seven rows tall. This is not so big that it causes the fabric to become unmanageably puffy or wide, but is large enough to look like a leaf. I tried making five-row leaves once; they did not look particularly leaflike. If your artistic vision requires lots of very small leaves, I recommend looking into embroidery. There is no way to neatly fit a leaf of this sort onto a chart and have it look remotely like a leaf, or like the result. I don't bother trying; instead, I just label a seven-row column with letters, as shown.

It's a good idea to keep leaves fairly far from everything else. Try to avoid drawing branches (or other leaves) within about two stitches above and to the sides of a leaf.

Key to symbols for leaves and flowers
a Slip 1 as to knit, knit 2 together, pass slipped st over
b Knit 3
c SSK, knit 1, k2tog
w Knit 1, front twist or knit tbl, knit 1, knit 1 tbl, knit 1
x K1, yo, k1, yo, k1
y Front twist or knit tbl, knit 1, knit 1 tbl
z Yo, knit 1, yo
B Make bobble: (k1, yo, k1) in one st, turn, k3, turn, sl 1, k2tog, psso
For the sake of symmetry, I try to twist my yarn overs in opposite directions on either side of the central stitch. To do this, on one side, I knit my yarn overs through the back loop, and on the other side, I *slip a yarn over as to knit, slide it back to the left needle, and then knit through then front loop.* (I refer to this as a front twist. If it's too confusing, just knit through the back loop as usual.)

Flowers and fruit are simple. Any set of four to six little round things, arranged in a circle, will look like a flower. A single round thing will look like fruit.

In knitting, we have two options for little round things: bobbles and yarn overs. (Yes, that means ordinary untwisted yarn overs, not the kind I use for increases.)

Since I don't like holes in my sweaters, I prefer to use bobbles instead of yarn overs. To get a flower, I make them as small as possible, and space them out a little. (Otherwise they look too crowded.) Since there's nothing connecting the petals of one flower, again, it's a good idea to keep the different flowers fairly far apart; otherwise, it's difficult to tell which petals belong together.

These sort of leaves need stems. They should come from below, and they should be exactly one stitch wide. I tried working leaves that hung down below their stems once; they didn't look particularly leaflike.

While stemless flowers and fruit will not look weird the way stemless leaves will, you may wish to include them anyway.

If you want to put a leaf or flower on the end of a thick branch, you should turn it into a thin branch first. If you've got plenty of room, you can do this by splitting the thick branch into two thin branches. However, if you will have to make one of the thin branches less than about seven rows tall, and won't be able to fit leaves or flowers onto both thin branches, then don't bother. Instead, work a decrease (or increase, if it's a stem coming out of the top of a flower) along the branch. Indicate with a D.

If possible, try to do this on a row where you're not cabling that particular branch.

Now, sometimes you will want a very short stem. In this case, you may not want to bother with increases at the start and decreases at the end. Knitted fabric is usually stretchy enough to deal with one short cable which pulls in and does not have compensating increases and decreases. You can start this sort of stem by taking it out of another branch's cable crossing, as with the roots. To indicate what the stem is doing, you have to use thick bars.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you can't do all your increasing before a branch starts, or if you have a branch that runs straight up and down for a long way (and therefore doesn't pull in much), you can use similar notation.


You may find yourself making mistakes when working from charts this complicated. If this happens, don't panic. Just knit across, trying to get the proper number of knit stitches in each branch and the proper number of purl stitches between each two branches. Increase or decrease as necessary.

Nobody is going to inspect your work with a magnifying glass to make sure that you followed the chart exactly.



Ariel is a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Chicago. In her spare time, she reads, plays bridge, folds origami, and, of course, knits.

You can read about her knitting projects in her journal.