Knitty: little purls of wisdom
Miss Babs Hand-Dyed yarn & Fibers



My interest in knitting has been kept alive over the years by the almost infinite variety of color, pattern, and texture that is found in collections of knitters and museums around the world. Although I love the smooth, quiet repetition of knitting a rectangular scarf in garter stitch using a luxurious yarn, it is the endless diversity of technique and style that keeps me interested in knitting as more than a way to keep my hands busy while watching TV.

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
--from The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

You don't need to learn Japanese

Many knitters want to knit from Japanese patterns because the designs are exquisite, and often quite elaborate and complex. But to learn to read the patterns, it's best to start with a simple design. In this column we will go over the basics you'll need to get started and in the Naga Fuji shawl pattern, we will look at how to put all of this information together to knit from a relatively simple, but elegant, pattern.

When you look at a pattern in a Japanese knitting book, you'll notice that the amount of Japanese text is very brief, and is not intended to provide complete instructions for making a garment. So you're not missing much by not being able to read Japanese.

It helps to be familiar with the basic shapes of knitted garment pieces, so you can recognize what pieces the drawings represent without having to read the symbols. For example, if a piece is getting wider and there are numbers on the edge, those numbers are (obviously I hope) telling you how to increase rather than decrease.

There are a few symbols you need to know to help you decipher the schematic drawings, which replace line-by-line knitting instructions in Japanese patterns. Here are several you may find helpful, although the only ones that are crucial for you to recognize are the symbols for rows, stitches, and times. If you really want to learn more, you can find a large Japanese-English knitting dictionary here.

Symbol Description
Cast on sts / Start
Bind off / Stop
Rows / Rounds

Reading the Schematic
Measurements are marked in centimeters as well as in rows and stitches. The abbreviation cm or c is usually not included. If there are two numbers and one indicates the number of stitches or rows, the other will be the width or length in centimeters.

3 = 12 means that 3 cm equals 12 rows.

54 = 109 means that 54 cm equals 109 sts.

Knit circular or flat? For flat knitting, there will be a straight line with dots or arrows at the ends at the bottom of the piece.

For circular knitting, it will usually be an oval. If the sides of a piece are drawn with dotted lines instead of solid lines, that is also an indication that a piece is knitted in the round.

Direction of Knitting. Arrows on the diagram indicate the direction of the knitting. Pay particular attention when you see two arrows going in opposite directions, because...

Type of cast on. Many Japanese sweater patterns begin with a provisional cast on, and the ribbing, or a few rows of edging, are worked down from the live stitches after the body is complete.

Number of stitches. The number of stitches and the width of the piece is listed at the bottom -- or above the ribbing on a sweater pattern if the ribbing or edging is worked down from a provisional cast on.

If you're making a sweater, be sure to take note if the number of stitches changes between the ribbing and the body.

Pattern stitches. The pattern stitch names are listed in the middle of the pieces, sometimes in parentheses. Everything -- and I mean everything -- is charted except for stockinette stitch, garter stitch, k1-p1 ribbing, and k2-p2 ribbing (we looked at those symbols in my Deep Fall 2013 column, Japan Style).

Charts usually include an A, B, C designation in addition to the Japanese title, making it easier for English-speaking readers to identify. But if they don't, just match up the writing on the schematic piece to the writing at the top of the chart to identify which chart is being referenced.

Shaping. Increases and decreases may be marked with the symbols listed in the table above, but remember, if a piece is getting wider you are increasing, if it is getting narrower you are binding off or decreasing. If you are adding or removing 1 stitch at a time, increase or decrease. If you are adding or removing 2 or more stitches at a time, cast on or bind off.

bind-off stitches decrease increase

The shaping instructions are always in this order, which is easy to memorize because it is alphabetical in English:

Rows Stitches Times

If the direction of knitting is going from bottom to top, follow the instructions from bottom to top as well. For example, for a piece that is getting narrower,

If you see this: Do this:
5 Step 6: Work 5 rows even.
4-1-1 Step 5: Every 4th row, dec 1 st, once.
2-1-4 Step 4: Every 2nd row, dec 1 st, 4 times.
2-2-1 Step 3: Every 2nd row, BO 2 sts, once.
2-3-2 Step 2: Every 2nd row, BO 3 sts, twice.
3 or 1-3-1 Step 1: On the next row, bind off 3 sts, once.
  • Some shaping that is repeated on the another part of the garment -- usually the armhole and/or shoulder shaping on a sweater -- is only marked on one part of the schematic.
  • Special stitches and techniques are often defined with each project or at the back of the book. There are a lot of pictures to help you figure out what to do.

Adding a color, button and buttonhole bands, or edgings and borders will also be shown in a schematic. The outlines on the main piece of the garment will be fine lines and the outlines of the finishing portions, to be worked after the rest of the knitting is complete, will be outlined in bold.

Basic Chart Symbols
In Japan, there is a national standard requiring that all knitting books use the same chart symbols! Some are the same as symbols you'll be familiar with already, while others are different. Many of the Japanese symbols are similar or identical to those used by various publishers in English language patterns. For example, knit is a vertical line and purl is a horizontal line.

Unusual symbols will often be defined, with pictures illustrating the knitting technique, but it will be assumed that the reader understands basic chart symbols. An excellent resource is the book Clear & Simple Knitting Symbols. Although you won't be able to read the text, all of the stitches are illustrated with detailed drawings showing how to manipulate the yarn and needles.

Besides the symbols, a few other Japanese charting conventions my seem unfamiliar:

  • If the chart shows the entire knitted piece, the first row is the cast on row and it is generally shown as all knit stitches. This is different than American and European charts, where the cast on is never counted as a row. For bands, the pick up row may be indicated on the chart in the same fashion. The original Japanese version of Chart A, which I used as the main pattern on my shawl, includes the cast-on row.
  • The bind off is not usually shown on the chart unless only part of the row is bound off or a special technique is being used. The original Japanese version of Chart C, which I used as the border on my shawl, includes the bind-off.
  • The pattern repeat is almost always indicated by row and column numbers, rather than being outlined or shaded.
  • A blank square may represent any stitch so always check the bottom of the chart for an indication of whether blank squares stand for knits, purls, or something else. The Japanese version of Chart A for the shawl uses a blank square to represent the purl symbol (purl on right-side rows, knit on wrong-side rows).
  • Basic symbols in Japanese charts are sometimes combined to form more complex symbols. Knowing the basic symbols is key to understanding the more complex chart motifs. The faux cable Chart A combines the symbols for passing a stitch over (stretched out over 3 squares in the chart) with the symbols for knit, yarn over, and knit. I used a simpler symbol for my version of the chart, as we don't normally combine symbols in this fashion.

In this pattern, I have included both the Japanese style charts as well as charts in the standard Knitty style for you to compare. As you can see, many of the basic symbols are similar or identical in both styles.

Zen Yarn Garden

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beauty shot

by Donna Druchunas


Named for Giant Wisteria trees at the Ashikaga Flower Park in Japan, this shawl is worked with a main pattern and a border from different sweater patterns that I found in my collection of Japanese knitting books. The color and the wavy lines of the lace pattern came together and said wisteria to me. Fuji is the Japanese word for these plants, and Naga Fuji is a specific species that is large with long tendrils of flowers. The shawl is knit from side to side in one piece with a border added by picking up stitches along one of the long sides of the shawl and knitting outward.

OK! Let's go through the project and compare the written instructions to the Japanese-style schematic.

spacer model: Donna Druchunas
spacer photos: Dominic Cotignola
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Width: 9 ins at CO and BO ends, blocked, excluding border.
21 ins at center, blocked, excluding border.
Length: 72 ins long, blocked



spacer Miss Babs Northumbria Fingering [100% Bluefaced Leicester wool; 437 yd/100m per 3.5 oz/100g skein]; Hanashobu; 2 skeins

Recommended needle size
[always use a needle size that gives you the gauge listed below -- every knitter's gauge is unique]
spacer US #6/4mm circular needle, at least 24" long
spacer US #7/4.5mm circular needle, at least 24" long
Note: Look in the middle of the schematic and at the border portion, noting that both sections use the same size needle, but the border switches to the larger needle after 6 rows have been worked.

Remember that Japanese needles are not exactly the same sizes as US sizes. In this case, the equivalent is close enough because a Japanese size 6 needle is 3.9mm, size 7 is 4.2mm and size 8 is 4.5mm.

You will determine if you need straight, double-pointed, or circular needles based on the project. In this case, I chose a circular needle because the border is knitted across the entire width of the shawl.

spacer 4 stitch markers, 1 removable marker
spacer yarn needle


22 sts/24.5 rows = 4 inches over garter stitch, blocked (note the garter stitch is stretched to match the row gauge of the lace)
22/24.5 rows = 4 inches over Chart A, blocked

You will find the gauge by looking for "10cm" in the text on the Japanese patterns.
Also look for the sts and rows symbols and the name of the pattern stitch used to work the gauge swatch.


[Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]

Chart A
This chart was used in a sweater pattern for the body and sleeves. Note that I added 2 sts to the left edge of this chart to center the pattern for the shawl. In addition, the "pass the 3rd stitch over, k1, yo, k1" symbol does not exist in American patterns, so I substituted a general symbol that was available in my charting software.



Chart B
I created this chart from scratch to fill in the center of the middle pattern of the shawl.


Chart C (Border)
This chart was used on a sweater pattern as a bottom edge.


The charts for this pattern are very large and fit on a letter-sized page.
Click here and print the resulting page.



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Look at the bottom of the drawing to see the total number of stitches to cast on. Notice the first 2 rows of the chart are not numbered. They are the cast-on row and the setup row. The chart is 39 stitches wide and there are 4 sts on either side, which will be worked in garter stitch, as indicated in the schematic. The pattern does not specify a specific kind of cast-on. I almost always use long-tail, so that's what I used here.

Cast on 49 sts, placing markers 4 sts in from each end. Note: this corresponds to the first row on the Japanese charts, but it is not included on my revised chart.

Set Up Patterns
This section is worked with garter stitch on the edges and Chart A between markers.

Note: The blank squares on the Japanese chart represent the purl symbol, which means purl on right-side rows and knit on wrong-side rows. Remember to read the wrong-side chart rows from left to right.
The second row of the chart is worked between the markers as follows:

Row 1 [WS]: K4, k4, (p3, k2) to 2 sts before marker, k2, slip marker, k4.

Row 2 [RS]: K4, work Chart A to marker, k4.

Increase Section
Continue working patterns as set and at the same time begin increasing before first marker in the garter stitch section on RS rows as follows, reading the instructions on the diagram from bottom to top, to match the direction of the knitting.

Note: The type of increase to use is left to the discretion of the knitter in this case. Sometimes, when increases or decreases are worked in a pattern stitch, the shaping is charted and indicates the specific type of increase to work. I used knit front & back to add stitches) because it does not show in garter stitch.

Inc row [RS]: Knit to last st before marker, kfb, work as charted to next marker, k4.
Following row [WS]: K to marker, work Chart A as set to next marker, k to end.

Repeat the last 2 rows 15 more times. 20 sts in first garter stitch section.

Work Inc row followed by 3 even rows 38 times. 58 sts in first garter stitch section; 103 sts total.

Work 10 rows even (until 7 repeats of charted pattern have been worked)—197 rows total, including setup row after cast on.

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Center Section
Next row [RS]: K4, place marker, work 41 sts of Chart A, place marker, work 13 sts of Chart B, work 41 sts of Chart A as set, k4.

Place removable marker at beginning of next row (WS).

Work even in patts as set until 70 rows (rows 1-28 twice, then rows 1-14 once more) have been worked after placing removable marker.

Decrease Section
Next row [RS]: K58 removing first 2 markers, work 41 sts of Chart A as set, k4.

Place removable marker at beginning of next row (WS).

In this section, you will reverse shaping of increase section, reading the instructions on the diagram from bottom to top, to match the direction of the knitting, as follows:

Work 12 rows even.

Dec row [RS]: Knit to last 2 sts before marker, k2tog, work Chart A as set to next marker, k4.

Work 3 rows even.

Repeat the last 4 rows 37 more times 20 sts rem in garter stitch section.

Work Dec row followed by 1 even row 16 times. 4 sts rem in garter stitch section.

Bind off rem 49 sts loosely.

With RS facing, pick up and knit 96 sts to first removable marker, 39 sts between markers, and 96 sts to end sts (approx. 1 stitch in each garter ridge) along the lace side of the shawl, as shown on the schematic. 231 sts total.
Setup row [WS]: K3, [p3, k3] to end.

Work all rows of Chart C. 535 sts

Bind off loosely in [k1, p1] ribbing.


Weave in ends. Wash and pin to dimensions to block.
habit-portraitBlank Donna Druchunas escaped a corporate cubicle to honor her passions for knitting, world travel, research, and writing. She teaches in the United States and Europe, offers online sock-knitting classes at, and holds retreats at her studio in Vermont. Her newest project, Stories In Stitches is a pattern line featuring stories about knitters and their lives, traditions, history, and travel, all tied together with gorgeous knitting patterns and projects.

Visit Donna's website at