Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Charting charts: a new way to keep track of knitting

A long, long time ago, when I was a young 'un, a knitting pattern for this-->
used to look like this:

Cast on 22
Row 1 : slip first st of this, and every odd row, purlwise, K21
Row 2: K 22
Row 3: Sl 1, k 2 *yo, k2 tog* 8 times, yo 2 times, K2tog K1
Row 4: K 3, P1, K19
Row 5: Sl 1, k3 *yo, k2 tog* 8 times, yo 2 times, K2tog K1
Row 6: K 3, P1, K20
Row 7: Sl 1, k4, *yo, k2 tog* 8 times, yo 2 times, K2tog K1
Row 8: K 3, P1, K21
Row 9: Sl 1, K24
Row 10: bind off 3, K22
Repeat rows 1-10 as desired. Bind off after a row 10.

European magazines were on a different trajectory. Faced with readers in different countries all speaking different languages, European patterns used charts. One set of symbol explanations in all different languages--a sort of knitter's Rosetta stone--took up only part of one page, and then the same charts could be used by anyone from Norway to Spain. By comparison, a magazine or pattern booklet with complete written instructions duplicated in Dutch, Swedish, French, German, Portuguese would have been a heavyweight tome (not to mention, a nightmare of translation).

Originally, the charts in European publications were written by hand--I still have some of my mother's old German lace pattern-booklets like this. As time went by, and we Americans got into the act, charts began to look more and more like this:
Both methods--written instructions and charted patterns--have their admirers, and both have their detractors. It isn't very hard to find people passionately taking sides, just look at the archives of nearly any knitting forum, and quite a few blogs. The written pattern advocates say (with accuracy) that you can't really knit directly from a chart, you have to reduce the pattern to words first ("knit, let's see, 1,2, ah ha! 3 stitches, next we have a yo, then knit 2 together, and do that, uh, let's see, 7 times, or, wait a minute... 8 times....") So why, they ask, go through a translation process of turning the picture into words, and then knitting from the words. Why not just start with the words? That helps avoid translation errors. And all those little symbols--so hard to read and keep track of!

The advocates of diagrams say (also with accuracy) that unless you have a diagram, you have no idea how the whole thing fits together. A diagram lets you see instantly how any part of the pattern relates to the whole--it is more intuitive, more visual. With written instructions, if you're making a mistake, you won't know it for a long time, because written instructions have no feedback loop--no physical representation--with which you can compare your work. It might be four or five pattern repeats before you become familiar enough with the pattern to figure out what the problem is, supposing you don't quit in disgust first.

So, are written instructions better than charts, or are charts better than written instructions? My answer is "yes." They're both better--but better at different things.

For me, however, the very best way is neither a written instruction nor a chart--it is a third method. This method is a short-hand combination of written instructions and charted diagrams, a method which I call "the chart of the chart," or "chart-chart" for short (as in: "The chart-chart for Grandmother's Lace Edging is below").

With a chart-chart, the pattern is reduced to its essentials. Yet, for me at least, the pattern is not obscured because the repeats are made very clear. The chart-chart has to be custom made by you, after an analysis of the pattern, which means you have to get down and dirty with your pattern, you have to wallow in it a little--and this has the additional benefit of fixing the pattern in your mind.

On this particular "chart-chart," each row of the pattern is laid out. For example, on row 1, there is to be 1 selvedge stitch followed by 21 plain stitches, for a total of 22 stitches. On row 2, there is to be nothing but 22 plain stitches. On row 3, there is to be one selvedge stitch, then 2 stitches knitted plain, and then 8 repeats of a yo/k2tog sequence, then 1 repeat of a double yarn over/k2tog/k1 sequence, for a total of 23 stitches. On row 4, there are to be three knit stitches, followed by a purl stitch, and the row is to end with 19 knit stitches, for a total of 23 stitches, and so on and so on.

The chart-chart is keyed to the regular chart, and to the word instructions if there are any. If you forget what a "plain stitch" is in the context of the chart-chart, you go back to the original printed pattern. After just a couple of repeats, however, your chart-chart takes over. The biggest advantage is that you don't have to keep running your finger along row 3 to count stitches, yo's and k2tog's, again and again and again. Other advantages: Chart-charts read normally--from upper left to lower right, the same as regular text--so you are not faced with reversing everything and reading from lower right to upper left, as in a charted diagram. A chart-chart takes up far less room than word instructions or a big pattern, it's easier to keep track of where you are, and it supplants all the aggravating counting and re-counting of little squares. In sum, it's a short-hand combination of word instructions and chart instructions.

To make your own chart-chart, you have to look at the original chart (or written instructions) to see what elements of the work are repeated, and how the work is constructed. In Grandmother's Lace Edging, the creation of the lace itself is made up of 3 repeated lace rows: rows 3, 5 and 7. Each of these lace rows features eight combinations of yo followed by k2tog. This yo/k2tog combination make the "holes" of the lace. Each yo is an increase, but because it is immediately followed by a k2tog decrease, the fabric remains the same length through these 8 repeats. The holes in the three lace rows are offset from one another by starting each lace row one stitch lower than the previous one. This allows the lace holes of row 5 to fit between the holes of rows 3 and 7--the same way a honeycomb is constructed. The pattern makes a wave at the lower edge by a series of stepped increases. At the lower portion of each of rows 3, 5 and 7, a double yarn over (2 increases) is followed by only a single k2tog (one decrease). This lengthens the work by one stitch at each of these three lace rows. These three lace rows of increasing length are followed by a correction--the work is bound off three stitches and returns to its original length, several rows of plain knitting are interspersed, then the 3-lace-row pattern begins again.

To make the chart-chart, you have to analyse, then provide for all these repeated elements. Every odd row starts with a slipped selvedge stitch, so you start by putting in a chart column for that. Every row, whether odd or even, begins with at least some plain stitches, so the chart-chart gets a column for plain stitches. The even rows after a lace column get a purl stitch, because on encountering the double yo on the trip "up" the work, you knit into it, then purl into it. So, you put in a chart column for the purl stitch. This purl stitch is followed by a whole bunch of plain stitches, so another chart column must be provided for those plain stitches. Rows 3, 5 and 7 are the lace rows--and the chart columns reflect the lace elements--the yo/k2tog combinations, as well as the double yo/k2tog/k1 element which ends each lace row. The three bind-off stitches get their own chart column--there they are in row 10.

I've also chosen to add a column which shows the total number of stitches there ought to be on the needles at the end of every row, and this gives me ammunition to quiet that little nagging part of my brain insisting that I better go back and check each row, because I might have missed a stitch somewhere. Also, per the illustration, you can see that you don't HAVE to chose to keep the chart columns in the same order as the work. For example, in row 10, 3 stitches are bound off--and this occurs before the 22 remaining plain stitches. But the bind off occurs only once in the whole pattern. Instead of distracting myself by making the first chart column for bind off, and having it empty all the way down to the last pattern row, I chose to make it that second-to-last chart column, and to try to remember that the 3 bind offs come before the 22 plain stitches. There are no conventions for chart-charts. While it's easiest to read if you put the columns of the chart-chart in the same order as you'll encounter the stitches on your needle, you're free to make up your own exceptions when you determine the order of the columns.

This sample chart-chart is color-keyed to the original chart--the same colors mean the same things--green for the purl, red for the decrease bind-off, yellow for knitting on the front, blue for knitting on the back, and so on. This wouldn't be hard to do by hand with colored pencils, but you might find it is unnecessary--truthfully, the chart-chart in the illustration is the most beautiful one I've ever made, usually they are little notes on scrap paper, looking more like a tic-tac-toe board than a knitting pattern.

As will occur to you, chart-charts aren't restricted to lace knitting. Any knitted fabric with repeating design elements (texture knitting, color knitting) can be put into chart-chart form.

Addendum, 2013:  Knitpicks Blog posted a Kelley Petkun podcast interview with me about Chart-Charts. Hear it here.

Opening illustration: Grandmother's Lace Edging for a baby blanket, Patton's "Grace" Cotton Yarn, size 5 needles.
(You have been reading TECHknitting on: charting knitting, a new way)


allergicmom said...

Wow, this is mind-blowing. Thank you for this incredible idea! I can see this being used for the rest of my knitting life. I much prefer charts to text, but this takes it to the next level. Another plus: it will make me read ahead in the pattern, and hopefully help me pick up any glitches coming up.

Anonymous said...

The chart-chart is new to me and I see what a great tool can be. I have read this through a couple of times and now will put it into practice.

Digital Leaf said...

Genius! My preference for charts vs. text is totally dependant on the pattern. But lace has always been a nightmare for me either way. This is the perfect mix of methods. Thanks!

Saleknitter said...

You always give me a better way to knit. Thank you for putting your thoughts to "paper" and sharing it with the world!

phoenix said...

Lots of times I'll just skim and article for the highlights, but this time I put down what I was doing so I could give your article my full attention. What a great idea! I don't think I'd use it in place of a full chart, but it's a terrific supplement, especially for travel.

RC said...

Brilliant! I can't wait to try this out! Thanks so much

Brenda said...

Thank you! An excellent way to condense a pattern sensibly! I have just the chart to re-chart.

marjorie said...

That is a much more organized system than I've been using. I tend to prefer charts to the written-out directions, but when there is some aspect of the chart that is better as a written description than as a symbol, I annotate the chart. So, for example, I'd put a small pencil "10" for boxes representing 10 knit stitches. Sometimes my chart gets cluttered with this kind of thing, and your tabular chart-chart would be much neater. I'll give it a try on my next complicated pattern. Do you do it for color knitting also?

There are some very nice charts, such as those in Myrna Stahman's shawl book, that do have tiny numbers to show how many stitches of the same type there are (say, knits between yo's). But most charts don't have anything like this.

knitnthings said...

This is an awesome idea. Do usually make one of these before you start knitting or do you knida make it up as you go along. I'm also wondering if you do it for really large charted patterns.

--TECHknitter said...

Hi Marjorie, Hi Knitnthings--Thanks for your questions. As to color knitting, I usually find that I can follow the pattern easily enough without having to chart it, but a complicated or unexpected color pattern--something kind of random--would be easy enough to reduce by a chart-chart. For cable knitting, I use a variation on chart-chart which I call it "box and circle." Stay tuned for that post...maybe later this summer, maybe this fall.

As to when to create a chart-chart: Usually, I make up the chart-chart after a repeat or two--when I've got some idea which stitches will present first--in other words, when I know in which order to put the columns. Also, a couple of repeats helps me fix in my mind what the repeated elements of the work are. As to the largeness question, I find that the larger the diagram, the more necessary is a chart-chart--to prevent getting lost or endlessly counting boxes.


OfTroy said...

i made a similar 'chart' a few years ago for the Alien scarf (from SnB book)

row, right/wrong side, color, k/p pattern, and boxes to check off for repeats (the scarf was 5 repeats of the 80 row pattern.

and i ended up doing something similar with the Phyllotaxis scarf (Norah Gaugham's Kniting Nature, which is presented as an 20 row/80 stitch graph.. ut in reality is a 2 row pattern.
(one pattern row, 1 plain)

but you start each row at a different point. (using row 1 as "master" there are 7 different starting point (in the 80 stitch pattern row) spread out of 20 (10) rows) learn the pattern row, (not hard, really) then just 'check to see' where in the row you start!

(think of an alphabet..normal starts at A, but its not hard to start with G, and end with F.. or to start with S and end with R.. (well not once you know the alphabet!)

i think some knitters (me for one!) see these kind of patterns quicker.. and by the time i see the pattern, i don't need the chart! but the two examples i noted here, i did!

Patricia said...

Pretty clever. I will be knitting the "Branching Out" scarf and I will try out your method. Thanks for a new way to look at things. Incidentally, I hate using charts, I have always preferred the words.

Trish - My Merino Mantra said...

Wow, that is too much! I always get a kick out of how another person's brain works. That is wonderful for the chart-chart to work for you.

Leslie said...

I've never had the patience to knit from a chart, but I love your chart-chart. This is a great tool and perfect for the way my brain works!

Kathryn Estelle said...

I just found your blog via the comments at Grumperina's, and I love it! I don't read many blogs because I'm not interested in much other than knitting content, and man the content of yours! I especially liked this post because I recently came up with a similar chart for knitting mitered squares. I'm a relatively new knitter, so to see you advocate such a thing was very affirming. Thanks!

--Deb said...

So, SO much information here....I think my head's about to explode, in a good way!

Windyridge said...

Wow, what a fantastic site. Thanks for all this info! I will be visiting a lot and linking to ya!

Anonymous said...

That's great: I do almost the same thing! Are you a technical writer? I'm a technical editor, and I'm always thinking about the user interface.
Thanks for writing out the article.

knitsandroses said...

Dear TECHknitting,
I've learned soooo much from you; the chart-chart has help me to be more confident and comfortable in doing pattern knitting. You are very generous with your talent. Thank you.

Kathy said...

BRILLIANT! (Have a Guinness!)

Pat Denson said...

Thanks so much for the site. Very informative. I plan to check back regularly. I like your ideas. I have been working on an afghan that has charts as well as written information and I have tried everything to help me keep tract of where I am with it. Will try your idea.

Anonymous said...

I love your analysis of what makes chart lovers love charts and what makes written instruction lovers love written instructions! Great insight!

Fia said...

Ohhhh... I just found your blog and I love, love, love it! This chart-chart is very useful, - I can't wait to use it for my next laces! BTW, - there is a nice, *free* Android software called Little Knitter, with which one can set up a pattern chart (customizable in many ways), and then use that to knit the pattern, too. All this on your phone, - it's so handy. Check it out on this Ravlry group:

staceyjoy said...

Wow, how interesting! Knit Knit z'ine published my similar method for numerical transcription in 2004! Great minds think alike, eh?

TECHknitter said...

Hi Staceyjoy Thanks for your link--very interesting, I'm planning to study your notation further, it looks very efficient.

If great minds do think alike, it would be yours and Mrs. F.W. Kettelle's. Mrs FW (whoever she was) wrote a book about crochet filet lace sometime in the early 1900's. That book went out of copyright and was republished by Dover books, in, I think, the 1970's. In that book, Mrs. FW shows a method she calls "tabular instructions" for filet crochet--a method of tabulating the open and closed squares inherent in that method, so you don't have to count them off a chart, but rather, can just read the number from a table of alternating open and closed squares set out in alternating columns.

I based my method on hers, but of course, the columns had to be re-labeled for knit lace, which is more complicated than the simple open and closed squares of filet crochet.

There's more about all this if you are interested (including reproductions of Mrs. FW's proto-chart-chart) in a recent blog post (including podcast) done by Knitpicks (the yarn company). I don't know how to drop links into blog comments, but I did put a link into the main text of the post.

Thanks again for writing. TK

Nessa said...

I listened to the Knitpicks podcast and really enjoyed your descriptions and how you put it all together. Thanks for doing the interview and thereby introducing me to your blog as well.

lisa b said...

I also just listened to the KP podcast, and when I got home, I looked up your blog. I'm going to have to try this, because I have a problem with the way charts are written upside-down. Thanks, Lisa

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I found this post! I have a pattern for Kleine Bachforelle, and with 6 different charts I've put it off because it was confusing to keep track them all. I will translate them into a chart-chart and probably have a much easier time. Thank you!

Sara Kate MacFarland said...

Wow...this is a perfect example of "when you're ready, it'll come" Lace knitting intimidates me and completely confuses my dyslexia and adhd. Your chart-chart is my ah ha moment. Can't wait to try it out. Thanks so much. I'm going to listen to your podcast, too. So many great ideas!

Anonymous said...

Great if you can decipher those horrible charts in order to make one. I think it would be a nice idea though for longer written instructions.

I still use those written instructions and my books all have them. I hate charts and find them very difficult as well as not giving all the information you need. It seems that some people just think words should be kept at a premium and secrecy is key. God forbid you might want to make communication easier.

People are so rude to those of us who find chart knitting difficult. They say things like 'just try', 'it's so easy'. It really isn't for those who find it hard. It just boils down to people having different preferences and skills. The obnoxious people putting others down in favour of the chart don't seem to see their own deficits as a problem, where we chart haters must be made to buckle down and get to grips with our ignoramus selves immediately.

The perfect pattern would have both. Incidentally, I love crochet charts because they do resemble what you are making. Knitting charts do not show me this at all - despite the fact they supposedly do, I don't see it at all, very much not. Even crochet charts need words sometimes though and words are supported by the diagrams (because of lack in both methods in a single pattern, I was recently able to refer to a diagram to elucidate on the ambiguous wording, and later the words to make sense of the chart which didn't show something clearly at all). In a perfect world the pattern supplies both. With knitting it seems very much an either/or situation. I do avoid charted out knitting patterns as being far too much of my own work and that is what I pay the pattern writer for!