free crochet patterns

Understanding Crochet Diagram Format

how to read a crochet pattern

This is Step #4 of the Master Crochet Patterns Series.

 

“I understand things better when they are in graphics, not words.” -Robert Wilson

When was the last time you ran into an old acquaintance, immediately recognized their face but failed to recall their name? This happens to many of us on a regular basis. A few things might be to blame for this lapse in memory. Perhaps we only met them once or maybe it was so long ago, our memory has faded. This example becomes important to us when we bring up one topic; a topic that is big with regards to learning a new skill.

We’re talking about visual learners here. It’s typical for visual learners to remember faces and forget names. We also may write things down or doodle more often to organize our thoughts. We find things to watch, especially in terms of learning a new topic. I say “we” because I am  a visual learner too. This is very common among crocheters.

Learning is best accomplished when we stay within the learning style we are most comfortable with and crochet patterns are no exception. Diagrams are the visual learner’s best friend!

If you find yourself struggling with written patterns, even after trying the tips from the previous two steps, you may have just found your “home” here with crochet diagrams. It’s not that you aren’t smart, dedicated or patient enough. You are simply working against what your mind is comfortable processing and this is the recipe for giving up.

Once you have established that you relate best to visual learning, we need to bust the myth that crochet diagrams are confusing and impossible. They look intimidating, yes, but there is a logical and consistent format. The first step to following a diagram is to first understand this format. Once you know how to identify key parts in the diagram format, it becomes as easy as seeing your way through the pattern.

A crochet diagram can be broken down into five different key parts:

  1. symbols
  2. stitch key
  3. numbering
  4. color coding
  5. brackets

Each of these key parts work together as a whole to tell you everything you need to know to complete the project. They paint the visual picture you need while leaving words to the written patterns. Let’s get to know each of them individually.

Symbols

Symbols are the essential ingredient in any crochet diagram. You won’t see any diagram without symbols because a diagram simply would not exist without them. They are the most recognizable trait and yet they cause most people to run in the opposite direction. Each symbol represents a stitch and when followed sequentially, a project emerges. They aren’t our enemy, they are our instructions.

The good news?

Following a diagram is as simple as recognizing these symbols and repeating what you see with your hook. Each symbol translates to one stitch making it easier than ever to take the “one stitch at a time” approach.

They tell you two important pieces of information: what stitch to work and where to work it.

We’ll explore this topic in much greater detail in the next week’s episode of the B.hooked Podcast (and step #4 of Master Crochet Patterns), but for now it’s important for us to learn the importance of the diagram symbol and recognize that they are there to help us, not confuse us.

Crochet is a hobby that is appreciated in many different countries. Some regions have a trademark style or a type of crochet that is practiced more than others. Take Irish crochet for instance. Irish crochet lace is a big part of Irish needle work and has been since before the eighteenth century. It is an intricate style of crochet that utilizes a small steel crochet hook and fine cotton thread. Some of the most amazing crochet I have ever seen is Irish crochet lace. If it weren’t for the “universal language” of crochet diagrams, we likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to practice Irish crochet. I’m referring to the diagram symbols.

They are THE universal crochet language, bridging the language gap and allowing us to enjoy all styles of crochet, no matter where the origin.


Understanding comes with recognition.

It all begins with diagram symbol recognition. Once we learn the look of a stitch on paper, we can crochet anything from a diagram. This isn’t much different than learning the look of a stitch as we crochet them or the motions required to create them. When we take this approach to crochet diagrams, you set yourself up for success.

Every single stitch has a unique crochet symbol. This symbols is universal so you will see it in all diagrams from magazines to blogs and even from a country far away from home. Once you are able to recognize each symbol as a stitch (among a few other details we’ll cover later), you will no longer struggle interpreting a diagram.  

The last important quality of diagram symbols we must understand is their ability to create the visualization most of us crave. We’re visual people. We think in terms of stitches, not words. This makes a crochet diagram our best friend and the reason most people prefer a diagram to a written pattern once they know how to interpret them. So how do we begin to interpret them? It all begins with the stitch key.

The Stitch Key

We talked a lot about the importance of recognizing a diagram symbol as a stitch, but where do we even begin with that? Diagrams just get better and better the more you understand them. We don’t even have to memorize the symbols, they are always given in a stitch key. Memorization will come with time; they are universal, remember?

The stitch key can be located at any point on the diagram, but is usually found in one of the lower corners. It’s so straightforward, it will be nearly impossible to miss. The stitch symbols are typically given on the left side of the key with the stitch translation to the immediate right.

You should observe the stitch key before you do anything else. Study each symbol and their stitch translation. Ask yourself if this is a stitch you know how to crochet. I even find that drawing the symbols myself, help in my understanding and recognition. You can always refer to the stitch key as you’re working the pattern, and I recommend doing so until you’re certain you can recognize each symbol as their stitch. After following one pattern, you’ll see that this will be quite natural.

Crochet diagrams are a lot like code. An onlooker might see the diagram you’re working on and think, “that looks so complicated!” You don’t have to tell them you have the cipher right in front of you!

So if the symbols are crochet code and the stitch key is the cipher, you have everything you need right? Well, mostly. There are a few more important elements of a diagram format we must understand to follow one with ease. Let’s look at our next important element, numbering.

Numbering

Did you ever play connect the dots when you were little? Or maybe you play connect the dots with your kids now? Think of the numbering on a crochet diagram as a game of connect the dots. We start with number one and “trace” our way to two, three, four and so on.

The numbering system on a crochet diagram tells you two very important pieces of information: which side of the crochet you are working on and where you are within the pattern.

Knowing which side of crochet you are working on is particularly useful when working on a project in rows. In fact, you will see a difference in where numbers appear on a diagram in rows versus rounds. Let’s focus in on rowed patterns first.

Diagrams working in rows

When you’re looking at a diagram that works in rows, you will notice that there are numbers on the right and left side of the diagram. If you look closely enough, you will notice that they are alternating right and left as they progress.

Numbered rows that are printed on the right side of the diagram tell you that in working that row, you’ll be looking at the right side of your work. This is particularly helpful with stitch patterns that are not reversible, those that look differently on the front and back. Numbered rows that are printed on the left side of the diagram tell you that in working that row, you’ll be looking at the wrong side of your work. Just remember, numbers on the right equal the right side; right is right.

Knowing where you are in the diagram as you’re crocheting is the other key to success here. Perhaps one of our biggest frustrations is to work backwards, from crochet to diagram instead of the other way around. We train ourselves to work from diagram to stitch, but what if we get distracted? How do we go from stitch to diagram?

The numbering on your diagram is the key to working in reverse. If you first determine whether you’re on the right or wrong side of your work, you’ll know which side of the diagram to look at. From there you can count your stitches and symbols to retrace your steps.

Diagrams working in rounds

Numbering on a diagram that works in the round is a little more intuitive. You will find the number of the round at the beginning of that round. You can easily follow it as you progress through each round.

Sometimes looking at a diagram can make you feel a little cross eyed, especially if you’re working on a larger project. To deal with this I use the numbering on diagrams as a place holder. Once you have finished a row or round, put a slash or a check mark through the number. That way you can remove this section from your attention and just focus on the next task at hand.

We’ll discuss more of these tactics in the next step when we explore how to decipher the diagram code. For now, we need to focus only on the format and observe the different elements we will see in a diagram and how it relates to our end goal – following a diagram.

What happens when we are working with a project that has color transitions?


Diagram Color Coding

Since color transitions are an important part many crochet patterns, we must assume that this instruction will also be present in our diagrams. I mentioned before that a crochet diagram includes every major piece of information you need to complete the project. This also includes where and how to execute color transitions.

You will find diagrams color coded in one of two ways: the stitch symbols are color coded or the stitch symbols are highlighted with color. Both methods are quite easy to follow and are equally distributed among the diagrams I’ve used.

You won’t see color coding in every diagram you encounter. Some patterns leave the color choices up to you. There are, however, a few styles of crochet where you will always see color coding on the diagrams. Tapestry crochet is a style of crochet that uses many different color transitions to create a pattern or picture. The stitches are typically simple and the coloring, intricate. In this method of crochet, you work over the non-working yarn colors. In a tapestry crochet diagram you will certainly encounter color coding to guide you through the color pattern.

Intarsia crochet is another style of crochet that utilizes intricate color transitions. It varies slightly from tapestry crochet because you don’t actually work over the non-working strands of yarn but rather you leave them as they are and pick them up when you’re ready. In an intarsia crochet diagram you will also see color coding.

Crochet motifs, granny squares and mandalas are another great example of patterns you will see color coding on a crochet diagram that works in the round.

Some designers and publishing companies will make the color coding similar to the colors used in the pattern requirements but this isn’t always the case. What happens if you want to use a different color combination than the pattern suggests? We still need a way to translate the colors printed on the pattern to the colors we are actually using. This is where a color key comes into play.

The color key is usually located somewhere near the stitch key, in a similar box format. It doesn’t translate the printed colors to the names of the yarn colors but rather the printed colors to a more generic color code: color A, color B, color C and so on.

In order to put this to use, you need to create your own key where you assign a yarn color to a letter (A, B, C). This will take a little planning on your part initially, but once you have it recorded, following the diagram is much easier. As you’re planning and working the diagram, think of your different yarn choices as these letters. This will help you with the diagram color key since they are written in terms of A, B, C, etc.  

We’ve almost covered all of the key elements to diagram formatting. Once we have a mental picture of what to expect, we are more prepared to learn and follow a diagram. I’ve saved the least popular for last. Repeats have a bad reputation and diagrams are no exception. Fortunately, repeats are much easier to comprehend in a diagram. It’s a concept that is grasped better with visuals.   

Brackets

Crochet is a very repetitive activity. We repeat the same stitches hundreds or even thousands of times. We repeat the same sequence of stitches to create a pattern. With repeats being such a big part of every project, it’s only natural that we will encounter repeats in our instructions. Actually, it’s required. We couldn’t recreate a design without them because we couldn’t create the design without them.

We’ll cover the most complex version of crochet repeats in step #6. Thankfully, crochet diagram repeats are much easier to interpret than written repeats. Similarly to written instructions, diagrams utilize brackets to depict pattern repeats as well as row repeats within the pattern but in a more candid approach.

The Stitch Repeat

The stitch repeat is most likely the first repeat you will encounter in the diagram, however they are not always present. A more general diagram, such as a diagram for a stitch pattern, will always have a bracket around the stitch repeat. These kinds of diagrams demonstrate how to do a stitch but allow you the freedom to use it in what ever kind of pattern you want. Therefore, instead of having a clear beginning and end of the row, they will exist as a finite example.

The stitch repeat will be illustrated with a bracket below the foundation chain. The stitch repeat within this bracket will give you an important piece of information about transforming the diagram into any project you wish, the stitch multiple. We looked at stitch multiples in chapter two and they are used in the same way here.

One leg of the bracket marks the first stitch in the pattern and the other leg marks the last.

With this information, we can count the stitches within these brackets to get the multiple of stitches the pattern requires. For example, if we have a stitch repeat bracket that has eight chains marked, we must make sure that our project foundation chain is divisible by eight.

The Row Repeat

You will find the row repeat within the diagram defined by a bracket off to the side, usually to the right of the numbering.

The bottom leg of the bracket corresponds to the first row of the repeat while the top leg of the bracket corresponds to the last row in the repeat.

In this manner, you are to interpret every row contained within those brackets as part of your repeat. Just as we use repeats to shorten the length of a written pattern, repeats in diagrams are used for the same reason. It is not uncommon for the entire diagram to only show the foundation row and your pattern repeat once.


Diagrams are often the pattern format of choice for more intricate patterns, however this isn’t always the case. Virtually every written pattern can also exist as a crochet diagram. If you purchase a crochet pattern book, you will almost certainly find a diagram accompanying the written instructions. This is in effort to cater to everyone’s individual preference. Diagram repeats are most common with stitch pattern diagrams, given the nature of how stitch patterns emerge.

You will also encounter a diagram repeat for larger projects such as blankets or afghans, scarves; anything where you are working with a large piece.

Repeats in Rounds

Repeats for projects that work in the round appear different than they do for projects working in rows. Think of your round project as a pie and cut your “pie”  into equal sections. Now you have several pieces of pie that are the same size and shape. When we bring this example back to crochet, each piece of pie represents the repeat used to create that round. Because of this nature of repeats for round projects, crochet diagrams for such patterns will resemble the shape of a piece of pie.   

No matter which style of crochet pattern you gravitate to more, written or diagram, I think you will find satisfaction in the convenience of a crochet diagram. I avoided learning to follow a diagram for many years, mostly because I was intimidated by the sheer look of them. There was one particular project that drew me into diagrams, a necklace that appeared to be in Russian. It was such a beautiful design, I decided to give it a try. What I found was that once I took the time to look at the diagram and relate each stitch to a symbol, it was much easier to follow than I ever imagined.

I’m not the only crochet lover who has said they now prefer diagrams to written instructions. Have you ever found yourself unsure of your placement of stitches when following a written pattern? With a diagram, you can see exactly where the stitch is to be placed. It completely eliminates this doubt and lack of confidence. Being able to interpret a diagram will no doubt take your crocheting skills to the next level. When you’re able to see a pattern as opposed to reading it, this will open the doors to successfully completing intermediate and experienced level patterns.

We’ll learn all about deciphering the diagram code this Thursday on the B.hooked Podcast as we progress to step #4 of the Master Crochet Patterns Series.

Stay tuned!

ps.Here are the previous lessons of the Master Crochet Patterns Series in case you missed them:



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