Holey Shawls! Learning to Read Lace Charts

Lace knitting is fun be cause every row reveals a new effect—a dramatic new curve, hole, or slant. Lace lets you manipulate stitches in engaging ways and looks so darn pretty in the finished project. Some lace knitters prefer to work from row-by-row instructions, and some from charts. Reading lace charts can be confusing to the beginner but is actually quite simple with some practice.

The Lace chart below provides a good exercise. This eight-row, 16-stitch repeat uses yarnovers and decreases every other row. You can see that the symbols for yarnover (o) occur on even-numbered rows, which are the right-side rows. The odd-numbered rows are wrong-side rows and are worked without yarnovers.

reading lace charts
reading lace charts


When charts are worked in rows, you read right-side (RS) rows from right to left, and wrong-side (WS) rows from left to right. In this chart, Row 1 is a WS row. To begin the chart, you follow Row 1 from the left-hand side to the right-hand side, as follows: K2, p6, k2, p6. Easy enough, right?

Row 2 is a RS row and introduces our first yarnovers and decreases. In this lace pattern, the stitch count remains constant. This means every yarnover (increase) is matched with a decrease so that the stitch count does not change. Work Row 2 as follows: K3, k2tog, k1, yo, p2, yo, k1, ssk, k3, p2.

The trickiest concept with lace charts is that the two stitches worked in a decrease are represented by only one symbol. When you work that k2tog, it results in one stitch but was worked over two stitches. Where did that second stitch box go?

In this case, the yarnover replaces that “missing” stitch. Once you get to the first yarnover in Row 2, you’ve worked all the six stitches that precede the central p2. And with the decrease, you’re actually left with only five stitches preceding the p2. But, you work a yarnover increase and ta-da, you’re back to six stitches. When you work Row 3, there will still be six stitches on that side of the central p2.

The fact is that the yarnover is stealing a stitch box in the chart. The stitch made by the yarnover did not exist in Row 1. But one stitch has been eliminated by the k2tog, so that box creates a convenient place to show the yarnover symbol.

Although this all sounds pretty technical, it’s really very simple. Just knit the chart as you see it! Work each stitch box as you come to it. You can think of the row as representing the stitches after the row has been worked—for example, the k2tog results in one stitch (therefore one stitch box) and the yarnover creates one stitch (and therefore also occupies one stitch box).

No stitch? Huh?

Things get more complicated when the stitch count does not remain constant. The Double Fern Edging chart (below) shows what happens when yarnovers are not matched with the same number of decreases every row.

reading lace charts

reading lace charts


The first big question: What are those gray boxes in the middle of the chart? These shaded boxes are “no stitch” symbols. They are inserted in a chart when a stitch has been decreased and therefore leaves a hole where there was a stitch previously. You can see on Row 2 that two stitches are decreased (with k2togs) without compensating yarnover increases. This effectively removes two stitches from the row, leaving you two fewer stitches to work individually on Row 2 and, subsequently, Row 3. By placing a no-stitch box next to each decrease, the chart-maker is telling you, “This stitch will no longer exist and should not be worked on this row.” As discussed above, the k2tog is worked over two stitches but is represented by only one stitch box. Therefore the second stitch box, removed by the decrease, becomes the black hole we call the no-stitch box. Just ignore the no-stitch box and do not work it. Work the stitch before the no-stitch box, then the stitch after the no-stitch box, and continue on your merry way.

If you work Row 2, you’ll have two fewer stitches than you did when you finished Row 1. But on Row 3, there are four yarnovers without matching decreases, leading to an increase of four stitches. You’ll see the no-stitch boxes have disappeared and the right-hand end of the row has popped out to the right by two stitches. Two of the increases have replaced the missing stitches from Row 2, eradicating the no stitch holes, and two of the increases have added to the breadth of the row, which is represented by the chart actually growing at the right edge.

Over the course of this chart, the stitch count changes several times, including a dramatic bind-off on Row 10, which is then compensated for with four increases on Row 1. If you work this pattern, the shape of the knitted fabric will undulate with the increased and decreased stitches, creating a decorative edging. The Lace chart from the first example does not change in stitch count and therefore makes a better allover or interior pattern for a project.

These basic principles apply to all lace charts, no matter how complex. Just remember: a yarnover is an increase unless there’s a compensating decrease somewhere in the same row. And a decrease is really a decrease unless there’s a compensating yarnover somewhere in the same row. The corresponding yarnover and decrease don’t have to be next to each other—or even close to each other—to work together. Just have faith in the chart and knit it as you see it!

Ready to try your hand at knitting lace? Try one of these 10 free lace patterns. Or if you’re looking for a more ambitious project, check out the gorgeous shawls inspired by Shakespeare in Interweave Knits, Summer 2017.

Put Your Lace Skills to the Test

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