Pattern Play: And Again…On Repeats

Usually when we learn to knit, someone teaches us the basic skills and tells us to practice. That’s a great start, but then we have to learn how to read a pattern. This 7-part series by Kate Atherley explains how. Knitting is a repetitive activity: in any project, you work the knit stitch many, many times over. If you’re working a stitch pattern such as ribbing, you work the same combination of stitches—knit 1, purl 1, for example—many times across the row. If the pattern has different instructions for different rows—stockinette stitch, for example, with knits on one row and purls on the next—that pair of rows is worked over and over again. Originally published in knitscene Winter 2016.

Kate Atherley

Instructions that are repeated are termed “repeats,” and to simplify instructions and save (lots and lots of) space, knitting patterns use special notation for them. You’ll encounter two types of repeats in knitting patterns: repeated instructions within a row and repeats of rows. For either type, you need to know what you need to do and how many times you need to do it. Within a row, punctuation is used to designate the repeated instruction: an asterisk (*) for the start, and a semicolon (;) for the end. (Note that the examples in this article all use the knitscene style—other publications might have minor variations on the format, but it works the same way.)

  • Row 1 *K2, p2; rep from * to end.

In this case, you’re being told to work the repeat until you hit the end of the row. You should expect to finish a full repeat at the end—in this example, the number of stitches will be a multiple of 4 (e.g., 8, 12, or 16 stitches). If you don’t have a tidy multiple, the instructions will indicate what to do with those “extra” stitches (either at the beginning or end of the row):

  • Row 1 *K2, p2; rep from * to last 2 sts, k2.
  • Row 2 K2, *p2, k2; rep from * to end.

If the repeat isn’t worked across the entire row, you might be told how many times to work it. In that case, the repeated instructions will be enclosed in brackets:

  • Row 1 K10, [p2, k2] 10 times, p2, k10.

Kate Atherley

No matter the format, the instructions will always say what’s being repeated and how many times to do it. The same rules apply if you’re looking at repeats of rows:

  • Row 1 (RS) Knit.
  • Row 2 (WS) Purl.
  • Rep Rows 1 and 2 four more times.

You can be very literal about reading these instructions: You work the two rows, then you’re asked to do them four more times. That’s Rows 1 and 2, then (1 and 2), (1 and 2), (1 and 2), (1 and 2)—the two rows are worked five times total, so that’s ten rows in all. The “repeat” instruction doesn’t include the first time the instructions are worked.

If a repeated instruction has an increase or a decrease, stitch counts help you keep track. This example starts with 32 stitches:

  • Row 1 (RS) K1, ssk, knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1—2 sts dec’d.
  • Row 2 Purl.
  • Rep Rows 1 and 2 five more times—20 sts rem.

There’s no need to count rows—just stop when there are 20 stitches on the needle. You do need to work the purl row after the last decrease; the repeat is two rows, so you must always work the pair to consider a repeat complete.

In knitscene, you’re more likely to see that same instruction phrased this way:

  • Dec row (RS) K1, ssk, knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1—2 sts dec’d.
  • Rep dec row every RS row 5 more times—20 sts rem.

To do something every right-side row means that you’re working it on the right-side rows (in this case, the knit rows); the wrong-side rows are worked “even” (i.e., without decreases). Because you’re not specifically being told how many times to work the rows, you can stop when you’ve worked the full 6 decreases—when you complete the right-side row that results in 20 stitches.

You might also see something like this:

  • Dec row K1, ssk, knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1—2 sts dec’d.
  • Rep dec row every 4th row 8 more times—30 sts rem.

In this example, you begin with 48 stitches. Once you’ve worked the decrease row, you’re asked to repeat it every fourth row. To do something every fourth row means that you’re working a four-row pattern, and one of those is a decrease row.

So it goes like this: Work that initial decrease row. Then work a four-row pattern with a decrease at the end (three even rows, then decrease row). Work those four rows over and over until you’ve done the decrease eight more times—nine in total. Stop as soon as you’ve worked that final decrease row.
Let’s look at some other formats you might encounter:

  • Garter Lace Pattern: (multiple of 4 sts)
  • Row 1 (RS) K2, *k2, yo, k2tog; rep from * to last 2 sts, k2.
  • Row 2 (WS) K1, p1, *k2, yo, k2tog; rep from * to last 2 sts, p1, k1.
  • Rep Rows 1 and 2 for patt.

In this case, you’ve got a repeat within both rows, and there is a repeat of the rows. You’re told that the pattern works on a multiple of 4 stitches; this means that these instructions can be worked on any set of stitches divisible by four (8, 12, 16, and so forth).

In this one, rows are repeated within the row repeat to save lines of text:

  • Lace Pattern: (multiple of 10 sts)
  • Rnds 1, 3, 5, and 7 *K1, yo, k3, s2kp2, k3, yo; rep from * to end.
  • Rnds 2, 4, and 6 Knit.
  • Rnd 8 Purl.
  • Rep Rnds 1–8 for patt.

In the following example, there’s a set-up row that isn’t part of the repeat at all. You’d work the set-up row, then Rows 1 and 2, and then keep redoing Rows 1 and 2 until you hit the right length. In this case, the “when to stop” bit of the instruction is about a length rather than a specific number of rows:

  • Buttonband
  • Set-up row (RS) K1f&b, [k1, p1] 3 times, k2—10 sts.
  • Row 1 (WS) Sl 1 pwise wyf, [p1, k1] 4 times, p1.
  • Row 2 (RS) [K1, p1] 4 times, k2.
  • Rep Rows 1 and 2 until band, when slightly stretched, reaches front neck, ending with a RS row.

Instructions are written this way to save space. There is a lot of information packed in there, but a careful reading will help you work it out: look for the thing that’s being repeated, and look for instructions on how many times to do it (or when you need to stop). I recommend taking a moment to write it out in an expanded way until you feel more comfortable with the way repeats are written—and so that you can check off the rows as you work them to keep track of your progress. Paper and pencil are very powerful knitting tools!

—Kate Atherley

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