Pattern Play: At the Same Time

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. At the same time: These four words sometimes appear in knitting patterns, and they can seem a bit daunting. But dealing with them doesn’t have to be difficult as long as you are prepared and know what to do when you encounter them. Originally published in knitscene Spring 2017.


A designer uses the expression “at the same time” to alert the knitter that two or more things are going to take place simultaneously—you know, at the same time! Although designers know that knitters don’t love these instructions, they can’t always be avoided. Recipes often use similar instructions; for example, a recipe may tell you to heat up the sauce while the pasta is cooking. In this case, the instruction might say: “Cook the pasta in boiling water for 8 minutes; at the same time, heat the sauce.” You do them together so that the pasta isn’t cold and gummy when the sauce is hot, and everything is ready as fast as possible.

At the same time

In knitting patterns, this expression is commonly found in garment patterns where the individual pieces of the garment aren’t symmetrical, and you have to work a different set of shaping instructions on each side.

Let’s take, for example, the left front of a cardigan where the neckline shaping on one side is started while the armhole shaping on the other side is still in progress.

at the same time

The schematic here shows that the armhole shaping begins when the front measures 15″ from the cast-on and extends over 4″ in length. The front neck shaping begins when the front measures 17″ from the cast-on, or 2″ above the beginning of the armhole, and extends for 3¼”. The two shaping sections overlap by 2″. The area shown in red indicates the first 2″ where the armhole shaping alone occurs. The blue area indicates the final 2″ of the armhole shaping and the first 2″ of the neck shaping. The green area indicates the final 1¼” where the final neck decreases are worked. To see how this shaping would be presented in knitting instructions, we’ll assign a standard gauge of five stitches and seven rows to 1″. The cardigan front has forty-nine stitches before any shaping has been worked, and we’ll end up with twenty stitches at the shoulder when all the shaping is complete. After the initial 15″, the instructions continue as follows:

  • Note: Neck shaping beg before armhole shaping ends; read the full section all the way through before proceeding. Shape armhole: Next row (RS) BO 5 sts, work to end—44 sts rem. Work 1 WS row even. Armhole dec row (RS) K1, ssk, knit to end—1 armhole st dec’d. Rep armhole dec row every RS row 12 more times. At the same time, when armhole measures 2″, ending with a WS row, shape neck as foll: Neck dec row (RS) Work to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1—1 neck st dec’d. Rep neck dec row every RS row 10 more times—20 sts rem when all armhole and neck shaping is complete. Work even until armhole measures . . .

The note at the beginning of the section lets you know those four key words, “at the same time,” are coming. (Not every publication includes this type of warning, but at knitscene we like to make sure our knitters are prepared!).

In an “at the same time” situation, there are two things to look for: the “what” and the “when.” In this case, the “what” is the armhole and neck shaping, and the “when” is a length instruction. This means that as you’re working the repeats of the armhole decreases, you need to keep track of how far you’ve worked so that you won’t go past the point where the neck shaping needs to start. If you complete the armhole shaping before working the first neck decrease, you have gone too far, and you’ll need to rip out a few rows.

At the time

Sometimes, instead of a length measurement, the “when” tells you to look for a certain stitch count or to keep track of the number of rows worked. No matter what it is, just pay attention to that trigger point—that’s when you have to start doing the second thing.

If you’re working this particular pattern, measure as you go, and as soon as you hit the 2″, write down how many of those thirteen armhole decreases you have completed. As you add in the neckline shaping, keep doing the armhole decreases until you hit the required number.

Once you’ve figured out the “when,” you need to look for the second instruction you have to add in. In the case of our cardigan front, we have to start working neck decreases at the opposite end of the right-side rows.

You’ve been working the armhole shaping for 2″ (the area marked in red on the schematic), and let’s say you’ve done six of the required thirteen decreases (the original plus twelve more), so you’ve got seven left to go. This means that your right-side rows should now be worked as follows: K1, ssk, knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1—2 sts dec’d: 1 st each at armhole and neck edge. You’ll then work this decrease row until you’ve completed the seven remaining armhole decreases and seven out of eleven neck decreases (the area marked in blue on the schematic). From there, you’ll only work decreases on the neckline side until all eleven of those decreases (the initial seven, plus four more) have been worked (the area marked in green on the schematic). So now the right-side rows are worked as follows: Knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1—1 neck st dec’d. When those are done, check your stitch count and then “work even”—that is, no more decreases on either side.

The example I give here is pretty cut-and-dried because we’re focusing on a single size. Although it would have made the pattern a bit longer, the designer could have written out each of the three different “phases”—armhole shaping only, armhole and neck shaping, neck shaping—as its own distinct set of instructions. However, it gets significantly more complicated when there are multiple sizes with different lengths and a different number of repeats. If a pattern has five sizes, that’s five different combinations of row repeats, each with the neckline shaping possibly starting at a different point in relation to the armhole shaping. Writing it out in detail gets challenging for the designer and tech editor and takes up a lot of space. So although it might seem like the designer is just trying to take a shortcut, sometimes “at the same time” is the best way to deal with a set of compound instructions.

I recommend that you scan through a pattern before you start working on it. You don’t have to read the whole thing in great detail—and indeed, some of it probably won’t make sense until the knitting is in your hands—but it’s a good idea to know that things like “at the same time” are coming up. When I’m working on a pattern and I see that phrase, I always underline it to make sure I keep it in mind.

No matter how this instruction is used or what sort of pattern it appears in, the process is the same: Always read ahead to make sure you know it’s coming, and look for the “what” (the different sets of instructions) and the “when” (the trigger points). As long as you keep notes on what you’re doing, you’ll be fine!

—Kate Atherley


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