Japanese Charting Lesson 1

General Information

Charting was the first method machine knitters used to draft their patterns. It was popular nearly 40 years before home computers and pattern software were available. This is still a very good method for creating patterns, and even if you do not plan to make your own, it helps to understand how these charts are created.

tank top
tank top chart

Oh, My!! You mean I’m supposed to be able to knit a garment, just from something like that?? Yes, indeed. When we finish this tutorial, you will understand enough about Japanese charts to make a sweater, using only a chart, similar to the one on the left.

We will, however, be working in English. You absolutely do not have to learn Japanese.

We are going to begin by learning to read the chart. It is necessary to understand a few (very few!) symbols and how a chart is constructed. And after we learn to knit from a Japanese pattern, we are going to learn to make patterns, using the same methods, in English.

Japanese charted patterns differ considerably from written ones with which we are more familiar. There are almost no instructions for the techniques used in garment construction. These techniques were taught in knitting classes offered in Brides Schools. Women were supposed to go to school to learn all the things they would need to know as wives; knitting was an important part of that knowledge, and special classes were given for it.  Written patterns of any kind are not commonly used. A person was supposed to be able to knit a garment just by looking at a picture of it.

Studio used to sell the Silver Knitting Book. I got a copy in 1974, and learned how to chart by using it, but had already learned a similar method while hand knitting in the ’60s. I also taught advanced 4H knitting classes in the ’80s. One of the techniques we taught the kids in that class was drafting original sweater patterns, using graph paper to plot out armhole and neck shaping. That’s a very intuitive way to do it, and not really so different from this charting method.

We don’t need to be able to read Japanese to use this method. There are really only a few symbols used, and these are easy to learn.

Japanese patterns are more standardized than the written patterns used in the Western world, but there are still a few differences in the way they are written. The major difference is the shaping formula. Most patterns printed in Japan use the rows-stitches-times shaping formula. I recently went through my stash of more than a hundred old Japanese books and magazines and nearly all of them use the rows-stitches-times formula. These patterns are all from the ’70s and ’80s, and that may have changed in their modern publications, but I’m guessing it hasn’t.

Interestingly, though, Studio’s Silver Knitting Book, also written in Japan, uses the stitches-rows-times formula. It was created much earlier; my first copy was published in 1963 (I literally used that one until it fell apart.) My second copy was printed in 1964, and still has the same shaping formula of stitches-rows-times. Most American pattern writers of that era use this formula in their pattern charts, and it can cause great confusion and frustration unless you know that there are two charting formula systems, and which one the designer is using.
It looks very much like Japanese companies decided to go with the rows-stitches-times shaping formula when they standardized pattern publishing. But the other method, stitches-rows-times, has been published in machine knitting books for many years, and was already widely adopted in the US. I have old patterns from Brother and Toyota, as well as Studio, that use this method.

If the pattern formula is rows-stitches-times, and the notation is 4-2-5, this means every 4 rows increase/decrease 2 stitches 5 times. If the pattern formula is stitches-rows-times, and the notation is 4-2-5,  this means increase/decrease 4 stitches every 2 rows 5 times. As you can see, these two methods produce extremely different results, so you absolutely must know which shaping formula the pattern uses!

Gauge in Japanese charted patterns is always given in stitches and rows per 10 cm, rather than stitches and rows per inch. This may be confusing to knitters in the USA, but really isn’t as bad as it seems. 10 cm is nearly the same as 4″. Usually dividing by 4 will give you a usable gauge. Fine yarns may need a stitch or two more in the garment width to compensate for the slight difference; unless the gauge is 8 sts per inch or finer, I don’t bother to do this. Two extra stitches at each side seam will be plenty, even on larger sizes.

One of the most helpful pieces of equipment is a tape measure that gives inches and centimeters, preferably on the same side. Also, if you don’t mind a little math, 2.54 cm equal 1 inch; therefore, divide cms by 2.54 to convert into inch measurements. A calculator is invaluable for this.

Gauge will be found in the written text at the top of the page. Sometimes the lines of text go back and forth horizontally, like Western writing, and sometimes they go up and down, beginning at the top right edge, and proceed from right to left. The gauge is usually buried in the text, so it may be necessary to really look for it. This is the symbol for it:

gauge symbol

Most of the other writing covers only the same kind of information that is usually found at the top of our written patterns, and includes type of yarn, how many ounces, what colors are used, finished measurements of the garment, and tension settings. Usually only one size is given. It up to the knitter to rechart a size that fits. Arrows on the chart indicate knitting direction, and there may be a few very brief instructions, such as: “Sweater, K with 2 strands. 1 x 1 Rib, K single strand. Purl side is the right side.” However, actual knitting instructions are not included. Yo’s Needlecraft had several issues of Nihon Vogue printed with an English insert; but because even this insert does not contain knitting instructions, they weren’t very popular with US knitters. Most of us, apparently, need to be spoon-fed when it comes to instructions.

Japanese Charting Home Page

Japanese Charting Lesson 1  General information and preparing to draft knitting patterns using the Japanese method.

Japanese Charting Lesson 2  What does all of this mean? Interpreting Japanese symbols and drafting formulas.

Dolman Sweater Chart  What a charted version of the Ladies Dolman Pullover looks like

Tuck Stitch Pullover  What a charted version of the Mens Tuck Stitch Pullover looks like



Original version of this tutorial was copyrighted and uploaded to the old Clearwater Knits website in 1998.