Charting Fair Isle Patterns

Our love affair with the vintage fair isle look continues, and while knitting from the original instructions may seem straightforward, I sometimes get questions from concerned fair isle pattern buyers about whether the instructions are written or charted – this blogpost is intended to encourage those nervous souls to dive in and chart your own! It’s pretty common for vintage fair isle patterns to be written with no chart representation and being a lazy moo myself I always appreciate the appeal of charted patterns for ease and speed, but there’s also something rather satisfying about deciphering the written instructions, like revealing a secret code, so here are some tips for how to do it.

I’ll use this 1940s jumper with fair isle yoke that I’m working on at the moment as an example – as you can see you’ll obviously have a visual clue from the pattern picture so you’re not exactly working in the dark. It’s also fairly common for patterns from this era to suggest which colours you should use, although don’t feel you have to stick to their suggestions. This particular pattern suggests natural, black, blue and red which I’ve decided to stick to.

The fair isle pattern runs for 20 rows as follows:

1st row: K. thus, 2N, *3B, 2N; rep. from * to end of row
2nd row: P. thus, 2B, *3Bl, 2B; rep. from * to end of row.
3rd row: K. in Bl.
4th row: P. thus, 1R, (1Bl, 1R) 3 times, *3Bl, 1R, (1Bl,1R) 3 times; rep. from * to end of row
5th row: K. thus, (1Bl, 2R) twice, *2Bl,1R, 2Bl,2R, 1Bl, 2R; rep. from *, ending with 1Bl
6th row: P. thus, 3R, 1N, 3R, *1N, 1R, (1N, 3R) twice; rep. from * to end of row.
7th row: K. thus, 3N, 1B, 3N, *3B, 3N, 1 B, 3N; rep from * to end of row.

Now rep. the 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st rows in this order.

14th row: P. in N.
15th row: K. thus, 1R, 5N, *2R, 1N, 2R, 5N; rep. from *, ending with 1R
16th row: P. thus, 1R, 1Bl, 3R, 1Bl, *2R, 1Bl, 2R, 1Bl, 3R, 2Bl, rep. from *, ending with 1R.
17th row: K. thus, 3 Bl, 1B, *4Bl, 1B; rep. from *, ending with 3 Bl

Now rep. the 16th & 15th rows in this order.

20th row: P. in N.

I’ll assume that you’re familiar enough with knitting instructions to know that anything within two asterisks (* …. *) is taken as a group to be repeated. I looked at the rows with the most stitches per pattern repeat (row 5 for example), I could see that the pattern within the * … * spans a 10-stitch cluster, so I did a quick once-over of the other rows and sure enough they had the same amount. I whipped out the graph paper (actually I printed some out using spreadsheet software), marked out 20 rows for a single pattern set, plus a central panel of 20 squares (by charting two groups of pattern you get a better idea of what the overall pattern will look like), with a few either side for the intros & outros to the rows. Time to get out the colouring pencils and colour in each ‘stitch’ square per the instructions (apologies for the scruffy colouring and scribbled notes in my illustration). You’ll see I’ve not used any technical knitting chart symbols here, this is intended as a straightforward colour chart.

I’d decided to re-jig the pattern to size up the bust by a couple of inches (more on this another time) which in turn altered the rhythm of the pattern, so I needed to work out how many stitches I’d be left with either side of the main group and account for the colourwork accordingly. This is pretty straightforward to work out but you might need to take a couple of runs at it so have a spare sheet or two of graph paper to hand and don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it right first go. In some instances you might even end up with enough extra stitches to include an extra pattern repeat. If you’re making the size stated in the pattern and don’t need to make size alterations, you can stick to the patterning either side of the asterisks in the original pattern.

Of course you don’t absolutely need to do any charting at all if you’re not re-sizing, but it beats the hell out of working in the dark with a pattern you’re unfamiliar with, and if you make any mistakes you have a visual reference to see where you went wrong.

Like I say, strangely satisfying, and who knows, it might even encourage you to try out your own fair isle patterns …

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