Cowichan via Japan: How to read a Japanese knitting pattern

Cowichan via Japan: How to read a Japanese knitting pattern

One of the funnest aspects of this year’s Fringe and Friends Knitalong is the fact that it’s a Japanese pattern. It’s my favorite kind of pattern — simply a chart with some notes. But the fact that it’s a garment (one size), and that the Japanese do things a bit differently, makes it just challenging enough to be interesting. Panelist Meri Tanaka and I had an enlightening conversation about why Japanese patterns are the way they are, what that has meant for knitting in Japan, and how to interpret the assorted unfamiliar markings on this one. I learned a lot and am sure you will, too!

By the way, there are already quite a few sweaters appearing on the #fringeandfriendskal2015 hashtag on Instagram. Take a look — and keep ’em coming!

. . .

Karen: First, can I ask you: The Japanese seem especially smitten with Cowichan-style sweaters, which hail from Canada — specifically the Vancouver area. Is it similar or related to the fascination with American sportswear (which I think you do better than we do), or is there something in particular that makes the Cowichan style so appealing in Japan?

Meri: Actually, Aran, Fair Isle and fisherman sweaters are equally popular in Japan. Many trading companies import sweaters from the UK and Europe for various fashion brands. For people who like more outdoor/camping-type clothes, it seems Cowichan style is more popular. Japanese men love “authentic” fashion items from around the world, learn about their histories, and love to wear them.

At the same time, many people seem to think that because Cowichan sweaters use very thick yarn, they are easier to knit (which is, as most knitters know already, not always true).

So this pattern is nothing but a collection of schematics along with a big chart of each of the three vest pieces, with annotations indicating assorted details the knitter might need to know. I have a couple of Japanese knitting books and they’re all like this — at most you get a detailed diagram with measurements and counts all over it, along with a chart for any necessary colorwork or pattern stitches that might factor in. Often the entire garment is charted like this one — stitch by stitch. Is this the standard/traditional form that Japanese knitting patterns take? Or is that a more modern approach?

What you described is a standard form of Japanese patterns, more or less. I am not sure if I can call it traditional, though. What I have learned is that during the post-war period, a few dressmaking schools created their own standards in terms of pattern writing, needle sizes and yarn thickness. As you can guess, it was based on sewing patterns. I am guessing that in those days most women went to sewing schools to learn how to draw patterns to fit their body, so that they knew how to adjust knitting patterns as well. That was regarded as part of their preparation to get married, because store-bought clothes were still very expensive, and it was one of the housewives’ responsibilities to make clothes for the family.

That knowledge is not common anymore, because very few people go to dressmaking or knitting schools these days.

Because it’s charted and not written out, it’s only one size. I know, on the whole, Japanese people tend to be comparatively petite (pardon the generalization!), but it’s not like you’re all exactly the same size. Are Japanese knitters simply more fluent or intrepid at resizing things? Or what’s the attitude and approach toward the sizing?

Most Japanese women are within the range of 4″ height difference, but body types are definitely diverse. I usually have a hard time finding clothes at stores because I am about 3″ shorter than the average, but my body is slightly thicker.

As I described earlier, when the system of knitting patterns was established in Japan, most people knew how to grade patterns to their own needs. It’s not the case anymore, which results in the majority of knitting patterns in books and magazines being loose and bulky, so that one size fits all.

With Amirisu, you take a more Western approach to the patterns, with graded sizes and written instructions. Would you do it that way if you were only publishing in Japan?

We feel that part of our mission is to make knitting more approachable to the younger generation. Having one size with minimal explanation in a pattern makes it extremely difficult to pick up knitting. Because the standards are different in Japan, the hurdle for non-Japanese products and patterns to enter the market has been extremely high — so people had access to very limited resources. (Still so, although the trend is changing.) The majority of knitters are not used to knitting from written patterns, and until we started our knitting workshops in Japan, and my partner published a book, there weren’t many places or resources to learn how to read them. We want to show people that there is a whole wide knitting world out there, with millions of choices and possibilities. In other words, we would like to continue publishing patterns as we do now, even only in Japanese.

How to read a Japanese knitting patternThe Japanese charts work just like English-language charts, because it’s how knitting works — you start at the lower right corner with the first stitch, building stitches from right to left, then (if working flat) you read the next row from left to right and invert the stitches (a knit on the right side is a purl on the wrong side, etc) as you’re now working from the wrong side of the fabric and back across the row. A translated pattern like the one we’re knitting from — Pierrot’s Cowichan-style Geometric Vest  — will have a legend showing what the various symbols mean — and the stitch symbols tend to be the same as ours. A blank box is a knit, a dash/dot is a purl (cables are the same, in cable patterns).

However, there are markings on this pattern that are not familiar and not translated, per se. (I want to emphasize to everyone that it’s important to read the Knitting Tips box on the first page of the pattern, which does explain several things.) Can you help us understand the unfamiliar marks? Let’s start with the diagrams on page 2, looking at the schematic for the back panel. There are marks above the “CO 49 sts” and below the actual diagram that look like |—|—, mirrored at the other end and below the fronts. What does that mark mean?

Those indicate ribbing patterns. For the back panel, cast on is 49 stitches, and the ribbing goes like (K1, P1) x 24, K1. | is a knit stitch, — is a purl stitch. This is important when you cast on for the front panels; the right front ribbing ends with ||, or two knits. The first row of the right front is a WS row, so the ||— would be read P2, K1 from the wrong side. Does that make sense?

Oh, interesting! Not only did I not get that those indicated ribbing (which is clearly depicted on the chart, so not a problem), I completely missed that the chart includes the cast-on as row 1 — that’s definitely different from Western charts, where row 1 is the first knitted row.

If studied, the page 2 diagrams tell us pretty much everything we need to know about stitches and rows and COs and BOs and needle sizes and so on — right down to how far apart to work the buttonholes. Then the charts on the following two pages show us the actual stitches — the placement of ribbing and garter stitch and colorwork. On the diagrams of the fronts, it’s noted that you decrease 1 stitch after the waist ribbing. On the chart of the front, where some people have thought the waist ribbing was knitted separately, that’s really just pulled apart to show you which two stitches to work together to get that -1 decrease. Right?

Yes, and this is very kind and easy to understand diagram compared to other ones I’ve seen in Japanese knitting patterns!

How to read a Japanese knitting patternAs we work our way up the diagram of the fronts, in the upper right of page 2, there’s a set of annotations that looks like this:

1 RE

This was totally cryptic to me my first time knitting the pattern. In the Knitting Tips box on page 1 it says “#-#-# = rows-stitches-times.” I get that this is tied to the increases for the collar flap shaping, but either I’m really not understanding what that means or the numbers are wrong — I couldn’t get it to add up to the same number of increases depicted in the chart. (So I ignored it and just knitted what’s pictured in the chart — increasing on any row where the chart got wider.) Do you have a better way of translating that, or helping us understand it?

Sure! This is one of the critical points to understand Japanese patterns. Please note that there are a few variations based on which (Japanese) standard the designer is using, but the basic idea is the same. This array of numbers should be read from the direction of your knitting. In this case, it’s bottom up, so the first set of numbers is 1-1-1.

The numbers read like this: Every # row(s), increase (or decrease) # stitch(es), # time(s).

In terms of the first increase, it’s really not “every 1 row”, but it simply means you increase one stitch, once.Whether to increase or decrease is often omitted from the diagram, and knitters need to figure it out themselves. (99% of the times it’s pretty obvious.)

As for the last one, “1RE”, this is something that the translator of this particular pattern came up with on his/her own. Usually it’s written as “1段平” in Japanese, meaning “1 row even”. When using Japanese knitting books, please do not expect to see “RE” here.

If you understand the above, I think the row counts add up to 18. What do you think?

Aha! “Every” is the keyword. Based on “rows-stitches-times” I was reading 2-1-2 as “On the next two rows, increase 1 stitch 2 times.” Which makes no sense to begin with (2 times on a row?), and explains why the numbers weren’t adding up. It’s really “every 2nd row, increase 1 stitch — and do that twice.” Every 2nd row being every other row. So that’s two increases over the next four rows. The “4-1-1” would be increase one stitch on the next 4th row. Got it! I hope that makes sense to our readers, too. Thank you.

I think there’s been confusion for a few people about the large black/white dot depicted on the collar diagrams. There’s nothing for us to do there, knitting-wise — it’s just saying match up the center of the left edge of the back collar to the center of the corresponding front flap and seam them together, and vice versa. It reminds me of the kind of mark you’d see on a sewing pattern. Is that a typical mark in Japanese patterns?

I can’t say these marks are typical. It seems the designer of this pattern is very kind to show which pieces to sew together.

Last but not least, I had someone ask about the V along the edges of the front charts, at the bottom of the last page. That one says only “slip stitch” and I’m assuming you work it just like I describe in this post. Is that correct, or do you do that any differently than I do?

The placement of the V is a little confusing, but it’s the same “slip stitch” as you describe in your blog post. (I love that turtleneck vest so much, by the way!)

Thank you! What’s the main thing you think people should know about trying to knit from Japanese patterns, especially those that haven’t had the annotations translated like this one has? What’s the best way to learn?

If you can overcome the fact that most patterns have one size only, usually the only difficult part is increase and decrease. Please keep in mind that cast-on/bind-off and increase/decrease methods, as well as a lot of details, are often not described in the patterns; it’s totally up to you. There are not many techniques used in Japanese knitting — for example, most cast-ons are done in either long-tail method or with crochet cast-on with waste yarn.

We’ve been publishing a series of articles on Japanese knitting patterns in Amirisu magazine, and they are available for free (online versions). Hope that will help a lot of adventurous knitters!


PREVIOUSLY IN #fringeandfriendskal2015: Elsewhere: Cowichan links (full series here)


Pattern © Pierrot Yarns; pattern images/details used with permission

24 thoughts on “Cowichan via Japan: How to read a Japanese knitting pattern

  1. I love Japanese patterns! They are truly unique! But I find it really hard to get through them, so for me Japanese patterns became more like guidelines than “traditional” patterns. Thank you for these tips! Very helpful!

    • This is my first time knitting from one, and of course this one is “translated,” to the extent there’s much to translate. One of these days I’ll try to knit from one of my (untranslated) Japanese books.

  2. Karen, I didn’t realize that in a “Western” pattern, the cast-on row is always Row 1 and the RS. Some patterns take you back to the RS after casting on and some make an assumption. What if it doesn’t say? So then does the WS become the RS? Because not all Designers write complete patterns. There doesn’t seem to be a Design template that everyone agrees and adheres to.

    • I’ve never seen a Western pattern that includes the CO in the chart or calls it Row 1 in any form. There’s always your cast-on and whatever comes after that is Row 1. And if it matters at all (which it usually/often does) the pattern will indicate whether it’s written with Row 1 being a WS or RS row. That definitely varies, and should be indicated.

  3. Sorry to ask a question after such an enlightening post. The front garter edging shows 4 rows. Surely the ribbing is 8 rows like the back. Should this be 4 stitches?

  4. Great explanations! Strangely enough I seem to be the exact size and height of the model that Japanese standard knitting patterns are based on, and this has allowed me to make a lot of things without giving sizing a second thought. I imagine it takes quite some skill for Japanese knitters to adapt patterns to fit without instructions.

  5. Nice post… In Italy you don’t see many Japanese knitting books, actually I’ve never seen one and now I’m so curious! Those annotations remind me of DAK annotations :)

  6. Thanks a lot for this post! Now I understand why Japanese patterns seem so loose and bulky if Japanese women knew at one time all to adjust patterns. In France Japanese sewing patterns and some knitting patterns are really trendy, so I m familiar with those short informations and visual ones. Find this technic comfy, less to read and love intuitive way of work even if somehow it means a “argh!!!! this makes no sense !!! “:-)

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  8. Love this interview. I’ve always been curious about Japanese patterns but didn’t know where to begin understanding. Now I’m more eager to try them.

  9. I feel a bit stupid, I’ve counted again and again and still don’t see what I’m missing! I’m working on the back collar, picked up 17 st; then it says to add 9 st with increases, which gives 17+9= 26, which means I’m missing 9 more sitches to get to 35 at BO. Help!

    • You need to work the increases at both ends in order to get the inverted trapezoid shape. There’s another set of those #-#-# style markings here, and it appears to be written for just one set of the increases, one end of the knitting, but you need to do it at each end. So 2-1-7 means every second (every other) row, increase 1 stitch, and do that 7 times. That’s 14 rows, 7 sts added (per side). Then 1-1-2, every 1 row (every row) increase 1 st, and do that twice. So that’s 9 sts added (per end) for 18 sts total over 16 rows. Then you work 4 rows even. Does that help?

      You could actually do 2 sts every other row, or 1 stitch every row—

      Every other row, increase 1 stitch at each end (2 st inc) for 14 rows, then increase again at each end for 2 rows. Work even for 4 rows.


      Increase 1 st at the beginning of the row for 14 rows, then increase at both ends for 2 rows. Work even for 4 rows.

      • Thanks so much, that’s what I’d figured more or less, as I needed 18 more stitches!
        I’m looking forward to feeback on the collar (I fiddled a lot and used Andrea’s tip on how the Cowichan knitters do it, knitting one stich from front collars on each row) and final assembling and seaming.
        Right now I’m wondering if I should block before seaming sides (probably should as I have blocked my right front)
        thanks again for the kal, lots of fun!!

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  12. Hi Karen – thanks for the inspiration to tackle this amazing vest. Could you explain why you added additional rows after completing the increases to the back collar (do I want to have more rows than the number of stitches in my front flaps — or the same? I’ve modified and have 23 sts in each front flap).

    • Hi, Janet. I did the collar according to the pattern — didn’t add anything. It does have a few more rows than the front flaps have stitches, and I think it’s just a functino of making the back flap depth match the front flap width, since that’s what you’re seaming together.

  13. For the back – on the last row of the pattern, is the cast off just on a straight row without shaping ?

  14. Pingback: Article on Reading Japanese Knitting Patterns – Site Title

  15. this article states “We’ve been publishing a series of articles on Japanese knitting patterns in Amirisu magazine, and they are available for free (online versions). Hope that will help a lot of adventurous knitters!”
    I cannot find any that are free. help, please.


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