As someone who has recently started learning to crochet, I initially found it quite difficult to read crochet patterns. I’m still learning all of the stitches and abbreviations, though I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed when I look at a crochet pattern now as I did when I first began a few months back. Rather naïvely, I thought that beginner level patterns might be written with absolute beginners in mind – and while there certainly are some that are written this way, many aren’t. This might be enough to put some people off, which would be a real shame, so I thought it was worth explaining how I’ve learned to read crochet patterns.
Not all crochet patterns and instructions are the same
Firstly, crochet instructions don’t tend to have illustrations or images. There’s some simple patterns designed for absolute beginners which do, but generally the patterns are mostly text. Some have a coded stitch diagram, showing you which stitches form which parts of the pattern – though so far I’ve only come across these for items where the stitches themselves form patterns. As with sewing patterns, it’s usually independent designers who include diagrams and images – some independent designers like Moara Crochet also make videos showing you how to make the item from the pattern. I love this idea, partly as a filmmaker myself, but also because I could see how the stitches were done in respect to the pattern. I realise that for many designers taking photos and making videos is an arduous task that they aren’t comfortable with or perhaps don’t know how to do properly, though it really does help to have that visual reference when you’re learning. Thankfully, there’s plenty of mini-tutorials on Youtube which show you how to do different stitches and techniques, so I can still learn from these when the pattern itself doesn’t have a video tutorial.
The next thing you’ll notice is that crochet patterns are written almost entirely in abbreviations. Each pattern should have a section detailing what the abbreviations mean, usually on the first page next to the section breaking down how much yarn and what size crochet hook you’ll need. I’m not fantastic with abbreviations as I’m dyslexic, so it’s really useful to have that section to hand. Make sure you read the patterns carefully as to which direction the item you’re making is hooked too, as otherwise it can be confusing to try and work out. I have a pattern for a summer jacket that I’d like to make at some point and it took me a while to realise that it’s worked from the bottom up!
Crochet patterns are written in rows, as that’s how you make the item. The pattern will either be made flat or in the round and this depends on what you’re making – amigurumi and toys are 3D and so tend to be worked in the round, while scarves and clothing are likely to be made flat. The pattern will tell you if it’s made in the round, though it won’t normally say this if you’re making it flat. It’ll be obvious if it is made flat though as the pattern will likely refer to a right side and a wrong side, as well as using turning stitches at the beginning or end of the rows. Turning stitches literally turn your project, so that you can begin a new row. Mostly these are chain stitches which provide the height to begin a new row.
I should say at this stage that you shouldn’t be afraid to unravel and start again if you aren’t convinced you’ve made the item right.
I did this with my soap saver when I wasn’t far from finishing as I realised I’d been doing the stitches completely wrong, I also did it a few times with Baby Yoda‘s ears as I just couldn’t get them started properly for a while! It’s heartbreaking to have to unravel a project, but it’s a part of the learning process – and let’s face it, there’s very few people who will be amazing at something like crochet the very first time they try it. Most of the projects you’ll likely be starting out with as a beginner in crochet are small, so it doesn’t take long to redo what you’ve unravelled.
Top tip: get stitch markers
It’s also worth getting yourself some stitch markers. These are cheap and yet really useful little tools for most crochet projects – though you can also use safety pins or phone charms if you have them and want to try out using stitch markers before buying some. I really could have used a stitch marker or two when making Baby Yoda for example, as the rows blended into each other and so there were times when I wasn’t sure how many stitches I’d hooked on a row – or even where the start of the row I was working on actually was. You can see in the picture above that (having learned from making Baby Yoda) I’m currently using a small safety pin as a stitch marker. Stitch markers are there to help you see where your row starts, though you can also use them to mark points where you might have made a lot of stitches or are partway through a row. For example, a lot of scarves and clothes begin by chaining a lot of stitches together – 50, 100, sometimes 200 or even more – so having a stitch marker every so often will help ensure you don’t have to keep counting your stitches to make sure you have the right amount.
Once you reach a certain point in the pattern, it will likely just have a bunch of row numbers with the instruction to repeat what you’ve been instructed to do for the first few rows – for example, “rows 4-12: repeat instructions from row 3”. This is how most crochet patterns end up being just a few pages long, as for many cases the instructions are the same for several rows and you might only get a different instruction if you need to change colour or section. Once you get your head around the abbreviations and how to do the actual stitches, it’s reasonably straightforward. Even when I’m not sure what the next instruction is or if I have to unravel and start again, I don’t get particularly frustrated with it. My only frustration is that my cats seem to enjoy playing with my hooks – on one occasion it took me nearly a quarter of an hour to find where they’d hidden my hook!
Be patient with getting good at changing colours
I think the hardest technique for me at the moment is changing colours. Again there’s loads of great tutorials on YouTube of how to do this, though most of them are for flat projects and the ones I’ve needed to change colour on so far are worked in the round, which makes it a little difficult to follow the tutorial steps. You can’t tell in the picture above as I tucked them all away, but there’s loads of yarn tails already where I’ve changed colour on my current project that I’m going to have to weave in before I get any further along – and I’m only nine rows into the project! There’s very few patterns that explain how to do things like colour changes, as although a pattern is listed as appropriate for beginners, it doesn’t mean that only beginners will make it. More experienced crocheters wouldn’t need instructions like this (or indeed how to tie a slipknot to even begin chaining stitches for the foundation of a project), so these instructions are often missed and you’ll need to look them up elsewhere.
What I think anyone reading this post should take away from it is this: don’t get freaked out by crochet patterns. They look far more complicated than they actually are, so take things step by step and they’ll start to make sense. If you’re unsure how to do a particular stitch or technique (or simply can’t remember), there’s a wealth of tutorials available on YouTube and there’s also plenty of crochet blogs and books which break down how to do different stitches with the help of photos.
If you’re struggling to read a pattern due to all the abbreviations, I find it useful to keep the list of abbreviations from the pattern handy so you can double check which stitch you’re supposed to do next. This might mean printing that page off and keeping it with your project so you can easily refer back to it, particularly if you’re reading the rest of the pattern from a computer or tablet. You could also try colour coding the stitch abbreviations, so when you see a particular colour over the abbreviation, you know what stitch it should be (or can at least find out quickly from the abbreviations page being marked with the corresponding colour). Adobe Acrobat will allow you to highlight text in colours if you’re working from PDFs, or you could use coloured paperclips or post it notes if you’re working from a book (though if you’re doing this with a book, make sure you note down which colours correspond to which stitches). This could be really useful if making clothing too, as often the different sizes have different amounts of stitches to make the correct size. These different stitches are noted in brackets normally, so you’d need to ensure you’re always looking at the right numbers of stitches as otherwise your clothes will be too small or too large. Some designers already do the colour coding for you, some don’t, so if you’re making an item in a bigger size and your pattern doesn’t highlight the right stitch amounts for your size, it might be worth getting your highlighters out so you make the right size clothes.
Keep practising crochet
It will start to make sense at some point, though don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake – it’s actually really easy to rectify mistakes, compared to sewing. If I accidentally cut a hole in my sewing pattern, it can be a big problem; if I make a mistake in my stitches while crocheting, I can just unravel the mistake and rehook the stitches. No big deal. Just keep going and you’ll find it easier – like everything, practise makes perfect, even if you’re just practising reading patterns!