We've all been there. You are searching for that one project that would be perfect for you. You find it after days of searching and discarding other patterns. However, it's written in a language you can't make head or tails of. It does have a crochet chart, though. What to do next!?
When this happens, I'm mostly grateful that somebody took the time to create a crochet chart. Learning how to read these charts is a skill anybody can learn. And just like any other skill, it takes practice to get better. I compare it with learning how to read. You need to learn the letters first to understand the words. Luckily, as a crocheter, you already know the words (stitches)! They're just written in a symbol language you don't fully understand yet. After you know the words, it's just a matter of time before you can read the whole text and see 'the bigger picture'. Read on, and let me explain to you how you can read these handy crochet diagrams too.
The crochet symbols
Basic crochet stitches
For every stitch that exists, there's a matching crochet symbol. It's hard to find a guide of all stitches, as some ar every obscure, and people being people made countless variations. However, I can walk you through the basic and more advanced stitches that you most likely will see in crochet charts. Note: I use US terminology throughout this article.
When we're talking about the basic stitches, I mean the stitches you probably learned first such as a chain, slip stitch and single crochet. As you can see, an open oval represents a chain, while a filled out dot represents a slip stitch. A single crochet can be depicted as a cross or plus sign, depending on the chart. Everything upward from a single crochet is funny: those symbols look like a T with none, one or more crossbeams.
Tip: Find that the symbols for double crochets and trebles look alike? Look at the number of crossbeams: every crossbeam represents an initial yarn over when you're working the stitch!
Increasing and decreasing
You most likely have to increase or decrease at some point in your pattern. When you look at the symbols below, do you see a pattern emerge? You're looking for the point where the symbols collide. If that's on the bottom it's an increase, and if that's on the top, it's usually a decrease! If you need to increase more than two stitches, it will be depicted as a combination of three or more stitches. It all adds up like math, but the simple kind.
Special crochet stitches
There are also 'special' stitches that are often a combination of one (or more types) of basic stitches. I'm talking about puff stitches, front post stitches, and popcorns for example. How these stitches are depicted precisely can vary from chart to chart. However, they're quite often recognized as one of the stitches below, and are always a combination of one (or more) basic symbols! Sometimes, when it's an obscure stitch, there's a further explanation in the chart. Unfortunately, if that's in Russian (darn, a language that I just haven't learned yet), it won't help you very much. Just look closely at the stitches then and try to replicate it as best as possible, continuously referring to the basic stitches.
Now you know the individual letters to form the sentence. Don't worry if you don't know them by heart: you will learn over time.
How do you read a crochet chart?
The next part will focus on how you read a crochet chart. A crochet chart can be very overwhelming and look like a maze of symbols, dots and numbers. If you feel overwhelmed, it's essential to remember this one golden rule:
Find the beginning of the chart.
Find the very first stitch, and work from there. Once you've found the first stitch, trace the next stitches until you've finished your round or row. Let me give you an example of how this works.
The chart here is a motif that is worked in the round. Circles are worked from the middle. So that's where we're going to look for our first stitch.
Step 1: Find the first stitch. You see a solid circle in the middle. This means that you'll make a magic loop. If you need to work from a chain space (for example just like you could do with granny squares), then there would be a circle of chain symbols.
Step 2: Look for a way to the next round. So you've made your magic loop, but how do you get started? That's the part in the purple oval. How do I know this? Well, usually you need to make one or more chains to start making stitches in your magic loop. That part is your 'ch3' with which a pattern often begins.
Step 3: Work that round and find out how a round is closed. You work around your circle with double crochets. Count them (it's 17, 18 if you count the ch3 as a double crochet), and then crochet them. When you reach your ch3, you slip stitch it to the top of the ch3 (depicted by that little black dot in between the last dc and the ch3).
After this, all you do is repeat Step 2 and 3 for each round. I placed some numbers in the graph, which makes it easier to see which round you're working in. If the chart doesn't have that, print it and write them down yourself!
As a general rule of thumb, when a stitch is positioned on top of a stitch in the previous round/row, you will work that stitch IN the stitch of the previous round/row. This pattern tells you to ch3 after you joined the last stitches of Round 1, ch1, and then work 1dc into the next dc. Repeat this around and close the round again with a slip stitch. Keep tracing the rounds stitch by stitch, and the chart tells you what to do!
Partial crochet diagrams
If a motif is large, a complete chart takes up lots of space. So that's why you'll often find partial charts, like the one below. The one below is a modified version of the motif chart above.
While it might not look like it, it gives you the same amount of information as the chart above. You only need to look for it. For example, it shows you how to start (with a magic loop), and how many stitches to crochet in the first round (ch3 and 17 dc, 18 stitches in total). It shows you what to do next (ch3 in Round 2), and how to work that round (ch1, 1dc in each stitch). It also shows you how to close Rounds 2-6. So all the information is there, just more condensed. You'll find these type of charts in books or any other place where available space might be limited.
Advanced crochet diagrams
Let's try a chart that's more difficult.
I found this chart online, without a source. It looks like a square motif that's worked in the round and has more stitch variation than the previous chart. But nothing you can't handle!
Are you feeling overwhelmed? Remember the golden rule: Find the beginning of the chart. Then follow the steps as specified for the circle motif.
Step 1: find the first stitch. In this chart, you also start in the middle. This time it's with a circle of chains (8 to be precise, with one slip stitch to join the first and last ch).
Step 2: Look for a way to the next round. You make a chain (the open oval you see between the chain round and the sc round).
Step 3: Work that round and find out how the round is closed. Work 1sc in every chain. Close your round with a slip stitch. This pattern calls the chains + sc's Round 1, but that's just a matter of opinion (sometimes starting chains are counted as a round, sometimes they are not).
Are you getting the hang of it? You're going to chain 4 (as a substitute for your first treble crochet), then two more, and then you're going to crochet a treble in the next sc. Follow the flow of the stitches. It's just one long continuous line you need to trace to get you to the end.
A little side note here, In the corner stitches you see an elongated cross. That's also a sc (as the crossbeam is crossing the other beam instead of laying on top of it as is the symbol for hdc's), just a little bit stretched out so you can see where to crochet them.
Expert level crochet charts
You're now ready to play in the major league, and I have just the right pattern for you. I know this doily looks both incredible and incredibly difficult. Remember the golden rule: Find the beginning of the crochet chart. Start in the middle, and work your way outwards. Just take it one round, section or stitch at a time.
I've coloured in the first couple of rounds, to give you an idea of how you should tackle this type of chart. Start with making a chain (yellow). Next, crochet trebles (see, two crossbeams, orange). Then start making loops. These loops consist of a sc, then 3 chains, and a sc in the next treble (green). Take it round by round. Continue making these loops in the next round, this time with a little picot in between (light blue). Then you're going to move to a new row of sc's, with chains and picots. (dark blue). Continue working steps 2 & 3 - it works every time!
Trust me: if you understand this chart, you can pretty much make anything you want. No chart will hold secrets for you anymore!
Tips & Tricks for reading a chart
- If possible, print out the pattern and trace the lines with a (coloured) pencil.
- If possible, look up a photo of the result. It will help you visualize how the pattern will look like. Unfortunately, not all patterns come with pictures.
- If you see dc's on top of a chain (like for example in rows 7-12), you don't necessarily need to crochet them IN the chain, but rather in the chain space. You'll find this tip convenient when the chain has four chains, and you don't have a middle stitch to work in. You might think it will slip and bend out of shape, but that doesn't happen due to all forces that are exerted by other stitches. It will end up fine and in the middle.
- Don't be discouraged if a project doesn't look like the picture, but more like a weirdly shaped dishcloth while you're working on it. I recommend blocking your work after you're done. It really makes a huge difference! I've got a complete blocking tutorial for you if you need one.
- If you're in for a challenge, look for Japanese patterns. They're beautiful and often come with crochet charts.
Good luck! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below!