Crochet – the one fiber art that will never be taken over by machine. You must use your own two hands to achieve this ancient art. Just you, your favorite crochet hook, and whatever luscious yarn you’ve chosen for your next wonderful project. Oh, yes, and the instructions in the crochet pattern. You need to be able to read those darn instructions to make the crocheted baby sweater or afghan of your dreams. Now that can be a problem.

First, there’s the challenge of learning what those symbols mean: ch, dc, fl – and don’t even get me started on the difference between yoh and yrh. Patterns usually include a key, letting you know that, for example, “dc2tog” means you must “(insert hook in next st, yrh and draw a loop through) twice, yrh and draw through all 3 loops on hook.” Oh, of course – I was just about to do all that!

Next, be sure you are looking at a crochet pattern in the “language” you know. US patterns use different symbols from UK patterns, and some of the same terms actually mean different stitches. Good gawd – that’s right. Pick up a UK pattern, and you’ll see the term “treble crochet” used for what would be called “double crochet” in a US pattern. And a “treble crochet” in a US pattern would translate to “double treble crochet” in a UK pattern. That’s a potential tangle, for sure.

Add to that the fact that it’s way too easy to skip a line in the instructions, or follow a line twice, while attempting to decipher a crochet pattern, with its closely spaced lines of tiny type. There are just so many ways to go wrong (ask me how I know).

But you’re not alone. It’s comforting to know that patterns have been loaded with errors and difficult to follow since the first known crochet pattern was printed in 1824, instructions to make luxury crocheted purses from gold or silver silk thread. Patterns were tricky, and they were not really meant to be followed on their own.

As Kathleen Brewster writes, “The reader was expected, it turns out, to read the pattern but to use the illustration as the more accurate guide. These patterns still relied on the reader copying from the original image. It relied heavily on the crocheter’s intuition for stitches and reading patterns and pictures.” (“A History of Crochet Patterns”)

So if our great-great-grandmothers used images to learn a new crochet design, why are we struggling to follow along with words?

Pattern designers have solved this problem, creating visual crochet diagrams, or symbol patterns.

Crochet symbol pattern. Image courtesy of Annie’s.

Symbol patterns allow you to look at a diagram of a crochet piece, sometimes color-coded, and see which stitches are used, in what order, and how they are joined. There’s a key to help you figure out the symbols, but they are so intuitive that you may not need the key. If you pick up a pattern that includes these symbol diagrams, you’ll easily understand where to begin crocheting and how to proceed.

Crochet symbol chart courtesy of the Craft Yarn Council.

But if you prefer to take it slowly rather than forge ahead, these resources will help you get started reading crochet symbol patterns:

And once you get started using crochet symbol patterns, you’ll want to keep a chart handy so you can follow along, even when a new stitch symbol appears. The Craft Yarn Council offers a free chart with the most commonly used stitches: http://www.craftyarncouncil.com/chart_crochet.html


Jennifer Hynes has spent a lifetime working on her crochet and sewing skills, beginning with making her own clothes as a teenager and continuing to explore various styles and techniques in quiltmaking. She teaches college writing and literature, and she does freelance copyediting to support her yarn and fabric addictions. Find her on Facebook, Etsy, and perhaps your local craft show/sale as Jenny’s Quilts and Crochet.

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