Apparently my post on knitting patterns from books published prior to 1920 or so has struck a chord. I’ve gotten a couple of requests on how to go about translating these older knitting patterns to modern notation. I did a six part section on how to graph up patterns from written notation before (Charting 101, 102, 103, 104, 105 and 106 ), so this sort of follows as optional post-lesson workshop.

This time I’ll start with a web-available pattern. K. Harris at Vintage Connection has posted a transcription of a knitted insertion pattern that first appeared in The Delineator magazine, in June 1896. I’ll be producing a modern notation graph for that lace panel. Before we begin, it’s worth noting some common features of turn-of-the-century knitting. Not every technique known today was widely used, and terms varied a bit – even more widely than they do now. I’ll try to cover some of the most common notations.

Knit and purl – k, p

Not much difference. Basic knits and purls were pretty much as we know them. There were however a couple of associated usages that are less common today. Knit plain usually meant work in knit stitch only. One complication – it follows then that for things knit in the round knit plain came to mean “work in stockinette.” Occasionally by extension knit plain was used to indicate stockinette done in the flat rather than in the round, even though intervening rows of purl by necessity exist. I’ve also seen it used very infrequently to mean “continue working in established pattern,” but that’s rare. More often the term work even was used in that context.

Another alternate usage – purls were sometimes referred to by the term seam, as in the instruction “knit two, seam two” to produce k2 p2 rib. This is probably a hold-over from early sock making, in which a column of purls on the back of the leg was used in imitation of a seam line.

Narrow – n, k. 2t, t,

The modern equivalent of narrow is K2tog – the standard right leaning decrease. Sometimes this is written up as K2, with the “tog” part of K2tog being left out entirely. Older patterns did not use SSK. Occasionally they call out a SSK equivalent of “slip one, knit one, pass slip stitch over” (see below) but most often they don’t bother with a left leaning decrease, and use K2tog, even when the cognate would be visually more balanced or appealing. Close inspection of accompanying illustrations reveals that the knitters did employ K2tog for almost all decreases. Less frequently this decrease is referred to as together (t) or knit 2 together (k. 2t.).

One unusual notation on narrow – a couple of patterns I’ve seen use n followed by the note “by slipping the needle through the back of the stitches.” This does sound a bit like a proto-SSK. But unless otherwise modified or explained, it’s pretty safe to assume that any n means k2tog.

Slip – s

Another movement that’s pretty standard. Unless otherwise modified, slip in historical context means slip purlwise – transferring the stitch from the left to the right hand needle without changing its orientation.

Slip and bind off – sb, sbo, sl&b,

Another historical way of referring to the left leaning decrease or SSK equivalent, this refers to the s1-k1-psso unit.

Over – o, th, w, tho, th. o,

Yarn overs or eyelet producing increases – still a source of multiple terms today – have even more names if you go back through time. I’ve seen YO referred to as over (o), throw (th), throw over needle (tho or thn) eyelet (e), widen (w), make (m), put over (po), yarn on needle aka yarn over needle (yon), wool round needle (wo, wrn, won).

Special note on double YOs. Most of the time modern patterns use a multiple-unit YO if a really big eyelet is needed. But in historical patterns when YOs were used to make columns of fagot-stitch lace, it was common for the YO that formed them to be specified as a double yarn over, probably because of the yarn manipulation used to create them needed to allow for a subsequent p2tog. If a pattern with fagoting calls for a double yarn over but the stitch count on the subsequent row doesn’t account for the additional new stitch (or doesn’t mention dropping it), it’s a good indication that a modern redaction will call for only one YO and not two.

Make – m

This can be problematic. It’s on the previous list as a euphemism for YO, but it is also used in historical patterns for invisible increases – where an additional stitch is added without creating the eyelet hole formed by a YO. Modern “make” is usually interpreted as a raised bar increase, although other forms of adding a stitch like knitting into a stitch on the row below are also sometimes used. A bit of close examination of any illustrations or even experimentation may be called for here. The term made stitch is also sometimes used to indicate the new stitch formed by a YO in a previous row – especially when more than one YO created multiple adjacent loops on the needle.

Purl two together – p. 2 t., p2to, pto

Purl two together was a very common instruction, especially when columns of fagoting style lacy knitting were used.

Crossed knit – c, t, b, tw

Crossed knits are modern twisted knit stitches, produced by knitting into the back of a stitch (ktbl). I haven’t seen a historical pattern that includes a purl through the back of the loop (ptbl), but that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist.

Now with all this set out, I can graph up the diamond insertion from the Delineator. It starts out with a cast-on of 23 stitches. It includes double YOs, but all double YOs are followed by p2tog units, producing the columns of fagoting in either side of the center design. I’ll show the progression from as-described rows through modern notation.

First, as written, preserving the double YOs; without flipping the wrong-side rows in accordance with the modern charting convention of showing the work as it appears on the front (public) side; and without centering the rows or norming the chart to have parallel edges we get this: (click on images below for larger versions):


We quickly see that stitch counts vary from row to row, although the pattern is more or less internally proofed because wrong side rows do contain the same number of stitches as the right side rows that preceded them. We also see that the double YO followed by P2tog problem is here. Were those YOs to each be “real” each following wrong side row would need to be two stitches longer, and the lacy effect would not be achieved.

Other features of this pattern are pretty straightforward. YOs are YOs, whether they appear on the front or reverse side rows. The K3tog unit only shows up on front (even) side rows. P2tog when seen from the back is a plain old k2tog, so that’s also easy to flip.

So. Norming the presentation so that wrong-side rows are shown using the correct right-side row equivalent symbol, and isolating the side columns of fagot stitch, and consolidating the YOs we get:


I’ve gone through all of this not only for the fun of sharing, but also because I am using this particular pattern to knit up a new quick lace scarf. I’ll edge the thing out with something complementary, but for now, here’s how it looks:


Knit somewhat overscale in Swift River Prescott on US #8s, one panel of this lacy pattern is perfect for a scarf – curl-free and totally reversible!

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One response

  1. Thank you for these analytical posts. I’m going to try the Leftover Socks idea for sure. Anyway, about lace–I had trouble with one of the laces in Sowerby, and what I learned from your last set of lace posts came in very handy.

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