Inside and outside the red box

Inside and outside the red box
A Bold Beginner Knits tutorial for the Footfall shawl

Many hand-knit designs – for everything from lace shawls, to Fairisle hats and cabled pullovers – use charted pattern repeats – which often appear within a red box. The red box is, I think, one simple reason why some beginner knitters, or those who may have been taught to knit from written instructions, avoid charts entirely. What does the red box mean? Why are there stitches outside of it? What do you do with those stitches?

I much prefer to use charts both as a knitter and a designer: as a knitter, charts help me to quickly memorise and visualise a pattern. I can immediately see that my knitting looks like what is happening on the chart, and when I make a mistake, the visual cues of the chart help me to spot what went wrong, and fix it.

Being able to visualise fabric is just as important for a designer, and personally I find it is much more straightforward to do this from a chart that actually looks like what I am attempting to create than from a string of random-seeming signifiers: yo, k4, k2tog, p2b, C4F. I think of looking at a chart as being just like looking at a map when taking a walk: it’s so much easier to visualise where you are going from a map than to trace a route through an involved series of written directions. And for a designer, the other issue with written instructions is that they can be notoriously error-prone. A simple typo, a missing ( , or * might introduce ambiguity, or entirely mess up the instructions for a row, resulting in many unhappy knitters.

Let’s use my Owligan pattern as an example. Here, it’s clear to see how much the knitted fabric (above) and the chart (below) resemble each other The owl chart looks like a knitted owl. And from the charted symbols, it’s very easy for me to understand exactly which way the cables twist, and where the purl dots that make up the owls eyes should be situated. The chart helps me to see what’s going on with my knitting, and to understand it, and the better I understand my knitting, the easier fixing it will be if things go wrong.

So what is the red box on the Owligan chart telling you to do?

The red box is a pattern repeat. It’s telling you to repeat the stitches and rows within its red lines a certain number of times. You can see that the owl pattern repeat is made up of 10 stitches, surrounded by the red box. Owligan is a multi-sized pattern, so larger sizes will work more red-boxed repeats than smaller sizes. If you are knitting the first size of the pattern, working from right to left on right side rows and left to right on wrong side rows, you’ll repeat the stitches in the red box 11 times, allowing 11 owls to appear on your cardigan.

But hang on, what about those extra 2 purl stitches sitting out there on the left hand side of the chart?

(A wee owligan – or Wowligan)

Owligan is a symmetrical cardigan, with left and right sides balanced around the buttoned front opening. But the owl repeat is not symmetrical – it begins with the 2 owl-dividing purl stitches, but doesn’t end with them. So in order to balance and centre the pattern around the front opening, after repeating the stitches inside the red box for the number of times specified for your size, you complete the row by working the last 2 stitches outside the box once.

To explain this from our example, working the Owligan’s first size, you have 112 stitches on your needle, so you work the 10 charted stitches inside the red box 11 times (110 stitches) and the two balancing stitches outside the box once (112 stitches in total).

This principle of knitting inside and outside the box is the same when you are making a triangular shawl – where a central spine imposes symmetry on the fabric in much the same way as the front opening of a cardigan.

So the basic principle of repeating the stitches inside the box as many times as required, and working the balancing stitches outside of the box just once per row is the same for a triangular shawl as it is for a cardigan. But there are a couple of crucial differences too.

First, in the chart for a triangular shawl, the number of rows within the red box are repeated as well as the number of stitches and second, the overal stitch count increases with each pattern repeat. Here’s a simplification of the Footfall chart. The yarnovers on alternate (odd numbered) rows allow your stitch count to increase, your shawl to grow, and enable you to add in additional chart repeats in accordance with your expanding stitch count.

Take a moment to look at the chart. When you first begin to work from chart row 1, you’ll start with the 2 right edge stitches, then a yarnover (which increases one stitch) and some balancing stitches, followed by 1 repeat of the red-box stitches, then balancing stitches and another yarnover. After working the single spine stitch, you’ll continue mirroring the fabric across the shawl’s left side, working yarnover, balancing stitches, 1 repeat of the red-box stitches, balancing stitches and a final yarnover, concluding the row with the 2 edge stitches on the left side of the chart. By working 4 yarnovers across the row you’ve increased 4 stitches. Working back and forth in this manner, you’ll complete rows 2-8, increasing 8 stitches on each side of the shawl and 16 stitches in total by the end of row 8.

Those increased stitches mean that another repeat can be added in to each side of the shawl next time you come to begin knitting from the chart again. So you’ll be working the stitches inside the red box twice on your second pass of the chart, three times on your third pass, and four times on the fourth occasion.

Each time you work 8 rows, you add in an extra 8 stitches to each side of the shawl.
Every time you begin the chart again, you’ll repeat the 8 stitches in the red box one more time.

So to summarise, the Footfall pattern repeats over 8 stitches. Each time you complete the chart, your stitch count grows, and you are able to add in further pattern repeats. When following the chart, the stitches inside the red box remind you of how your knitting repeats itself and help you to visualise the pattern. The stitches outside the box, which are worked just once on every row, ensure that the fabric of your shawl remains balanced and symmetrical.

If you are wary of charts and chart repeats, I hope this tutorial has helped you to think inside and outside of the red box. And if you are knitting the Footfall shawl and still feel mystified, just try casting on the pattern and returning to this tutorial when you have the stitches on your needle and are ready to work the charts.

Happy knitting