As so many knitters have done, so have I. Undaunted by language barriers, or the complexity of stitch patterns, we have completely fallen in love with Japanese stitch patterns and designs. The swatch on the left captures some of the details often seen in Japanese stitch patterns. The side border faux lace cables are bordered by columns of twisted stitches, and the main swatch is a combination of lace and texture.
Useful resources on Japanese knitting:
ABC’s of knitting is a Japanese website on knitting, with some sections in English. This is the most highly regarded source of information for English knitters wanting to learn about Japanese knitting techniques.
Gayle Roehm teaches classes on Japanese Knitting covering: how to read patterns; working Japanese stitch patterns; and resizing.
History of Knitting in Japan from the Knit Japan website in the UK.
Knitty article written by Donna Druchunas on “Japan Style”.
Knitty article written by Donna Druchunas “You don’t need to learn Japanese”, with lots of informative information on reading symbols.
Resizing Japanese patterns, by Pierrot Yarns
Donna Druchunas workshops on Japanese knitting.
Below is a reprint of an article I originally wrote for The Knitter Magazine, issue 17.
Enjoy! Marsha, Needle Arts Knitting
Japanese Knitting Patterns
One of the most captivating aspects of being a knitter is that there is always more to learn. Just when you are feeling quite clever and accomplished, you discover an innovative design or new stitch technique that amazes you. We have all felt that excitement at one time or another. Hold that feeling in your mind, then spin up the dial. This is how it feels when knitters immerse themselves in the knitting world of Japan. The exquisite stitches and well-designed garments have inspired many Western knitters to become “Adventurous Knitters.” I hope this article will encourage you to venture forth and discover the joys and challenges of knitting from Japanese patterns.
The attraction of Japanese knitting
Beauty, elegance and complexity define Japanese knitting design. These qualities have set knitters’ hearts aflutter worldwide over the past decade. It was love at first sight when I first saw the Japanese stitch dictionary, Knitting Patterns Book 250, by Hitomi Shida (currently out of print). The book has page after page of gorgeous combinations of lace, texture, twisted stitches and unusual techniques.
Then there was the discovery of stunning pattern books — the Let’s Knit Series, Keito Dama, and Knitting Around the World. More than books of patterns and instructions, they are beautifully photographed too. After more exploration I found many English-speaking knitters on the Internet taking up the challenge of knitting Japanese patterns. The attraction to Japanese knitting is a mix of enjoying the challenge of creating beautiful garments, working intriguing knitting stitches and techniques, and learning how to decipher schematics with Japanese symbols. There is also the element of the familiar in their work, as Japanese designers are often influenced by traditional Western knitting — including Fair Isle, Shetland lace, twisted stitches and Nordic knitting techniques.
History of knitting in Japan
It is not known when knitting first arrived in Japan. The arrival of many Europeans in the 1800s brought several European hand crafts, including knitting. The practice of knitting spread, and even Samurai warriors (as the need for their swords declined!) took up knitting needles to knit gloves, socks and more. There is a drawing of a Samurai knitting in The Sock Museum collection in Japan.
European missionaries in Japan established women’s colleges in the 1870s, hiring experienced teachers from Holland, Germany and England to teach hand crafts. They brought a rich tradition of knitting skills and stitch patterns into Japanese hands. As in Europe and North America, knitting in Japan took on multiple roles. It was a skill taught to children, a cottage industry for hand production, and a well-loved leisure activity that continues into the 21st century.
In the 1950s, publisher Nihon Vogue created a school where students study many different hand crafts for seven or more years to gain their teacher’s accreditation. It sounds like knitting bliss! The depth of knitting knowledge that is taught in Japan is evident in the beautifully detailed garments created by Japanese knitwear designers.
Japanese knitting designers
There are many talented knitting designers in Japan. The following are some I have found exceptionally inspiring. Click on the book links to view more of their work.
Yoko Hatta designs under her company name Kazekobo. One of her popular books, Fair Isle Knitting, is a colourful collection of sweaters in fine detail patterns and a mix of modern styling and classic garments – all stunning! You can browse and admire her prolific work at Kazekobo web site.
The well-loved stitch dictionary Knitting Patterns Book 250 (currently out of print), and the Knit Couture series are written by Hitomi Shida. Her design sense in combining lace, texture and fancy stitches is exceptional. Her most well-known designs (in the Western knitting world) are for the series titled Let’s Knit Series Couture. These elegant garments often turn knitters’ heads and are pivotal in inspiring them to take on the challenges of deciphering Japanese knitting patterns. View a selection of her designs knit by Ravelry members.
Designer Toshiyuki Shimada is the author of several knitting books, many of which feature a wide range of patterns and styles. He is a virtuoso designer creating complex Aran and Fair Isle sweaters, colourful mittens and gloves using traditional Nordic knitting techniques, and delicate Shetland style lace. His books include New Style of Heirloom Knitting and Vintage Knitting in Tradition (out of print but well worth seeking out). View a selection of his designs knit by Ravelry members.
Often referred to as “The Prince of Knitting,” Mitsuharu Hirose has written several books of beautiful garment designs including several Let’s Knit Series, and Tunisian Crochet. In addition to his well-known design work, Mitsuharu Hirose is also highly regarded as a passionate teacher of knitting, crochet and lacework. Visit the Prince of Knitting web site.
Japanese knitting connections
With Japanese knitting books becoming more widely available, Western knitwear designers and teachers have been greatly influenced. The book Knitted Socks East and West by Judy Sumner was inspired by Japanese stitch patterns. Canadian designer Dorothy Siemens incorporates Japanese stitch patterns into many of her Fiddlesticks Knitting designs. Japanese knitting technique workshops in the US are taught by Donna Druchunas (US) and Gayle Roehm (US). Accredited teacher Jean Wong (Canada) teaches the Nihon Vogue Knitting Certification Courses in British Columbia (BC), Canada. I am envious of the lucky BC knitters!
It truly is a wonderful time to be a knitter. I hope you are both excited and encouraged to try your hand at Japanese knitting patterns. It was Western knitters who originally brought knitting to Japan. Over the decades Japanese knitters have spun their magic with yarn and needles, and it is we who now have so much to learn from them.
Deciphering the patterns
To get you off to a good start working with Japanese knitting patterns, here are some key tips:
- Start with a simplified pattern which will help you to learn some of the basic chart symbols and pattern structure.
- You will be translating the chart into your own instructions, and a notebook will help keep your notes and figures organized.
- Go through the pattern charts noting measurements; find the key symbols for increase and decrease areas; read stitch pattern graphs; identify the pieces of the garment – everything you will need to translate and understand before you cast-on.
- Note that most Japanese patterns are given in one size, or sometimes two (and this is often a small size compared to North American sizing) so it’s likely you will need to resize – having a good understanding of the pattern structure will give you a starting point for this.
- After you have interpreted and knit a basic Japanese knitting pattern, the notes you made and the knowledge gained along the way will help you tackle that wonderful complex pattern that first caught your eye!