What do Difficulty Ratings in patterns really mean?

Something has been bugging me for years in the fiber arts world.


When submitting a pattern to a print or online magazine, or even when submitting classes, I’m often required to give a pattern or class a difficulty rating. But how helpful are these ratings, really? What constitutes a “beginner” pattern? I think we can all agree that a knit and purl stitch, casting on and binding off, and knowing how to increase and decrease are beginner concepts. You can’t really make anything other than a scarf without knowing how to increase and decrease. But what about a m1. What about (k1, yo, k1) into the same stitch? It’s AN increase, but it seems to be more in the realm of intermediate. The distinctions between these rankings (even when you use a non-standard system and give it a breakdown like knitty does) are still pretty subjective.


In psychological fields, there’s a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It basically boils down to people not knowing how much they don’t know. A beginning knitter who feels confident with a few increases and decreases probably doesn’t even realize things like tubular cast-ons, short rows, entrelac, and brioche EXIST to know that they don’t know them. So a beginning knitter might even be able to knit a sweater and count themselves an expert.


But a more accomplished knitter with more experience of what is possible might count themselves as Intermediate since they haven’t tackled a steeked, stranded, handspun opus yet.


Granted, this is not an in-depth exploration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That’s not what this is about. But when considering the under-defined difficulty ratings in this light it makes them much less useful. In an attempt to let you make your own decisions I’ve been including Techniques Used in my pattern descriptions.


My hope was that this will allow makers to assess their own skills and comfort levels. If you are looking for an easy going project and not a challenge, and you know how to do all the things in the techniques used section, you should be good. And if you know how to do most of those things, and you’d like to learn a new skill, then you still might go for it.


I’m wondering if this is really enough though. Maybe I need a highlighted area that includes techniques used as well as links to tutorials. What do you think? What information is most relevant to you in regard to difficulty ranking?


Comments 12

  1. Sami wrote:

    I find difficulty ratings generally unhelpful. It basically boils down to, “Well, it’s easy if you know how.”

    I *do* like it when designers include techniques used, as that allows me to judge “if I know how” and if I feel like doing those things for this particular project. I also like a general summary of how something is worked, especially for paid patterns–e.g. “Top down sweater, worked seamlessly, etc, etc….” Thanks to every designer who does that!

    I think what *is* useful is having some idea of how much help is given in the pattern. For example, Tin Can Knits’ Simple Collection–some people might consider socks to be non-beginner territory, but the way TCK basically holds your hand the entire way through, makes it totally beginner-possible.

    Right now I’m knitting Jane Richmond’s Fireside pullover, which I would *not* consider a beginner pattern, even though it’s really not hard. It’s just that you need to understand certain concepts like picking up stitches and continuing ribbing by doing “p1k1” even if the pattern says “k1p1.”

    Posted 04 Jan 2017 at 10:32 AM
  2. Mim wrote:

    That’s a really good point. That has me thinking that maybe a pull box explaining what is explained and what has tutorials, etc… would be helpful.

    Posted 06 Jan 2017 at 10:31 AM
  3. Margo wrote:

    I ignore ratings because it more the style of pattern writing that makes a pattern easy or difficult for me. Knowing what techniques are used is more helpful.

    Posted 05 Jan 2017 at 6:42 AM
  4. Christine wrote:

    I agree so overwhelmingly with Sami that it’s worth commenting to say that I do. I purchased a pattern where the designer explained that she wasn’t going to rate it, because it’s so subjective, but don’t worry, she’d taught people to knit so that they could make this pattern, and they were doing it in a week. But the instructions as written out required a fair bit of knowledge of how knit fabric was constructed (and/or knowledge of how various stitches are conventionally done). Once I figured it out, sure it was easy, but I feel sorry for any beginners who bought that pattern and tried to figure out what to do.

    Posted 06 Jan 2017 at 10:12 AM
  5. Sarah wrote:

    I found out that people way overestimate their abilities when I was hiring contract crocheters. Many rated themselves “experienced” but had never made anything more complicated than a bulky yarn afghan in sc. One proudly told me that she was qualified because she had made the exact same afghan pattern three times in different colors of yarn.

    Posted 06 Jan 2017 at 11:26 AM
  6. Katharine wrote:

    Consider the life of a knitter before the internet. A pre-internet knitter would be limited to the knitting knowledge available in the immediate community: the books available at the public library and other knitters in the community. Unless a book or individual with the knowledge was close at hand, that knitter wouldn’t have access to information on, say, Estonian lace.

    You raise a great point about beginning knitters and “you don’t know what you don’t know”. What’s remarkable about our modern age is that anyone with a computer and a decent internet connection has the access to the educational materials necessary to learn almost anything they want to know about knitting.

    And so, the modern knitter is no longer bound by what s/he knows, but what s/he has tried, and their capacity to learn.
    I’ve never tried entrelac, but I know that I can find a tutorial about it if I want to learn how it’s done.

    Posted 11 Jan 2017 at 10:21 AM
  7. Jill Wolcott wrote:

    Miriam and others, you might like this post from my blog on 1/26/16. http://bit.ly/2jkE0Pk

    Also this one written on 12/22/15. http://bit.ly/2j99fiX

    I think this is an area that could use so much improvement! My idea is always that ratings (in my patterns!) refer to certain sections–and that other parts of the knitting might not quite match that level. That said, I have also become critically aware that it is all relatively easy and/or so interesting to me that I do not think much is difficult, so my ratings might not be completely accurate for an average or even above-average knitter. I’m not necessarily a better knitter, I just pay way more attention to the ins and outs of it.

    Posted 11 Jan 2017 at 3:21 PM
  8. Mary Johnson wrote:

    I make my decisions about what to knit not on pattern ratings but on reading the techniques used section. I don’t think links to tutorials are necessary for the most part unless it’s a unusual technique or you think there’s a particularly good one that shows the technique well. It’s easy enough to google a stitch or technique and find videos or tutorials if I have a question about how to do something.

    Posted 11 Jan 2017 at 5:19 PM
  9. Judy Phillips wrote:

    I generally pick a pattern BECAUSE it challenges me in some way (not that I don’t like a bit of restful TV/car/waiting room/social knitting as well). So I do like it when a pattern gives some indication as to the techniques used. I think you can also give some indication as to where the pattern falls within a certain skill set. For example, “if you have been wanting to wrap your head around brioche stitch, this pattern is an easy introduction to the technique.” vs. “If you’ve worked brioche before, this pattern will be a fun challenge to level up your squishy knitting skills.” The latter lets newer knitters know that this pattern might be a bit over their heads, but hey–go work that scarf or cowl pattern first then come back to this one when you’ve got a bit of experience under your belt.
    That said, links to good clear video tutorials can make fairly complicated patterns much more accessible to adventurous beginners!

    Posted 11 Jan 2017 at 10:01 PM
  10. Jennifer wrote:

    I do like if an experienced designer rates a pattern – I’ll trust that judgment. The ratings by the users, such as in Ravelry, I’m more suspicious of because it’s from the point of view of the user. A master knitter might think a 4-color stranded hat is a piece of cake, but me, as a new knitter couldn’t hope to accomplish it.

    Linking to sources of assistance in the pattern or info page is very helpful!

    Posted 25 Jan 2017 at 10:15 AM
  11. tully wrote:

    Adding the techniques used in a pattern is a fabulous way to let people judge their own level of comfort with a pattern. I have been knitting for 40+ years but am constantly learning new things (one reason I join MKALs and KALs-I always learn something new).

    Posted 28 Jan 2017 at 9:08 AM
  12. Kristi wrote:

    I do favor “techniques used” with sidebars for anything that’s unusual (in Sami’s case it should be called 1×1 rib and a sidebar should explain how the increase is worked and that there will be an extra stitch 3 sts in from the edge for 6 rows or whatever). Something like a cable cast-on can easily be looked up (or if it’s published electronically and you have a link, you can provide it).

    I think an upfront description of “If you are familiar with these skills you’ll be fine. There’s a little tricky spot at this point, so set a safety line/use markers/check out this video/get a good night’s sleep before you start this section if this is a technique new to you.” can be helpful.

    But keep the pattern itself as clean as possible (as you do!). No one wants to print a twelve page pattern for a hat… I certainly don’t want to read how to cable without a cable needle in the middle of the pattern. Useful, helpful, nice, but I just want the basic info if I’m trying to knit on the train.

    In a collection of patterns, a book, or a magazine, as long as one person is setting the difficulty ratings _consistently_, it can make sense. “Of these 20 patterns, which one should I start with as a new knitter?” But if 20 different designers have assigned the ratings, it’s much more fraught. Is working a sweater top-down in the round easier than doing pieces and seaming? Is knit-purl patterning harder or easier than colorwork? Are charts or written directions easier to follow? That’s completely subjective.

    Guess I have thoughts on this 🙂

    Posted 06 Feb 2017 at 3:48 AM

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