Difficulty levels for designers by Kate Atherley

LoveKnitting |

As part of our Designer Academy series, Kate Atherley shares her insight on difficulty levels, and how to show skills needed in your pattern writing…

Most patterns in magazines have some sort of statement of difficulty level. Some publications use a numbered scale – 1 to 4 (sometimes it’s a number of symbols, like skeins of yarn); others have names for the levels – e.g. “Beginner”, “Intermediate”, “Advanced”, “Expert”.

Although I am a firm believer in letting the knitter know what sort of knowledge a pattern might require – Do you need to know anything beyond beginner-level skills? Does it use any special techniques? – I don’t think that the traditional ways of doing it are particularly helpful. The motivation behind such ratings makes sense: it’s all about making sure the knitter is prepared for working the pattern. The problem is that it’s basically impossible to group techniques, patterns or knitters into just three or four levels.

There is no clear agreement on what constitutes a beginner’s level of skill.  For example, I have knitting books that start new knitters right away with the long tail cast on, and others that don’t teach this until much later on, starting novices off with the knitting-on or cable cast on methods. So does this mean that the long tail cast on is a beginner skill, or an intermediate skill? I’ve met knitters with many years’ experience who have never worked the long tail cast on: does this mean they are still beginners?

Consider something like lace: some categorize any lace as an intermediate skill; others would say that simple lace is appropriate at a beginner level, more complex lace at an intermediate level.  But what qualifies as “simple” lace? Even a distinction such as “one-sided” and “two-sided” isn’t helpful: a one-sided lace with a large repeat, nupps and changing stitch counts is typically more of a challenge than a two-sided lace with a straightforward 2-stitch repeat.

Simple lace with Anna N

And there’s no consistency in the level of skills a knitter might have: I know knitters who are very skilled with cables, but have never worked lace. Does this mean that they shouldn’t tackle a project marked “advanced”? There are many knitters who are highly skilled with projects worked flat, but less confident about working in the round – so even the plainest “beginners” hat pattern may test their abilities. There’s no single agreed-upon learning path for knitters, so even if they have worked lots of stranded colourwork projects, you simply can’t know what other skills they may or may not have.

Then there’s the issue of the knitter’s own perception of their skills. We’re often very hard on ourselves, and likely to underestimate our own abilities. Every knitting teacher has heard things like: “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly make socks. I hear they’re difficult, and I only know how to make sweaters.” I’ve had a woman wearing the most beautifully executed cable-knit cardigan tell me she doesn’t have nearly the experience to tackle a lace shawl. For beginners, the problem is sometimes the opposite: you don’t know enough to know what you don’t know, and therefore you can readily overestimate your abilities.

Then there’s the subtle judgement of ratings that are phrased in terms of skill level. More than once I’ve encountered knitters who’ve told me that they won’t consider a pattern marked “beginner”, even if the project looks interesting to them, because they feel it isn’t for them. And there are knitters who – despite many years of experience – would simply never feel confident to describe themselves as expert, and would therefore never look twice at a pattern marked “expert”.  (This is more common than you might think; knitters are humble.)

And even if we do know everything about the knitter’s skill set, and the knitter knows exactly their level, the level a designer assigns a pattern might still not be accurate. After all, designers are typically very skilled knitters, and will have a very different sense of what is difficult or taxing!

So how to communicate a “difficulty” level without framing it that way?

The clearest way to communicate the knowledge or skills required to successfully execute a pattern is to list them!

For example:

  • Knitters should be familiar with working cables and directional decreases.
  • This pattern assumes experience working in the round on circular and double-pointed needles.
  • This pattern uses the long tail cast on and lace pattern stitches.

(The list doesn’t have to be exhaustive, of course. It’s pretty safe to assume that if a knitter can work cables and directional decreases she’ll know how to cast on and off, and knit and purl.)

Of course, if your pattern provides a tutorial on a specific technique – or a reference to one – then this doesn’t need to be in the list. I have a brioche scarf pattern that’s written specifically for brioche novices, so the skills required list says that knitter must be confident with increasing and decreasing, but nothing more.

And if your pattern provides a specific tutorial, say so: “Brioche skills not required; this pattern provides a detailed tutorial.” This gives you an excellent thing to promote, allowing you to state that the pattern is ideal for knitters looking to learn a specific technique. Knitters are always looking for these sorts of patterns and projects.

No matter how you do it, making some kind of statement about what a pattern requires of the knitter is a win for everyone. The knitters are happier, as they’re better able to choose a pattern that meets their needs and be successful with it. And designers can be confident that they will see more projects completed, with fewer calls for assistance. And if the pattern offers tutorials, you might even make more sales.




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