A Young Reader Asks: Is There an Elitist Oligarchy in the Underworld of Knitters?

A reader named Sarah Johnson, who is passionate about crocheting, noticed something curious about the demographics of a user-rated knitting-and-crocheting website called Ravelry. Sarah is graduating from high school in June, and plans to major in psychology and pre-med. She writes:

I joined a free site for knitters and crocheters called Ravelry. As far as a little Internet research goes, it’s one of the biggest knitting and crochet sites out there, with over 1 million members. CrochetMe, another big site with comparable features, has 224,000 users. Crochetville, a large crochet forum, has only 46,000 members as of today. 414,974 people like “knitting” on Facebook. By comparison, only 5,560 people like “crochet.” There are a number of personal knitting and crochet blogs and personal websites, but many are administered by older users to whom the language of computers will always be a foreign tongue. A young person, like myself, can just sort of tell that a site like Crochet Pattern Central was made by someone over 50, and that’s a turn-off (according to Quantcast, however, Crochet Pattern Central has more viewers). Ravelry has a fresh and engaging interface that appeals to my demographic. As far as I can tell, Ravelry is a giant walking among dwarfs in the world of online yarncraft. It’s a robust site that provides patterns; tutorials; social networking features; and news about knitting, crocheting, and related crafts. It allows users to rank yarns, needles, hooks, and other products; buy, sell, and trade yarn and supplies online; and form groups. It allows users to search for patterns, add them to a notebook, and then rate the pattern for difficulty (1-10) and quality (1-5) and upload pictures and notes on the project when they’re finished, all for free.

(For the sake of clarity, I’ll call the collected demographic of knitters and crocheters “handicrafters,” although this is like calling both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton “Founding Fathers” – they may work together sometimes, and some of their fans may overlap, but there’s still that element of rivalry.)

Crocheting and knitting are by nature localized, insular and disparate arts, with small, isolated enclaves of familial or local groups passing down their methods from parent to child, or mentor to apprentice. (Personal experience suggests that an overwhelming percentage of handicrafters are female, but I couldn’t find even the barest statistics to back up this claim.) The yarn store and the knitting magazine was the only connection the handicrafter had to the larger world of their fiber art. Yarn brands aggressively distributed free patterns, knowing (rightly) that their sales depended on their primary consumers (handicrafters) staying engaged with their craft. However, the Internet is changing all of this with sites like Ravelry. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that sites like Ravelry, and Ravelry in particular, are shaping the future of all handicraft.

So, why, then, on a site that contains 205,069 patterns, are less than 100 patterns user-rated as ‘difficult’?

Before I started trying out Ravelry patterns, I added a bunch to my notebook. I added one that was difficulty-rated at 7. I’m not the best crocheter in the world, but I figured I could handle a 7. I’m competent, and 7 is right on the tricky side of competent, right? Wrong. After doing several patterns, I realized that patterns that I considered devilishly tricky were user-rated as 3’s or 4’s. There were two possible explanations — one, I suck at crocheting. Entirely possible. Two, I’m a good crocheter — but almost everyone else is much, much better.

I took a look at the difficulty ratings of the site at large, and this is what I found:

Only 68 patterns in all of Ravelry were rated as a 9 or a 10! In what is essentially all of the handicraft world, less than 100 items are difficult to make. Sixty-eight is a statistical blip out of 205,000 patterns. Apparently, statistically speaking, nothing in the handicraft world is extremely difficult. As you can see, the bell curve of difficulty bulges hugely at 2, is greater at 3 than at 1, and decreases exponentially as the difficulty rating goes up.

What’s more, in the 9 patterns that were rated as a 10 in difficulty, all were given the 10 by a single user. If those nine users had never rated that pattern, no pattern would have been given the maximum difficulty rating at all. Maximum difficulty was not agreed upon by group consensus, but by the lone analysis of a single user. The 8 of the 9 crochet patterns rated at 9 were rated by one user. The one crochet pattern in the upper echelon of difficulty that was rated by two users was given an 8 by one user and a 10 by the other, which averaged to a rating of 9.

Even more interesting is how few patterns were rated poor in quality. The vast, vast majority of patterns on Ravelry that received any rating (41,861) received a rating of four or five stars (37,817). 90.3 percent of the patterns rated for quality on Ravelry are considered by users to be very good or excellent. (Crazily, 2 crochet patterns and 7 knitting patterns that had a 10 for difficulty still got 4 or 5 quality stars, presumably by the person who originally condemned it as impossibly difficult. I can’t imagine why the crafters were thinking ‘well, it was a miserably difficult pattern, but it was still pretty good.’)

I’m not sure what this data all means, but I’m quite sure that it means something. My admittedly junior analysis has unearthed two possible solutions. One, the vast majority of Ravelry patterns are, in fact, good and easy. You learn to walk before you learn to run, of course. Most handicrafters — and therefore, most pattern-writers — are at a lower level of difficulty. Even pattern-writers who could follow a difficult — difficult defined as 6 or greater — pattern feel more comfortable writing easier patterns. And a handicrafter who is capable of a 6< pattern might still do mostly 3-4 pattern work, just because they don’t like doing difficult work all the time.

The second theory is more salacious: that a large percentage — say, 65 percent or more — of Ravelry users are advanced or master handicrafters, and what they consider easy — in the 1 to 3 difficulty range — are, objectively, quite difficult. These master craftsmen and their subjective considerations of relative ease and difficulty are artificially skewing the ratings on Ravelry to make patterns that are objectively more difficult appear much less so. The master craftsmen — those who rate the most patterns, are most skilled and write the most patterns — have a skill oligarchy over the majority of beginner and intermediate handicrafters, who, because they do fewer projects and rate fewer patterns, are seeing their majority say in the ranking system diluted by a small group of hardcore crafters. (As possible confirmation, 4 percent of the users — addicts — are responsible for half the site activity, according to Quantcast. If that’s not the definition of oligarchy, what is? (The same report said that Californians are vastly overrepresented, but I digress.)

Part of my interest is pride. I would like to think that my level of skill is somewhere in the middle. I’m not doing Irish lace doilies or Aran sweaters, but I’m not making potholders, either. I’ve made a couple of afghans. I make hats and scarves of every variety. I can do cables, edging, openwork, granny square motifs and various textures. I’d like to think that my skill level is intermediate. However, patterns rated 5 for difficulty are completely untenable for me. A skill oligarchy — what other explanation can there be?

Maybe this is representative of a dilution or skewing of any user-rated product. Or maybe there’s a vast and shadowy underworld of niche markets like handicrafting, computer programming, rock climbing and marathoning, where a large percentage of those involved are highly advanced in their skill set. Compare, for instance, rock climbing with guitar playing. A high percentage of rock climbers are hardcore — serious hobbyists who dedicate overnights, weekends, long trips and thousands of dollars to their sport. Climbing magazines are written in such a specialized vernacular that they are nearly incomprehensible to the layman. Most guitar players, by contrast, are extremely amateur, know only a few chords, and play rarely (so good guitarists shine, and expert guitarists glow in a sea of mediocrity). Both are fun, but one fosters an obsession that burns brightly in a large chunk of the community, and one inspires only a mild interest. I don’t know what you’d call these activities that foster obsession and advanced skill in a wide percentage of their adherents — high-percentage hardcore pursuits, maybe? — but it’ll take an economist to unravel their mentality and the incentives that drive them.

Knowing next to nothing about crocheting or knitting, I have only two things to say:

  • I wish I had written and thought this well when I was 18.
  • I hope Sarah does become a doctor, because I think I’d like to be her patient.

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  1. Samantha says:

    I want to meet this girl.

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  2. Knit-picker. says:

    Others might find her rather crotchety.

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  3. flwrhead says:

    I think Sarah fails to account for the fact that many, many people on Ravelry simply don’t rate patterns. I often forget to, and I honestly don’t even look at a pattern’s difficulty rating when determining whether or not I want to knit it. Part of the reason for my accomplishments as a knitter is that I’ve never had anyone tell me “you can’t do that, it’s too hard for a beginner.” Ignore the ratings! Create what you want!

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  4. Colleen says:

    I’d like to mention another possibility: that the patterns are ranked based on activity on Ravelry, and only those who are extremely active rank patterns. I am mostly not active on Ravelry, though I maintain it as a record of my work. And I have never rated a pattern for either quality or difficulty. Generally, I have no opinion: if I finished it, it wasn’t too difficult, and only in extreme cases would I rate a pattern of poor quality.

    So I suspect your sample is self-selecting in a rather unique way, in that only those that are actively engaged in the *site*, not the craft, are having their opinions seen and quantified.

    I would also venture a guess that most people trend toward ranking high in quality and low in difficulty. Users who are active on Ravelry tend to have a higher number of completed projects (based on personal observation only) or are designers themselves. Those who craft more than the average crafter would tend to rate difficulty lower than others, due to familiarity (after all, there’s a limited number of ways to turn a heel, and after you do it three or four times, you won’t rate any subsequent iterations as “difficult”). Designers, I would suspect (no data to back this one up, except that I’m a designer) tend to rate patterns higher in quality, because they are familiar with the amount of work to bring the pattern to market, and tend to thus be more forgiving of errors.

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  5. DK1 says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  6. Mary says:

    Sarah has stumbled across a key point in understanding user ratings, namely, the experience or skil of the rater. Ravelry could improve the ratings feedback by adding an additional dimension during the rating process: require the user to rate their skill: novice, intermediate, experienced. This data would enable them to parse the data into more discretely defined categories. In this case, three distinct levels of rating scores more reflective of the underlying population, and more helpful to users.

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  7. Ian Kemmish says:

    I broadly agree with comments 3 and 4.

    It seems to me that if you’re unable to complete a pattern, you’re a) unable, and b) unmotivated, to rate it. So the set of people who vote would seem to be self-selecting in a number of interesting ways.

    Then there’s the emotional investment. Nobody likes to be thought a fool, so even though the vote are anonymised, it seems unlikely that anyone would vote for high difficulty and low quality (“I wasted months o this piece of crap.”)

    HOWEVER, people who vote on customer review sites don’t seem to have these qualms. Strip out the spam, and many (most?) of them are negative. The difference between hobby reviews and commercial reviews might also be one worth investigating.

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  8. CKinIL says:

    Sarah Johnson is very bright and curious and self-aware, I hope she brings these qualities to whatever profession she chooses.

    I also think she’s right that the master handicrafters have a skill oligarchy. When they reach a certain skill level, they’re able to more discretely identify the skills needed to complete different patterns and complete them well. Sarah may consider her skills intermediate now, but when she gets better she may decide that her intermediate skills were only about a third of what she’d ultimately like to achieve. The case of seeing how far you want to travel, arriving there and seeing farther.

    Perhaps Ravelry can have their members rate their own abilities (on some specific criteria such as how many projects completed, types of projects, etc.), and then the ratings of patterns can be sorted by raters’ abilities. Ravelry members can review the difficulty scores among the knitters and crocheters who are more likely to be at their own level, say beginner, basic, intermediate and advanced.

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