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. Annie says:

    This is an excellent piece of work for an 18 year old. She has hit the nail on the head as I see it. The over 50′s (of which I am one) do have some trouble with technology, although this is a generalisation, of course. Regarding the Ravelry statistics she has again got it right. The more experienced of us knitters and crocheters do tend to rate patterns in a different way to how a beginner would.
    Congratulations Sarah Johnson, if you keep this magnitude of work up you really won’t have any problems in you career.

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  2. Natalie says:

    I can think of another explanation (possibly already mentioned int he comments, which I haven’t perused). As a Ravelry user, I tend to rate patterns as a last step after I have completed them. As with any task, once you have mastered it it seems far less difficult than it does when you are first learning it. If I rated the patterns while I was actually working on them, I’m sure my difficulty ratings would be consistently a few points more higher.

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  3. Tonya says:

    I think it’s that most of the people on Ravelry have been knitting or such for a fairly long time. Honestly I have been knitting obsessivly for 10 years or so and have found few of the patterns on the site difficult. There are still a few techniques that I haven’t tried, but that doesn’t daunt me.
    Lastly I think that this stuff realy isn’t that hard, it’s peoples perceptions and fears that make them think it’s hard, thusly keeping them from trying new things.
    So is it skewed? Possibly, or it realy just isn’t that hard!

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  4. H says:

    I read this whilst attempting to get an updated figure on Ravelry’s current (as of July 2012) membership and usage figures. I’m not even going to pretend that I understand even half of Sarahs analysis, but as an avid (and I flatter myself, advanced) crocheter it came off as a little alarming!

    I think on the surface of things 2 points may skew the numbers and therefore show a false representation.

    1. I myself and several other crafters I know tend to rate everything on the ‘easy’ side in an effort not to put others off, unless theres something particularly awful about the pattern whereupon it gets a high difficulty rating and/or a low quality rating depending on the fault. Often the slating of the pattern is compounded by the ‘ugh’ or frogged status in the projects section – giving up on a project and unraveling to use the materials for another item (frogging) is often the only prompt to rate negatively. Its also important to remember that difficulty and pattern quality are two different things – a very well written pattern can be given for a ‘tv watching’ stitch or item and a difficult stitch repeat or tricky shaping can be made breezy or utterly obtuse by the quality of the designers description.

    2. Most of the time crafters dont bother to rate at all – not certain of the reasons but they could include – laziness, viewing ratings as unimportant or not essential to their hobby (some use the site purely as a visual record), or not trusting their own opinion.

    I think the not trusting your own opinion is the crux of the matter. I know myself (through interacting with others) something I did and found very simple and straight forward proves confusing, difficult or nigh on unfathomable to another crafter, regardles of their abilities or experience (and I know many crafters far more experienced and technically able than me) and vice versa.
    Many, I am sure, have experienced this from both perspectives, and so i think there is a natural hesitency to pronounce a particular pattern either difficult or easy to any extreme.

    I feel that without knowing another crafters experience, area of interest, technical inclinations and aesthetic taste, a rating system of this unsophisticated nature is always going to give false reflections.

    Its alwaysworth remembering as well that crafting is highly emotive and at the time of rating a maker may be influenced to rate more extremely than they would after calmer reflection.

    Or at least, i’m hoping that this is the case as if Sarah is correct, i fear (as one who finds little issue with most techniques and rates most things as easy) i’m lumped in with the Oligarchs and I dont like that idea one little bit.

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  5. EM says:

    This enthusiastic young woman seems to overrate her own crochet abilities, possibly because she is so demonstrably excellent in other areas. As a long-time Ravelry member and crocheter, her skills sound like those of an intermediate to advanced beginner. She does not mention being able to read charts, which really separates those who dabble from those who are expert. Making a few things in crochet is admirable, but there are many skills to learn, which can keep one engaged for a lifetime. At her young age, just as I myself was once, she has much to learn. So glad she’s on Ravelry, where there’s community, help and encouragement for all!

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  6. IsobelA says:

    I’m a Ravelry member, and I rate patterns relatively. I mostly knit lace shawls, and I rate them on a lace-shawl continuum. So, I’ll rate what (for a lace knitter) is a simple lace shawl as easy, but it won’t be something that’s suitable for a complete beginner knitter. I could rate it is as difficult, I suppose, but then that’s not actually going to be true for an experienced knitter…

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