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. MK says:

    I’m with you Stephen. I’m a professor at a law school and my students don’t write as well or with as much analysis as Sarah did.

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  2. Steve says:

    I wonder how many of the ratings are submitted by the companies that publish the patterns. If there’s a low number of ratings and a company has a few dozen employees with accounts, then “Difficulty = 2/10, quality = 5/5″ could easily be the starting point for that company’s patterns.

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  3. RJ says:

    I only have one real complaint about the analysis, and that is the assumption that a 9 or 10 Difficulty rating means “impossibly hard”, and thus means a negative connotation.

    I would argue that having something be ranked 10 Difficult and yet 4 Quality is not a contradiction. If we assume that the scale is meant to indicate the kind of handicrafter that the pattern is appropriate for (as was originally assumed), then a 10 Difficult would normally mean appropriate for a master handicrafter, who then believed that it was of high quality (and thus 4 Quality).

    My opinion is that, similar to many ranking scales, what is likely happening is as mentioned; many users are already skilled, and are rating based on objective experience. This is a result of the scale being poorly defined, which leads any Difficulty rating to be based on how hard it is to the individual handicrafter, and thus allowing for wildly variable results. If the community was more varied in skill level and participation (equally represented at all levels), you would probably find that average Difficulty would tends towards the middle.

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  4. Ayse says:

    There’s another explanation for why you find patterns ranked 5 impossibly difficult: experience. You are relatively young and new to the craft, and people who have been crocheting or knitting for a couple of decades will naturally find reading the patterns easier than you will. I find that a much simpler and more believable explanation than that there is an uberclass of handcrafters out there ranking up patterns just to make you feel bad about yourself.

    I am a lousy crocheter, for example — I need to have a cheat sheet of stitches in front of me as I work — but I have yet to find a crochet pattern of any difficulty on Ravelry that I could honestly rank as even an 8 in difficulty. Given time and patience (admittedly, two things I never seemed to have enough of when I was 18), I am certain I could make anything there, because I have decades of experience with reading and crafting in various forms, and that makes it easier. So as frustrating as it seems, practise does in fact make a difference.

    Also, I actually enjoy difficult patterns, and seek them out. So a pattern that I ranked as a 10 in difficulty I would also rank highly in quality. A very difficult pattern is not “miserably difficult” but delightfully so, an intricate puzzle to be worked out. If a pattern is so badly written that it is unworkable, I don’t give it a ranking on difficulty, because that’s not what I use the difficulty rating for.

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  5. JenW says:

    @CKinIL makes an excellent suggestion.
    My ability as a knitter slowly evolved and improved based on practice (not necessarily any special skills). Rating my expertise on my page would probably help in understanding why I might consider any particular project “easy” or “difficult.”
    It’s the label of “difficult” that I have trouble with. Perhaps “complex” is better. Or maybe “requires quiet time away from kids and pets”.

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  6. Eleanor (undeadgoat) says:

    I strongly suspect that these ratings have to do with the fact that on Ravelry you cannot rate a pattern unless you’ve at least started to do it, and that if people give up on a project in frustration they’re as likely to just delete it from their notebook or never update the entry again. I suspect that most of the projects that have been rated have also been finished, and a truly terrible pattern, or a very difficult one, is just more likely to be abandoned outright.

    Plus a lot of people don’t actually rate on difficulty, I am a knitter who tries to keep track of her projects on Ravelry and I don’t think I’ve even awarded many stars, let alone thought about a difficulty ranking, because I think that an objective difficulty ranking in knitting is not productive–it’s not that there aren’t patterns that are too difficult for an individual knitter at a given time, but rather that different things are difficult for different people, depending on aptitude and experience. So maybe skill rankings are just mostly given by knitters who only do easy patterns? I know I did a lot more rating when I was a newer knitter. I unfortunately don’t have time right now to go through the pattern search and test this hypothesis myself.

    The other thing about Ravelry being an oligarchy, though, is that all of the Ravelry users I know feel supported and enabled by that community to reach for the stars in a way that people who only buy patterns in booklets put out by the same company as the yarn never quite do. So maybe calling Rav an oligarchy is a little bit like calling the good local public school elitist, i.e., missing the point?

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  7. Kitten says:

    I don’t really believe there’s an oligarchy of knitters (though I do like the sounds of that – we often talk about what we’d do when knitters rule the world). I think the idea of difficulty and pattern quality are subjective, completely. A pattern for a potholder is ridiculously difficult if the instructions are poorly written, and a beautiful lace shawl can be relatively easy if the pattern is written well.
    In any case, knitting and crochet skills get better with practice, so Sarah should keep trying the 10s. I don’t consider myself an expert knitter or crocheter, but I don’t actually think there’s a pattern in existence that I couldn’t do, with enough time and concentration. (It’s just sticks and string, after all.)

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  8. jannabeth says:

    1) I love the fact that there is something about Ravelry here, even more than I love that knitting/crocheting is considered worth mentioning.

    2) Sarah’s insights are great. However, I think that part of the issue is that most knitters and crocheters consider themselves average, or lower, in skills. No one ever says, “I’m a great knitter!” Therefore, when they rank pattern difficulty, they figure that it wasn’t hard for them, and they’re just average in skill, so it’s not a hard pattern. I think this issue would hamper the idea other mentioned about having people rate their skills.

    Also, as others have mentioned, many people don’t rate pattern difficulty. I almost never do – but maybe I will now, and try to remember that, although my crochet skills are pretty basic, I am most like an above-average knitter

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