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. Kate Reay says:

    Back when I started knitting, I considered anything above garter stitch to be run-away-scary. That was about six years ago.

    Today, I consider a Bohus pattern — including that lovely trick of carrying three colors, one of them purled, along a single row — to be a piece of cake. The same with Fair Isle (Knitty’s Fair Isle 2010 Hallowe’en tam took me eight hours. Don’t ask how many colors.), Arans, ganseys, and so on. As a side effect, a fellow knitter, one who specializes in socks, regularly calls me a brat because I do color work she hasn’t yet worked up the nerve to try. (I contend that if she can handle a magic loop sock, she can certainly do color work.)

    My suspicion is that Ravelry members (yes, I am one), and in particular those who post details about their projects (e.g., pictures), being a self-selected crew, are going to rank most projects as easier than the average bear for exactly the reason Colleen has pointed out: if I can do it, it can’t be that hard.

    Although how you account for that self-selection bias is a good question.

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  2. Tracy says:

    I think Sarah needs to apply to grad schools for statistics and/or psychology when the time is right. Impressive thought process–Sarah acknowledges flaws in her analysis but still provides much that is thought-provoking.

    On a personal note–I too rarely rate patterns. I have occasionally seen that a pattern *I* consider difficult has not been rated as such by other users and the process of cognitive dissonance takes place (which is what Sarah hints at). Fascinating!

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  3. Neil says:

    Derailing, I know, but I misread the headline as “A Young Reader Asks: Is There an Elitist Oligarchy in the Underworld of Kittens?” which would have been a very different article.

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  4. Casey says:

    Tiny clarifications related to some of the early comments above: You are only able to rate when you’ve added a project to your notebook (the showcase of your work). The ratings are not anonymous since your choices are displayed along with your photos and other shared information.

    Ratings aren’t a core Ravelry feature but people do use them. About 150K users have given star ratings and/or difficulty ratings to patterns and we have about 1.7 million ratings in total. You could definitely do some interesting things with that data.

    Sarah, if you are out there and more data interests you, I’m Ravelry’s co-founder and I’d be happy to provide what I can. I’m casey on Ravelry and @caseyf on Twitter.

    Nice work :)

    PS – don’t read too much into Quantcast. It does show that 4% of users rack up large numbers of visits but the people who visit the most don’t necessarily utilize the craft-related aspects.

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  5. RLJ says:

    Nice article – it stands as one of the few longer pieces posted that I’ve read all the way through without skimming. Of course that just might mean that I’m a knitter and a member of Ravelry so I’m interested reader.

    I do have to comment on how hobbyist rate their skill level. One caveat, while I’m a knitter, my main interest is in needlework (embroidery). When discussing if a piece is too hard for someone at a certain skill level it is very subjective. I’ve seen a lot of people tackle a “simpler” project and have them give up on it since it bored them. However, the same level of beginner can tackle a harder project and have success, mostly because they are attracted to the final product and are more motivated to succeed.

    But then again, what do I know – my first canvas work piece was rated intermediate to difficult and I chose every option to make it more difficult for myself. And I love it – every moment of working on it and looking at the progress made.

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  6. James says:

    Though I know nothing of knitting (beyond occasionally wondering how on Earth anyone could have ever invented the art), I do know a great deal about computers, and so I think Ms. Johnson betrays herself when she writes “…but many are administered by older users to whom the language of computers will always be a foreign tongue.”

    Now I hate to tell her this, but what (most) young folks think of as the language of computers is in fact a complex of layers purposely invented to help inexperienced people cope with something they’re not yet able to handle. I suspect much the same is true of those crochet patterns, and when she gains more experience she’ll look back at this piece (thoughtful as it is) with a degree of embarassment for her youthful inexperience.

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  7. Dan says:

    I know nothing about knitting or crocheting, but I loved the clarity, intelligence, curiosity, and style of this letter. I hope you encourage Sarah to periodically check in at Freakonomics. She is interesting, has a gift for writing (and thinking), and will be hugely successful at whatever she does.

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  8. Christy says:

    Great analysis, Sarah.

    One of the most challenging things I’ve ever made was also done from an excellent pattern. Even though making this sweater was difficult and stretched my knitting skills, the pattern gave me the necessary tools to make a sweater that is often mistaken for being store bought. I do notice now though that I’ve noted neither the difficulty or the rating of that pattern in my Ravelry notebook.

    Sarah is bright and has a great academic future ahead of her. I hope she keeps crafting as well!

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