Someone posted a question on one of the knitting eMail lists yesterday, asking why some people think that cables are difficult. Then I popped into the LYS and into a discussion on what criteria were used to assign difficulty levels to knitting patterns in magazines and books. Both things happening on the same day tossed me down another rat hole of thought.

I’m of two minds on labeling patterns with difficulty levels. The first and stronger opinion is probably a product of being a Child of the ’70s. I bare my teeth, hiss and spit if anyone so much as suggests that I might like to abide within a set of limitations defined by others. I see skill level labeling as an arbitrary fence that does more to keep people in than to let them out. I’ve seen far more people decide NOT to knit something because of an "intermediate" or "advanced" label than I’ve seen people who warmed to the challenge.

Who decides what’s advanced, anyway? I’ve looked at the Craft Yarn Council standards document. They define the levels this way:

  • Beginner – Projects for first time knitters using basic knit and purl. Minimal shaping.
  • Easy – Projects using basic stitches, repetitive stitch patterns, simple color changes, simple shaping and finishing.
  • Intermediate – Projects with a variety of stitches such as basic cables and lace, simple intarsia, DPNs, knitting in the round, mid-level shaping and finishing.
  • Experienced – Projects using advanced techniques and stitches: short rows, Fair Isle, more intricate intarsia, cables, lace patterns, and numerous color changes.

By this standard, most everything that’s not written specifically for a beginner is either Intermediate or Experienced. The categories are broad enough to have very little meaning, yet are widely used, appearing in books and magazines. Simple things like the 42-stitch hat are Intermediate just because they use DPNs and decreases. (I’ve taught little kids to knit and used this as their second project, after the ubiquitous beginner’s Garter Stitch Scarf).

I think a rating system like this encourages the perception that certain things are difficult. Knitting on DPNs, for example. I see people contort themselves in all sorts of ways to avoid using them. Cables and lacy patterns, too. It frustrates me to no end to see someone who’s an effective, insightful, intelligent person bleat out "But that’s way too hard," when confronted by anything new. Yes, I know that in knitting as in everything else, there’s a bell curve of ability, and not everyone can (or would want to) explore extreme knitting challenges like complex lace; but I think that people are capable of far more than they think they are, and only lack of confidence (bolstered by ratings so generously provided by "experts") keeps them bound inside a limited are that will eventually grow stale and boring.

But then my second set of thoughts squeaks weakly in protest. In a fit of overconfidence I may place myself more towards the leading pointy end of the bell curve; but there are lots of people in the belly and trailing end who are legitimately challenged, who labor on to the best of their ability but may never have the patience, skill, or perseverance to tackle something new. They deserve to be spared frustration, and so welcome skill level labeling so they can choose suitable projects. We then cycle back to my first reaction to such labels. It’s damn patronizing for any one entity to decide what’s beyond any one individual.

Case in point, I’ve got a knitting friend who is blind. She routinely does spectacular colorwork, and is currently working on the Pacific Northwest lace shawl (you can see Wendy’s magnificent version of it here). Difficult for sighted knitters? You bet. Extra difficult for her, working off a recording of the directions read out loud? You bet. But her determination to do it and to do it well trumps all difficulties, and that determination is only exceeded by the absolute joy she experiences from overcoming the challenge.

What would I like to see done instead? It takes more real estate on the page, but I’d like to see a more granular list of skills presented, especially for leaflet or broadside sheet patterns. Something like

Skills required: Increases, decreases, twisted stitches, cables, knitting in the round, reading a chart

That’s a lot more specific than "Intermediate." I can visualize someone reading that list ticking off the skills "Yup, can do, o.k., done that, fine; hmm – maybe this will help me get more comfortable with charts," rather than saying "I’ve just started, Intermediate must be too hard for me."

Yesterday’s Rant – Self Stripers

A couple of people wrote to say that they loved the stripers and didn’t want to see them go away. Neither do I.

I have lots of fun playing with them, too. But they’ve taken over nearly all the available retail shelf space around here, and there’s lots of shelf space, so that’s really saying something. I’d like to see self stripers stay available, and see new and playful reinterpretations of the theme. But I also would like to see more of the solids be available, too, to use by themselves, or in combo with the stripers (or other solids).

2 responses

  1. The link to ‘here’ doesn’t work anymore.

    1. I know. When I gave up wiseNeedle and migrated the blog here all the links broke. I have not gone back and re-linked them all. It’s on the “eventually” list. Apologies.

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