In my last post I laughed a bit about how almost all of the patterns on Ravelry are rated as “easy” by the people who knit them, and pointed out that everything is easy once you know how to do it. I also promised to write a post on how to decide whether a pattern is easy enough for you. To do that there are really only 3 things to consider.
1. Take an honest inventory of your skills.
Obviously, you need to think about what you already know how to knit (or crochet) – can you do the standard increases and decreases? Do you know how to cable? Yarn over? Change colors? Seam? Graft? There are also the sometimes less-obvious pattern reading skills to consider. Can you read a chart? Can you read the language the pattern is written in if there is no chart? Do you know what “work even” means? How about “work in pattern” or “work as established”? Do you always glance through a pattern for those “AT THE SAME TIME” instructions before you begin knitting? Do you know which decreases mirror which increases, and which decreases lean right versus left (this is useful for patterns like sweaters, which often ask you to “reverse shaping”). How well do you know these things? Can you do them without even thinking about it or does it help to have a tutorial pulled up on your laptop as a refresher? Are they totally, terrifyingly foreign?
2. Consider honestly how hard you are willing to work for this FO.
Knitting is not sports. You do not have to have a natural level of talent or athleticism to be a good knitter or to make amazing things. You do, sometimes, have to be willing to work hard and do some research. If you’d like things to fit you (or your recipient) perfectly, you’ll also need to be willing to do some math. So perhaps the most important step in deciding whether a pattern is the right difficulty level for you is how hard you are willing to work for it.
There is nothing wrong if the answer to this question is “not hard at all”. My grandmother crocheted the same exact ripple blanket, in varying colors, for the last 30 years of her life and was quite happy with it. There are plenty of totally beginner-friendly patterns out there if that’s where you decide your level of comfort will stay, and you’ll probably still be able to go decades without being forced to remake the same pattern. If you have a few more skills (particularly increasing and decreasing) that are totally natural to you, that expands your options even more.
Worth the work? Only you can decide.
Now, if you decide you are willing to put a bit of effort into a project, the next question is “how much”? Are you willing to learn how to cable, but want a pattern with a built in tutorial? Are you interested in knitting your very first (eek!) sweater, but need a pattern that will hold your hand through the process? Or do you already have a good collection of resources at home (books, videos, more experienced friends) to help you when you encounter an unfamiliar technique or phrase in the pattern? Are you adept at using the internet and happy to go diving through Google or YouTube for a tutorial? The world, my friend, is your oyster. It genuinely does not matter if you’ve never knit a single project before; if you are adventurous enough there is no reason your first project can’t be a colorwork hat (I know; I’ve seen it happen!)
3. Learn to make use of the information available about your pattern.
Even if you are buying a pattern online, and can’t actually see the pattern before you buy, there’s still a wealth on info out there about it. Publishers which put out a lot of patterns from a lot of different designers usually have some sort of difficulty rating system which is more reliable than knitters self-rating patterns. Some, like Knitty, still leave a fair bit of flexibility in their definitions. As a general rule, things that are entirely made of knits and purls, with minimal shaping, are “easy”. Add in some shaping, yarn overs, a few cables (either written out or charted), or more than one color on a fairly simple chart and you have an “intermediate” pattern. If you have lots of complicated, all-over cables paired with shaping? Huge charts full of every-row lace? A colorwork chart with 5 colors and an intricate, hard-to-memorize design? That’s an “advanced” pattern.
If your pattern doesn’t have a difficulty rating or you don’t quite trust the rating, consider the actual techniques being used and how much help is offered inside the pattern. Many independent designers, including myself, include a list of all the unexplained techniques in a pattern on that pattern’s Ravelry page (example). Almost every publisher and many, many designers also have lists of standard abbreviations (example), in case you run into an unfamiliar one mid-pattern. Looking at the photos of completed projects should also tell you a lot about what techniques will be in a pattern. Cables, lace, and colorwork are pretty obvious. Clothing in pretty much every form except scarf or rectangular shawl has shaping. If the clothing fits the model beautifully, it has lots of shaping and you will probably want to be willing to do some math to make it fit you just as beautifully. Some techniques, like brioche and entrelac (example, example) are harder to recognize if you are unfamiliar, but will usually be noted in the title or tags. Ravelry tags are definitely your friend.
If you want to try a new technique, but want a pattern that will walk you through it with an incredible amount of detail and reassurance, there are terms you can search for when choosing a pattern. Look for phrases like “first+(new technique)” or “learn+(new technique)”. Patterns that are published in (paper) magazines or on blogs are also a bit more likely to have detailed explanations of non-beginner techniques.
Use these to help you decide how difficult a pattern is BEFORE you knit it.
That’s really all there is to it. Sounds manageable, right? As a final note, especially if you know that you have strong preferences for something that isn’t standard (for instance, you absolutely must have your lace instructions written and not charted, or you find the phrase “reverse shaping” morally offensive), there are designers who think the same way as you! With roughly 15,000 crochet designers and 32,000 knit designers on Ravelry, someone will have the same preferences. Find a designer or group of designers who write they way you like and/or need, and patronize them frequently. Don’t worry about all those other designers out there. They’re not writing for you.