Difficulty Level In Knitting – Does It Exist?

Happy Sunday! I have a question for you today that I’ve been thinking about for a long time – is there a universal criteria to establish the difficulty/skill level for a pattern? I am finishing The Choice Cardigan pattern and I would love to hear your opinion about the difficulty aspect!

Cable Cardigan Pattern

Craft Yarn Council has Skill Level standards:

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

And they are certainly great to use as a point of reference when choosing your next project, but they can also be misleading for some knitters. For example, knitting in the round is considered as an intermediate skill level, but I know a lot of knitters who prefer knitting in the round to flat knitting, especially if it’s a garment and requires seaming. Mattress  stitch can be tricky to learn at first and bad finishing can ruin the project!

Fair isle is put into the experienced category, but again there are knitters who can knit fair isle basically with closed eyes, but will have trouble keeping up with basic lace or cable stitches. I, on the contrary, found knitting intricate cables cardigan from Vogue Knitting much easier than a simple fair isle cowl, just because I am more confident with texture than color knitting.

Ravelry also has the difficulty meter next to each pattern, which is calculated on the knitters’ evaluation, but once again – what was easy for one knitter, might be challenging for another…

And we can go on and go on…

In my head I divide projects into two categories: absolute beginner and non-absolute beginner projects 🙂 Absolute beginner projects are basically allow you to practice basic knit/purl stitches, have a better idea how they are formed and just become more confident in knitting them, also they introduce you to the understanding of the gauge and why it’s important. All the rest is very hard for me to put into categories. Some knitters love the look of the lace and will naturally choose lacy shawls/scarves/tops, becoming more and more confident in this technique; some admire fair isle yoke sweaters; some intricate cables that will stop being “intricate” for them very soon after knitting a dozen of cable projects…

So, my question is how do you choose your projects skill-wise? Do you need to see the skill level indicated in the pattern introduction or it’s not helpful and can be misleading? What kind of projects do you consider “difficult” or “easy”? I would really love to read your thoughts about it!!!


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45 Comments

  1. Alina,
    This is such a great question. I love it when designers list the skills needed for a project. That way, I can go through my own gauge of my skill-level. For me, skill is variable depending on technique: I can do complicated cables without too much trouble, but lace is still tricky. I love fair isle, but my tension isn’t optimal (yet!). When designers list things like 3×3 cables, lace, 2-color fair isle, YO button holes, provisional cast-on, 3 needle bind-off, etc, it gives me enough info to decide if I’m up for the challenge. Looking forward to your new designs!
    ~Melissa

    • Thank you, Melissa, for your opinion! Yes, I also think that listing the techniques is the better option. But here is the thing – if you list the techniques it means that the knitter is supposed to know these techniques or it means that he/she will learn these techniques from the pattern? The Choice Cardigan has a lot of photo tutorials and provides a lot of tutorial links to the techniques used, so I think that the difficulty level also depends on the pattern itself – if the designer presumes that the knitter is supposed to know these things, he/she won’t provide any tutorials; if the designer uses some techniques in the pattern, but presumes they are new to the knitter and provides step-by-step explanation, then the difficulty level also changes. So I guess the good thing might be to list the skills, but also mention what skills you should already have to knit this pattern and what skills you will LEARN from tutorials/explanation in the pattern.

  2. Very, very interesting – and I don’t know! It seems so subjective, and so dependent on the individual’s tastes and preferences. I’ve done quite a bit of lace knitting this year so feel less daunted by that, but cables still terrify me!

  3. Hi, Alina. I also do like Melissa, read what is written about the needed skills to do the project and then decide is it for me. The difficulty realy is very individual thing, to my mind.

    • Thank you, Aušra, for your thoughts! As I mentioned in the reply to Melissa, I also prefer the list of techniques used + the list of skills/techniques that are explained thoroughly in the pattern, so the knitter can have an idea what knowledge is expected from him/her and what skills/techniques used in the pattern are not required, as the pattern provides step-by-step instructions/photo tutorials for them.

  4. Interesting question.
    When I started knitting again I progressed very quickly from beginner to quite advanced. The most important for me was a clear pattern with little steps. I never read the whole pattern in advance, I just try to understand one row at the time and I hope I can trust the pattern that it will get me to the end. I learnt all kinds of different stuff right at the beginning, lace, cables, fair isle, shaping, sewing and as long as it was explained clearly I never found it very difficult. The most difficult is when a lot happens at the same time, when you can get lost in one single row which sometimes happens to me when a sweater is top down and there are many different things started. I will often consider a pattern difficult but by the time I’ll have to choose a difficulty level on ravelry it seems easy enough. What also really helps me are numbers all the time (how many stitches there are supposed to be on the needle after each row for example) and stitch markers, because then I can go from marker to marker if the whole row is too difficult.

    • Thank you, Corinne, for sharing! “As long as it was explained clearly I never found it very difficult” – this is exactly what I am thinking. If to think about it, there are very very few things in knitting that are actually difficult, but sometimes the instructions/explanation is not clear enough, that’s why you can get lost.

  5. so interesting! on the one hand, sometimes I want to learn or practice a particular technique (e.g. cable) and will search for a pattern accordingly, in which case the Craft Council difficulty level doesn’t matter, but it is helpful when the designer says something like “great for newer cable knitters.” of course, even those notes are subjective. I like your two distinctions: absolute beginner and not. confidence in techniques increase over time and I’m of the mind that any technique is learnable and it eventually becomes a matter of whether or not a person enjoys it or not.

    • Thank you, Syd, for your thoughts! I sometimes think there are just two types of people in knitting – people who don’t knit and potentially very experienced knitters 🙂 What I mean is if you know how to knit/purl, it means that eventually you’ll become very skilled in any technique that you are practicing. “Any technique is learnable” – absolutely agree!! As long as you need it/like it, one day you’ll be quite confident in it!

  6. I consider myself a fairly experienced knitter, so I never mind the difficulty of the pattern. But if I had to categorize patterns, I would put them into two basic categories: easy are the ones where gauge and fitting matter little or at least fitting is not so difficult to achieve like shawls, hats, socks, etc. And difficult are garments – sweaters, cardigans, dresses, where fitting is everything. To me an expert knitter is not one who can do intricate fair-isle or celtic knots, but who can choose a pattern for a specific figure and make it work and look flattering on that figure.

    • Thank you so much, Carmela, for the comment! Yes, projects where gauge/fitting is not crucial are more prone to success, but again it depends what a knitter is used to. I, for example, haven’t knit a single sock and for me any complicated garment will be easier to knit than one simple sock 🙂 But again it’s because I don’t like knitting socks, so I don’t pay much attention to sock patterns/projects, that’s why it is difficult for me. I am sure if I loved the idea of sock knitting, I would learn pretty fast. So, this is why I started thinking that difficulty level might be misleading for some people. I guess the best way is to just indicate what the knitter can expect from the pattern – what kind of instructions, explanations and tutorials.

  7. My opinion is that ‘skill level’ is meaningless. It all depends on how determined a knitter is, and what they love to do and what they might have a natural affinity for. Some people can rock cables right out of the gate, some never get the hang of it but have been knitting for 30 years. does that mean they aren’t experienced, from a skill level? I prefer it when patterns list the skills called for: short rows, cables, chart reading, seaming, etc. This is why when I do pattern previews for collections I always mention techniques. Then the knitter can decide what they already know, what they are willing to learn, or what techniques that they absolutely hate and won’t enjoy… conversely whether the knit is worth it and they are willing to do new things or techniques they know they don’t love!

    • Thank you, Julie, for your comment! I love your patterns reviews – you give amazing overviews! I was discussing it with Ioana, from Moeke Yarns, and she also said it – if the knit is worth it, knitters will be willing to take on a project, no matter the skill/difficulty level.

  8. Oooh what an interesting question. For me, I’d gauge difficulty according the the number of (non-basic) techniques required. E.g. A lace pattern that requires thought on every row (with no simple ‘just purl’ rows every other go) would be more complex than a simpler lace pattern. If you then needed to concentrate on shaping in pattern, then more complex again. If this was all for a garment where fit is essential and there’s lots of fiddly making-up required, then really it probably is at the most difficult end of the spectrum.

    I generally prefer to pick patterns which are listed as at least ‘intermediate’ for difficulty, because I expect them to keep my interest. I am more prone to make a mistake in an ‘easy’ but boring pattern than I am in one where I have to concentrate!

    • Thank you so much for sharing your opinion! “I am more prone to make a mistake in an ‘easy’ but boring pattern than I am in one where I have to concentrate” – hmm, that is so interesting to hear! I’ve never thought about it from that kind of point of view… Just proves that the difficulty level is a very subjective thing…

  9. When I just started to knit I used to let the difficulty meter guide my choice of projects. A few months in I chucked all that, I knit a feather and lace scarf; the woman who taught me to knit (she had been knitting for years) said that particular lace technique always tripped her up and she didn’t know how I wasn’t intimidated by it. I’m a knitter who’s never knit socks, but I could do a basic fair isle pattern and read a book at the same time. I love fair isle and I’m not sure if there’s anything that will stop me from doing fair isle patterns even one with an advanced rating although I haven’t been knitting long enough or done x number of knit techniques to be classified a knitter with advanced skill-set. So I guess all this is to say that I’m not sure how helpful the difficulty guide is — sometimes it stops crafters from being adventurous and pushing themselves. I definitely prefer patterns that list the techniques involved as opposed to listing a difficulty guide.

    • Thank you, Nicky, for sharing! “Sometimes it stops crafters from being adventurous and pushing themselves” – this what I was also thinking about!! Some knitters don’t know that they have all the skills needed for the garment that was marked as “advanced” and will not try it just because they don’t think of themselves as experienced.

  10. I like it when a designer lists techniques and stitches used. Sometimes I’m not in the mood for a certain technique and I also try to avoid thru the back loop stitches – I just don’t like knitting them. Skill level is too subjective. I love complicated lace and don’t consider it too difficult. I’m competent at cables but consider 1×1 cables more difficult than 6×6 cables. I don’t like ribbing and avoid it unless absolutely necessary. I also don’t like moss or seed stitch – I find them too tedious.

    Having this all listed in the description helps me decide if I want the pattern. Nothing is more annoying that buying a pattern and finding one or more of my disliked techniques or stitches. Then I have to decide if I want to knit it anyway, potentially not enjoying my knitting as much as I could or if I don’t knit it and waste the money I just spent. Or I have to adjust the pattern to not have to stuff I don’t like and if I paid for a pattern I’d rather not adjust it.

    • Thank you so much, Kyla, for joining the discussion! “Nothing is more annoying that buying a pattern and finding one or more of my disliked techniques or stitches” – this is a very good point. Yes, I guess the skills/techniques description should definitely be included in the pattern introduction!

  11. Well I’m an expert knitter so I can knit anything. But way back when, when I was learning to knit, I chose what I was interested in knitting and ignored the levels of difficulty!! I believe if there is a will there is definitely a way 🙂

    • Thank you, Karen, for sharing! “I chose what I was interested in knitting and ignored the levels of difficulty” – haha, it sounds sooo familiar! This is how I started! I could barely knit, but chose a complicated textured cardigan as my first project 🙂

  12. Some knitters don’t move very far beyond knit and purl, increasing and decreasing. However when you tell them that combining all four in a single row makes lace, a light bulb goes off. It did for me! Personally, I judge difficulty by my own skill set. I love knitted lace. I’m not crazy about double yarn overs because I don’t like large holes. I prefer charts. While I would rather have every other row a purl row, it’s not a deal breaker. So, what’s important to me is A: Great description of the project, type of yarn used, needles and gauge. B: Stitches used in project C: Quality of chart. Yes, I know you can make charts in Excel. But I don’t think they work as well. The symbols are not always universal to the published norm. D. Written instructions. Even with charts you need written instructions. I also like pictures if there is something unusual or out of the ordinary. Pictures are great for teaching a new technique. Some of us a visual learners 😉

    When I returned to knitting in 2004 after a 15 year hiatus (I was too busy sewing for a living), I said I would “never” knit on needles smaller than a size 10. I never would have imagined that my skills would have advanced to where they are now with lace knitting. Cables, I can do them, I just find fiddling with a cable needle a hassle and haven’t managed to do the non cable needle cable. Fair Isle…well I have bought three books.

    Sorry to be long winded. This is a very interesting subject!

    • Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for taking your time to write such a detailed answer! I really appreciate it! I agree about photos – they make everything so much easier. I am very visual myself and for me it’s definitely better to see the techniques, whether it is a video or photo tutorial. The written instructions with the combination of charts definitely make a knitter’s experience much more enjoyable!

  13. Fantastic question! I also prefer to look at the skills needed to complete this project rather than just the difficulty level. Then, if there are many skills I don’t know beforehand, I mentally prepare myself for a potentially difficult and frustrating project or to begin with a good detailed swatch and/or practising some of the unknown techniques beforehand!

    • Thank you so much, Susanne, for commenting! So may opinions in the support of the skills/techniques list! Will definitely put it together for The Choice.

  14. I think it’s a bit of a complicated matter, like you say what is easy for one person might be very tricky for others. My strategy for seeing if I can handle a project is not basing it on labels like ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’, but I check the tags of a project in ravelry. If there’s certain tags about a technique I’m unfamiliar with or not as confident with I’ll usually first do a bit of research before deciding to cast on. I do think in general knitting in the round is easier than stitching a project together. I was recently helping someone advancing their knitting skills a bit (she is a beginner) and advised her for a first sweater to make something in the round, but she in the end opted for a pattern that knits all panels separately. I honestly don’t think those patterns fall in a beginner/easy category, since messing up a little bit will make the whole project not match up.

    • Thank you, Tahnee, for your opinion! Tags are definitely helpful in Ravelry – they help to filter through so many projects! And I also don’t know why flat knitting is considered more appropriate for beginners, finishing is not that easy and as you say you have to be very precise, or it will be a mess! I remember knitting a sweater in pieces when I was just starting. I finished the back of the sweater and came back to the front only months later – my tension was completely different and the sweater looked very bizarre – the front was much looser than the back and the side seams were horrible!

  15. I do take a look at the level- but also at the general picture. I am not a beginner- but so far my projects are “simple”- simple baby mittens without thumb, hats, leg warmers, shawls… I would consider a sock or pullover something that is more difficult for me. Fair isle on the contrary is something I learned during the last year and I do not find it very hard. Lace knitting I never tried so far…. So it is a bit of a mix of both.

    • Thank you, Rahel, for your thoughts! “The general picture” is definitely worth mentioning as well. Sometimes the list of techniques can look so scary, but if you look at the garment you realize that it must not be that hard after all!

  16. I would never guessed that there are so many different opinions to such an interesting question!
    I have never looked the difficulty level in any pattern that I have knit. I believe it is far very subjective. I check the techniques needed and if I really want the finished product, I dive straight into it, even if I have to struggle. I have preferences of course and if I feel confident enough to change something in a pattern just because it would feel easier to me, I’ll do it but I’m almost always intrigued by learning new techniques. If there is a tutorial available or a link to one, it is more than welcome. But implying that I should know how to do something that perhaps it is part of another pattern, really annoys me.

    • Thank you so much, dear Zeta, for sharing! “But implying that I should know how to do something that perhaps it is part of another pattern, really annoys me.” – yes, very good point! This is why I think it’s better to provide too many tutorial links/photos/techniques explanation in the pattern than not enough!

  17. I always like to see a skills used section in a pattern to give me an idea of how difficult it is. I don’t usually look at the difficulty level.

  18. You pose a great question and I agree with so much of what you write. The ideas you’ve written about are the kinds of things that flit through my brain every time I look for a knitting pattern I might like to try. As a confident crocheter, it’s easy for me to see everything in crochet as simply being combinations of single, double and triple crochet stitches. And yet, it’s not really that simple. There’s a facility which includes knowing the the vocabulary and having a dexterity and understanding of how the stitches work that simply comes from experience. And it’s that ready facility that gives me the courage to try new crochet stitches, or to not overly concern myself with the difficulty level of the pattern. I know enough that I tend to think if I really want to make the thing, I can figure out what I don’t now. Or I can easily find the resources to help me with what I don’t understand.

    But that’s crochet. Being a beginning knitter, on one hand it’s often reassuring to hear that everything is built on knit and purl stitches. But not having the vocabulary down and feeling like I’m getting a terribly late start on growing the dexterity it feels somewhat daunting to commit myself to the time it will take to gain the experience that will give me the confidence to dive into a pattern that has techniques I haven’t yet mastered. That said, I keep plugging away, albeit slowly, and I while I look for patterns designated as “beginner” or “easy”, I also scan the pattern to see what vocabulary I still do not understand, or what techniques I haven’t a clue about. Many times I’m lost right out of the gate. I’ve finally concluded that for my sanity and enjoyment I’m not likely going to tackle a pattern that has more than one technique for me to learn. And I’m going to be good with this slow forward movement. I’ve also decided to embrace the idea of learning knitting simply for the sake of learning something new – as opposed to learning to knit so that I can create beautiful things. And I’ll just see where it takes me. Many more thoughts on the topic in my head right now, but I’m going to go read what all your other commenters have posted. Interesting topic!

    • Dear Becki, I don’t know what you define as late in life, but I did not start to knit again seriously until I was in my mid 40’s. I learned by building one skill upon another. Knitting with others who inspired me to try new things. Taking a class here and there. Now we have online class venues such as Craftsy where we can take classes online from some of the best knitting teachers. But really, the best teaching came from the local yarn store, its knitting group and the generosity of Knitter’s who love to share their knitting tips and tricks. As you build skills, the confidence follows. In no time you will be learning increases and decreases. BTW, Pinterest is a fantastic place to find techniques to learn. It’s where I found a link to Alina’s blog, Gift of Knitting. The Pin was to her Perfect Edge, and Perfect it is!
      I use is all the time now! (Alina, you are one of my favorite knitting blogs BTW!)

      • Thanks for the encouragement, Elizabeth. Just this past weekend, and today I’m working on a project that required me to join a new color and to learn what a slip stitch is and how to decrease and increase All of those things were fairly simple, but even a couple of weeks ago I would have just shrugged and said, “I don’t know what a slip stitch is” (in knitting), and not even tried to figure it out. Now I know! And I even fiddled around today with shaping a piece based off a picture and my new understanding of increasing and decreasing. That feels like huge progress to me. But boy, was it hard. FWIW, I’m 57.

        Another thing I’m realizing is that I have a sense in crochet what imperfections will pass for perfectly fine. I don’t have that sense with knitting yet and every imperfection seems to shout “What the heck went wrong here?!?” I suspect with more knitting time under my belt I’ll shrug off some imperfections knowing that there will always be some amount of imperfection and when taken in with the whole, one small thing really isn’t as glaring as it is to me right now. So more skill combined with a more holistic (and realistic) picture of what I’m creating will make for a much more satisfying experience I’m sure.

        • Congratulations Becki! You have added to your skills! The more you experiment, the more you figure it out. There are tricks that you pick up along the way to fix mistakes (or new design elements, LOL), like fixing a missing yarnover by picking up the bar between the stitches on your return purl row, or if you miss a decrease, slipping the stitch over. It becomes more intuitive the more you knit. Eventually you will be able to “read” your knitting and recognize quicker when something isn’t quite right. It will come!

          • “It becomes more intuitive the more you knit. Eventually you will be able to “read” your knitting and recognize quicker when something isn’t quite right. It will come!” – absolutely!!! The more you knit, the more familiar you become with the stitches and how they are supposed to behave 🙂 And as they say – the repeated mistake in knitting is just a new stitch pattern 🙂

        • “So more skill combined with a more holistic (and realistic) picture of what I’m creating will make for a much more satisfying experience I’m sure.” – so true!!! It was especially true for me when I was learning seaming – I always compared my seams to the store-knitwear and was always so disappointed and discouraged, but once I embraced the fact that handseaming might not be 100% perfect and that’s OK, I made my peace with finishing and, ironically, it’s getting better and better every time! So, at one point it’s important to just “let it be”, I guess…

      • Oh, thank you SO much, Elizabeth for these words, they mean a lot to me, really!!! And thank you for all the encouragement for a fellow crafter 🙂 !

    • Thank you so much, dear Becki, for posting! I think the fact that you already know crochet will be a huge help in learning knitting step-by-step, just because you already have this “feeling” and understanding of the stitches/fabric created/gauge importance/tension and so on. Of course, a lot of things are different in crochet, but it still gives you some kind of foundation. Choosing a project with just one-two new techniques is very smart, as you won’t be overwhelmed and it again supports the idea of creating the techniques/skills list for the pattern! I like that you don’t stress yourself to learn as fast as you can to knit this or that, but just taking it one stitch at a time and enjoying the process of learning and not just the result. Ironically, this kind of attitude often leads to much faster progress, than the result oriented one 🙂

  19. I find myself going for the most difficult patterns. Lace and Aran techniques are easy for me, but I have no clue whatsoever about Fair Isle, so I stay away from it (for the time).
    I don’t think there is a real “difficulty” level for patterns. I rather thingk that one should be familiar with knit purl YO SSK… the real basics. Then nothing is difficult.

    Yes, on thing is difficult, knitting cables with a cable needle 🙂 I stopped using cable needles, and use a simple cheap old darning needle, securing it with a thread of different yarn.

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