The first time I decided to survey readers and customers several years ago, I got a bit of a shock.
I realized, I really had no idea anymore what "beginner" truly meant.
I knew what it meant to me. But it clearly meant something different to my readers and customers.
The many meanings of "beginner"
When I asked people what they considered their skill level to be, I heard from:
- True beginners who were just getting into garment sewing for the first time.
- Women who had been sewing for 5-10 years and still thought of themselves as "beginners."
- Women who had been sewing for 10+ years who thought they were "advanced beginners."
I’m using "beginner" as an example, but this held true for other skill levels too. In fact, the only people who called themselves "advanced" were women who had been sewing for at least 40 years. Wow!
At first, I thought this was due to a lack of confidence. I mean, if you’ve been pursuing a hobby for 30 years, and don’t claim the "advanced" label, what else could it be?
Over time, as I talked to more and more sewists, I realized that confidence itself was not the issue. These sewists were plenty confident in the skills they’d acquired.
But what I realized is this: sewing is not a single skill. It’s actually a collection of highly diverse (but related) skills.
There’s the manual dexterity of actual stitching. There’s knowing which technique to use when. There’s fitting. There’s fabric understanding. There are specialties like tailoring, knitwear, or bra-making.
With all these skills under one umbrella, it’s easy to recognize how much you don’t know. Who wants to call themselves "advanced" when there is so much they haven’t even had a chance to try yet? Or techniques they just don’t have any interest in?
All of this has made labeling patterns with a simple skill level rating sort of difficult. I know other pattern makers have thought a lot about this too. It’s tricky.
What is a "beginner" pattern?
With our upcoming pattern (next week!), we hemmed and hawed a bit. Are the categories we’ve been using – beginner, intermediate, advanced – actually meaningful? Do they mean the same thing to most people?
What made it doubly frustrating is that the pattern has multiple versions, some of which have details that are more challenging than others. Some versions are pretty quick and easy, while another version has some cool details that take a bit more time and skill.
In the end, we decided to round it up rather than risk frustrating a beginner. But I still feel our categories aren’t really adequate.
Here are some alternatives we’re considering for future patterns:
- Points on a scale: To get a more nuanced rating, we could rate the difficulty on a five point scale. We could use numbers, pictures, or even abstract terms ala Knitty.
- Difficulty instead of skill: As our friend Christine pointed out a few years ago on her blog, in some ways focusing on the pattern rather than the skills of the person makes more sense.
- Skills used: Knitting patterns often do not list difficulty, but instead include a list of "skills needed" or "skills used" in every pattern. With her background in knitting, Kris suggested this and I do really like the idea. It’s much more specific and also has the advantage of letting you know up front what you might learn!
Do any of these ideas make sense to you?
Do you think there is a consistent concept of what various skill levels mean? Or does it vary as wildly as I think it does?
Would a skills list be more helpful than generic ratings? Or would it just make it more complicated to find the pattern that’s right for you?