I know several times I have looked at a knitting pattern, either on a ball band or in a magazine, and wondered how hard it would really be to complete the project. Knitting patterns often have a skill level listed, such as "beginner" or "intermediate" - but what does this really mean? After all, one would think that the same pattern might be considered easy by someone who has knit for years, and very difficult for someone still getting used to holding onto their knitting needles. Fortunately, some standardization has come about in the use of these terms.
The Craft Yarn Council of America has their definitions of skill level terms so that any publisher or designer can check and see how they should list their pattern. This is a commonly used set of skill level definitions.
According to the Craft Yarn Council of America:
Beginner a project appropriate for a first time knitter
Easy Projects using basic stitches, simple repeats, and simple color changes, shaping or finishing
Intermediate Uses a variety of cable, color or lace stitches. May use double-pointed needles or be knit in the round. Has moderately challenging shaping and finishing techniques
Experienced Uses advanced shaping such as short rows, multiple color changes, and detailed lace, cable or color patterns.
Of course, this is not the only way of defining skill levels. The website Ravelry.com has knitting patterns rated on a difficulty scale of 1 - 10. The majority of patterns on the site are listed as "unknown". People who have finished knitting the project determine the difficulty number. Since the knitters who finished the project obviously have the skills to complete the project, The Ravelry 1-10 scale can be a bit misleading, giving a pattern an easier skill rating than it might deserve.
There are also many patterns that do not list difficulty level at all. How do you know if this is a pattern you are ready for? Take some time to read throughout he pattern, making sure that you understand each of the terms listed. If there are new techniques, practice those in your gauge swatch so you do can see how the technique affects the project as well as practicing it before putting it into your project.
Checking over the pattern yourself is a much more accurate way to determine how challenging a knitting pattern will be for you then by using someone else's system. The ratings are useful for quick sorting, or to help brand new knitters find suitable projects for their emerging skills. Still, only you know what you know. If you are beyond your first few projects, you will get a better idea of how YOU would do knitting up a pattern by reading through it then by assuming the rating system applied matches your skills.