A friend of mine recently flipped me a link to a book called Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously, by Adrienne Martini, the story of Martini's year-long effort to knit the Mary Tudor design from Alice Starmore's Tudor Roses, a book of fair isle patterns published in 1998. (Tudor Roses, incidentally, is currently out of print, but I've read it's to be reprinted in the fall of 2013.) Martini calls the Mary Tudor pattern, pictured above on the front cover of Tudor Roses, a "knitter’s Mount Everest, our curse, and our compulsion". It's true that for Martini, this sweater was a personal Mount Everest because it was the most complex and largest-scale project she'd ever undertaken, but I wouldn't describe this pattern as the everyknitter's Mount Everest.
For one thing, the Mount Everest metaphor is more nuanced than Martini may realize. Let's remember that climbing Mount Everest is not considered the pinnacle of human achievement it once was. These days, with the technological advances in climbing gear, it's quite possible for any able-bodied, hardy, and reasonably fit person who has the time and the money to climb it. Mount Everest has been successfully climbed over 5000 times since Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to climb it in 1953, including climbs by one 13-year-old, one 76-year-old, and one blind climber. One person has climbed it 20 times and one couple got married on the summit. One of Sir Edmund Hillary's grandsons climbed it and called his grandfather from the top with his cell phone. Sir Hillary himself never considered climbing Mount Everest to be the most important or worthwhile thing he did in his life, and was appalled by what he saw as contemporary climbers' prioritization of reaching the top over the welfare of other climbers in distress.
When I look at the Mary Tudor design, I don't see a pattern requiring the greatest possible level of knitting skill, or the ultimate achievement in design, or a pattern that must be knitted because it exists, as a "Mount Everest of knitting patterns" designation would seem to imply. What I see is a beautiful and richly patterned design that represents a major time investment, and that I would reshape completely in order to make flattering. Oversized, shapeless sweaters have gone out of style since the nineties, and for excellent reason.
Learning about Martini's book led me to wonder if there was a world's most difficult knitting pattern, and to do a little internet research on the matter. I found discussion questions on Ravelry and some other knitting sites that asked, "What, in your opinion, is the most difficult knitting pattern?", with resulting threads full of links to patterns that were undeniably going to be time consuming, but that otherwise didn't look all that difficult or challenging to me. When I googled the phrases "most difficult knitting pattern" and "hardest knitting pattern", wherever the phrase occurred on the net it was usually followed by another phrase along the lines of "that I have ever attempted" or "that I have tackled so far". And that's very telling.
The truth is that once a knitter gets to a certain level of experience and skill, no pattern looks all that difficult, and knitting patterns simply vary widely in terms of time investment required. Once you've done more advanced knitting techniques such as stranded knitting, cables, fair isle, steeking, entrelac, double knitting, intarsia, lace work, knitting in the round, Swiss darning, knitting smocking, thrumming, etc., the prospect of doing them doesn't faze you any more. And even if you haven't tried all of those techniques (I have not), once you've successfully mastered a significant selection of them, you know you can always learn the others. Just as strangers are friends (or spouses, or employers, or hot pig sex partners, or neighbours, or tax auditors) whom you haven't yet met, knitting patterns simply represent potential uses of your time and possible future possessions/gifts. Once you lose the beginner's fear of the untried and you have enough experience to know what you're committing to, you'll wind up doing a cost and time benefit analysis and conclude, "Ugly, no way!" or "Nice, but not for or on me," or "Nice, and won't take long," or "Beautiful, and will take a lot of time but it'll be worth it," or "Fabulous but too time-intensive; maybe some day...", or "GORGEOUS AND A HUGE TIME SUCK BUT I MUST DO IT ERE I PERISH." There's no Mount Everest of knitting patterns. There are, rather, marathon knitting projects, and it's a marathon you can do at your own pace because no one's clocking you.
I hope that "difficult" knitting patterns ceased, or will cease, to intimidate you fairly early in your knitting experience, and also that you will regard knitting patterns as your servant and not your master. If you've read any of the knitting pattern reviews posts on this blog, you'll know that I suggest tweaks to almost every pattern. I hardly ever knit any pattern exactly as written. There is that rare case when I come across a pattern I consider perfect — perfect in this context meaning "perfect for me/the wearer". If a pattern you love on paper isn't going to work for your figure, colouring, personal aesthetic preferences, lifestyle, climate, or fashion era once knitted, then for heaven's sake change it. Make it bigger or smaller, change the neckline or the silhouette, use three colours instead of twenty or twenty instead of three, substitute cotton for wool or scarlet for gray, or borrow different features of several different patterns to get the look you want.
Designers aren't gods whose every direction must be reverenced and followed to the letter. They make mistakes, there can be a lot of room for improvement in their results, their work can become dated, and in any case they weren't designing especially for you. Unless you are a textile artist making a piece of installation art, you want a finished garment you can wear the hell out of, not something that will sit uselessly in a drawer after you've invested your valuable time and money in it. You can be your own designer, and if you don't feel your skill level is equal to the task of rewriting a pattern to be what you want it to be, ask more experienced knitters for advice, or shelve the project until you're ready to bring it on.
And take a lesson from Adrienne Martini's experience. She spent an entire year of her life making her Mary Tudor sweater in slavish adherence to Starmore's directions, even to the point of resorting to buying the specific yarn required for it on the "black yarn market" because it wasn't being produced any more. With the result that (as I gather from the Amazon reader reviews), when she finished the sweater she found the sleeves were too short and she admitted she would never wear it because she didn't like the way she looked in it. Don't let your compulsion to make a project and to reach the summit of completion blind you to more important considerations to this extent. In short, have a martini; don't be one.