What are the benefits of knitting? Donyale Harrison explores how to beat stress with a needle and thread
The cliché of a knitter is a white-haired woman, possibly one who also solves murders, if you’re an Agatha Christie fan. But in the 1940s, young male pilots in the Royal Air Force brandished needles as they waited for their next mission. Wartime pilots crashed a lot, and “lapcrafts” – like knitting, embroidery, and beadwork – helped rebuild the dexterity of injured limbs while helping calm wounded spirits. They were the cornerstone of early occupational therapy.
“Crafts like knitting, embroidery and beading…were a cornerstone of early occupational therapy”
Today, millions of people around the world use these same techniques. “They are linked to our mental health,” says Janine Smith. Along with Deb McDonald, she co-owns Skein Sisters, a store in Sydney, Australia that sells knitting and crocheting supplies. “I know that if I haven’t knitted for a few days, I really miss it. It’s like meditation.
Research supports Smith’s statement. Physiotherapist Betsan Corkhill and occupational therapist Jill Riley were part of a Cardiff University team that a decade ago surveyed more than 3,500 knitters and found that the more often people knit, the more they felt calm and happy. Or, as McDonald puts it, “That dot-by-dot tailoring rhythm is like deep breathing. It’s a flow where you don’t have to worry about it, you have the rhythm happening.
“Flow” is a concept first named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As he writes in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“The best times in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best times usually occur when a person’s body or mind is pushed to its limits in a willful effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
“The more often people knit, the calmer and happier they felt”
Shauna Richardson knows how true that is. The artist spent 18 months in a state of flux when she crocheted three seven-meter-long lions for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. To complete the task, which required almost 38 miles of yarn, she says that she had to “delineate everything and maintain a mindset guided by rhythm and process”.
But smaller projects will get you there too. Even a simple knit or crochet pattern requires attention to ensure every stitch is done correctly. And if the simple isn’t enough of a challenge, you can make additions, from color changes to textured stitches to very intricate patterns.
Csikszentmihalyi also describes the opposite of flow. He points out that although people are healthier and aging than previous generations, they often end up feeling that “their years have been spent in anxiety and boredom” and that they feel cut off from satisfying work.
The Cardiff research team found that although most respondents were employed, three-quarters of those who knit three or more times a week felt much more able to organize their thoughts and forget about their problems. .
“Knitting helps people feel confident in their abilities. If you make a mistake, you can take it all back and start over”
Many respondents described feeling calmer and in a better mood after knitting, and the majority of respondents who suffered from depression “perceived that knitting made them happier”. For respondents who suffered from chronic pain, nearly nine in ten said knitting gave them a sense of accomplishment and a way to cope with their pain.
Interestingly, more than half of respondents said that knitting inspired them to develop other skills, such as furniture making. Because knitting is so accessible — at its heart it’s two sticks and a stitch — it helps people feel confident in their abilities. After all, if you make a mistake, you can take it all out and start over.
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