Knitting, wellbeing, and togetherness

The 9th-15th of May 2022 is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK.  For more information, please visit https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week.

I’ve wanted to write something about crafts and wellbeing for some time now.  Knitting – and other forms of needlework such as crochet and embroidery – have always had a social element in my life, albeit a private one; memories of my grandmother knitting on the sofa when she had a chance to put her feet up are very precious.  Unlike sewing, she could be around her family without anyone having to tolerate a whirring machine.  Even last month, a sewing student of mine – and this is no reflection on her sewing ability whatsoever – firmly stated that she preferred crochet because it was more sociable.  “I need to talk!  You know how much I like talking! 😊”

Instances like this remind me of the numerous people I’ve taught knitting since 2010, many of whom signed up for a class because it was recommended for anxiety, loneliness, depression, or occupational therapy.  Many media outlets and organisations have extolled the health benefits of knitting; by way of example, here are some resources from The Independent (have two for good measure – this one also includes baking), Knit for Peace, and Mental Health America.  If you know of any other studies, please share them in the comments – I’d be grateful to see them.

Yet, despite knitting’s deserved plaudits, handcrafts are still devalued.  If knitting supports mental health and is recommended by healthcare professionals and news correspondents, why isn’t it considered a referral?  (Non-UK readers, or those not familiar with the UK healthcare system, please see the endnote for an explanation.)  Where’s the support for patients – and equally important, yarn shop staff who aren’t trained therapists and rely heavily on social skills and a lifetime of experience?  In this respect, yarn shops – and fabric shops too, especially if they also run classes – play a vital role in the community, similar to barbershops, hairdressers, and bookshops.  All these local businesses are somewhere for people to unapologetically take time to nourish themselves and lift their spirits, and the shop owners deserve rent subsidies for all the good they do.  Health is not – and should not be – a luxury, but it is wrongly and unfairly politicised as something one has to be able to afford.

It might be too early for any studies on this, but I would be interested to see if hybrid working has long-term mental health benefits.  I already suspect it does, at least in some respects; people are able to use the time and energy they would’ve spent commuting on themselves, and developing interests and relationships that allow them to enjoy life and good health.  Even the unkindest line manager will admit that healthier employees are more productive – so why not facilitate and encourage good mental health?  The idea that workers might actually be better at their jobs for having time dedicated to wellbeing and relationships away from the work environment seems not to have crossed enough minds.

Suki the torbie cat, and some knitting fresh out of the ribbing and onto the needle change.

It wasn’t until I worked at SPIRES that I learnt about mental health first aid and saw the long-term impact that loneliness and overwork can have on people.  A number of learners were in trauma recovery: some as a result of a nervous breakdown due to consistent overwork and burnout; others had endured severe and sustained abuse.  The former group had had careers that some would deem successful, having enjoyed travelling, learning and seeing a great deal of the world – but here they were in my sewing class, making up the time they’d lost for themselves.  Sewing became an escape, an occupational therapy – just as it had done for the knitters and crocheters I’d taught at Sew Over It between 2013 and 2016, when the shop was closer to my home. 

“Nobody knows I’m here,” said one knitter, a doctor at the local hospital.  “All anyone knows is that I’m going to be late home for the next few weeks.  I’ve told them roughly when I’ll be back, but that’s it.”  It wasn’t unusual for the Sew Over It knitting and crochet beginner classes to be on a Friday night.  This scheduling occasionally scuppered my social life, but in truth, I was in such good company I wasn’t missing out!  And although I was working to create a deliberate escape, a sanctuary that my knitters and crocheters could look forward to at the end of a long working week, the environment was so relaxed that people began to talk – really TALK; open up in a way that created warm and friendly bonds between members of the group. 

Here, I observed which stitch patterns were most relaxing and conducive to meditation, and I started learning about brain waves and relaxation.  This experience rooted my personal design principle of not creating anything that isn’t enjoyable to knit.  I am the kind of designer I am partly because of this teaching experience, and I would later discover that there are some patterns that just won’t work on knit nights.  Some knitters and crocheters will have a relaxing or mindless project that allows them to switch off completely and enjoy the company around them when crafting socially.

Tea and cake. What’s not to love?

Human contact, of course, is what the student mentioned at the beginning of this essay meant when she said she enjoyed talking.  She was one of many mothers of very young children or babies, susceptible to the gendered social isolation of caregivers or parents with dependent family members.  Although caring can be deeply fulfilling, there is no denying that carers and parents, however much they love their relatives or children, need a break.  The hours between school or nursery drop-off and pick-up are immensely precious, as are those when healthcare workers take the reins, but cuts to public sector spending have made it difficult for parents and carers to find time for themselves and to socialise with people unconnected to their domestic setup. 

There are far fewer community and adult education colleges in London today than there were when I was a child.  One of the largest was Vauxhall College, now a community of flats across the road from Kennington Park.  Only the distinctive Victorian architecture tells you that it was once a place of learning; during my pre-school and nursery days, my mother took courses there.  She was able to do so because there was a creche onsite, and this allowed her to maintain skills and expertise that could have disappeared with the arrival of parenthood.  The wonderful Pregnant Then Screwed, headed by Joeli Brearley, works tirelessly on behalf of those suffering from this gender gap and campaigns for political change.  The community space that she has created lets others know that they are not alone in facing discrimination and loneliness as a result of pregnancy, but the changes to people’s lives after trauma, having children – or both – can be more permanent. 

Having been drawn to crafts during pregnancy and in their children’s infancy, many of the mothers I teach are keen to make sewing or crochet a permanent part of their lives – whether that involves repairing existing clothes, upskilling and starting a new business that works around childcare, or making bespoke items for themselves and their families.  Needlework was there for them when the rest of the world was not – and that is the tie that binds all humans who’ve been drawn to knitting.  They may have found it by way of occupational therapy and striving for a sense of inner peace, but in doing so, have found themselves in the company of other like-minded souls.  Peace doesn’t always mean peaceful, as my dear sewing student wisely pointed out.  Sometimes it is the comfort of enjoying someone else’s company.


*In the UK, a referral is made when a person’s doctor, or general practitioner (GP), has, following an appointment made by the person to seek medical help, carried out a medical assessment that requires more specialist treatment.  This specialism is usually beyond that of general practice and typically involves visiting a hospital or clinic.  The person – now patient – is then referred to an appropriate medical specialist for further investigation, diagnosis, treatment and support.  Referrals can only be obtained from a patient’s GP.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Heather says:

    Hello Natalie, this rings very true for me. I learned to knit when I was 10 years old and knit doll clothes for about a year then put it aside. When I was 25, after my first child was born, I visited my mother and asked her to teach me to knit again. I picked it up in about five minutes, the hands don’t forget! and started knitting all the time after that. Now I’m 68 and have four kids and six grandkids and still knit a lot! But when I am stressed out I will put down whatever complicated sweater I’m working on and knit a dishrag or some socks. Something soothing that I don’t have to worry or think about. My son and his wife recently bought a house and they actually “ordered” dishrags to match their kitchen, haha! I do those when I don’t want to think.
    And in the USA I can’t imagine a doctor recommending handwork to a patient. Just for starters hand needlework is “women’s work” and so would never be recommended to a man. Also, in America, the most expensive option is quite often recommended first, so the capitalists can make their money. That’s our medical system! “Here, take this pill for your stress and depression.”
    Sorry, in a cynical mood this morning. But I agree with everything you are saying.

    1. Hi Heather – no need to apologise at all, you’re allowed to feel cynical ☺️. Especially with the US system as you describe. I feel that the U.K. system is so overstretched they’re happy to recommend knitting as a form of occupational therapy.

      And speaking of men doing needlework, that reminds me of someone I met a long time ago; he had a fascinating story that I’ll recount one day.

      I love that socks and dishrags are your go-tos for knitting comfort, if not feel a bit envious. I’m so steeped in garment making and designing that knitting isn’t always like that for me, but I may have to take a leaf out of your book.

  2. Susan says:

    Terrific post Natalie! Good to bring these issues out in the open and you did it so well.
    Thank you for all the work you did and do for these Mum’s!

    1. 💕 thank you Susan!

  3. Brenda says:

    Hi Natalie,
    As the mom of a son with schizophrenia I can honestly say that knitting and sewing have helped me tremendously in dealing with the stresses that occur when he has serious relapses.
    At one point, the two of us had a fascinating conversation about math, pixels, computers and stranded colourwork and sizing in knitting. He was intrigued at the connections and his math mind was delighted to see his mom working/playing in his area of interest.
    I was incredibly flattered when he praised my math skills as I never believed I had any.
    I offered to teach him to knit but he prefers to stay with his guitar and that’s okay. He wears whatever I knit him and that makes both of us happy.
    Supporting our loved ones and acknowledging our own mental health needs is so important. It’s unfortunate that the medical establishment doesn’t support this essential need, although it’s at least being spoken of in some of the family support groups we deal with.
    Thanks for this wonderful article.
    HUgs
    Brenda

    1. 💕 Hi Brenda,
      Thank you for writing this – I love that knitting has done so much to support you and deepen the bond between you and your son. It says so much that he appreciates your maths skills in a way that you hadn’t even thought about (imagine what he’ll say about sewing and pattern cutting!). And in a way, I think that your association with knitting is something that brings him peace and comfort – especially when he needs it most. You’re always there.
      Hugs back,
      Natalie 🤗

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