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.
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.
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.