It’s official. Crochet and knitting is good for you.
That was the topic of my talk at Nerd Nite recently, and I really, honestly believe it to be true.
Nerd Nite, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a monthly event focused on learning (with a bit of drinking thrown in for good measure!). Basically, at each event two or three experts or enthusiastic amateurs each give an informative or interesting talk. Nerd Nite is held in 90 cities around the world – I spoke at the London event, of course, but I also gave a version of this talk a couple of years ago in Auckland.
I was super nervous before giving the talk (maybe because my sister, who is a doctor, was in the audience, and I was speaking on health!), but it went really well. Everyone laughed in the right places, and asked enthusiastic questions at the end. I think I may have even made a new knitter!
It probably helped that I passed around a box of samples, including this Zoidberg, which my sister in law claimed by the end of the night!
My friend Amber and I have also dropped this as an episode of our podcast, which you can listen to below.
We’re committed to sustainable podcasting, so there is a full transcription of the podcast here. Still, I know podcasts aren’t everyone’s cups of tea, so I’ll lay out the points below.
I am not a doctor, and nothing I say should be considered medical advice. I think of knitting and crochet like a green smoothie or a bike ride: something which is great for you, but not a substitute for seeing a doctor! Please please please don’t use craft as a substitute for health care.
I’m talking sweaters, socks, baby gifts, and boobs. Seriously. Someone in my knitting group knitted a breast because she’s a lactation consultant: she planned to use it to demonstrate how to draw down milk without having to touch new mothers in quite an intimate place. Other crafters, such as the kind folk in Knitted Knockers UK create knitted (and crocheted!) breasts to donate to women who have had mastectomies. I just think that’s amazing.
Then there’s art, like Inger Carina’s amazing crocheted guns, and of course, amigurumi! I think creating art is such a fantastic part of the human experience, and creating with yarn means it’s affordable and accessible to most people – unlike, say, sculpting in marble.
Anyone who’s ever been to the pub with me knows I think crafting is a very social activity! Knitting and crocheting in a group can be really good for you. A survey of over 3,500 knitters found “Knitting in a group impacted significantly on perceived happiness, improved social contact and communication with others.” For knitters who reported suffering from depression “there was a signiﬁcant association between membership of a knitting group and feeling happier and better about themselves.”
Part of the reason for this is structure – knowing you’re meeting every other Saturday, for example, takes some pressure off, as does having the excuse of looking at your knitting if you don’t want to talk!
One study taught women hospitalized from anorexia how to knit. They only knit for about an hour a day for three weeks, before being questioned on their psychological state. 74% of participates reported less fear and preoccupation with their eating disorder. 74% said it was calming, and 53% said it gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment.
Let me be really clear here: I don’t think knitting a panacea. I think that if you’re unwell you should absolutely get professional help, and I’m not saying, “oh maybe if you knit a bit more, you wouldn’t feel so poorly.” I just think it’s fascinating that something as simple, portable, low-cost and no-tech as knitting could show such dramatic results in such a short space of time.
And why is that? It has been suggested that knitting may work in a similar way to EMDR.
EMDR is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy. Basically, it’s a psychotherapy based on an observation that certain eye movements reduce the intensity of traumatic thought. Really.
EMDR has only been around since the late 80s, and there are serious questions about its effectiveness. However, some studies have found it can be as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy (which as the therapy du jour is prescribed on the NHS, despite questions about its effectiveness). EMDR is sometimes recommended for treatment of PTSD.
I think that’s fascinating as knitting has traditionally been used as a treatment for PTSD. As many of 30% of British troops in the Great War were affected by what was then called shell shock.
Most treatments were absolutely brutal, ranging from electroshock therapy to death by firing squad. For a long time, it was thought that those suffering had a moral weakness, rather than a trauma. Major Frederick Mott helped pioneer occupational therapy, offering “quiet, rest and distraction [and] simple occupations such as knitting.”
Occupational therapy is literally therapy through doing. It’s based on the idea that work can be a tonic which structures time and brings meaning to life by giving control over a small, tangible thing in a time when everything is chaos.
I have this theory that the stereotype of knitters being little old ladies stems from knitting helping you to live longer. If that’s true, then there’d naturally be a higher concentration of older knitters, right? And there’s a couple of ways that crochet and knitting can make old age more comfortable.
You often hear that knitting is super bad for your hands, but it may help prevent arthritis. I’m going to defer to the experts here. Alton Barron, who is an orthopaedic surgeon and president of the New York Society for Surgery of the Hand, actually recommends knitting as a way of preventing arthritis and tendinitis. He said that the finger action while knitting keeps joints hydrated as fluid is forced to move in and out of the cartilage.
Having said that, while knitting is good for you, it can give you RSI, so take breaks when you’re working! (I always feel silly saying this! I have a desk job, as do many of my friends. I literally spend all day typing, then come home and blog for fun. If I get RSI, it’s not going to be from knitting.)
Anyway. One really common fear of getting older is cognitive decline. Slowing down as we get older is probably inevitable, but what can become Dementia often begins as mild cognitive impairment.
People who have mild cognitive impairment develop dementia at a rate of 10% to 15% per year compared with 1% to 2% per year in the general population. Therefore it follows that we want to avoid mild cognitive impairment to up our chances of avoiding dementia. One study it was found that activates such as knitting can lower the risk of mild cognitive impairment by as much as 50%.
Why is this? Probably because knitting is mentally stimulating. I think most of us remember how hard it was to learn to knit or crochet, and also how s t r e t c h e d your brain can feel when you’re trying a new pattern or working some complex lace. Turns out, that mental exercise is a good thing.
Okay, I’m not religious, and never have been, so this is a little bit weird for me to spell out, but, working with yarn can be a form of physical prayer. Think of making a blanket for a very wanted baby, or a hat for a friend that’s sick: if that’s not a prayer, I don’t know what is. Although I tend to describe that feeling as “best wishes” or “good vibes”, there are “knitting ministries” in American churches. These ministries work “prayer shawls” for those in need (they’re not a shawl for praying with, but rather have prayers worked into them). They’re generally made in a bobbly pattern called “trinity stitch.” It’s worked over three stitches, representing the father, the son, and the holy ghost.
Working the trinity stitch can be compared to praying with a rosary, or tibetan prayer wheels. I guess you could compare someone without religion working the same pattern to be doing the equivalent of crossing your fingers!
I know knitting = prayer might seem a little “out there” if you’ve never heard it before, but it’s not a new idea: it’s as old as knitting itself. The first example of knitting we have, the Coptic Socks, date from around the year 1000 CE. The fragments “have Khufic (a decorative Arabic script) blessings knit into them, or symbols to ward off evil, or both.” Amazing, right?
The physical act of knitting supports the release of serotonin. That’s the same chemical which your brain releases when you have sex, or eat chocolate… or do both at the same time.
I’m going to knit all day, knit my blues away, if I’m feeling low, I knit a row.
And what is happiness? One way to describe happiness is flow.
Flow is being so absorbed in something that time flies by; nothing else seems to matter. It’s been referred to as a state of true ecstasy. Flow = happiness is a concept popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He descries flow as “a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake”
You’ve probably felt flow before. It’s wonderful, right?
Here’s why it happens: the brain can only process so much, so when part of it is taken up with your yarn, the unimportant drops away. “One doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how the body feels, or problems at home. You can’t feel if you’re hungry or tired. The body disappears.”
Presumably if you’ve read this far, you’re on board with the idea that crochet and knitting is good for you. What do you do with that information? I have two suggestions. Firstly, keep on being your bad self! Your hobby might help you live a longer, happier life, and that’s great! Secondly, engage with the community and beyond. Some of the benefits I’ve listed here come from being engaged with the knitting and crochet community, so find or create a group, or tell your crew you love them next time you see them. And give back/pay forwards where you can. Teach someone else to crochet, maybe. Show someone how to pick up a dropped stitch.
It might not be just knowledge you’re spreading. It may be health too.
Creative Crochet Projects is a fast, fun book of delightful patterns which are accessible to beginning crocheters (and a treat for more advanced hookers).
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I'm a kiwi living in Geneva. Knititng and crochet are just two of my passions! Read more about me. or working with me.
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