Keep Calm and Cast On

At the age of seven, I knitted a cover for a coat-hanger. In Iceland, home economics was a part of the curriculum and continued until the end of mandatory education.

The cover was knitted in blue and took my little fingers hours to create.  It was the beginning of a Zen activity that I continue to this day.  When hubby and I took a road trip out west, I knitted three baby sweaters.  When we drove from Michigan to Acadia National Park, I knitted Tim a sweater and had enough yarn to make a small one for a grandson.  

Over time, time on technology has found a way to interfere with our much-needed soul activities. Women spend less time creating—which feeds the inner self—but more time as servants to our cell phones and computers. Knitting helps me remain whole in the midst of all the distraction. Listening to a book on tape with knitting needles in hand never fails to calm my monkey mind.  

Moving to Fort Collins, Colorado for the summers, number one on my list was to find yarn shop. My Florida residence offers much, but not a yarn shop. My GPS took me to My Sister Knits a community-minded shop where knitters want to spend money. But I remind myself and others that it’s healthier than alcohol and cheaper than a therapist.

Kathleen Hall, the founder and CEO of the Stress Institute in an interview on Health.com:  “A surefire and fun way to get out of your head (and reduce stress) is to engage in activities that put the focus on your hands or body (think kneading bread, sketching a picture, knitting a scarf, or climbing a rock wall).” When our hands and fingers fall into a familiar rhythm it signals the brain to relax.

Knitting and crocheting are making a comeback.  It’s no longer just for old grannies. One-third  of women ages 25 to 35 now knit or crochet and men and children are joining the ranks of knitters. My Colorado community started a knitting group that started with them going to My Sister Knits on several Saturday mornings.  

In 2014, the Craft Yarn Council created a “Stitch Away Stress” campaign in honor of National Stress Awareness Month. Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind/body medicine and author of The Relaxation Response, writes that the repetitive action of needlework—once you get beyond the learning phase—can induce a relaxed state like that associated with meditation and yoga. “Knitting and crocheting can lower heart rate and blood pressure,” he says, “and reduce harmful blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”  

When Lynn Zwerling retired at 67 from selling cars in Columbia, Maryland, she didn’t know what to do with her time.  So, she followed her passion, knitting, and started a knitting group in her town. Nobody showed up for her first class. Weeks later, the group had grown to 500. “I looked over the room,” Lynn recalls, “here were people who didn’t know each other, had nothing in common, sitting together peacefully like little lambs knitting.” 

In 2011, she stood in front of 600 male prisoners at the Pre-Release Unit in Jessup, Maryland. “Who wants to knit?” she asked the burly crowd. They looked at her like she was crazy.

Two years later, Zwerling and her associates have taught more than 100 prisoners to knit, while dozens more are on a waiting list to take her weekly class.  The prisoners started by knitting comfort dolls, given to children removed from their homes. Then they knitted hats for kids at the inner-city elementary school where many of the prisoners attended. 

In the book, Knit for Health & Wellness, author Betsan Corkhill, reports that 54 percent of clinically depressed people in her therapeutic knitting said that knitting made them feel happy or very happy.  In another study of 60 people with chronic pain, she reports that knitting enabled them to redirect their focus, making it harder for the brain to register pain signals. 

Other studies have shown the importance of partaking in mind and hand engaging activity. A 2014 study headed up by Denise C. Park of the University of Texas demonstrated that learning to quilt or do digital photography enhanced memory function in older adults. Those who engaged in activities that were not intellectually challenging, either in a social group or alone, did not show such improvements.  

These results were confirmed in another study comparing people who do crafts to those who read newspapers/magazines or play music. The cognitive benefit was greater for those who engaged their hands and mind. The researchers speculate that craft activities promote the development of neural pathways in the brain that help to maintain cognitive health.