How knitting can improve your mood, mind and body
"Is knitting therapeutic? Heck yes. It’s a proven scientific fact, just like we know chocolate and red wine are good for us. Since turning my life over to yarn, I’ve talked to thousands of knitters who claim it’s cured everything from gout to their weight problems. I can’t speak to all cures, but it can certainly improve one’s mental health. I know it helps mine.”
So says Clara Parkes, author of the just-released book The Yarn Whisperer: Reflections of a Life in Knitting (STC Craft/A Melanie Falick Book) and the founder and publisher of KnittersReview.com. Personal testimonies, anecdotal evidence, and medical studies all back up Clara Parkes’ claims.
In 2007, Renee Magee was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The disease affects the central nervous system and she describes the experience of her illness as being “like having pregnancy brain—only it doesn’t go away.”
Magee, though, has a secret weapon in her health arsenal: Knitting needles.
“I’ve found that it’s really good for the brain to work on something where you have to focus,” says the 36-year-old knitter. “You’re following through on something and you’re following a pattern, it’s mental exercise.”
Magee is not alone in her assessment of the craft’s palliative affects on the mind. Knitting has been called the “new yoga” for good reason. Famous for its relaxing, meditative qualities, knitting increasingly is being used in hospitals, clinics, schools and even prisons to help people lead healthier, happier lives. And there’s data to prove it.
“Knitting saved my life,” says Liat Gat, who runs the video instruction site KNITFreedom.com. Admitted to a clinic in her 20’s with a full-blown eating disorder, Gat, a lapsed knitter, started stitching again when the facility’s craft volunteer came around with yarn and needles. Soon, she had countless projects going and was helping other women fix their mistakes. And within weeks she was out of the clinic and working at a yarn shop.
“I could help people and make a difference,” she says, “and it gave me a career.”
Gat’s experience of knitting her way out of an eating disorder has scholarly precedent. A 2009 study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders showed that when 38 women with anorexia nervosa were taught to knit and given free access to knitting supplies, they reported significant improvements. An impressive 74 percent said knitting lessened their fears and kept them from ruminating about their eating disorders; 74 percent lauded the calming aspects of the craft and 53 percent said it provided satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
“I didn’t have a job. I had extra time,” Gat explains of her recovery. “There’s something to be said about filling your time with projects you care about.”
Magee, who along with her husband owns Airship Printing, a screen-printing business in Castle Rock, Colorado, has created a line of goods under the brand Knerd Shop (knerdshop.com) that includes a t-shirt, bag and stickers that read, “I knit so I don’t kill people.” Though the sentiment is amusing, it carries an element of truth: Knitters ascribe all manner of benefits to their craft that include everything from alleviating depression, anxiety and pain to reducing boredom and the discomfiting affects of isolation.
Meredith Keeton, 32, knits to combat the loneliness she experiences when forced to stay home because of her rheumatoid arthritis.
“One of the benefits of knitting for me is that because rheumatoid arthritis is an isolating condition, I can’t be as social or get out as often as I’d like. I’m often stuck at home by myself. knitting gives me something productive to do with my time. It’s definitely good stress relief and helps keep my anxiety in check.”
Cast on, calm down
Twenty-three years ago, knitting filled the time for Carol Caparosa, whose infant daughter was born with congenital heart defects. Captive in waiting rooms and by her daughter’s bedside for weeks at a time, she couldn’t read or bear to watch TV, but after a friend gave her a handknit baby sweater, Caparosa, a former knitter, thought, “This is what I’m going to do.”
“My daughter would have these really long surgeries—eight or nine hours—and I would just sit there and knit. It was so calming.”
In ensuing years, Caparosa felt a need to give back. Her daughter was thriving, so she returned to the pediatric intensive care unit at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital where her daughter had been a patient, volunteering to teach parents and older children to knit. Her teaching gained a following and she expanded her work to the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and incorporated her program as the nonprofit, Project Knitwell.
In 2010, two Georgetown oncology nurses—stressed out by their jobs and graduate school—decided to use Project Knitwell for their thesis research. Personally aware of the incredible strain and loss oncology nurses experience, Lyndsay Anderson and Christina Urso wondered whether knitting might mitigate some of the burnout—or “compassion fatigue”—these nurses experienced. The grad students administered a survey to the nurses that measured burnout at two junctures: before learning to knit and 13 weeks later, after they had learned and been working with Project Knitwell volunteers.
“Anecdotally we knew everyone on the unit was suffering,” Anderson says. “Nobody was doing fine.” Indeed all 39 nurses who participated showed some degree of compassion fatigue in the “before” test.
Each nurse was taught to cast-on and knit. In addition, Project Knitwell volunteers appeared regularly on the oncology units to fix mistakes and assist them in choosing new projects should they want to progress. Knit kits were also stashed on the oncology floors, so nurses could knit spontaneously.
The results were significant. Everyone’s burnout scores improved, especially the nurses who were the most burned out prior to the study. In answers to open-ended questions, nurses extolled the soothing rhythm of knitting and distraction from work-related fatigue. Though the sample was small, it was enough to convince hospital administrators to add Project Knitwell to its staff enrichment programs as well as provide sessions to graduating nurses.
“Oncology nurses really have nothing tangible to show for their work, because at the end of the day, their patients are still suffering,” explains Anderson, who’s now a family nurse practitioner in the hospital’s Ourisman Breast Health Center. “But if you have something artistic to work on, it does give you some sense of accomplishment.”
Use it or lose it
Common wisdom has it that brain games like crossword puzzles and sudoku may help keep the brain sharp over time. But what about two sharp sticks and some yarn?
Yonas Geda, associate professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, published a study in the Spring 2011 edition of The Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences that validated crafters of all stripes. His research showed that people who engaged their minds by reading books, playing games or crafting had a decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment, a possible precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.
“The study suggests that engaging in certain types of mentally stimulating acts,” Geda says, “is associated with decreased risk of cognitive impairment.”
Their study looked at 1,321 adults, ages 70 to 89, 197 of whom had been identified as already having mild cognitive impairment. Both the normal and cognitively impaired groups were surveyed about their activities within the last year.
The study demonstrated that using the brain might prevent losing it. The data showed that computer use, playing games, crafting, reading books and watching less TV resulted in a striking 30 to 50 percent decrease in the odds of having mild cognitive impairment.
Though the study didn’t examine exactly how these activities might protect the brain, it did reference other works suggesting that mentally active people overall might live healthier lifestyles, maybe exercising and eating better, or that cognitive activity might promote the development of new neuro pathways—or cognitive reserves. In other words, staying mentally active through knitting and reading, etc. makes “deposits” to an individual’s brain “bank”; this can possibly buffer against Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.
“Some people are normal when they die but show a neuropathological burden during autopsy,” Geda says. “They have cognitive reserves. One of the theories is that engaging in mental activities stimulates the development of these cognitive reserves.”
There are a lot of theories about why knitting is good for the brain.
Once a knitter has mastered the movements, the process is rhythmic and repetitive. According to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, knitting’s repetitious movements theoretically can elicit the famous relaxation response, which is the body’s counterbalance to stress, a state in which heart rate and blood pressure fall, breathing slows and levels of stress hormones drop.
“I use it in my own life as a way for me to calm down,” explains Perri Klass, a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University, a physician who writes regularly for the New York Times. “I’m happier and calmer in many stressful situations when I’m knitting, whether it’s sitting on a plane delayed on the runway or sitting at the bedside of a family member in a hospital or a medical office.”
“Psychiatrist Teresa Anderson, who practices in Cincinnati, Ohio, recommends knitting and crochet to patients suffering from PTSD, anxiety and major depression. A knitter and crocheter herself, she’s been urging patients to stitch since medical school. “People recommend meditation, which is nice in theory, but some people are so worked up they can’t sit still long enough to meditate,” she says. “Knitting is what I consider an active meditation, something you can do and focus on, but it has a repetitive quality to it.”
Knitting also involves following and recognizing patterns, learning new stitches and using both hands and math, lending it the capacity to improve fine motor skills while also keeping the mind active and engaged. The Waldorf Schools, for example, teach children to knit before teaching them to read in the belief that knitting develops dexterity, focus and rudimentary arithmetic.
“Recent neurological research tends to confirm that mobility and dexterity in the five motor muscles, especially in the hand, may stimulate cellular development in the brain, and so strengthen the physical instrument of thinking,” writes Eugene Schwartz in his article “Knitting and Intellectual Development. “Work done over the past seventy years in hundreds of schools using the Waldorf method worldwide, in which first graders learn to knit before learning to write or manipulate numbers, has also proven successful in this regard.”
Cassy Dominick, a PhD student in counseling education at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, is about to embark on her dissertation research, in which she will study a small group of fourth and fifth graders and whether knitting affects their social skills, problem behaviors and academic achievement. “I really want this to be a springboard for my future career,” she says. “I would love to put knitting and counseling together and make that my life.”
The social aspect of knitting, too, plays into knitting’s positive mental benefits. For people who like to knit in groups, knitting provides a social outlet, a critical element in maintaining mental health. And it allows for self-expression, charity and that sense of feeling productive.
“When we’re in early stages of knitting and choosing yarn and designing, it’s a whole different experience,” says Susan MacLaughlin, who started the blog Knit One Health Too, after knitting her way through sequential bouts with a ruptured appendix and breast cancer. “There’s something about the creative process. The heart opens up and takes you to another place. It’s like how you feel after hiking up a mountain.”
Changing global health one stitch at a time
Some of the most interesting work on the health benefits of knitting is being done in England, where Betsan Corkhill, a former physiotherapist with the National Health Service (NHS), is conducting research and aggregating data on knitting for health.
In 2002 having left the NHS, Corkhill started freelancing for craft magazines and was struck by the numbers of letters sent to these publications about the health benefits of crafts, particularly knitting. “My medical hat went on,” she says, “and I began to research from there.”
Convinced that knitting could play a role in Britain’s healthcare system—if not the world’s—she started a knitting group at the Royal United Hospital’s pain clinic in Bath. The group, which has been meeting since 2006, has about 50 members, who Corkhill says, tout the meditative and social benefits of knitting as well as the fact that knitting helps to distract them from the pain they feel. Visitors are often surprised, she observes, at “hearing all this raucous laughter in a pain clinic.”
“Pain originates in the brain not in muscles and joints,” she says. “The brain has to pay attention to signals coming up from your body. If you’re lonely or bored or unhappy, you’ll experience more pain than if you’re socially active and occupied and that’s very well accepted.”
Today, as a result of her work, which she presented at an Annual Scientific Meeting of the British Pain Society, more pain clinics in the U.K. are using knitting therapeutically.
In 2010, Corkhill in conjunction with an occupational therapy lecturer from Cardiff University, conducted an online survey of the Stitchlinks.com community (Corkhill’s website and clearinghouse of information about the therapeutic benefits of knitting). In the survey, they asked people why they stitched and about knitting’s perceived effects on mood, feelings, thinking, social activity and skills. Within two weeks, they received a staggering 3,545 responses.
The study, which was published in the February 2013 issue of the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, revealed that the majority of knitters (here mostly white, female and avidly knitting) reported a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy. Respondents, who knit the most often, said that knitting positively affected their cognitive functioning, helping them to sort through problems or think more easily.
Most promisingly, Exeter University just funded PhD candidate Mirja Rutger and her main supervisor Professor Paul Dieppe to study knitting groups with Corkhill serving in an advisory capacity. The initial part of the study will work to tease out what actually is happening when people knit together—and how to measure it.
“Measuring a knitting group is considerably more difficult than measuring a new drug,” she explains. “In measuring the knitting group we are dealing with how people feel and interact and how this may impact on their ability to live and manage life as well as the more scientific issues like whether the actual movements are important if affecting the brain and the meditative-like state reported.”
Still, she says, “this a big step forward for knitting.”