'Every stitch and row is a small win'

Lynne Rothwell on the benefits of knitting and other crafts during lockdown.

If you’re adhering to government advice, you’re probably spending a lot of time at home. This has its challenges; the effects of isolation and quarantine on mental health were explored recently by Samantha Brooks and colleagues in a Lancet rapid review and summed up in by Emma Smith and Nathan Barrett. Their article highlighted ways in which to reduce these negative effects of isolation on wellbeing, with completing projects, courses and learning new skills noted as being beneficial within these settings. 

An activity that encompasses completion of projects and learning new skills is crafting, and there are innumerable courses you can complete within this activity. Crafts can come in many shapes and forms, and can be adapted to suit any needs and accessibility. As craft is so subjective, it can be a cheap way of occupying yourself, through recycling materials or using what is lurking in your cupboards.

If you are already a crafter, the research is probably of no surprise to you. Even Forbes, the American business magazine, has ‘cottoned’ onto it, highlighting knitting as the ‘cool activity’ to do during the current pandemic.

It’s worth noting that crafting isn’t necessarily the only way to get these benefits, and not the only activity available to most during lockdown. Running can produce a flow state of being completely immersed in the activity (Csikszentmihaly, 1991), as can writing and even video games (Chafe, 1994; Jackson & Csikszentmihaly, 1999; Yüksel, 2013). So whilst this article focuses mostly on craft, it can be applied to other isolation-friendly activities.

Cognitive benefits – what can our minds gain from this?

Crafts such as knitting have been suggested to have a positive effect on wellbeing. Research by Riley and colleagues (2013) studied the reported effects of crafting on predominately white female adults who knitted three times a week or more. They reported feeling calmer and less stressed following a knitting session, with improved mood and even improved problem-solving skills. This idea of knitting improving mood is supported by research suggesting that knitting lowers cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in the body (Kaimal et al., 2016). This is similar to meditation, which has been suggested to lower stress levels and promote a greater sense of wellbeing in people who practice regularly (Schreiner & Maclcolm, 2008).

Other crafts have benefits too. A small-scale study conducted in a home for dementia care in Spain suggested a positive effect on self-esteem and attention after engaging with regular pottery classes (Pérez-Sáez et al., 2018). Liddle et al. (2013) suggested that arts and crafts in later life can help an individual retain a sense of pleasure and purpose. 

These are crucial elements to maintaining wellbeing. People losing their ‘purpose’ (such as in retirement or through ill health) can often experience low mood. Phillips (1980) also suggests that depression can be linked to lack of control over a situation. Within our current climate, that seems especially important to note, with many not working and little personal control over the pandemic situation.

A recommended treatment for depression is behavioural activation (NICE guidelines, 2009), which includes helping the individual to focus on tasks that bring a sense of achievement, closeness to others or enjoyment, with the aim that these activities can help lift mood. As mentioned in Smith and Barrett’s article, our recent imposed isolation and lack of social contact will undoubtedly alter our mood and we may feel less motivation. They noted that this can be overcome by focusing on small achievements, and these small wins are something craft provides plentifully. With knitting, every stitch and row completed in knitting is a small win. Every step of the process in completing a piece of art can be as gratifying as completing the work. Similarly, if beginning running for example, literally every step could be a small win if you initially thought you were unable to complete it.

Social benefits 

With closeness to others also being a key in treating low mood (Lejuez et al., 2001), how can this be facilitated whilst we are isolating?

Riley et al. (2013) suggest that knitting in a group setting improves social and communication skills and that there was enjoyment to be had in learning from others. Knitting is more popular with younger generations, and this has given rise to knitting as a social and political activity (Pavko-Čuden, 2017). With this, increased social interactions have been possible, beyond the yarn store weekly knit-n-natter.

When the face to face interaction isn’t possible, we can go online to learn skills and join groups with people of similar interests. Just a couple of clicks and you can find a myriad of different groups, instructional videos and humble-bragging Instagram posts to find an suitable online craft community. In research into the effects of online communities and their benefits for cancer patients, scores were higher for emotional expression and advice online (Setoyama et al,, 2011), suggesting positive benefits to gain when interacting with a support community online. It does have to be noted, however, that having both online and face to face support was considered the optimal method of gaining support. This could be mitigated whilst isolating by online video-link courses, contacting a crafty friend and booking in a video chat stich-along, or setting up challenges on various fitness apps with friends to complete a task together, but separately. These options result in the shared experience that is important when maintaining relationships.

‘I’m not creative’ and other such excuses

This is all well and good, but if you don’t see yourself as a ‘crafter’, ‘runner’ or someone who particularly engages with a certain activity, it can be intimidating to start. These activities are often seen as something completed by the ‘talented’ and this infers that the ability to do them is something we are either gifted with or not. These expectations can be difficult to overcome when beginning a new skill.

Within studies of starting crafts, people reported struggling initially with creating and then this resolving after time (Kaimal et al., 2016). It may be that pushing through the difficulties of getting started with craft could enable people to experience the benefits. In a study conducted with young people experiencing homelessness, Schwan and colleagues (2018) suggest that art could be a way of facilitating self-care and health promoting practice. This could be the way to view art and crafting; it’s not so much the end product, but the production of it that is of benefit. There is more to gain from art than the piece of art itself.

Whilst we’re on lockdown, it may be worth digging out the forgotten sports equipment and the arts and crafts supplies to get us through this. 

- Lynne Rothwell is a psychological well-being practitioner and keen knitter. 

References

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Chafe, W. (1994). Discourse, consciousness, and time: The flow and displacement of conscious experience in speaking and writing. University of Chicago Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

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Liddle, J. L. M., Parkinson, L., & Sibbritt, D. W. (2013). Purpose and pleasure in late life: Conceptualising older women's participation in art and craft activities. Journal of Aging Studies, 27, 330–338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaging.2013.08.002.

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Pavko-Čuden, A. (2017, October). Multiple faces of contemporary hand knitting. In IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering (Vol. 254, No. 19, p. 192014). IOP Publishing. 

Pérez-Sáez, E., Cabrero-Montes, E. M., Llorente-Cano, M., & González-Ingelmo, E. (2018). A pilot study on the impact of a pottery workshop on the well-being of people with dementia. Dementia, 1471301218814634.

Setoyama, Y., Yamazaki, Y., & Nakayama, K. (2011). Comparing support to breast cancer patients from online communities and face-to-face support groups. Patient Education and Counseling85(2), e95-e100. 

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Yüksel, M. (2013). Framing Online Games Positively: Entertainment and Engagement through ‘Mindful Loss’ of Flow. In The Immersive Internet (pp. 148-157). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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