Knitting Notes, Knitting Tips, Project Ideas

Knitting for Mental Health

The conversations and comments have been popping up so frequently, throughout the holidays and into the new year, that it’s hard to not mention how knitting (and craft in general) can be an important activity to support one’s mental well being.  

one of my daily acts of knitting

We have one prolific knitter (a fellow sweater knitting enthusiast) who’s been knitting at a furious pace for the last 18 months or so.  Over the holidays she told me that she doesn’t know what she would have done over that past period of time without her knitting.  She was dealing with tons of uncertainties and setbacks on a big project and it was causing a huge amount of stress in her life.  Knitting was something she could do to escape it.

I have my friend, a self-described “knitting school dropout.”  While she offers me sage parenting advice and perspective, she’s talked to me recently about feeling like she’s going nuts because she feels no other adult sees eye to eye with her in dealing with her own parenting challenges.  She needed to empty the chatter in her head and her solution was simple.  She told me flatly “I need to do some knitting, Margot.”  

Even one of my most focused and grounded knitters recently told me how “knitting has become an anchor and purpose” in her life, given the challenges she is facing.  Plus, I’m the first to admit that knitting is my mental health project.  I committed to making it a daily activity when I was new to the suburbs, at home, socially isolated with two little kids and mildly depressed.  Knitting became the calm, quiet and selfish act that I needed. 

brody pic
©Paul Rogers/NYT

If you haven’t read Jane Brody’s now-classic article on the Health Benefits of Knitting from the New York Times, it’s take to take a look.  If you have, it’s worth giving it a re-read.  Brody goes to great lengths to discuss the wide range of benefits from knitting.  Most importantly, she discusses how the “repetitive action of needlework can induce a relaxed state like that associated with yoga and meditation.”  And she goes on to note that “craft activities result in tangible and often useful products that can enhance self-esteem.” For me, that says it all.  However, there’s a lot more going on. 

Knitting for others in need gives us purpose.  When we help other people, we are also helping ourselves.  There is a social aspect to knitting that is invaluable.  Pithy conversations arise and real friendships organically form within knitting circles.  

Most relevant today, I find that knitters have a chance to fine-tune their problem solving skills.  In any project, mistakes are inevitable.  Knitting is a safe place for this, and a chance for knitters to identify and deal with their problems in a functional way.  They ask themselves “can I fix this myself?” and hopefully give it a try.  If not, they explore the resources around them, be it the internet or their favorite LYS (ahem, Wool & Grace) for some expert opinion.  The fix isn’t immediate, but it’s there.  

There’s something to be said about having the opportunity to confront obstacles over and over and to practice dealing with them.  I especially think about this with respect to the prolific knitter, the knitting school dropout and myself.  When we practice dealing with obstacles, even tiny knitting obstacles, we get better at dealing with obstacles.  So, when real-life throws you a real curve ball, you’re ready for it in a different way than you would be without all of that knitting-training under your belt.  

Knitting is a real act in mindful practice, and something that everyone from children to adults can benefit from.  Not only does knitting take us away from our screens and forces us to be present, but it makes us deal with our problems in real-time.  There is no instant-fix or reset button like we have on our technology. 

Now, how about some prescriptions to go along with all of this mental health knitting?  

Knitting As Meditation:

Val Cowl
The Val Cowl

If you need some meditative knitting, mentioned above with repetitive actions that induce a relaxed state, think of simple knits, try these listed below.

 The Val Cowl that was mentioned in last week’s blog is a perfect project for this.  Check out that blog for lots of yarn ideas.

easy folded poncho
The Easy Folded Poncho from Churchmouse

The most important thing is that you pick the easiest project possible, with minimal twists and turns in the pattern.  Another great project is the Easy Folded Poncho from Churchmouse.  This is just a big rectangle worked up in stockinette stitch!  We’ve been making it for years in Juniper Moon Herriot (yum) but think outside the box and consider something like Blue Sky Fibers’ new Eco Cashmere, Juniper Moon’s Kenzie or a Shibui combo of Pebble & Silk Cloud (for example).  

alexandra's airplane scarf
Alexandra’s Airplane Scarf – relaxing knitting

Another incredibly easy project is Alexandra’s Airplane Scarf (another Churchmouse Pattern) that is worked as a big tube.  Using a light and luminous yarn like Shibui’s Silk Cloud will give a result most like the pattern as written, but there’s no limit to your choices.  Pick a yarn that makes you feel happy to work with, modify you cast-on number if needed!

Practicing Your Problem Solving Skills

Giving your brain a little challenge in your knitting is going to carry over into life.  You’ll learn to be flexible in thinking about obstacles and in turn, you’ll be able to see the world around you through multiple lenses.  I think colorwork, cables and construction are great ways to bone up on these skills.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Sequences by Lori Versaci

Lori Versaci’s Sequences is one of my all-time favorite projects.  The finished product is striking, and anyone who sees your handy work will think you’re a genius for making it.  It’s construction is simple and thoughtful.  I’ll admit that the directions require that you read through them once (or twice) before you get started, and the first few inches look like gobbley-gook (that is all kind of the point).  You’ll have to pay attention to your knitting as you do this, switching between knits and purls on every row, and doing increases every so often.  One of the best parts of this pattern is that it is extremely forgiving.  If you make a mistake, you can fudge your way through it.  That is a mental hurdle so many of our knitters struggle with  – that there is no “perfect” – and you really can absorb that with this one.  We’ve made countless Sequences at Wool & Grace using Falkland Aran, but pick any worsted weight yarn, or change up your gauge (and finished size) by using any yarn. 

Jared Flood’s Cinder Scarf

Try cables for another sort of challenge.  Not only will the concentration required take you away from the distractions around you, but you’ll probably flub up here or there.  Guess what?  That’s the point!  It’s a gift to make a mistake (or five) without grave consequences, so do it in your knitting.  Check out Jared Flood’s Cinder Scarf and knit it up in a buttery soft yarn like Blue Sky’s Extra.  Knitting a cabled scarf means you’ll only be thinking about the cables, and nothing else.  

Kirkwood’s Cables: not too tricky but will keep you focused

Julie Hoover’s Kirkwood is another straightforward cable scarf.  The same cable is repeated throughout the entire scarf, so while you have something to think about, you have one thing to think about.  This is a beautiful scarf for a man or a woman, so you can keep your hard work for yourself or share it with any knit-worthy person out there.  Plus, it’s knit in a worsted weight yarn, so the world is your oyster as you choose the right yarn for you.  Written for Shelter, also consider Shepherd’s Wool, Falkland Aran, Kenzie, or Sueno Worsted to name a few.  

Color-work will challenge you in the same way as cables, and it’ll give you a chance to compartmentalize your “projects” and put some problem solving and flexible thinking to good use.  Pick a two-color project – it’s enough to ask you to juggle two balls of yarn a time.  You’ll find yourself asking questions like “what am I supposed to do with this other ball of yarn while I’m working with this one?” if you’re striping or figuring out how you’re most comfortable handling two colors at once for stranded color work!  Newbies can check out something like a striped chevron scarf or the pressed rib muffler (both from Churchmouse).  Adventurous knitters should consider a fair isle sweater like Andrea Mowry’s Throwback.

The tools we use in knitting carry over into life.  When you let yourself acknowledge that it’s not about making something perfectly, you end up learning a lot more about knitting and yourself.  

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