This month, I started knitting. A close friend of mine told me she was pregnant and, overwhelmed by love, I found a pattern online and started making a zebra teddy. Once I’d figured out how to hold my needles properly and stopped confusing my knits with my purls, I sunk into it delightedly. Within days, I was choosing to spend almost all of my free time knitting.
See, I’m a very anxious person. When I’m doing one thing (listening to a podcast, watching TV, writing this article), I’m simultaneously worrying about several others. Knitting solves this problem as I have to concentrate on it just enough that the anxious voice doesn’t get a look-in. Since I’ve started knitting, I’ve been calmer and happier than I’ve been in months. I’ve finished the zebra toy now, but I’ve already found patterns for blankets, jumpers and teddies that I’m going to try. I haven’t found something this beneficial for me in a long time – and I don’t want to give it up easily.
The therapeutic benefits of knitting have been known by crafters for years. There are hundreds of knitting groups and therapists who use knitting to help with mental health – and there’s research to back up this theory. A new report published by charity Knit For Peace has collected numerous studies to show that knitting and crocheting can reduce depression and anxiety. One such study claims that knitting’s repetitive movements release serotonin, which, in turn, lifts a person’s mood. Similarly, a 2007 study from Harvard Medical School’s Mind and Body Institute discovered that knitting lowered the heart rate by an average of 11 beats per minute, causing the knitter to enter an “enhanced state of calm” similar to that found in yoga. One report even suggested that knitting can be an effective way to manage symptoms of PTSD – so considering my diagnosis was for anxiety, depression and PTSD it's unsurprising that I find it so helpful.
Jacki Badger, who runs Etsy shop The Woolly Badger and struggles with her mental health, has found knitting to be a lifeline. “I started because I was off work with severe depression and anxiety, and it was a good day if I managed to get dressed. Knitting seemed like a no-pressure way to get some sense of achievement.
“I find the process itself soothing – it’s something about the repetition and watching things grow – and I really enjoy the smugness off the end result. It’s now my go-to thing when my brain is out to get me.”
Charlotte Newland, winner of the fourth series of The Great British Sewing Bee, has bipolar disorder type IV and, although it’s mostly well controlled, she experiences periods of depression. Knitting helps manage her mood: “I find knitting (and all handcrafts) to be really helpful with the obsessive and anxious thoughts that can be a problem when I'm depressed. It's not just that you need to concentrate on something – it's also the pleasure of working with beautiful materials. It's a great distraction.”
The therapeutic benefits of knitting have been known by crafters for years. There are hundreds of knitting groups and therapists who use knitting to help with mental health
Charlotte starting knitting when her second daughter was a baby and, although it’s a cliché, it seems that knitting and babies really do go well together. When Jacki had her first baby, her ability to knit really helped with her anxiety around motherhood. “When my brain tells me I’m a terrible mother and failing him in every way, I know that at least I can produce things to keep him cosy and warm. It’s a physical manifestation of my love.” And, strangely enough for a hobby which is usually done solo, it’s helped her feel less alone. “There’s a big online knitting community and I’ve found that really helps with the isolation that can come with both mental illness and motherhood. On a crap day, I can go on Instagram and chat to nice people about lovely wool.” Charlotte agrees: “I've met some wonderful people through knitting – both online and in real life.”
It’s not just new mothers who can benefit from the social aspect of knitting – Stitch ’n’ Bitch groups have been around in the UK since at least the Second World War and they’re open to anyone who wants to knit, no matter their gender, age or skill level. Knit For Peace claims there’s one group in particular who benefit from social knitting: the elderly. There are 1.2 million older people in the UK who suffer from chronic loneliness, but they can join a knitting group and almost immediately get a sense of inclusion, self-confidence and usefulness. In fact, knitting has a huge number of benefits for older people. It has been found to distract from, and even numb, chronic pain, thanks to the subsequent release of serotonin, and there’s also evidence to suggest knitting is effective at slowing the onset of dementia. A 2011 study from the Mayo Clinic of people over 70 years old found that the knitters among them had a “diminished chance of developing mild cognitive impairment and memory loss”.
And although, selfishly, knitting is good for you, it can also benefit others. My mum makes things specifically for premature babies in her local hospital – jackets in a tiny size to keep them warm, hats with flaps on top in case doctors needed access to the soft spot or to put in tubes and even, heartbreakingly, tiny little blankets called “angel gowns”, so that parents have something special to bury their premature babies in. She and her friends have also made “twiddle muffs”, which dementia patients play with to keep them calm – they’re made using different stitches to add texture. My grandmother, meanwhile, who is 92 and too frail to leave the house on her own, makes scarves for children in deprived countries and blankets for the homeless. It may not seem like much, but for parents in the darkest hours or people in need of a warm blanket, it’s a reminder that there are people out there who care. These items can make a huge difference.
Knit For Peace, a charity that was founded in Rwanda and India but now has a UK branch, has suggested that if more people took up knitting, we wouldn’t have so many people on antidepressants. Although I love the benefits knitting has had for me, I wouldn’t encourage people to go to the haberdashery, rather than their local healthcare centre – I’m fairly sure that if I didn’t have 20mg of Citalopram whooshing round my system, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up the knitting needles in the first place. However, I can say that knitting has been somewhat revolutionary in the way I manage my mental health.
If you’re interested in learning how to knit, you can search for your local knitting group on Knit Together.