For over a decade, many Project Knitwell instructors have witnessed those learning to knit unlock a relaxation response. A concept described by Dr. Herbert Benson and Miriam Z. Klipper in their 1975 book, it was a direct counter to the fight-or-flight response described by Walter Bradford Cannon in the 1920s at Harvard Medical School. This response is also referred to as an acute stress response or hyperarousal.
When our PK instructors teach, we are working with populations facing stressful situations that may have activated stress hormones. We aim to counter that negative pressure by initiating a relaxation response. As Benson says, “We claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom.” These researchers found that a rhythmic activity and a passive attitude could lead to stress reduction. In many cases, knitting is cited as one of the most accessible rhythmic crafts available.
Knitting projects allow us to flex the key skills of patience, perseverance, planning, and partnership. These four Ps are an extension of what researchers Corkhill, Hemmings, Maddock, & Riley describe in their 2014 Textile article entitled “Knitting and Well-being.” The authors describe a “self-management plus support” approach to healthcare and healing where these transferable skills help in managing ill-health and maximizing well-being.
Those who knit can build a sense of comfort and community which can promote overall well-being.
Patience is indeed a virtue.
The process of knitting and learning to knit requires the patience to try and retry. It is important to calmly correct any hiccups, “tink” (knit in reverse), and to learn from your mistakes.
“Knitters also tell of how they learn that mistakes can be undone, that they are not catastrophic and of how the end goal is not only attainable but can be richer because of the detours made along the way and the lessons learned. These are valuable life skills.”
Perseverance is key to most knitting success.
“The extent to which mood improved after knitting was also associated by some with the complexity of the project and difficulties encountered…The majority of respondents also felt that knitting improved their clarity of thinking. There was also a significant relationship between more frequent knitting and perceived improvements in cognitive ability, specifically in relation to organizing and clarifying thoughts, forgetting problems, memory, and concentration. As one respondent put it, “I knit because it helps me to think more clearly. I feel like it connects both sides of my brain and suddenly my mind is clearer.”
Planning and pacing a project is an important skill.
The mental tasks of choosing a project, organizing your color choices, testing your swatch, and following the pattern to completion are the same skills you need to plan for your health — for instance in selecting good exercise routines, choosing a variety of good food, and keeping up with your health care providers.
“Knitting is a curious mix of creativity and structure. Structure and creativity are opposing statements, so it is difficult to introduce and develop creativity within those who need ‘structure’ to feel ‘safe.’ Knitting, however, is a creative activity that is executed within the ‘safe’ structure of a pattern. Although constructed according to given patterns, participants are free to choose the style of pattern, type and texture of yarn, colors, length of time spent knitting, and the level of challenge or complexity of the project. Knitters can choose to follow established knitting patterns until they feel safe to progress. By beginning with easy, structured projects, where the reward is attainable with a little effort, followed by gradual encouragement of exploration and experimentation, knitters can often learn to enjoy designing their own projects.”
Partnerships are an important part of building community.
“Life circumstances such as illness, retirement, or redundancy can change identity and perceptions of self. Knitting can enable the knitter to build a new positive identity through, for example, knitting for charity. Knitting for those who are more vulnerable and in more need than oneself can change a knitter’s perspective on the world. Wrapping someone else up in something warm and cozy is symbolic of caring for others.”
“The main issues which raise hand knitting above other crafts center on the nature of movements, the development of creative ability, and its portability and the way it enables group participation. The movements involved in knitting are bilateral, rhythmic, repetitive, and automatic. Bilateral, coordinated movements engage more brain capacity than unilateral ones and appear to facilitate a meditative-like state more readily than unilateral movements.”
Knitting is a portable craft that can provide an uncanny, nearly instantaneous calm and deep sense of relaxation leading to improvements in overall well-being. The World Health Organization has defined well-being as “an ability to realize personal potential, cope with daily stresses, and contribute productively to society.” Project Knitwell looks forward to extending research related to the benefits of knitting and well-being. If you know academic or medical researchers we could work with, do let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quotes from: Corkhill, B., Hemmings, J., Maddock, A., & Riley, J. (2014). Knitting and well-being. Textile, 12(1), 34–57.