Nana knows what’s up. Knitting is good for you.

Rachel reprises a talk given at Nerd Nite about knitting and crochet. Did you know that the act of knitting releases seratonin, so it’s basically the same thing as having sex? All this, and much much more.

Listen to Episode 2 – Knitting is Good for You

Knitting is Good for You Podcast Transcription

Introduction

AP: Welcome to episode two of Rough Outline. I’m Amber Panting. In this episode, my co-producer Rachel Rayner will present the idea that knitting is good for you. That it can literally keep body and soul together, and that far from being a retirement pastime, it can help you make it to your dotage.

She’ll be laying down some hard science – links are on the website – and as a true believer in the modern scientific method she is clear that she is not a doctor or a scientist. And that while knitting is rad, she is does not advise using as a substitute for modern medicine.

Why should you listen to Rachel? Well, five years ago she picked up the sticks and now has a blog, Instagram and even a knitting tattoo so you know she’s committed. She’s also been published in fibre craft magazines. She’s a brilliant teacher, which I can say with authority, she taught me! And she’s going to give her talk now. Please enjoy it and ponder. Here’s Rachel:

Rachel Rayner on Why Knitting is Good For You

RR: First things first. What are we talking about when we talk about knitting and crochet? Well, you have yarn, that’s the first thing. It can be wool, or bamboo or acrylic, or any number of things. Then, you either take two sticks if you want to knit, or one hook if you want to crochet, and you make a series of loops and then you have a finished thing. Part of what makes knitting and crochet so damn interesting is turning a ball of string into a useful or beautiful object.

You can knit a sweater – I’m currently wearing a sweater I knit myself. Or you can knit mittens, or socks, or some boobs.

knitted breasts, because knitting is good for you

Someone in my knitting group created a knitted breast because she’s a lactation consultant and uses them to demonstrate how to draw down milk without having to touch new mothers in quite an intimate place. Other knitters create knitted breasts to donate to women who have had mastectomies.

You can also work any number of beautiful art objects in crochet, such as guns worked in fillet crochet by artist Inger Carina. We’ll have pictures of them up on the website.

crocheted guns by artist Inger Carina

Crochet is endlessly flexible, and lets you work in any direction which is perfect for three dimensional pieces.

Creating art, be it a crocheted gun, or a knitted boob, is an immensely rewarding part of the human experience. Crocheting something like a fried egg – or a penguin wearing a sweater – is an act of pure whimsy and delight. And that’s enough damn reason for anyone to do it. You don’t need the rest of this to be convinced to  pick up your yarn.

But let’s get back to the beginning. Knitting and crochet is good for you. Why is that? We’re going to look at this from all angles, starting by zooming all the way out. We’re going to start by looking at the world, and a crafter’s place in it.

Crochet is often seen as a really solitary activity, when in fact, the opposite is more usually true.

Crafting lends itself to social gatherings. A survey of over 3,000 knitters found that group crafting is reported to improve social confidence and feelings of belonging. For knitters who reported suffering from depression – I quote – “there was a significant association between membership of a knitting group and feeling happier and better about themselves.” 

Part of the reason for this is structure – knowing you’re meeting every other Saturday, for example, takes some pressure off, as does having the excuse of looking at your knitting if you don’t want to talk.

It can also keep you connected to society at large. Not just in the knitting group, but beyond that. Nowhere is this more apparent than knitting for soldiers in the war. By the way – this is still going on. We think of this as an activity in the great world and the second world war, with lots of women knitting socks on the home front to support the boys in battle. But this is still going on. There are calls out there to knit “helmet liners” for soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan. And you can also knit “Afghans for Afghans.” for those on the other side of the conflict.

Working with yarn like this can be a form of physical prayer. This is spelled out really clearly war propaganda. With each stitch, you’re sending a prayer to bring the boys home safe.

Music: We’ve all got a job to do, you’re helping when you knit. They also serve who stay at home, you too can do your bit. 

This physical prayer can be compared to praying with a rosary, or Tibetan prayer wheels. A deep dive into the internet reveals “knitting ministries” in American churches. “Prayer shawls” are given to those in need, and are commonly worked in “trinity stitch:” a bobbly pattern worked over three stitches, representing the father, the son, and the holy ghost. I’m not religious and never have been, but there’s definitely a feeling of “good vibes” and “communing with the universe” when you’re working on, say, a blanket for a very wanted baby, or a hat for a friend who’s sick. And just the feeling of connection and sending good wishes out there.

I mentioned earlier that little old ladies sometimes only become little old ladies because they knit.

It’s possible that knitting can help prevent arthritis. You often hear the opposite, that knitting can be really bad for your hands, so I’m going to defer to the experts here. Alton Barron, orthopaedic surgeon and president of the New York Society for Surgery of the Hand, recommends knitting as a way of preventing arthritis and tendinitis. He said that the finger action while knitting keeps joints hydrated as fluid is forced to move in and out of the cartilage.

Having said that, knitting is terrible for RSI, so take breaks when you’re working!

One common fear of getting older is cognitive decline. Slowing down as we get older is probably inevitable, but what can become Dementia often begins as mild cognitive impairment. People with mild cognitive impairment. develop dementia at a rate of 10% to 15% per year compared with 1% to 2% per year in the general population. One study it was found that activates such as knitting can lower the risk of mild cognitive impairment by as much as 50%.

That’s because knitting is mentally stimulating. Don’t believe me? Take a look at a lace pattern sometime. We’ll put some up on the website.

lace knitting chart

As well as keeping you healthy, knitting can keep you happy.

The physical act of knitting supports the release of serotonin. It’s the same chemical which your brain releases when you have sex, eat chocolate, or do both at the same time.

One really popular definition of happiness is flow.

That’s being so absorbed in something that time flies by; nothing else seems to matter. It’s been referred to as a state of true ecstasy.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has explored this concept thoroughly.

MC: Flow is an experience that we feel when we are totally involved in what we’re doing.

He descries it as “a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though it’s difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake”

MC:Everyone describes it as being very focused. Very clear goals, immediate feedback through the action, and a balance of challenges and skills. 

You see, the brain can only process so much, so when part of it is taken up with your yarn, the unimportant drops away. “One doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how the body feels, or problems at home. You can’t feel if you’re hungry or tired. The body disappears.”

MC:They completely lose track of time, they don’t notice they’re hungry, they’re tired, they are just sometimes working for days without stopping. 

Speaking of the bodily, a 2009 study of women hospitalised for anorexia, taught participants  how to knit, then questioned them on their psychological state. After knitting for around an hour a day for three weeks, 74% reported less fear and preoccupation with their eating disorder. 74% said it was calming, and 53% said it gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment.

Is knitting a panacea? Am I suggesting we throw away the NHS and replace it with a ball of string? Of course not. But it’s fascinating that something so simple could show such dramatic results.

It has been suggested that knitting may work in a similar way to EMDR.

Okay, to explain what EMDR is we’re going to try a little exercise. Everyone, sit up straight. Look straight ahead.  Keep your heads still, move only your eyes… look to the left, look to the right, look to the left again, think about your childhood, look to the right. That’s my understanding of what a session of EMDR involves, and now you all owe me £40.

I’m kidding. EMDR is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy. Basically, it’s a psychotherapy based on an observation that certain eye movements reduce the intensity of traumatic thought. Literally, look left, look right, feel better. EMDR has only been around since the late 80s, and there are questions about its effectiveness. However, some studies have found it can be as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy, and it is sometimes recommended for treatment of PTSD.

And knitting has traditionally been used as a treatment for PTSD. As many of 30% of British troops in the first world war were affected by shell shock. A lot of the treatments were absolutely brutal, ranging from electroshock therapy to death by firing squad. This started to turn around when one Major Frederick Mott suggested that shell shock was caused by severe stress, rather than moral weakness. As well as electro shock treatment, Mott offered “quiet, rest and distraction… simple occupations such as knitting.” And also basket making, which gives us the lovely term “basket case”. Occupational therapy is based on the idea that work can be a tonic, that it structures time and brings meaning to life, while giving control over a small, tangible thing in a time when everything is chaos.

Knitting was offered as occupational therapy, but just about everyone at this time knit as matter of course. We talk about the increased popularity of knitting, we blame hipsters, but there was a time not very long ago where you knit just because you had to. It was just what was done. 

Victorian schools offered knitting lessons as a matter of course. Children as young as five contributed to the family fortune by knitting socks for sale. 40 years ago, when my mother was growing up in New Zealand, import restrictions meant that her middle-class family couldn’t afford readymade clothes, and she knit jumpers every year for herself and her siblings.

Maybe that’s why knitting is only starting to be studied. It’s been so much of the fabric of life that it’s hardly been worth commenting on. Or maybe as so called women’s work it’s less valued, and the scientific community hasn’t bothered.

Once again here, I’m going to defer to scientific authority. I’m quoting from the paper The Benefits of Knitting for Personal and Social Wellbeing in Adulthood: Findings from an International Survey. There, the authors state: “Knitting has significant psychological and social benefits, which can contribute to wellbeing and quality of life. As a skilled and creative occupation, it has therapeutic potential — an area requiring further research.”

So I challenge you to declare yourself a guinea pig! Pick up those sticks and experiment on yourself with knitting! Winter is coming and we can stay warm, and scientific, and in a constant state of ecstatic flow with a little skill and a ball of string!

Conclusion

AP: That was Rachel Rayner, thank you for that talk Rachel, I really enjoyed it.

RR: You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

AP: Have you ever found that some people don’t take knitting seriously when it doesn’t conform to the stereotype of grandma in the rocking chair? You mentioned that at the start of your talk.

RR: Yeah, people sometimes don’t like to see stereotypes being broken, it can be quite threatening. I mean, what’s going to happen next? Are old people going to text? Women learn to code? Pigs learn to fly?

AP: Oh, the horror!

RR: It’s just not worth the risk, you know? And a lot of people just don’t see the value of making a jumper by hand, when you could buy one from Primark for just a couple of pounds. But I really hope i’ve demonstrated that knitting and crochet has a lot of benefits outside of just keeping warm.

AP: In future episodes we’d also like to look at the sustainability potential of knitting and discuss the gender politics with our male knitting friend, Mike Dickison, who you’ll remember from episode 1, the Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco.

For now though, thank you again Rachel and thank you listeners.

You can discover Rachel’s knitting blog at amiguru.me, and follow it on Instagram – amiguru.me. Visit us at roughoutline.org for knitting pictures, links to references from Rachel’s talk and more, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at roughoutlinepod.  

See you next time. Bye.

RR: Bye!

AP: Bye.

RR: Bye.

References for Knitting is Good For You

Want to double-check anything you heard in today’s episode? All the references are below.

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