Knitting is back in fashion thanks to the de-facto symbol of feminism, the pink pussyhat. In 2017, thousands of women across the world brought out their knitting needles in response Donald Trump’s lewd comments about women. The distinctive pink hat is simple to knit and has ears, like a cat, and was worn at many protest marches in the US and abroad.
A number of studies in recent years have shown that knitting is more than craft.
Results of a survey of over 3,500 knitters worldwide, published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, concluded that "Knitting has significant psychological and social benefits, which can contribute to wellbeing and quality of life."
A recent comprehensive report by Knit for Peace, an international knitting collective that distributes knitted items to needy people around the world, has revealed that knitting has both physical and mental health benefits.
The research shows that the act of knitting can distract from chronic pain, lower blood pressure, reduce depression and anxiety, and even slow the onset of dementia. Because knitting is both process and product-oriented, crafters benefit from both the repetitive nature of the task, and the satisfaction of completing the task.
The repetitive movements are said to induce a meditative-like calm, distracting knitters from their symptoms, while those who join charities and form groups benefit from these effective social support networks.
The report discusses how those experiencing a period of personal crisis, such as life-threatening diagnosis, might turn to meaningful creative occupations such as knitting to regain a sense of control and normalcy in their lives.
Of those surveyed by Knit for Peace, 92% of respondents in poor or very poor health, said knitting improved their health, 82% said knitting relaxed them and 92% said knitting improved their mood.
We asked local knitters what they thought of this research
Maria Nieuwstadt of Mama’s Wool and Habby in Diepriver, Cape Town, shared that local interest in knitting has had its ups and downs over the last 30 years. “In the last few years knitting has regained popularity. Knitting and handwork was taken out of the school curriculum, but we’ve seen teachers who have reintroduced it themselves, as they have seen the advantages such as improved hand-eye coordination,” she told us.
Nieuwstadt tells of a customer who had seen her doctor about pain in the joints of her hands: “He recommended that she take up knitting, and within weeks she was showing us her hands, delighted to say her fingers were more supple and she had no pain.”
Many customers tell her that they find knitting to be calming and that it relieves stress, while others enjoy knitting for charity. Nieuwstadt explains that knitting groups are often organised in retirement villages as an activity for people to get together and socialise while knitting. There is often a focus to knit items for various charities.
Popular charities include Knitted Knockers, comfort dolls for abused children, school jerseys for orphans, 67 blankets for Nelson Mandela Day and the Zoe Project which supplies mom and baby packs for those in need at local hospitals.
Gina Ross of South African wool supplier Natural Yarns told us she has suffered with chronic neck pain for years, and that knitting distracts her from the pain. “Casting on a new project is one of the best feelings - the joy of finding the right yarn and the right pattern and starting a project is very satisfying and I strongly suspect that this process stimulates the release of many happy endorphins” she said in an email.
For those who knit for others, she says, it is a labour of love. “The satisfaction that one gets from someone loving and wearing what you have made for them is huge,” Ross wrote. “Figuring out a pattern or an unusual technique can be like a puzzle to solve, I imagine that this is why it is said to delay the onset of dementia as it challenges one's brain.”
Beth Burke and Nina Saacks believe so strongly in the therapeutic benefits of knitting, that they founded an entire business on the hobby. Knit & Breathe came about in 2016, when the friends decided to offer clients an opportunity to escape for a few days, to meet like-minded people and relax, while knitting and practicing yoga.
“In days gone by, knitting was a more functional activity - people made the clothes they or their family needed to wear”, Burke told us. “These days it has evolved into a more social pastime. At our retreats people are making new friends with very diverse lives but a shared passion for the craft.”
Saacks adds that there is a lot of research describing how beneficial knitting is to reduce stress, improve motor skills and cognitive memory. “Our intention wasn't to address these issues directly, however we found that it is exactly what we were doing. We've seen on our retreats how participants have had a self-esteem boost from what they manage to achieve, whether it is mastering a new technique that initially seems intimidating or completing a project they're proud of. It gives them new-found confidence.”