Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Three: Knitting Some Relief
Craft As Therapy
Once we've been drawn to knitting and come to appreciate what it has given us in a historical and social context, we can begin to relax into our craft. We can see the ways that knitting can help tame our thoughts and ease our minds. Some of the most amazing personal benefits of handcraft can’t be seen or heard or touched—the therapeutic and meditative benefits. While each one of us will have different experiences in practice, the act of crafting can help us all slow down a little, think a bit more clearly, and work out some of our various emotional kinks.
Perhaps the words of the great knitter Elizabeth Zimmerman say it best in Knitting without Tears, “Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either. When I say properly practiced, I mean executed in a relaxed manner, without anxiety, strain or tension, but with confidence, inventiveness, pleasure and ultimate pride. If you hate to knit, why, bless you, don’t; follow your secret heart and take up something else. But if you start out knitting with enjoyment, you will probably continue in this pleasant path.” Even though it is a humble practice, knitting can harness energy that enlivens, soothes, and heals.
A Quiet Mind: Knitting and Meditation
When I first started knitting, it felt anything but therapeutic or relaxing. My fingers fumbled clumsily trying to get two tiny sticks to do what I wanted, and for the first week or so, they never seemed to comply. For that (incredibly long) week, I wondered if I had embarked on the wrong activity as the swearwords muttered under my breath were more numerous than the rows accumulating on my needles. Much to my surprise, my hands eventually took over from my brain. Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing, my fingers seemed to be under someone else’s control as they knitted and purled repeatedly with few errors. It was a moment for celebration, although I was too scared to stop in case I wouldn’t know how to get started again. Things only got better after I got the fundamentals sorted out; I could never have guessed at all the benefits and surprises knitting would later bring.
Perhaps one of its most unexpected effects is its ability to help me focus my thoughts and quiet my mind as I create. Somehow my daily tensions start washing away with the rhythmic movement—hopefully this is true for you too. I find that I am able to focus on the stitch, when at most other times in my life I find myself constantly distracted. When I’m knitting, I can focus my thoughts on something refreshingly simple: wool and wood. With my hands at work, my mind and creativity are free to roam and explore. I find this state is less about completely forgetting the world and more about letting all the annoyances and worries that rack up each day slink off and disappear as I make stitch after stitch after stitch. As the needles click, the yarn weaves through my hands, and the item I’m making grows before my eyes, there is a process of creating and releasing. Everything boils down in my busy mind to the repetition of my movements, which finally allows me to let go of whether or not I’ve done the laundry or washed the dishes.
Such moments of tactile respite can help set up your mind for new thoughts and plans and actions, freeing you from feeling trapped by your never-ending to-do list. By allowing a few moments for yourself and your creativity, you can give yourself a much-needed break from the chaos of daily life. This break doesn’t have to be a grand act—just a simple addition to your day. For example, I often have my knitting with me around town because I find it helps bring calm to moments of angst or worry, but it wasn’t always this way.
The last time I was looking for employment was in the springtime, and having no privacy in my office, I went outside for interviews. I would sit on a quiet, grassy hill nearby for a few minutes before a prospective employer was supposed to call and find myself staring at my cell phone, nervously awaiting yet another interview. On one such day, I took out my knitting after a few minutes of staring fruitlessly at the phone. I worked a few rows, paying specific attention to my breath. When the phone finally rang, I was much calmer than I had been for any of my previous interviews. By accident, I discovered that instead of waiting for worry to accumulate, I could use my knitting as a way to focus on my breath at that moment, successfully keeping my interview anxiety at bay. Since then, I have rarely been without my knitting, just in case.
Much of the meditative quality of knitting comes from its repetition. There is safety in repetition; we are likely to know the end result, so there is little anxiety in the process. According to Dr. Herbert Benson, who has spent his career researching the mind-body connection, “Benefits can come from a spectrum of repetitive, mind-clearing practices that elicit the so-called relaxation response—from swaying in prayer to saying the rosary to knitting.” It was Benson who termed this the Relaxation Response, which works on the principle of getting your whole body to relax. The response itself is defined as “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension).”
We can take the relaxing benefit of knitting’s repetitive nature a bit further by looking at it as a meditation. When we are able to sink into the safety of our knitting and clear our minds, we can turn our focus to our breathing, deepening our experience. As Tara Jon Manning writes in her book Mindful Knitting, “The act of knitting is inherently built on the formation of a stitch, the creation of fabric. When we knit, we place our attention over and over again on the natural rhythm of creating fabric from yarn—insert needle, wrap yarn, pull through a new stitch, repeat. Following this simple repetitive action is the basis of contemplative practice. It continually reminds us to stay focused, to stay in the moment. When we knit with this attention, we have an almost indescribable feeling of satisfaction and contentment. This is knitting as meditation.”
We can pursue this meditative aspect intentionally or set a specific time to do a knitting meditation during which we knit a simple pattern, not worrying about perfection. Sit down with your knitting and strive to knit and meditate for a certain length of time. Once that time has lapsed, cut the yarn, and rip out the work you just did. This way, the next time you want to do a knitting meditation, you can knit until the yarn runs out, marking the allotted time you wanted to meditate.
As we try to navigate our daily responsibilities, it’s important that we take the time to rest and be still. Just taking a snippet of time for ourselves, when we’re not running around trying to finish everything on our agendas, can actually benefit the quality of our work. In all our rushing around, we often forget that giving our minds a few minutes off can put a fresher and brighter perspective on things. The hardest part is remembering that we deserve a few calm moments. But where do we find them?
Even though I kept running around from one thing to the next every day, I decided to start taking my knitting with me everywhere as an experiment. On the days when I felt like I had no time to myself, the very act of getting out my knitting was a reminder of the bits and bobs of quiet I did have. Whenever I found myself waiting or traveling on the subway, I would pull out my knitting. I would sometimes work half a row, sometimes twenty, but at the end of the week, I had made progress—although admittedly more some weeks than others. And when I thought back on how hectic my week had been, I could quantify the moments I’d had to myself in the progress of my knitting. Suddenly what seemed like useless bits of free time became time spent relaxed instead of stressed. Instead of idly daydreaming or worrying about my next destination, I emptied my mind of all of it and enjoyed a few hard-earned minutes of reprieve. The added benefit of helping ease my nerves before an interview? Another wonderful surprise!
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Basket-weave Baby Blanket