Weave your way through pandemic stress by knitting

When Julie Hatch Fairley’s mother died in 1998, the Fort Worth, Texas, resident struggled.

“I felt so empty, because nothing really stopped the sadness in my soul,” she said. Her grief counselor gave her a prescription “to revisit something that gave me joy for an hour a day.”

Fairley picked up a ball of yarn and began to knit her way through her grief. “I started to become content and learned to be with myself and not freak out,” she said.

The former publicist opened a mobile yarn store, JuJuKnits, in April 2019 in a pink-and-white vintage Roadmaster trailer, followed by a bricks-and-mortar store in October. The recent pandemic-related shutdown has made her pivot to virtual sales, and she said the demand for her beginner kits has been high. “I believe in the healing power of yarn,” she said.

Picking up an old craft or delving into a new one is a positive way to get through the coronavirus pandemic, according to mental health experts. “You might try knitting or something new; individuals should find what grabs them – that’s so important for creativity,” said clinical psychologist Mark Runco, who is director of creativity research and programming at Southern Oregon University.

Craig Sawchuk, co-chair of the Division of Integrated Behavioral Health at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said there is science to back up Fairley’s belief that crafting has healing properties.

A 2013 study published by the British Journal of Occupational Therapy found that knitting confers the well-being of those who engage in the hobby. The responses from 3,545 knitters worldwide showed a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feelings of calm and happiness. An earlier review of studies published in 2010 in the American Journal of Public Health examined the connection – primarily in adults – between art-based interventions and healing, including crochet and other crafts; it also saw the potential for art to promote healing.

The brain “is a very adaptive organ with survival mechanisms,” Sawchuk said. “It’s hard-wired to pay attention to threats, and its fear response can be activated by triggers such as negative news.”

Crafting can calm us because it shifts our attention away from such triggers, he said. It also gives people a sense of productivity and is “an excellent way to break up the monotony of the day,” he added.

Research is now turning to how specific crafts can contribute to well-being. In 2018, two psychologists from Oxford University started “The Yarnfulness Project” to examine the connection between crafting and joy, specifically focused on yarn-based activities.

Emma Palmer-Cooper, a co-investigator in the project, has not yet published findings that show that many people turn to crafting during times of stress, but has anecdotally observed that this is true. “Our findings have shown that the more actively engaged you are to a craft, the more often you do it, the more there are benefits,” she said, noting that she and her colleague, Anne Ferrey, are focused on studying the positive effects of crafting during working hours, and the effects on those who are furloughed because of the pandemic.

Many businesses, including yarnspirations.com and Michaels, have seen an uptick in interest since the pandemic started. Michaels has seen a 150 percent increase in viewers of Facebook Live tutorials with Lynn Lilly, founder of Craft Box Girls, and has also ramped up its how-to videos and step-by-step project instructions based on demand. It recently launched free online classes that include such topics as coaster-making and painting.

Emily Brown, an associate director at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said she turned to knitting at the start of the pandemic even though she doesn’t consider herself a craft person. “I needed something to cleanse my mind; knitting calmed me because it is a repetitive activity, and very soothing,” she said, noting that she would not “in a million years have had the time to do it otherwise.”

The benefits seem to be there for people of all ages. Barrington Scott, activities director at the Deanwood Rehab and Wellness Center in the District, said that the mostly elderly residents are painting more amid the pandemic; some of the artwork is showcased in the lobby. “One resident started decorating hats and that really lifted her spirits up,” said activities aide Betty Sartor.

Rebecca Reinbold, whose family lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said she was surprised to see her 6-year-old son, Hunter, sit still for more than an hour to knit. “His Montessori school encouraged finger knitting, and he was so excited when yarn and knitting needles showed up,” she said, adding that the activity may have made him feel connected to school even when he wasn’t there.

Ingrid Fetell Lee, who wrote “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” agrees that crafting can help us maintain a connection to the outer world. “We’ve lost a lot of the sensory input that we normally get when we are out in the world, so when you knit and paint and do those tangible things, you have the joy of textures like the colors of wool, and you get to replace some of these sensory stimuli,” she said.

You don’t have to be creative to give crafting a try and reap its benefits. Jill Weinstein, clinical director of Evolve, an adolescents program at the Berman Center, a treatment center in Atlanta, said she’s been amazed to see patients who aren’t typically artistic gain some form of mindfulness with crafting.

“The kids have a sense of control during a time when things feel so out of control,” she said, adding that a lot of boys have gravitated to tie-dyeing. “It’s also been amazing to see kids that aren’t really verbal express themselves in their artwork.”

With so many possibilities, how do you know where to begin?

Patrick Fratellone, a cardiologist with offices in Connecticut and New York City, recommends various crafts for all types of personalities. If you want a craft for dexterity, Fratellone suggests starting with something yarn-based, or with a thread. “If you’re a rugged type of person, build bird houses, or something for the environment,” he said. “I make candles because I also raise bees, and I have a lot of wax,” he said, noting that it’s about keeping your hands active.

There are many free online classes on topics that include cloth dyeing, building a bird house and making jewelry. The bottom line is that you want to create something concrete, yet something that warms the heart and creates a bit of joy.

If you’ve never been a crafter, here’s what experts suggest:

Try yarn-based crafts. These are often a good starting point, because many people have fond memories of loved ones knitting or crocheting.

Practice, practice, practice. Try to engage in your craft consistently or have a sense of routine; set aside a chunk of time each day – as little as five or 10 minutes. Sawchuk noted that crafting is a great winding-down activity, perhaps an hour or so before bed.

Don’t just play around. Making something concrete confers a sense of accomplishment. “Working with one’s hands and creating something really does something for your self-esteem,” Fratellone said.

Share your craft. Making items for your friends and surrounding community can lessen feelings of isolation.

Be patient. “When there’s a burden of stress, you’re already in a deficit if that stress is high, and it may take you some time to see the psychological benefits,” Sawchuk said. “The more you do [a craft], the more you activate certain parts of the brain.”

Don’t expect perfection. “I try to get people away from perfectionism because that’s an addiction in and of itself,” Fratellone said.

Find an online community. In addition to reaping the benefits of crafting, you’ll also receive the benefits of community. A recently published study found that individuals who felt depressed or anxious were more likely to engage in artistic pursuits, including crafts, if they had more social opportunities to learn and share their craft.

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