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The strangely therapeutic effect of knitting

Manipulating a pair of knitting needles proves as good for relieving stress as it is for producing woolly jumpers.

Photo/Getty ImagesFor Janet Velvin, the process of knitting is just as important as the end product. The lifelong knitter – who with her sister, Katherine Gebbie, helped set up Stitch’n’Bitch, a group that meets weekly at Wellington’s Southern Cross pub – gets a lot of pleasure from giving away her hand-crafted woollen products. “My children compete for my jerseys,” she says.

But the physical experience of sitting down with wool and needles is also so pleasurable that she does it most evenings. “I find it relaxing and soothing. It’s a default thing; I can’t just sit still and watch telly.”

Velvin says that just as a yoga enthusiast practises regularly, a knitting nut needs to stitch regularly. “It’s part of your routine.”

The analogy is apt as there is growing evidence that knitting has many of the same health benefits as yoga: it reduces stress and anxiety and helps people feel relaxed. In a recent international online survey, many of the 3514 knitters who responded described knitting as soothing, restful or spiritual; it also improved their concentration and memory.

World of colour and calm: high-fashion knitwear creator Kaffe Fassett. Photo/Alamy 

The more they knitted, the better they felt: 73% of those who knitted three or more times week said it helped them forget their problems and organise their thoughts. And although they often knitted alone, about half also belonged to a knitting group, which they said helped improve their social confidence and feelings of belonging. And as UK-based artist-turned-knitter Kaffe Fassett has proved, it opens them up to a world of high fashion. His creations have featured in Vogue and other titles.

Betsan Corkhill, one of the survey’s organisers and the author of Knit for Health & Wellness, runs UK website Stitchlinks to promote the therapeutic value of knitting. She says rhythmic, repetitive movements such as knitting help release serotonin, the chemical associated with happiness and well-being. But she says the main reason knitting is so beneficial to mental health is that it’s done two-handedly.

“That’s important, because if you’re doing this kind of movement, your brain has to work hard. If you’re crossing the body’s midline at the same time, your brain has to work even harder. That means you’re more absorbed and less able to pay attention to other issues.”

In other words, knitting is a distraction from thinking about bothersome things. It’s so much of a distraction, in fact, that it has been used to treat people experiencing anxiety attacks. Corkhill says that after carrying a knitting project around with them and sitting down to knit whenever they start feeling anxious, they eventually get to the point where simply having their knitting with them gives them a sense of control.

A 2009 Canadian study found that knitting helped women recovering from anorexia nervosa become less preoccupied about eating, weight and shape control. It’s also been used to help people quit smoking, deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and manage chronic pain.

Throw in the fact that knitting is portable and can be done alone or in groups and it’s not surprising that Corkhill has become such an enthusiastic advocate of what she jokingly calls a “bilateral rhythmic psychosocial intervention”.

Corkhill’s interest in knitting’s therapeutic value was sparked when she quit her job as an occupational therapist and started working for a company that published craft magazines. One of her tasks was reading the daily mailbag. “I noticed that 99% of letters spoke about the benefits of craft and particularly of knitting.”

At the time she was only an occasional knitter, though she now knits most days. However, she warns against long, unbroken spells of knitting. “You should get up and have a stretch after 20 minutes or so, particularly because of the research coming out about how detrimental it is to sit for long periods.”

And although knitting is yet to become a mainstream medical treatment, she’s delighted by projects such as Knit With Me at Southmead Hospital in Bristol where a “knitter in residence” works with dementia patients, the parents of premature babies and stressed-out medical staff. “I think every hospital should have one.”

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