Knitting, creativity, mental health.

I have been thinking a lot over the past week about the difficulties of talking about the mental health “benefits” of a craft like knitting. There’s a lot of really interesting research about crafts and mental health about right now, but I often have problems with the way such research is publicly communicated or presented. First among these is the tendency to generalise about knitting’s “benefits”. Mental health issues are many and varied; personal experiences of knitting are also many and varied, and yet all too frequently the two things are meshed together in terms that seem overarching, generic, or just plain bland. For example, I have often found the assumption that knitting is invariably calming, relaxing, or mindful really troubling. Don’t get me wrong: the soothing effect of knitting is one of the things I personally love most about it, but the idea that knitting can calm you down, preoccupy, or distract you might also carry disturbing associations of repression or control.

My concerns about placing too much emphasis on the “relaxing” nature of craft activities comes first from my own personal experience: over the past 25 years I’ve repeatedly found myself in healthcare situations where I’ve been told to “get a hobby”, or to try activities like adult colouring. On one occasion after my stroke, I was literally coerced by a care assistant into attending a scrapbooking session, and did not take particularly well to this approach. When you are really suffering (physically or mentally or both) such injunctions to “just relax and distract yourself” can ring as horribly patronising: as forms of mollification or containment that in no way address the magnitude of the problem. And this brings me to my second point: that the injunction to occupy oneself productively with the mindless work of one’s hands can come with its own gendered baggage. Looking back on some of my own experiences, as well some of the discussions of craft and mental health I’ve read, it is hard not to bring Michael Winner’s “calm down, dear” approach to women to mind (shudder), or to think of the “tak de sock” misogyny once routine in so many communities where women knitted (“tak de sock” is a familiar Shetland phrase that was the equivalent of saying “shut up woman and get back to your knitting” – though happily Shetland knitters now “tak de sock” without such compulsion, and the phrase has lost much of its negative association).

My final issue with the familiar and generic notion of knitting as “calming,” “mindful” or “relaxing” is that there doesn’t seem to be much space for creativity in that idea. Every time a knitter selects a particular yarn or shade, they execute their own creative design choice, and every time they modify a pattern to simply suit their body, they take creative control of both their craft and clothes. Recognising this is really important: to me, creative endeavour is at the very heart of what knitting is all about, for everyone who does it. As those of you who have read the pieces I’ve produced for Knitting Season will know, I’ve recently spent a lot of time thinking about how to encourage knitterly creativity in its broadest sense. While I’m someone who is completely comfortable with my own creative confidence, I’m often surprised by how under-confident many highly talented knitters are; how much they struggle with the basic idea of creativity or find it difficult to describe their knitting in creative terms at all. And part of me has wondered whether this difficulty is related to the issue with which I began this post: does the familiar idea of knitting as mentally relaxing, distracting or calming obscure alternative and potentially more complicated ideas of knitting as mentally stimulating, intriguing, engaging, or creative?

Last week a blog reader, Rachel, kindly wrote to me pointing me toward the work of Sarah Desmarais, and I spent a happy morning reading Affective Materials – the doctoral thesis Desmarais completed in 2016 in collaboration with Arts for Health Cornwall and Falmouth University. So much about Desmarais brilliant research impressed me: the nuanced understanding of thing-ness and material engagement (something I tried to get to grips with in Handywoman), and the thoughtful interdisciplinary approach to craft and making which brings fields like phenomenology and psychology together. And in her complete refusal to embrace the “calm down, dear” approach, Dr Desmarais offers many very inspiring examples of the very real and very varied mental health benefits of craft activities in group settings.

One of the many things that resonated with me about Desmarais’ thesis was her discussion of her own field-based approach, and the shortcoming of other methodologies focused on interviews or retrospective reporting (I’m sure we are all familiar with multiple-choice style questionnaires about our craft). Because crafters are very rarely interviewed while actually engaged in the process of their craft, they can lack a language to describe the variety and complexity of what they feel when they are crafting, or what exactly it is they enjoy or benefit from while doing what they do. Responses might be led by the interviewer, or the terms of the interview, or a participant might be pigeonholed into box-ticking responses in which a nuanced understanding of material engagement is completely absent. As Desmarais puts it, interviews with crafters about the mental health benefits of their crafts too often focus on:

“the soothing or pacifying rather than stimulating, thought-provoking, messy or frustrating effects of craft practice and provid[e] an inadequate account of aspects of process such as planning, problem solving, and design. When challenging aspects of crafts creativity disappear from view a remedial account of crafting for health results, reproducing conceptions of craft as leisure-time therapy without artistic merit and of participants in this context as passive recipients of care.” (Affective Materials, p. 52)

Sarah Desmarais does not write about knitting specifically, but so much of what she says is relevant to our craft. And I wonder how we, as knitters, might take up the challenge she poses, and begin to develop a different kind of descriptive vocabulary about the mental health benefits of what we do. The vast majority of us describe ourselves as “process knitters” and yet a sense of the complexity of that process – of what might be going on between our hands and minds – can get completely lost in words like “calming” or “soothing”. Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe that one of the really important things about knitting is its absorbing and relaxing effects, but without losing sight of that, might we try to shift the emphasis away from potentially troubling notions of pacification toward ideas of creative flow or material engagement instead? Can we find a way to describe the mental health benefits of knitting in terms of surprise, joy or excitement rather than just distraction or mindful focus? Why do we so rarely talk about the sensuous enjoyment or physical pleasure that knitting affords? Why don’t we look more at ideas surrounding curiosity, experimentation, and imagination when we are trying to explore the mental-health benefits of our craft?

These are just my initial musings after reading a piece of work that really made me think. And for anyone who is interested in such issues, I heartily recommend giving Sarah Desmarais’ thesis a read. I’d also really like to hear your thoughts about these issues (especially if you disagree with me completely!) Any suggestions for reading are always very welcome. And a big thankyou to Rachel for sending me down this particular rabbit hole.