Making It Better – what’s the story?

I am really looking forward to our upcoming Making It Better workshop on October 6th at the Australian Design Centre, as part of Sydney Craft Week. Whilst playing with the possibilities of some simple stitching we are going to explore whether and if so how crafting can ‘make it better’.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been posting stories generously written by friends for whom craft has played a role in their recovery or increased their resilience to adversity. More stories are on the way and I thought it was about time I wrote down mine.

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Alpacalicious and my Arne and Carlos garter stitch blanket underway,                               square by square, row by row. 



What is the ‘it’ in ‘making it better’?–I am thinking stress, chronic illness, pain, low mood, fear, anxiety, low energy, grief, prolonged states of recovery and so on.

I have been making things for as long as I can remember. It is something I am drawn to. It is my thing. A feeling of pleasure, joy, excitement and comfort comes over me when I am making or in the vicinity of making or the materials for making or makers, or thinking about making. Clearly for me, making is associated with strong positive emotions. It is something I love doing, that I spend a LOT of time and energy doing and that I feel passionate about. But does it make me feel better? Is it what you could call ‘therapy’? I looked at the definition and origin of the term and came up with the following:

Therapy (noun)

treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder

the treatment of mental or psychological disorders by psychological means’.

According to my not so erudite source (google) the term ‘therapy’ is first used only in the mid 19th century but has more ancient origins: from the Greek, therpeuein, – ‘to minister, to treat medically’, evolving from the Greek, therapeia – ‘healing’  – and then to modern latin – therapia from which was derived from the ‘therapy’ of more recent usage. This suggests that therapy only applies to the treatment of an illness. Whilst I have no problem accepting that crafting may have direct positive effects on illness or the effects of the illness such as boredom, low mood, frustration, fear, anxiety, pain and disability, for most crafters, the benefits may be more encompassed by a broader definition of ‘therapeutic’:

administered or applied for reasons of health’ as well as

having a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being’.

Maybe this is getting too bogged down in the minutiae of definitions.

I guess why I am bogging down is that a lot of claims have been made in recent times (and not so recent) about the benefits of engaging in activities that involve purposefully making something. A quick google search unearths a plethora of adages, proverbs and memes that attest to the therapeutic associations of knitting (which could as easily apply to other handcrafts):

An idle mind is the devil’s playground

Busy hands are happy hands

Working with my hands keeps me sane.

‘Craftiness is happiness’

‘crafting your heart out makes room for your soul to grow’ 

‘crafting each day keeps the crazy away’

‘Money can’t buy happiness but it can buy craft supplies and that’s pretty close’

‘Crafting is the best medicine’.

‘I craft so I don’t kill people’.

‘Keep calm and craft on’

Knitting is the new yoga

Stressful Day, knit away

In the rhythm of the needles there is music for the soul

I love the way knitting brings people together – Debbie Macomber

My doctor suggested a high fibre diet so I went yarn shopping

I’m not addicted to knitting, I can stop after just one more row.

Just pour me my coffee, hand me my knitting and slowly back away.

Keep Calm and Cast on.

Keep Calm and remember you can knit after work.

All you need is love and a big ball of yarn.

Knitting – cheaper than therapy

Getting through the day one stitch at a time.

All you knit is love

Knitting keeps me from unravelling.

10 rows a day keeps the psychiatrist away.

And my favourites:

“Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirt either. – Elizabeth Zimmerman, Knitting without tears”.


“As I get older, I just prefer to knit “– Tracey Ullman.

As a scientist I like evidence. I want to know why the act of making improves our well-being. Is it the distraction, or the state of flow that we enter when deeply engaged in something that apparently lowers our blood pressure, slows our breathing and pulse and slows our brain waves; is it the act of touching or of moving our hands which releases brain chemicals that make us feel good (think how we rub our hands together or play with things with our hands when we are worried, think worry beads or rosaries), is it the act of engaging with others, is it the pleasure of making something, achieving and ever improving on a skill. Is it all of the above? 

And then, more questions – why do some of us get our kicks from a yarn shop whereas other apparently otherwise normal human beings would consider spending time in one a form of torture? What makes us all have different passions? When I was a young resident doctor undertaking a term in general medicine at a country hospital, I worked with a very competent gastroenterologist, assisting him as he performed endoscopies and colonoscopies. It was interesting work and I enjoyed learning from him. I was not remotely passionate about his field and was quite happy not to ever have to see another colonoscopy again. We spoke about what lighted our fires  – I had already developed a strong interest in psychiatry. He said to me: ‘I would rather do 100 colonoscopies that speak to a psychotic person for half an hour’. I know what I’d rather do (and in this case, I mean that I really like speaking with people who are experiencing psychosis).

For me, my awareness of the therapeutic application of craft became more acute when I became sick myself. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder in my early 20s  – a relatively mild form fruste of systemic lupus erythematosis or SLE for short. For most of the time I’ve had it, it has behaved itself relatively well and I have ignored it other than having the odd steroid injection into an inflamed joint here and there. A few years ago it became a much more dominant part of my life. I had a ‘flare’ involving quite severe arthritis in many joints and I was too tired and sore to be able to work. I took some months off and spent a lot of time on the couch resting, sleeping, watching DVD documentaries and trying to keep up with my other roles at home. At times, my hands were too sore to do much crafting but I found it very helpful to mark the passage of the days with a routine of activities that included a titrated dose of craft activity depending on my capability. I was working on a few large projects at the time – a crocheted alpaca blanket called Alpacalicious by Prudence Mapstone, a Lizard Ridge knitted blanket in Noro Kureyon and from the Noro leftovers, a complicated Aranami shawl and a cushion that I designed myself. They were a joy to work on. I also started another enormous scrap yarn blanket (from Arne and Carlos’ Knit-and-Crochet Garden) and at that time which involved 200+ stitches per row and endless garter stitch using up some of my excessive 8ply yarn collection. It was very slow going.

Some days I would only complete 1 crochet square or 1 row of my scrap blanket, but each stitch, each square, each row took me closer to finishing the project and I looked forward to it each day. I would remind myself that there were no time limits to these projects and I took great pleasure in the process of the making, choosing colours, enjoying the surprises that the evolving fabric presented. It was an act of slow, slow making and patience. All of those projects are now complete and we use them most days. And slowly, slowly, I got better too. My big Noro Lizard Ridge blanket covers me as I write now.

Since that time I have had periods of wellness and more periods of illness and my craft output is sometimes prolific and sometimes very minimal. I think that the experience of being unwell for long periods of time and not really knowing when I will be well and for how long has taught me greater patience and also the capacity to find pleasure in other things when my options are curtailed. When I can’t make, I can plan, or design, or seek inspiration from others. My craft has been an excellent distraction and has provided me with many opportunities to socialise, to teach and to learn. Even when I was feeling really unwell, I would rarely miss our fortnightly knitting and crochet group and always felt better afterwards.

When I was in hospital and last year with an infection and very low platelets and later recovering at home,  my crafting (and other) friends jumped into action and overwhelmed me with their generosity and love – they phoned, visited, delivered meals, emailed and texted and brought beautiful flowers. If you will forgive me a little schmaltz, they are my sisters and my village. I will write more about our ‘critting’ group on another occasion.

By slowing down, albeit through necessity I have finally had the time to take my craft more seriously. It is one of the constants in my life and I have no doubt as to its therapeutic qualities in terms of my own well-being.

In terms of direct healing, I am not so sure yet. I’d like to see the science – perhaps some randomized controlled trials, a PET study or two and some EEG readings, blood inflammatory marker assays etc. It is entirely possible but harder to prove, that my craft has had a positive effect on my mood and helped reduced my anxiety about being ill. It has quite possibly helped my hands to remain flexible and strong despite the arthritis. Knitting and crochet certainly got the nod from my hand surgeon after breaking my wrist last year.

I would love to see an expansion of recognition of hand-crafts in health – more research, less stigma, more open-mindedness. Physical exercise is well recognized to improve health (physical and mental) and there is a lot of older evidence for the use of handcrafts in recovery settings although probably not evaluated to today’s scientific standards. It is what occupational therapists used to do but they don’t learn those skills any more. Art-therapy has recognition but there was no mention of ‘crafts’ at all at last year’s International Arts in Health conference in Sydney. Surely there is an elephant in the room?

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