Jennifer Hoyden embraces knitting therapy. In this guest post, she shares her own experience along with the psychological research that explains how knitting heals. Furthermore, she looks at how gender bias may contribute to limited widespread awareness about how craft heals.
Most everywhere I go, I bring a knitting project: doctor appointments, lectures, library, commutes, trips, family gatherings (especially those). Heck, I would sooner forego underwear than pack a suitcase without a knitting project. Sometimes I don’t even have time or occasion to pick up the needles, but they are there, just.in.case.
When I entered a cognitive science graduate program last year, I bought all the requisite back-to-school supplies and headed to campus with a small stationary store-worth of merchandise, some fear, and my knitting. Since starting, I have never once approached campus without my yarn and needles tucked into my trusty backpack. My hobby of choice is, literally, never far from my thoughts as I study. I rely on it to:
- steady my nerves before a presentation
- help me reflect on my reading or paper topics
- and, some days, just to remind myself that I am good at something.
Wait, am I saying that crafting is a form of coping? Well, yes, I am. In my experience, knitting therapy is healing in situations that are mildly stressful – not so stressful as to induce a panic attack but stressful enough to be uncomfortable. Knitting soothes. My experience shows it. There is also psychology research that explains this.
Why Do I Do Knitting Therapy?
Psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan built a Self-Determination Theory of motivation that parallels well with my knitting experience. Their position is that external rewards are not necessary to encourage motivation if a person feels personally satisfied.
One might worry that this means we can only be intrinsically motivated to eat chocolate and take naps (totally random example), but the theory identifies three underlying conditions that promote more productive engagement: competence, relatedness, autonomy.
Deci and Ryan also propose that a person can progress from less to more intrinsically motivated. I can pretty well chart my knitting development across their continuum, from a frustrated novice to where I am now (skilled), connected to a community of knitters (through Instagram and Ravelry), and wholly in charge of every detail of my projects. Considering the hobby brings me zero financial gain (quite the opposite), and takes up considerable time (an understatement), yet I turn to it again and again by choice, it is pretty clear that I am a very motivated knitter.
That my engagement with the craft fosters my sense of self-determination could be what keeps me picking up the needles. Having my sense of self-determination reinforced may help me face other unrelated challenges.
But How Does Knitting Therapy Make Me Feel Good?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might attribute my knitting high to flow, that happy state when a person is completely absorbed in her or his activity. This optimal happy place is the result, they have explained, of engagement that challenges my skill level just enough to stretch me but not so much that it discourages me. Also essential to this concept is having clear goals, and a sense of progress, which requires an ability to assess my own work. Yup, knitting checks all the boxes.
Knitting Therapy Across Generations
I wonder about the generations who kept this and other crafts alive. As the industrial revolution replaced reliance on craftspeople with mass production, individuals defied the new modern value of speed and kept on making, kept on crafting. And going farther back, women embraced many crafts in their domestic roles, including quilting, knitting, crochet, rug hooking, needlework, often to decorative (i.e. non-essential) effect.
Knitting for Pleasure and for Healing
Did these women engage in these activities because you can’t have too many doilies, or did they employ these crafts as a way to experience a measure of self-determination, flow, and self-expression, when the world was designed to offer them none of these? Were they crafting, or coping, or both?
I absolutely knit for the love of it, for the pleasure of the sensory stimulation, the beauty of the project, the satisfaction of the accomplishment. But I think my knitting is part passion, and part security blanket. Whether it’s a sock or an actual blanket, the act of knitting gives me comfort on a number of levels. It gives me a sense of control over my life, and it helps me think. I am not sure how I would get through my program without my knitting (and I have no interest in finding out).
I am not certain we can credit women with keeping these domestic crafts alive without also considering whether the crafts kept them alive. Quite often I have encountered historical descriptions of women picking up and working on handcrafts late into the evening, after finishing their work around the house and putting children to bed, when I would expect they would be ready to collapse. I think it’s plausible that these crafts were a form of domestic arts therapy.
Have We Failed to See How Crafts Heal Because They Are “Women’s Work?”
Where the art community has often overlooked the art that is craft, the science community has equally failed to deeply explore the role it played in women’s lives. The inclination to dismiss it as women’s work is allowing a gender bias to blind a research field from investigating the deeper meaning of that engagement, and what we can learn from it.
Precisely because women took it up, preserved it, and passed it down to daughters, craft takes on a unique role in the evolution of female history. It certainly piques my curiosity. The same tools that may have sustained women through incredibly difficult eras are as popular as ever today, still serving a purpose that has not received sufficient attention.
For now, in my academic work, I will enjoy using my knitting to full and fair advantage.
Jennifer Hoyden is currently pursuing her M.A. in cognitive science in education at Teachers College at Columbia University, and casting on, forever casting on.
Csikszentmihalyi M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 68-78.