Handwork: Knitting and Comfort

Such a sense of peace that descends on me as I watch, over and over, the colorful strands of yarn slipping from one needle to the other, twisting into shapes before my eyes. Time slides away, along with anxiety and stress. The needles tap each other over and over, chirping like crickets. I think about the person I’m knitting this chemo hat for, wishing them courage, peace, and comfort in the hard time they are going through. And I marvel not for the first time that so many useful and beautiful things can be made with just two basic knit stitches.


Although I’m a not-particularly-skilled knitter,  I have learned a lot about myself, and about caring for others through knitting. I’ve found my way into a global charity network that I count as “my” community, even when I am far away from the recipients of my labors (troops in combat in Afghanistan, penguin victims of an oil spill off Tasmania, distressed parrots in a sanctuary out west, preemie babies in a NICU, or people made homeless by disasters). It’s a wonderfully satisfying feeling to know I can make something with my two hands that will benefit and comfort others, so much more so, I think, than simply donating money to charities (which I still do). I feel involved and effective when I am focused on charitable knitting; I’m taking action to help, I’m committed. I am part of something bigger than my very small life.

“Using creative energy to help the greater good helps to harness the power you control with just your own two hands.  By making items for both yourself and your community… you are embodying the positive change you want to see in the world.” –Betsy Greer, author of Knitting for Good, A Guide to Creating Personal, Social, and Political Change, Stitch by Stitch

Packaged chemo hats ready to be donated.

Besides knitting items for chemo patients, preemie babies and other causes, I’ve been teaching knitting to chemo patients and antepartum mothers through Project Knitwell, a DC-based organization that promotes the therapeutic benefits of knitting. I’ve witnessed how exhilarating it is for new knitters to discover their ability to create something by hand, by their hands, by themselves. I’ve seen time and again the pride and satisfaction of a cancer patient donating a chemo hat that they knit. And the calm that descends upon antepartum mothers confined to a 1- or 2-month bed rest, their anxiety about their pregnancy diminishing as they knit.

Being witness to these transformations in others has allowed me to understand my own transformation through the craft of knitting. Susan Gordon Lydon captured well the spiritual and emotional power of knitting in her book, “Knitting Heaven and Earth,” when she said, “…I discovered the enormous power handcrafts possess to heal and integrate us when we confront the major calamities of life. The simple practice… of handknitting… [has] enabled me to journey within myself, to explore the mysteries of my own heart and my connections with others, to find the relationship with my true self that empowers me to live from my core. Handcrafts have served as my path to enlightenment… the way I discover who I am and make progress toward knowing how to care for myself as well as for others, my consolation in times of unbearable stress.”

I picked back up knitting in the aftermath of a devastating betrayal and divorce. I had literally fallen apart, losing not just reason, but belief and the desire to live. Alone after 17 years of being part of a couple, I was anxious and fearful, unable to concentrate, to read or to venture forth. Knitting was familiar although a dim memory, and it seemed to catch me before I fell, hooking my soul along with yarn on the needles. As I focused on the stitches, on the yarn, the colors, and the rhythm of knitting, I stopped thinking about all my failures. My heart rate slowed. Time was irrelevant. I was making something, I was focused.

“Creating is beneficial for a number of reasons, one being that it allows you to become fully immersed in the moment to the extent that your worries fade away. This ‘flow,’ according to psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, is the secret to happiness.” [Source]

In the focused, peaceful times I knit, I began to feel gratitude that my hands could make warm hats and gloves, blankets and socks for people. I felt a connection deepen with women of the distant past who had knit from necessity, appreciating that I was able to knit just because I wanted to knit, not because I was expected to. A sense of competence, of accomplishment began to grow in me as I figured out more and more complex patterns, and as my teaching style matured–I was bettering lives, maybe only for the short time of a hospital stay, and maybe for only a fraction of someone’s life. But I had been able to instill with the new knitters a sense of control, of creative power that would be with them forever.

And I realized over time that at my core, I wanted to–needed to–be part of something greater than myself, to actively contribute to other beings facing dire circumstances and struggling for survival. Once I  felt how central this “giving back” impulse was to who I am, the defeat and grief of the loss of my marriage disappeared, and I began knitting and donating knitted hats, blankets and clothing. And teaching knitting in hospitals. And researching how knitting provided such a sense of well-being to practitioners–which contributed to the book, The Comfort of Knitting.

“Using your hands meaningfully triggers healthy engagement and activity in about 60 percent of your brain. The rhythmic, mathematical nature of knitting and crocheting keep the mind absorbed in a healthy way, providing an escape from stressful thoughts but allowing for internal reflection.”Alton Barron

I am still knitting, still teaching. I knit 3-dimensional objects (a bird’s nest which represents my finally feeling at home in a home I created by myself, for myself); catnip mice for cats in shelters; warm winter hats, scarves and mittens which I distribute to homeless people in my area during the cold months; chemo hats–sadly, in all sizes, from child to adult; and preemie hats, booties and blankets which are distributed through the hospital to those in need.

I have learned about perseverance and courage from the patients I teach, and am always brought to tears by the joy on a new knitter’s face when they finish their first project. They have understood the power of creating things themselves, by themselves. The power is theirs!

“Knitting connects. It connects us to one another. It connects us to our deepest selves, to the vastness of our ancestral knowledge and internal landscape. It connects us to the elemental forces of the universe, the pull of gravity, the solidity of the earth, the majestic roll and swell of the oceans, to weather and wind, the animal, bird, and vegetable life around us, the ethereal heavenly spheres where our inspiration flourishes. Humble though it is, I believe knitting has within it the power to connect heaven with earth.” — Susan Gordon Lydon

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