“Look! I finished it,” says Emelie sitting up in bed, holding up her first knit baby hat for the baby she’s carrying. She’s beaming, her face alight with wonder, pride and happiness. “I’m going to teach everyone at my church to knit!”
I teach knitting to mothers-to-be and oncology patients at a local hospital as a Project Knitwell volunteer. The mothers-to-be are on extended bed rest due to heightened risk pregnancies. The oncology patients are usually in treatment or recovering from treatment. I even have a few hospital staffers and family of patients who attend my drop-in knitting classes.
And no matter how often I witness it, every time I see the look on a new knitter’s face as they show me their finished project, I marvel at the excitement and happiness in their faces. Something transformative happens when people who have forgotten their own abilities to make things at last rediscover their power to make things by hand.
That “something” happens as soon as they finish their first project, usually a garter stitch rectangle that, upon assembling, becomes a baby hat. When they started to knit, each stitch was laborious, fought with concern about “getting it right,” they were often frustrated at not being able to manipulate the needles or the yarn or their hands–all which take a bit of time to become comfortable with. And they often struggled with the interior critic that tortures most of us with whispers that we aren’t “good enough,” “smart enough,” or aren’t spending our time “wisely.”
But soon enough, with focus paid to the shape of stitches, with more of a sense of how the needles feel in their hands, new knitters relax into their knitting. The knitters report–each with a similar wonder–that they feel calmer and more peaceful when knitting.
Studies at The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital show that repetitive, focused activity like knitting imparts a calm, beneficial state known as “the relaxation response.”
According to the hospital, “The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension)… Regular elicitation of the relaxation response has been scientifically proven to be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders.” [source]
“I believe that in the quiet, repetitive, hypnotic rhythms of creating craft, the inner being may emerge in all its quiet beauty.” –Susan Gordon Lydon
I think it’s more than just “relaxing” that transforms the new knitters, though, I think its something very old–like millennia-old–that we are unconsciously reuniting with. Most of the knitters I work with are older women who went through the ’70s fight for women’s equality, and who probably, like me, wanted to cast off and walk all over the graves of anything that smacked of “housewifely skills–” like knitting. But, wordlessly, through our hands, we are making a connection through time to women of different eras and cultures who created necessary, practical, and ultimately creative handmade objects in the anonymity of their homes. We become joined through our craft and there is a sense that we belong to a creative community of sisters, mothers, grandmothers, daughters and aunties. There is strength beyond our own when we are part of a community.
“The desire to make things to wear, to use as tools, to record how we live and what we see in our lives is probably hardwired into the human psyche…
To knit is to be freed from time and the constraints of everyday life, to take our place at the table of the ancients, to claim citizenship of the entire planetary culture and relationship with the widest community of people from the present and the past. The humble knitter sits in the center between heaven and earth.”–Susan Gordon Lydon
We knit in the lobby of the hospital and field questions from passersby: “Are you guys knitting?” “Is this a closed group, or can anyone join you?” “I always wanted to learn to knit. How can I join you?”
The feeling at my knitting class, in the group, is different than when I’m working one-on-one with mothers on bed rest. Together, new knitters and some intermediate knitters, along with more advanced volunteers, we spark a pervasively inclusive, positive energy that pulses around us.
A knitter might share her fears about upcoming treatments. Others know what she is going through, having gone through treatment themselves, and they reminisce about their experiences. But mostly, there is knitting, help for each person, explanation of patterns, talk about life, laughter and the sharing of finished projects–accompanied by much warm congratulations. Volunteers clarify what people want to knit and help find patterns, yarn and needles for the knitters. We laugh and knit and share, and the time goes by too quickly.
“Creating things with my hands has opened my heart to find the love and joy in everything. I’ve gained so much more than knitting skills; I’ve gained a world of friendships and a community where I feel like I belong. Row by row, stitch by stitch, we knit, we untangle and we heal.” — Lee Gant, “Love in Every Stitch”