I wrote this article for Taproot Magazine Aug 2021 issue. It is also available as a free PDF in the Free Charts section of the website if you want to print a copy.
A Stitch in Time Saves Your Mind—Handcraft as a Wellness Practice
By Krista M West
Many of us have discovered the joy and wonder of making something with our own two hands. We delight in the cheerful click of knitting needles or the swish of thread going through fabric, the satisfaction of wearing a handmade sweater or watching our children play in lovingly stitched garments. The vibrant hues of embroidery floss or the sturdy softness of linen draws us into the fascinating world of making, and its quality to be creatively engaging and yet eminently practical inspires us to continue building our skills and knowledge as we create beautiful things for ourselves, our homes, and our loved ones.
Whether it’s knitting, quilting, cross stitch, embroidery, or crocheting, we find simple pleasure and contentment in these ancient skills and we relish taking time out of our busy lives to work at our chosen handcraft. And while the sensory delight and solid satisfaction of making can seem like reason enough to devote time and effort to these crafts, new research is uncovering an exciting connection between handcraft and well-being, making handcraft not only an enjoyable leisure activity or simple pastime, but an authentic and powerful wellness practice to rejuvenate our minds, bring health to our bodies, and strengthen us against the stresses of life’s rough patches. While we might be aware that handcraft lowers our heart rate—haven’t many of us experienced that sweet sense of calm when we sit down to knit or embroider?—a veritable symphony of positive effects are being played out in our minds and bodies when we engage in handcraft.
Making things with our hands requires focus as we attend to the stitch or pattern, problem solving as we figure out how many stitches are in this repeat or how far we work that section, and cognitive engagement as we hone our skill and plan a project from beginning to end. All of this is heady work and triggers engagement in about 60% of our brains, resulting in the release of powerful neurotransmitters like dopamine (responsible for feelings of pleasure, happiness, and reward) and serotonin (associated with mood regulation and feelings of wellbeing and calm). This cascade of positive neurochemicals can help alleviate symptoms associated with certain health concerns such as hypertension, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. And in some of the newest research, handcraft even appears to slow cellular aging and reduce the sensation of pain.
Throughout the human experience, we have innately gravitated towards repetitive activities such as handcraft to soothe our bodies and ground our minds, giving us a restorative respite from our daily lives, and a means of making beautiful things. The problem solving and concentration required to knit a sweater or embroider a table runner helps create a healthy brain by developing and strengthening neural pathways. It is these new and stronger pathways that help us relax, stave off dementia, prevent cognitive decline, help process trauma, and calm ruminating or racing thoughts.
This idea of using our “hands and our headpieces” as a means of healing and rejuvenation has opened the door to handcraft being used as an effective therapy in the mental health community. As early as World War I, soldiers suffering from shellshock were given needlepoint and knitting to assist their recovery and the last century has seen the medical and scientific communities look to knitting, embroidery, and quilting as a means of healing minds and bodies. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, and addiction have all been shown to improve when handcraft is used as part of the therapeutic treatment. And it isn’t just the repetitive act of making things that is powerful—the experience of making something can help sufferers of addiction create not only a scarf or a pillow, but a new identity as someone who can set goals and accomplish them, a person who can bring something positive and beautiful and radiant into the world.
In addition to these positive effects on our minds, handcraft can have even deeper and more profound effects on our overall well-being by providing a sense of meaning, purpose, and identity, both individually and communally. We become “makers,” members of a passionately committed tribe that transcends divisions such as race, culture, age, and even time: as a designer of Mediterranean folk embroidery, I delve into textile traditions that are not from my culture or my customs (or even my century!), yet I find a deep sense of purpose in sharing my area of knowledge with the greater maker community, and of helping keep these textile traditions alive and flourishing.
The experience of delving into one’s chosen handcraft and building increasing levels of skill is yet another aspect of wellbeing: having a sense of mastery in a chosen area has been shown in studies to have a positive effect on a person’s sense of wellbeing. In a study from Finland that focused on women handcrafters aged 19-84, this sense of mastery and skilled knowledge helped them navigate life events with more confidence, from the pressures of new motherhood, to changing jobs, moving cities, and experiencing divorce or the death of a loved one. Their handcraft was not only a constant source of comfort and self-protection during difficult times, but a means of proving to themselves they could do hard things. Because they had challenged themselves to learn lace knitting or pick up a difficult embroidery stitch, they had practice at setting goals and attaining skills and this experience transferred from their hoops and needles to their daily lives, allowing them to face challenges with greater agency and empowerment.
This is one of the truly inspiring things about handcraft—that it can restore and rejuvenate us through all stages of our lives, whether its the sleep-deprivation of new motherhood or taking a new job or a pandemic. In my own life, I have stitched my way through grief and joy, stress and contentment, transition and calm, and my handcraft practice has grounded and comforted me. No matter where I found myself in the last five decades—from the angst of adolescence to the merry chaos of menopause--my embroidery hoop and knitting needles have been a reliable constant in an inconstant world.
If these physical and cognitive benefits weren’t an exciting enough reason to pick up some knitting needles or grab an embroidery hoop, working with our hands has an equally potent effect on our psychological state. The soothing, repetitive movements of handcraft activate our brains in the same way meditation does and this knowledge has been a part of human experience for the better part of 2000 years. As early as the 4th century, accounts are told of Christian monastics in Egypt weaving baskets while they pray, and for centuries, Tibetan monks have made colored sand mandalas as part of their traditional meditative practice.
We derive comfort from our handcraft, in part, because working with our hands is a type of active rest which can open the door to the experience of flow, of being immersed in creative activity in a way that loosens our perception of time, frees our minds from daily cares, and opens ourselves to thinking deeply about our lives. As we’re caught up in the soothing click of knitting needles or the soft swish of floss going through linen, the part of our minds given to planning, decision making, and similar executive functions quiets, and the brain system associated with deeper, interior thinking activates. Having our handcraft as a time to let our thoughts wander allows us to set aside external concerns and engage with our interior selves. As we lose ourselves in the soothing rhythm of our stitching, our hands guide us to this world of flow. And, for those who find sitting still difficult, handcraft can provide access to the benefits of meditative practice through calming repetition and focus on the softness of the cotton or the smoothness of an embroidery hoop or the precision of the needle making stitches.
In a lovely paradox, handcraft not only facilitates this connection with our innermost selves but also draws us outwards by encouraging us to aesthetically connect with the world around us through our appreciation of the materials we use to create. When we make things by hand, we start noticing things like color and texture in nature and we are more attuned to their effects on our well-being—participants in one study reported that the bright colors of their quilting fabrics lifted their mood and another study showed that a handcraft session left the maker in a better, lighter, and more positive frame of mind.
So whether you pick up your knitting because you just love yarn or you embroider as a respite from your busy life, each and every time you pick up a needle or hoop or thread, you are crafting not only a beautiful handmade textile or garment. You are creating a good life, a life full of health, vitality, rejuvenation, restoration, introspection, and engagement with the beauty all around us, stitch by stich, project by project. A life of wellness and delight through the work of your own two hands. Now, go make something!