Knitting to improve wellbeing
Many people are turning to knitting at the moment, but is there evidence that a knitting habit and mental well-being go hand in hand? Betsan Corkhill is the director of Stitchlinks, an organisation that advocates for the use of knitting to improve our wellbeing, and she spoke to Chris Smith...
Chris - Betsan, are you a knitter?
Betsan - I am, I do knit. I learned when I was seven, but I picked it up again when I started this project, because I believe in practicing what I preach. I've just finished a lockdown blanket, actually, that's for a virtual hug for our daughter who's alone in lockdown.
Chris - It sounds wonderful. Someone when I was making a programme about a year ago when the coronavirus first began to come in, she promised to knit me a toilet roll holder that had a naked scientist on it. I'm still waiting, so I can only presume she's a slow knitter. But how many people are there out there like you, Betsan? How many fellow knitters have you got?
Betsan - There are millions of people across the globe from all age groups, from different backgrounds and cultures. Our Stitchlinks newsletter now goes out to about 92 different countries. And it's certainly become more acceptable and recognised as a tool for improving wellbeing since I started this work in 2005. When I first started, I had to call knitting something different - I had to call it a 'bilateral rhythmic psychosocial intervention' to get my foot in the door with clinicians and scientists.
Chris - Was this to get grant money or funding - is that why you had to use fancy scientific language?
Betsan - Yes, yes. I don't have to do that anymore though, which is good.
Chris - Well, that's very encouraging to hear! But what actually is the evidence, then, that if I indulge in a bit of knitting, that it's going to actually benefit my mental health?
Betsan - The thing that first drew me to it was getting access to hundreds of thousands of letters and stories from knitters, and the large numbers of people from all over the world saying very similar things. So Stitchlinks and Cardiff University did a survey, and we had over three and a half thousand valid responses from 31 countries in two weeks, which was a huge response; and our most significant finding was the more frequently people knit, the happier and calmer they feel. 81% of respondents reported feeling happier, 54% said they felt happy or very happy, and fewer than 1% remained sad; and very excitingly that translated across to people with clinical depression. We also found the texture was twice as significant as colour for affecting mood, and that touching something good makes you feel good. And over the last year, the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics at Reading University have been carrying out a range of studies; they carried out a range of validated questionnaires on stress, anxiety, mood, and depression. We were then going to go on to do some EEG studies, but of course COVID intervened there, so we haven't been able to do that...
Chris - That's looking at brainwaves, isn't it, to find out how people's brain patterns change. But one question I would ask then is - is this cause or effect? Because if I was feeling jittery and unable to settle, I perhaps wouldn't settle to my hobby if it's knitting. Whereas if I was feeling calmer, I was feeling in a better place, I might. And therefore - are you just measuring people's mood with the knitting, or is the knitting causing people's mood to improve?
Betsan - From the work I've done, knitting is causing people's moods to improve, because we've actually managed to cure anxiety and panic attacks, for example, with knitting - giving people a portable project to carry around with them, and whenever they feel anxiety rising, they take out their knitting and it helps them to calm down. And I think that has to do with the rhythmic movement, the rhythmic nature of the movement. As you know, brains are constantly predicting, so our brain likes rhythm because it's predictable, it makes the brain feel safe. So yes, the work I'm doing is certainly pointing to the fact that knitting is helping people to lower stress and to remain calm.
Chris - Do you think it's just knitting? Because I put it to you - I might not knit, but I might have another kind of hobby that involves doing something where I immerse myself, I focus on the thing I'm doing, I concentrate, and if I'm concentrating on doing something that I find pleasurable - it might be, say car mechanics or something - it's removing me from ruminating on the thing that I was stressing about, or worried about, or obsessing about, and that might help me to distance myself from the cause of anxiety, and therefore I would feel better! And it wouldn't have to be knitting; it could be any kind of hobby.
Betsan - I would say, anything you enjoy doing would have that kind of effect, but I think the things that set knitting apart from other activities are the patterns of movement - the rhythmic movement seems to be really important in that - and the fact that it's portable as well. And we've struggled to find anything else that's portable, because then that gives you a tool that you can use anytime, anywhere. You can use it in bed, for example; you can use it on public transport. A lot of people use it as a self-soothing tool on public transport, and otherwise wouldn't be able to use public transport.
Chris - Sometimes wasting very long times for public transport to arrive, which can be a cause of anxiety in and of itself, can't it. Who would you recommend then? Who would be a good candidate to take up knitting, if they don't knit already, to get this sort of relief?
Betsan - Anybody who wants to deal with the challenges of everyday life, to decrease stress, improve mood, help with loneliness, pain, addiction, social anxiety; anybody who does screen-based work, for example, 3D tactile activity is really good. So really it helps you to deal with the challenges of life, because it's really important to switch off every day if you want to stay well, particularly at this current moment in time where it can be very stressful.