Knit, Purl, Heal

Scientific research now validates what die-hard knitters have long known in their hearts: the power to manage stress, to control well-being, and to recover from certain physical injuries often lies in one’s own hands.

Mary Polityka Bush Oct 28, 2020 - 11 min read

Knit, Purl, Heal Primary Image

Wounded World War I service members knitting. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Many were grown men, others barely old enough to shave. In later years, women joined their ranks. Volunteers and draftees, they waved farewell to loved ones and left their homes—many for the first time—traveling to distant states or foreign countries to fight for the cause of their country. As soldiers and sailors, they witnessed the unspeakable horrors of battle. Those who were not killed outright too often returned home with maimed bodies and with psyches shredded by the brutality of their experiences.

Wounds, lost limbs, blindness, and service-induced ailments were dealt with, following established protocols of the day. Addressing the psychological toll was, however, guesswork—and remained so for many years. Today, much is still to be learned. As far back as the American Civil War (1861–1865), knitting came to the rescue of many as they recovered from their injuries, both physical and mental.

In March of 1865, a month before the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) authorized the creation of an asylum where wounded soldiers and sailors would live while they received medical care and convalesced before returning to their families and society. The original branch of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was established in Maine in 1866. It was the first such facility in the world. The veterans lived in a structured environment established along military lines: they wore uniforms, slept in barracks, and adhered to a daily routine that began with reveille at 5 a.m. and ended with taps at 9:30 p.m. The day included productive activities, an early form of what we know today as occupational therapy. Information released by one board of managers stated that such activities were intended to “replace morbid ideas with healthy, normal ones to incite interest and ambition and . . . to restore a lost or weakened function either mental or physical.” Some of the activities were aimed at teaching new skills the disabled could use to earn a living after their release. Others, such as knitting, helped “pass the time.”

Civil War soldiers who returned from battle withdrawn and dazed, acutely sensitive, depressed, and unable to function normally, were diagnosed—one might say dismissed—as simply tired. A little rest, it was believed, would perk them up, and soon they would resume productive roles in society. By World War I (1914–1918), that same seemingly insignificant condition had a name—“shell shock”—and though it was acknowledged as a genuine affliction, the extent of its impact and how to treat it remained mysteries. During World War II (1939–1945), the condition was referred to as battle fatigue, a term closer to the mark, although treatment options were not yet adequate. The intricacies of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as this deeply affecting condition is now known, are more fully understood; more successful treatment options are available today as well.

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At the time of World War I, occupational therapists developed various programs to help facilitate the recovery of wounded veterans. Knitting was one of the tools in their arsenal. Observed to have a calming effect, knitting also helped convalescing patients feel useful and productive. At the end of a knitting session, they had something tangible—even if it was only a few rows of garter stitch—to show for their efforts. Manipulating yarn with a pair of needles also afforded those recently trapped in the chaos of death and destruction a measure of control they could extend into their postwar lives. The tranquil mood induced by knitting facilitated the grieving process for returning vets as well. Recovering veterans still rely on knitting for its therapeutic benefits. In a recent report from the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, California, veterans consistently cite participation in a knitting group as a preferred coping activity. In The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands, Dr. Carrie Barron, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, writes that knitting’s rhythmic, repetitive motion establishes a state of mind similar to that produced by meditation or yoga, other activities that help veterans cope. In other U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities, today’s recreation therapists organize creative arts workshops, which include knitting, to stimulate interest while simultaneously rebuilding the veterans’ self-confidence.

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A Red Cross poster from 1919. Collection Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. (LC-USZC4-9737). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Since 2005, physiologist Betsan Corkhill, a recognized authority on therapeutic knitting, has pioneered research into the meditative, creative, and social benefits of knitting. As part of her mission, she founded Stitchlinks, an online community-interest company located in Bath, England (see Further Resources). It is the home of therapeutic knitting’s global support network. In her article “The Benefits of Knitting for Personal and Social Wellbeing in Adulthood: Findings from an International Survey” (Jill Riley, Betsan Corkhill, and Clare Morris, British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 2013), Corkhill cites evidence that the planning, risk-taking, patience, and coping with mistakes that knitting requires transfer to other facets of life. Creating a project from start to finish involves goal setting (knit a red wool cardigan for Mom’s birthday), developing a strategy to achieve the goal (work two hours per day), and developing the necessary skills to do so (learn to knit cables)—in all, a three-part process that exercises important life skills. And because it involves task sequencing at a rudimentary level, knitting requires judgment and follow-through as well as focus on working the pattern and performing mathematical tasks such as counting stitches. Participants in one study felt that knitting improved their mathematical and organizational skills. Corkhill further notes that counting stitches can be a productive release for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Her research also supports what others have observed, that people who knit in a group experience the positive effects of a social connection and supportive friendships and feel happier overall than those who knit alone.

Ample evidence exists to prove that knitting offers physical benefits as well. The action of pushing one needle through a loop on another needle, wrapping the yarn around the working needle’s tip and withdrawing it, repeated multiple times, both exercises and strengthens wrists and hands. Doctors now, in fact, recommend knitting to patients recovering from breaks, sprains, and other injuries to those areas of the body. One doctor estimated that a patient who had lost movement in an injured finger would need to move it 5,000 times a day to regain its full range of motion. To that end, the doctor suggested knitting. It worked.

Knitting has also shown promise in easing the manifestations of Parkinson’s disease, one of the most common neurodegenerative disorders in which neurons die off in the area of the brain that produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked with motor skills. As neurons are lost, movement, control, and energy suffer while there are increases in tremors, muscle rigidity, and impaired movement, coordination, and balance problems. Drugs help, but so do repetitive movement activities, including knitting, that trigger the production of dopamine. Because dopamine is associated with pleasurable activities, studies suggest that engaging in hobbies such as knitting can, over time, train the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, another good-mood hormone, thereby providing long-term benefits. The production of these beneficial chemicals can be activated by something as simple as the soft clicking sound produced by the needles or the sensation of yarn sliding through the fingers, which has been likened to stroking a cat or dog, a proven contentment stimulus. What’s more, not only does knitting play a positive role in helping to control Parkinson’s symptoms, it has been shown to affect, even slow, the downhill slide of dementia for similar reasons.

Evidence indicates that knitting may work better than medication for some. In a study by the Mind/Body Medical Institute’s Professor Herbert Benson, insomnia patients who took part in a program that included knitting not only reported improved sleep, but nearly all felt they could forgo sleep-inducing medication. In another case, an individual suffering from depression testified that knitting triggers her positive emotions while antidepressants merely numb her senses. The truth is that knitting does produce the effects of an antidepressant without sluggish side effects. Knitting is a great way to treat anxiety, depression, and stress because it involves many different areas of the brain, particularly those which control memory, attention span, visuospatial processing, as well as creative and problem-solving abilities.

Although it has taken years to reach a conclusion, anecdotal data, empirical evidence, and scientific research now validate what die-hard knitters have long known in their hearts: the power to manage stress, to control well-being, and to recover from certain physical injuries often lies in one’s own hands. And knitting, an activity once thought of as being done on the home front to clothe and comfort soldiers in the field, now plays a part in healing them upon their return home.

Further Resources

Mary Polityka Bush, who has lived in seven cities in three states, currently resides in California with her husband, Tom. Her travels for business and pleasure have taken her to various locations in the United States, Europe, and Canada. She always travels with a knitting or needlework project to occupy her hands, distract her mind, and help her remain calm when flights are delayed and other travel plans misfire.

This article was published in Knitting Traditions Fall 2015.

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