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The Unexpected Benefits of Crafting

by Christina Frank  

Knitting, quilting, sewing, and other crafts may seem like nothing more than pleasant hobbies, but there’s more to these activities than meets the eye. Research shows that regularly engaging in crafts may have tangible health benefits. Here’s what getting crafty might do for you.

Reduce stress

The rhythmic, repetitive movements and focused attention required of certain crafts seem to produce a calming effect akin to meditation. In an online study that surveyed over 3,500 knitters, published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, respondents felt there was a relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm. They noted that knitting was “soothing,” “restful,” and had meditative or zen-like qualities. The majority said it helped them relieve stress and unwind from the pressures of work. Additionally, those with anxiety disorders reported that knitting helped them cope with stressful situations.

Improve mood

In the same British study, respondents were asked to indicate on a 7-point scale ranging from “very sad” to “very happy” what their mood was generally like before they engaged in knitting. About one-third of them reported feeling some measure of “happy”; the rest reported either neutral or sad moods. After knitting, however, the majority of the respondents rated themselves as at least “a little happy,” while less than 1 percent said they remained sad. Knitting with other people appeared to confer an additional benefit, especially for people who had depression. They tended to report that participating in a knitting group increased their happiness and self-esteem. (Note that knitting or other crafts should not substitute for professional treatment if you are depressed or very anxious. But they’re certainly worth trying as add-ons.)

Of course, there’s also the lasting pleasure that comes from accomplishing a project and enjoying the finished item—or, perhaps even more enjoyable, giving it to someone else.

Head off cognitive decline

In a study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, researchers looked at 1,321 adults, ages 70 to 89, of whom 197 had mild cognitive impairment (a possible precursor to dementia). All of the participants were surveyed about their activities in the previous year. Those who engaged in crafts such as knitting or quilting had a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment, on par with the reduction seen in people who spent time reading books, working on computers, or playing cognitive games. The results add to the evidence that mentally engaging activities—including crafting—may help protect certain neurological pathways in the brain.

Empower women with eating disorders

A small Canadian study in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders included 38 women undergoing inpatient treatment for anorexia nervosa. The women were given knitting lessons and free access to supplies, and asked to report how the knitting affected their psychological state. About three-quarters of the participants said that knitting lessened the intensity of their fears and preoccupation with their eating disorder. The same number said it had a calming and therapeutic effect, and 53 percent said it provided satisfaction, pride, and a sense of accomplishment. The study had no control group, however, so it’s possible that other, non-craft activities might have conferred the same benefit.

Help people cope with chronic pain

Living with chronic pain is a challenge not just physically but psychologically, predisposing sufferers to depression, social isolation, and a perceived loss of control and identity. In a small study presented at a meeting of the British Pain Society, researchers at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, England, conducted an online survey of 60 people with chronic pain who knit. They also observed a 15-person face-to-face knitting group held weekly at a pain management unit. The online survey revealed that knitters felt a sense of increased purpose, meaning, and control as a result of their hobby; they also reported that knitting distracted them from their pain. And those who belonged to the knitting group reported they felt less isolated and enjoyed a sense of belonging. As with the other studies, there was no control group, so it’s possible that other engaging hobbies or social activities would have been equally helpful.

How to get started:

Check with a local crafts or knitting store to find classes and workshops in your area for beginners on up. There are also numerous meet-up groups for knitting, crocheting, and other crafts nationwide (check for options in your area). Many cities or states have their own knitters’ guilds, which you can generally find by typing your city or state name plus “knitters’ guild” or “knitting guild” into a search engine.