‘Self expression of the healthy kind’ & other reasons why I love knitting

In the 1930s, Miss Helena Powell, principal of St Mary’s College Paddington, described hand crafts as ‘self-expression of the healthy kind’ & advised that making a jumper could help to prevent a nervous breakdown.  I came across these comments in an article when researching my own work on home-dressmaking & handicrafts.  Unfortunately it was too late for me to heed Miss Powell’s somewhat dubious advice on the ‘nerves’ front, but I could certainly identify with her comments. 

Like many, I learnt to knit as a child but it’s only recently that it has become a full-blown hobby.  For many years I didn’t have any hobbies, unless you count drinking & shopping.  All the things that I had loved to do had somehow fallen by the wayside.  It never occurred to me at the time that part of my loneliness, disenchantment & aimlessness stemmed from the simple fact that I didn’t do very much except work, go to the pub & walk around shops.  Slowly – very slowly – this realisation dawned on me.  Knitting was the first such activity to be revived in my quest to simply do something else.

It was a slow development. 

Christmas 2006: some friends bought me a beautiful set of knitting needles.  I must have looked slightly puzzled at their choice of gift, as they immediately assured me that my then-boyfriend had told them that I wanted to resume knitting.  I have no recollection of saying this; I was probably drunk or in the morose stage of a hangover when I did.

January 2007: I purchased a new ‘how to knit’ magazine, the sort that always get launched in the new year – first issue 99p type of thing.  It reminded me how to cast on.  That’s about as far as I got.  No more issues of the magazine were bought.

Sometime in 2008: it was a wet Sunday afternoon, I remember that.  It was around the time that I realised that I needed some hobbies, although I think I still envisaged them as a temporary measure: something seemingly therapeutic to occupy me until I felt ‘better’.  I decided to make a blanket, probably because it was easy – garter stitch squares. 

January 2009: my blanket was complete.  I decided to make another.  This one was completed much more quickly & to a much higher standard.  Seeing the improvement in my skills really encouraged me & I then dared to branch out to other items. 

Since then, my obsession with wool & needles has exploded.  I love knitting because:

1) As Miss Powell knew, it’s such a simple outlet for creativity.  Fairly quickly & easily, you can produce something – ‘I made that’ is an amazing feeling.

2) It’s the perfect balance between thinking/not thinking.  Knitting absorbs me enough to stop me thinking about other things but doesn’t require too much concentration.  It’s like meditation; it clears your brain.

3) Because it doesn’t require huge amounts of concentration, you can combine it with certain other activities.  My favourite is looking.  I like to knit & look at other things, like the view from train windows.

4) It is portable.  You don’t need lots of expensive equipment & you can take it around with you. 

5) Unlike many other hobbies, it doesn’t require anyone else for it to work.  You can knit alone or…

6) You can knit sociably, with other people also knitting, or simply with other people around you.  Plus…

7) Knitting is incredibly sociable in that it seems to be an activity that bonds people.  When I knit on trains, loads of people ask what I’m making.  Everyone has a story to tell about knitting, be it a much-loved gran who always knitted or a much-loved jumper that their gran knitted for them.

8) Knitting creates a community, formally (like a knitting group) or informally: knitters seem to be able to sniff each other out, like members of a cult or the masons or something.  I’ve yet to figure out how, but we can.

10) Knitting is useful.  You can make stuff that you or others can use.  The knitter who I’m friends with in the village makes clothes for the still-born babies at the local hospital; tiny, beautiful white coats & bonnets that they can be buried in – often standard baby clothes aren’t small enough.  I think that is the most amazing thing I have ever heard in my entire life.

11) Like those baby clothes, you can knit with love.  The time & effort involved in making a gift for someone is knitted into every stitch.  Sometimes I can’t express how much I love my friends & family in words, but I can say it in wool.  A friend’s little girl is about to turn one; I can’t make it to see her, but making her present (a very soft & squidy pink & cream knitted birthday cake!), I can show that I care & am thinking of her.  Finding the time to make a gift when you think that you don’t have the time is part of this – wanting to make gifts has really made me consider where my priorities lie.

I could go on listing lots more reasons to love knitting: being able to support small independent retailers; a long feminist tradition of re-evaluating traditional feminine skills; & so on… But I won’t as I’m getting tired & starting to ramble.  I’m exhausted after a long day, sitting in the garden, doing very little except (what else could it be?!) knitting.

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