Thoughts recede, and fingers focus. Soft, fuzzy wool, sleek metal needles, plump stitches to count. Familiar, long-perfected movements, evoking an understated history of generations beforehand. I do as they did: pull, tuck, scoop, create. I may be sitting on my sofa in scraggly pyjamas, half watching a bad TV show, but in my hands I am crafting something meaningful. Meaningful, for all that it is mundane — a scarf, or a pair of socks — since I will have made it. And because it connects me, however momentarily, to a heritage of skill. Even though the Internet taught me to knit far more than my mother ever did, the analogue movement of my hands feels rich with passed-down human knowledge. Here is a craft perfected by people long before me, and here I am continuing it; even though today I could buy myself a wardrobe without lifting a finger.
It’s a common point of view. Though intermittently unfashionable or uncool, crafts have remained stubbornly popular far beyond the era of their necessity. Knitting, embroidery, crocheting, cross-stitch, and countless more continue to please people, to give them purpose, throughout the modern era. A mainstream passion for crafts comes in waves — suddenly on-trend, suddenly not — and it’s safe to say we are currently living in a pro-craft wave, nursed in the blogosphere and then exacerbated by the pandemic lockdowns. These tactile crafts are a comfort to many, touted as immeasurably relaxing, grounding, and pleasurable.
Why? What is it about crafts that makes them relaxing? One common answer today is that they provide a form of mindfulness: the practice of focusing on the now. Drawing from Buddhist traditions, the notion of mindfulness has become extremely popular over the last ten or so years, linked to our increased interest in prioritising mental health. Focusing on the tangible things around us (and not on worries, regrets, or fears) has been shown in various studies to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing, and engaging in a tactile craft is a great way to do so. Though the current Western notion of mindfulness is new, this is actually an old idea: the nineteenth century Quaker Elizabeth Fry sought to reform prisons in the 1820s by providing inmates with needlework. The Quaker belief was that inward contemplation was the route to religious salvation, and Fry believed that the precise focus of needlework would provide female convicts with a heightened state of contemplation. In other words, a kind of mindfulness.
This is something I have observed for myself. Performing small, repetitive motions by hand clears the mind. If I am embroidering something, I have to focus on the direction of the needle, the form of the stitch, the correct colour of the thread. My thoughts are bound to the now, and yet each action is just similar enough to allow for some mind wandering — a sweet spot between thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness. There is next to no room for anxiety or stress.
Craftwork is also effectively grounding. Inherently tactile, it is a root to the present physical world. The feel of the embroidery hoop, or the crochet hook. The rhythm of the movement. In an ever-more digital world, this is a quietly tremendous thing. Unlike the unnaturally over-stimulating contents of our phones and computers, crafting quietly produces something tangible, something we have accomplished in the world before us. It is the antithesis of the mindless scroll, when we find ourselves endlessly searching for something unspecified, consuming content but getting little from it. I can scroll for hours and feel as though I have found nothing satisfying — or I can exist in the tangible world, and remark on the progress my stitches have made. It is surely for this reason that people in restricted contexts often find purpose in crafting: be that someone isolating, someone bed-bound, or someone imprisoned. It is something to do, something to create, in a way that provides tangible accomplishment, that shows us we have made use of our time. It is for this reason that charities like Fine Cell Work todateach needlework in prisons, providing inmates with a way to reclaim their own small autonomy, and transform a period of confinement into a period of productivity. A little victory on one’s own terms.
For me, there is also a fundamental charm to crafting in the way it is rooted to the past. The way it feels like heritage in my hands. That I can make the same small movements as those that came before me, can sit and do as they did, and create something. This effect is tenfold if using an old pattern — as though reaching directly back through time to make use of its knowledge — but is there all the same when using new patterns that fit new fashions, with synthetic fabric and modern needles. The action is the same, the history ongoing. Some crafts can offer a direct celebration of connections, such as a patchwork quilt made up of memories from different scraps of fabric. My own quilt, made by my mother, draws from a few of my dad’s old shirts, bits of beloved childhood dresses, and old school uniform, among others. To look at or to touch it is to consider my own memories, and find comfort in kinship. Some practical crafts offer a chance to preserve beloved objects or hand-me-downs: darning, or the increasingly popular Japanese sashiko (a kind of mending through decorative embroidery), or coloured patching, to name but a few. In preserving and strengthening an item through traditional methods, a connection to the past or to family is preserved too.
All crafts, moreover, allow their crafters to indulge in the joy of creation. In accomplishing something real, in improving something worn, in expressing creative individuality. It can be bound up in love for another, offered as a gift — the ultimate expression of domestic affection, like Mrs Weasley gifting jumpers in the Harry Potter books — or done entirely for oneself. Though somewhat regimented in their processes, the aesthetics of a craft are ripe for individual expression. ‘I like this colour, I like this texture, I like this design.’ There is such pleasure to be found in it: the exertion of personal control over different elements, seen through to a tangible, literal thing, created by hand. There is pride in knowing: I made this.
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Isabella Palmer [Bio – Writing and Editing; University of York; Food and Fashion]Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team
‘Why crafts matter – the Grounding Tactile Effects’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on