Knitters United: Building Connections Through Crafting
Päivi Kankaro explores how knitting can bring more social well-being into our lives, both online and offline.
On any given weeknight in New York City, busy city-dwellers would pack into a room full of strangers set up with craft tools and colourful supplies laid out neatly on the tables. The lawyers, the marketing managers, the HR people would take a break from their busy lives, and momentarily disconnect from the outside world to pick up a brush or knitting needles to learn something new and create something tangible. Sometimes they would bring along a friend but many came alone and would find themselves coming back again and again.
These events were hosted by CraftJam, a company providing creative craft events, and as head of content at CraftJam I would witness night after night the excitement and the sense of accomplishment that learning a new craft or a skill can produce. But while these events were great for exploring new creative outlets and the dexterity of our hands – or the lack of – it quickly became clear that for many people these events were opportunities to connect with others. Living in New York, despite being surrounded by the myriads of people, often engenders feelings of disconnection, and a fun-loving craft workshop provided a space to interact.
Knitting has been seen as a domestic hobby: a pastime done in the privacy of our homes in our free time. But knitting can also be a sociable activity that can bring meaningful connections into our lives, either online or offline. What is it about crafts such as knitting that makes them so fitting for social bonding?
It seems to come in the way that such crafts remain an individual activity, but one that can be done as part of a group. As explored in her study, Groupwork in occupational therapy (1993), Linda Finlay depicts knitting groups as presenting a non-threatening communication space where participation in a parallel activity creates private space within a social group. The set-up, which enables you to “be” with another person without eye contact as you engage with your knitting project, can provide an opportunity to speak as well as – because of that lack of eye contact – avoid feeling judged by the facial and non-verbal reactions of others. This was probably part of the allure of CraftJam events. Focusing on the craft project at hand made communication with strangers easier, especially when everyone shared the same challenges and triumphs of learning something new.
Interaction with others who share the same interests can have a beneficial impact on our well-being, enhancing the sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. In addition to this, learning from others’ experiences accelerates our own learning as supportive social groups enable communication, mutual learning and discovery. I see this every day at my current work at Myssyfarmi, a sustainable design company known for its garments hand-knitted by otherwise retired women. These women, whom we playfully call Myssy Grannies, are extremely passionate and skilled knitters, and being part of the Myssyfarmi knitting community has given them a strong sense of belonging, as well as a sense of purpose – both important factors in the well-being of elderly people, who are most prone to the health risks of loneliness. In the monthly knitting circles, friendships are formed and the latest news and knitting tips are shared. The social interaction is as much an attraction as the activity that brings these women together.
A desire for social connection is fundamentally hardwired into our psychology, and being deprived of it has devastating mental and physical consequences. Loneliness is a worldwide health risk for the elderly, but increasingly also for young people. Because of Covid-19, our appreciation for social interactions has grown even more as we’ve been forced to socially distance. But even though our world has changed during the past year, connecting over knitting has not stopped. In the times of isolation, knitting has provided a meditative and anxiety-reducing habit that makes us feel calm and productive. Though real-life events have not been possible, knitters have adapted and found new ways to create communities online as the traditional knitting groups and workshops have moved to Zoom meetings, Google Hangouts and Facebook Live sessions.
Social media has certainly accelerated the popularity of knitting. Aided by its high “Instagrammability”, and with resources so easily available online, knitting has become a way for some people to express their identity on social media. And for others, it is the only context where sharing creative makings and receiving understanding or appreciation in return is possible. Knitting has long been a hotbed of activism for progressive causes incorporating elements of feminism and anti-capitalism, as a forum for vital and recent conversations about racism, representation, inclusion and diversity – making knitting a platform to negotiate social structures and our everyday lives.
Whereas knitting can be great for creating communities online and offline, there are also other social elements in knitting that we can enjoy. For example, giving knitted goods as gifts, or donating them to charity, can be important in maintaining and strengthening community connections. Studies have shown evidence of voluntary work reducing depressive symptoms and stress as well as increasing well-being. It can boost positive emotions and generate a stronger sense of purpose. Some studies have shown it can even strengthen our immune system. All in all, the results suggest that giving is inherently rewarding, encouraging us to knit all the more.
In an ever more fragmented society, surrounding yourself with fellow knitters, or exposing yourself to new types of arts participation, can be an enriching experience and a way to build friendships and enjoy social interactions. What makes knitting especially fitting for connecting is that it can surpass the limitations of language and borders, bringing people together from all around the world. Knitting is not bound to a time or a place; it doesn’t require a lot of materials; it adjusts to our life situations and enables self-expression. And as we have learned over the past year, it can even provide a community in the time of global pandemic.
Illustration: Sanni Wessman
Text: Päivi Kankaro
This feature was first published in Laine issue 12.