Already an excellent winter activity in an ordinary year, knitting is even better suited to this season, when we’re being encouraged to stay home and restrict our social circles.
Picking up needles and yarn to create scarves, hats, mittens and sweaters is an inexpensive hobby and easy to take up, given the wealth of free online resources.
But the craft can also trigger mental health benefits. Many studies show that knitting helps to manage chronic pain, improve cognitive function and even increase happiness. Perhaps most relevant to these uncertain times, a survey of knitters taken last year by the Abo Akademi University in Finland indicated that they felt that knitting “can be a counterbalance to a stressful job, hectic lifestyle or other demanding situations in life.”
Amy Reddinger, a dean of Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba, Michigan, came back to knitting, after a long hiatus, in March, when the campus closed and she needed to get away from screens. Her first project was an ambitious one: a complicated shawl using some fairly advanced techniques.
“I almost quit a lot of times,” Reddinger said. “But I kept at it, and I was both miserable and joyful at times. It was a good emotional process for me.”
She valued the level of challenge as a “great distraction from the chaos and stress of the unknown.”
It’s well known in knitting circles that there are two types of knitters: There are those who focus on the results — a comfortable sweater, mittens to match a new winter coat, a gift for an upcoming baby shower — and those who focus on the process. Process knitters knit for knitting’s sake. They value the soothing repetitive motions and the feel of the yarn running through their fingers; they relish the colors and the act of creation.
They enjoy the good things that come with it without having to fuss about their work being perfect or their scarf stylish.
If you are considering picking up knitting, think of it as meditation with a little bit of equipment. Approach it for the joy of the process and to take some pressure off. (Also, it’s a good way to keep your hands out of the candy bowl if you want to change your eating habits.)
If the result is something that can keep you (or a friend or family member) warm, it’s a fantastic bonus. Just think: scarves! Hats! Mittens! Sweaters! Stylish statements, gifts for loved ones, blankets to welcome new babies. Once you become more accomplished, you’ll be a mitten machine.
Ruhee Dewji, a Canadian software developer who lives on her own, took up knitting in early spring at the encouragement of some friends. Before the pandemic, Dewji filled her spare time playing music in bands; she found that playing on her own during lockdown just emphasized her loneliness.
She finds knitting an uncomplicated joy with many benefits, but one stands out.
“I’ve mostly made things for other people, and I realized that when you are making something for someone you love, you are thinking about them with every single stitch, and somehow that feels less lonely, even though I am doing it all alone,” she said.
Although knitting is a single-person activity, many knitters enjoy gathering, both online and in person, to share the successes, laugh about the mistakes and learn from one another.
The portability of knitting is crucial, and as knitting doesn’t require one’s full focus or attention, you are able to engage with the people around you. In the Before Times, yarn shops would hold knit nights and libraries had crafting groups. There are also formal knitting guilds, and most major cities seem to have at least one group of self-identified “drunken knitters” who meet in bars.
Most knit nights and classes went virtual early this year, making them accessible to faraway members and those nearby with physical or other limitations that may not let them appear in person.
Before the pandemic, Seattle Yarn hosted three in-person gatherings a week. Destiny Itano, a co-owner, said that when travel and gathering restrictions were put in place, both staff members and customers were “devastated” at the thought that these groups might not continue. Within a couple of weeks of the city’s lockdown, they set up online sessions and have been hosting two events a week ever since. Itano said she was “surprised how well they work, not only as social gatherings but as a way for knitters to offer and get help with their stitching.”
And the local knitting community has expanded: Itano’s mother joins from her home in Alaska, and a regular attendee of their Saturday morning group lives in Germany. They plan to keep these groups going even after the shop is fully operational again.
Focusing on the result means that many beginners are often impatient with inevitably imperfect first projects. The first of anything you make will not be great. (Admit it, there was some disastrously inedible sourdough this past spring.) And it doesn’t matter one bit. You still get all the benefits (virtuous or not) whether or not you come away with a wearable scarf. You’re still going to be relaxed and mindful whether or not the beanie fits.
But to make that hat, you’ll need balls of yarn and knitting needles. Look to specialized local yarn shops, big-box craft stores and online retailers like knitpicks.com and yarn.com, the website of the knitting retailer WEBS. Yarn and craft stores also offer instruction and learn-to-knit kits for beginners.
Know that yarn comes in different thicknesses, and needles are sized to suit. Always choose your yarn first. Beginners might want something on the thicker side, and in a lighter color so you can see what you’re doing and make fast progress. The yarn label indicates the size of needle to use.
If you prefer learning with books, introductory manuals are easy to find in thrift and used-book stores, and the instructions themselves don’t change. But it might be worth investing in a newer one: The projects are more modern, and they use the readily available materials. “Vogue Knitting: The Learn To Knit Book” or “Knit How” are two good choices.
There are plenty of free online and video resources, too. The video lessons at knittinghelp.com are well presented, accurate and clear, while ModernDailyKnitting.com has articles, lessons, patterns and other goodies for knitters of all levels.
To meet other knitters, check out the online classes, virtual knit nights and other social gatherings hosted by a yarn shop in your area. Even if you can’t visit in person, their websites and social media will give you a sense of who they are and what they do.