From helping the community to challenging the stereotypes, I meet the women improving mental health – one stitch at a time.
“For me, it’s more than a hobby,” says self-proclaimed “craft-dabbler” Svenja Seligman, referring to knitting as her “cheapest therapy”. As we chat over Zoom, she tells me there is a layer of snow falling outside her home in Maine. “I’m not a fan of cold weather either. I definitely have a degree of seasonal depression,” she says.
“Knitting became like my way of getting through that.”
Svenja’s mother taught her to knit at the age of seven, and now she finds herself knitting all year round. “It’s really good for anxiety. I’m not taking medication or anything, but I definitely have a little bit of anxiety – whether that be socially or situationally.”
Alongside her passion for knitting, she gets enjoyment from entrepreneurship, photography, and marketing. Turning her hobby into a “side hustle”, she created Svenja Knits, a website and blog selling her handmade products and hand-dyed yarns.
“I’m a dreamer,” she says with a warm smile, as she discusses where she would like to take her passion next. Demonstrating her awareness of the mental health benefits, she tells me she would like to take knitting into a nearby women’s prison and offer learn-to-knit therapy classes throughout the community.
Having worked as an Emergency Room nurse for eight years, picking up her needles is a way to decompress at the end of the day. “You see people on the worst day of their lives, and you’re meant to be present in a therapeutic way, but then taking care of yourself is difficult.
“There’s not a lot of focus on taking care of yourself, so I think crafting gives that to a lot of people in the field.”
Svenja notes that the hobby allows her to enter a mode of relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness, and has been especially necessary over the past 18 months.
Looking at the evidence
Earlier this year, a survey by Serenata Flowers revealed that half of British women have taken up a new hobby since the pandemic began, with 15 per cent venturing into knitting, crochet, and embroidery. Twenty-six per cent of respondents said their new skill helps them to unwind, while 24 per cent said it allows them to switch off.
Although the pandemic has reintroduced the topic, the discovery of these benefits is by no means new. Stitchlinks is a Community Interest Company established by Betsan Corkhill, a Lifestyle Health and Wellbeing Coach with a background in physiotherapy. The organisation began collecting evidence in 2005 to prove the relationship between knitting and improvements to both physical and mental health.
In 2010, a survey carried out by Stitchlinks and Cardiff University took 3,500 knitters from 31 countries and found that 81% felt happier after knitting, with fewer than 1% remaining sad. Significantly, this translated across to those with clinical depression.
Last year (with the help of some equally driven ladies), Clare Anketell fulfilled her long-time goal to combine her passion for yarn with her 14 years of experience working with people with mental and physical disabilities. Claire, her sister Janice Moore, and friend Tracey Whitehead established Inspiring Yarns, a social enterprise based in Northern Ireland, with the purpose of improving mental health through yarn-based hobbies.
They had just held their first in-person session when Claire and I met over Zoom. The course aims to teach knitting and crochet to adults with anxiety and depression, with all materials provided and no prior knowledge necessary.
Claire tells me that the oversubscribed session demonstrated a “real community need” for a group such as theirs, where attendees feel as though they are in a safe space, surrounded by people who are likely feeling the same as them.
A highlight of the evening, according to Claire, was seeing participants interact, the concept helping to bridge the gap between age groups. “One of the girls even suggested to an elderly lady that if she was lonely, she would call round and visit her,” she recounts with pride.
Claire is hugely passionate, professional, and deeply aware of the fragility surrounding mental health. In February, she set about creating a management committee to give the initiative medical credibility. The board now includes a consultant clinical neuropsychologist, who oversees mental health practices.
“If we’re going out delivering a course and we feel like somebody really does need a bit more support than we’re qualified to deal with, we’d make a referral and see if we could get that person some more support from a medical perspective,” Claire says.
“Everyone on our board has some level of mental health issue or has supported a family member with a mental health issue”. When she and her colleagues begin to feel anxious, they find that their hobby is the first place they tend to turn.
So, what is so therapeutic about knitting? Claire attributes the benefits to its tactile nature, the colours, and textures of the yarn. “It involves all the senses,” she says.
Claire also believes that concentrating on following a pattern “distracts you from everything else going on in your head”, echoing Svenja when referring to it as a “meditative process”.
Challenging the Stereotypes
What is evident when speaking with both women, is that they are keen to break the stigma surrounding the hobby.
“Knitting is very much like a “Grandma” hobby, but I think that is shifting,” Svenja says.
With almost five thousand Instagram followers, she puts this shift down to social media, and thinks more people posting about crafts is helping.
Despite this, Claire argues that societal impressions have still stood in the way of her group receiving necessary funding. “There’s a perception that elderly women have knit groups in Church halls, and we don’t need to fund this for that reason.”
From Ryan Gosling and Catherine Zeta Jones to Michelle Obama and Demi Lovato, there are a prominent and varied selection of famous faces who have expressed their love for knitting. This summer, Tom Daley became the latest to make headlines, knitting poolside at the Tokyo Olympics. Claire points out that this varied demographic has always existed, and society’s continued surprise is a source of frustration.
Claire was grateful that the 27-year-old diver publicly referred to knitting as his “secret weapon” when it comes to keeping calm. A desire to highlight these benefits and challenge stereotypes makes her keen to begin working with youth groups and establish a group exclusively for men.
Tempted to jump on the woolly bandwagon, I ask Svenja whether she believes anyone can learn to knit, to which she replies without hesitation – “Oh yes!”