Monday, 22 February 2010

Stitch Therapy

Although I was taught to knit as a child and even went on to Art school to do a degree in textiles it wasn’t until the birth of my first child when I was in my mid 20s that I really became addicted to hand knitting. My son was a model baby who had a 3 hour nap most afternoons and slept through the night from 6 weeks old. I had given up full time work to be at home with him and suddenly found that I had lots of time in which to do a quiet fulfilling hobby and my knitting fitted the bill perfectly. I had my routine down to a fine art and would relish my peaceful serene time spent knitting between changing nappies, feeding and doing all those things that mummies do. My knitting became my salvation because at the end of even the most trying of days (which may have included temper tantrums, bumps and bruises, thrown up food and screaming fits) I had something tangible to show for my day – perhaps one or two inches of knitting - which (when added to on a daily basis) soon became complete garments.
Over the years I have taken my knitting with me pretty much everywhere I have been and have rarely had a day when I didn’t pick up my needles (or my crochet hook) and work a few stitches.

The crafts of knitting and crochet have for a while now been described as the ‘new yoga’. This is not only because it has rivaled yoga in the popularity stakes (ok so that may be a slight exaggeration) but also because of the therapeutic benefits that a little time spent with yarn, needles and hook can provide.

In order to knit or crochet, many of you have to schedule some specific time into your hectic lifestyles. I have met many people who view their time spent practicing their hobby as their ‘reward’ at the end of their busy day. Some people choose to knit in front of day time TV whereas others knit well into the night once the children are tucked away in bed perhaps. Rather like going for a facial or a massage, the time spent knitting is classed as ‘me time’ and in today’s climate, where other pass times are becoming more and more expensive, many of us cannot imagine a more rewarding way to spend these precious moments, but did you know that not only are you relaxing whilst you knit, but you are also giving your brain a bit of a workout?

Dr Maoshing Ni is an anti aging expert who believes that there is a link between acts which use fine motor skills and the health of our brains. He has discovered that using your finger tips to practice fine work such as playing the piano, using an abacus, knitting and crocheting stimulates nerve endings which lead directly to the brain, thus increasing circulation, which in turn feeds our brains.

The brain is an incredibly complex piece of grey mush, with different sections of it controlling the various things that we do. A large proportion of our brains are left unused and as we get older our brain power diminishes. Therefore (so researchers believe) the more we boost our brain power in early and mid life, the less likely we are to suffer from illnesses such as Alzheimer’s in later life. By engaging in acts which use both hands simultaneously we encourage our brains to use both the left and the right sides at the same time. Our brains are contra lateral; this means that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and visa versa. It is believed that by teaching the non dominant hand to exercise you will be giving your brain a bit of a boost. Some researchers have even suggested that we spend a little time each day making our ‘lazy’ hand do a little bit of work it is un-used to. For example, if you are left handed; try writing your name or tying your shoe lace with your right hand. (This is not anywhere near as easy as you may think!) It is the left side of our brains that we all really need to nurture. This area of the brain is not only associated with skilled movement, language skills and hand eye co-ordination, but is also linked to positive emotions, whereas the right side of the brain is linked to negative feelings such as anxiety and stress.

I would imagine by this point of my article many of you (especially those of you who have knitted for a long time) are feeling pretty smug for having the foresight of learning to knit or crochet and thus exercise the left side of your brain. However, just as you were getting ready to pat yourselves on the back, I am going to pull the rug from under your feet – because - it seems that not only do we need to exercise the left side of the brain, but we also need to challenge it by constantly teaching it new tricks!

In her article ‘Purls of wisdom’, Irene Sege, who was concerned about her own ‘grey matter’, tells how her Doctor told her to learn to knit, master a new dance step, learn a new language or musical instrument because this would open up new neurological pathways within her brain that traditional puzzles such as crosswords and the more recent phenomenon of Sudoku could not. Irene says: ‘Years ago, common wisdom held that human beings are born with a finite number of brain cells, some number of which die as we get older. Lately scientists have discovered that the brain is capable of creating new connections throughout our lives. To be sure, the younger brain is more adaptive than the older brain, but even older brains are capable of generating new pathways.’

Betsan Corkhill is another believer in the benefits of knitting and crochet. Betsan is a medical researcher who has recently become a bit of a knitter’s guru. To begin with it was Betsan’s objective to set up groups and clinics within hospitals in order to help patients suffering from issues such as chronic pain, stress and depression by using the medium of knitting to divert the brain’s attention away from ailments. As Betsan’s work and research progressed it became clear to her that the crafts not only provided people with a means of occupying their brains, but also appeared to have possible physiological, neurological, psychological, behavioral and social benefits. Betsan says: ‘The skills and feelings experienced whilst knitting and stitching could also, potentially, be used to facilitate the learning of techniques, such as meditation and relaxation, taught on pain management courses, or in the treatment of depression. This could make their benefits available to a wider population. In addition, valuable life skills are developed, which can be utilized in education and the workplace.’

It is clear that many of us believe in stitch therapy although we may view it or use it in differing ways. Through my research for this article I have come across many instances of people using knitting and stitching as therapy. Some have used it to give up smoking, drinking, or over eating, whilst others use it as stress and pain relief. For some people it is the attendance at knitting groups which has broken their cycle of negative behavior or helped them make new friends. Others feel that they are using the craft to delay or prevent the onset of illnesses in later life. In whichever way we decide to view the craft it appears that we must not be complacent and must try to push our knowledge and test our abilities. Why not take the opportunity of attending a knitting workshop or visit a Rowan Design Consultant for tips on learning a new skill? For those of you who only knit – why not try to learning to crochet? As for me – I’m off to try and learn tai chi, the clarinet, the German language and macramĂ©……