I don’t think I’m alone when I say 2020 has been hard.
As someone diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, my thoughts are prone to excessive worry even in typical, pandemic-free years. So when I lost my job due to COVID-19, watched case numbers rise, and compulsively followed every development of the election, this year served me a layer-cake of anxiety on a silver platter.
The safer-at-home guidelines made my usual stress-relief activities—like biweekly yoga classes and movies at the local indie theater—impossible. Even socially-distanced excursions like hiking and camping became complicated as fires raged throughout my state.
So, unable to venture outside my 550-square-foot apartment, I turned to my yarn.
My first foray into crafting began on a snowy Sunday in 2018. I had recently moved to Denver, and in an attempt to meet new people, I ventured through the cold to a craft (pun intended) brewery that offered a unique pairing with your pint: a cross-stitch kit.
After a few hours forming and untangling knots with other first-timers, I had a (very lopsided) cross-stitch. And I was hooked. Over the past two years I continued to cross-stitch, and took up knitting and crocheting as well. At first, I thought of the crafts as a way to keep my hands busy while watching The Bachelor, but soon my free time was hopelessly entangled in skeins of yarn and embroidery floss.
Throughout 2020, crafting monopolized my days—and the effects of stitching became more and more noticeable. I picked up my knitting after receiving yet another application rejection. I crocheted a tank top when I had nothing to do but check and recheck Twitter. I cross-stitched an elaborate hoop when I’d feel the breathlessness of anxiety start to seep in around me.
After a few hours engulfed in a pattern, I’d be calmer, happier, and not as preoccupied with all the things that were beyond my control. For me, there’s no greater salve than the I-made-this-beautiful-functional-object-stitch-by-stitch feeling, especially when the world is heavy.
I’m not the only one who’s felt the power of creativity. Experts say there’s a clear connection between crafting and improved wellbeing—and there’s evidence to back it up.
The clicking of needles, the counting of stitches, the rhythm of moving your fingers to knit and purl. Spending every evening bent over my work, I realized knitting’s repetition makes my mind focus and be fully present in the moment — two things I notoriously struggle with as an anxious human. I could lose myself in hours of stitching, thinking of nothing but the lines of the pattern.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named this feeling “flow,” a state of being totally absorbed in creating when everything else disappears. He credits flow as the key to living a happy life.
“When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, [you don’t] have attention left over to monitor how [your] body feels or [your] problems at home,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk. “Once those conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
In her thesis, creativity researcher Jennifer Hoyden analyzed the development of agency through knitting. A knitter herself, Hoyden says she was drawn to study the artform after noticing how impactful it is to her own wellbeing.
She surveyed over 400 knitters and found that a number of those who came to the craft in adulthood did so during periods of heightened stress.
“If you give your hands a place to release energy, like letting the steam out, that will send biofeedback messages of, ‘I am calm,’” Hoyden says.
Studies have linked social media use with poor sleep, low self-esteem and high levels of anxiety and depression. I’m no different: my anxiety spikes while doom-scrolling (the act of endless consumption of negative online news, to the detriment of the scroller’s mental wellness), yet I’m incapable of putting my phone down for more than a few moments at a time.
“It’s really important to limit how much exposure you allow yourself,” says Martha Dorn, executive director of The Art Therapy Project. “You need to know when you need to turn the TV off or put your phone down or stop doom-scrolling.”
For me, crafting has been the solution to my screen addiction. Once I have a crochet hook or set of knitting needles in my hand, I can go hours without checking my phone to see the latest COVID death toll or election conspiracy theory. Thus, my anxiety levels don’t go into overdrive.
I crave structure. It’s one of the reasons 2020 has been difficult. At times, it’s felt like there’s no stability or normalcy in sight, but crafting is a remedy—whether I’m knitting a scarf or cross-stitching a city scene, there are defined instructions to follow.
The lesson I’ve learned: while I might not be able to control the outcome of the presidential election, I can control how a knit sock turns out. That control comes hand-in-hand with a sense of accomplishment and a much-needed lesson in patience that can be brought over into daily life.
Producing something where you see the effect of your work may have restorative qualities, Hoyden says, especially when you take the time to go back and correct a mistake. “When you get to that stage of, ‘I can fix that. I’m going to go back and fix that.’ That’s a powerful thing to bring to life.”
“There’s something very basic about the process of creating and the process of making art, Dorn says. “It fulfills this fundamental need.”
A 2013 survey of 3,545 knitters found a significant relationship between knitting and feeling calm and happy. A study published in September produced similar results: participants reported an increase in calmness, alertness and contentment after making art.
In my experience, there’s nothing like the rush of serotonin when you finally weave in your ends and finish a project. Even if it’s not perfect, seeing your weeks of work come together into something tangible is so satisfying.
It’s unlikely that my fingers will stop stitching anytime soon, even when the trials of 2020 are behind me. And as crafting helps me stay mindful and calm, I can turn my attention to more important things—like how to organize all my skeins.