Another long academic essay for you – on the links between crafting for wellbeing and holistic spirituality.
Note: A couple of years ago I decided to stop trying to pursue a career in academia. This decision, and the fact that I just wasn’t writing anyway, led me to cancel a contract I had with an academic publishing imprint for a book titled Knitting, Modernity and the Sacred: Crafting Spiritualities. But there is some material in there that I’m proud of and would like to get into the world–out of gratitude to my research participants if nothing else. So here is part of what would have been a chapter from that book.
Parts of this are already published this essay in a sociology of religion collection; see also this academic article which includes more autobiographical material. And check out my last post ‘Knitting, (Grand)Mothers, Mourning, & Memory‘ if you haven’t seen it already 🙂
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Patterns of the Breath: Knitting, Spirituality, and Mindfulness
This essay shares work from my long-term project Crafting Spiritualities: Knitting, Modernity, and the Sacred. Drawing on qualitative interviews, participant observation and autoethnography, I am explore how crafts such as knitting and related fibre arts have an implicitly religious or spiritual function in some practitioners’ lives, which I use as a lens through which to think about wider patterns of meaning-making in the contemporary west (see Fisk 2018). Knitting as implicit religion/spirituality is part of the reflexive projects of the self characteristic of late modernity (Giddens 1991)—the crafting of personal narratives of authenticity and self-actualisation. Yet the central focus is not only turned inward: knitting is understood as a way of connecting, particularly with aspects of life perceived to have been lost in today’s world. I also argue that in knitting culture we see more ‘elementary’ religious forms: as means of ‘coping’ (Stringer 2008) and of ritualising—through process and material products—that which is held to be most important, or sacred, in the modern world (see Lynch 2012)
The focus of this essay is how knitting for ‘wellbeing’ parallels the holistic ‘spiritual’ practices that have proliferated in the last century’s ‘subjective turn’ (Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Taylor 1991). This essay includes critical attention to the social and political contexts of expressive-therapeutic knitting. Firstly, as a gendered practice, and secondly on the increasing association of knitting with the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Knitting as Implicit Spirituality
After I had turned off the recording of our interview and was getting ready to leave Petra’s office, she asked me about my central research questions. In my answer, I used a phrase along the lines of ‘the implicit religiousness of knitting’. Petra, a 52-year-old university lecturer, responded, ‘I could buy that. Kind of a spirituality’. I regret that I did not press her on what she meant by ‘spirituality’ on my way out of the door. Spirituality is one of the most contested terms of the study of religion in recent decades (Huss 2014). Key aspects of the spirituality debate have included the ‘fuzziness’ of its definitions (Zinnbauer et al 1997; Swinton and Pattison 2010); and the phenomenon of ‘spiritual but not religious’, with spirituality perceived as the acceptable ‘other’ of religion (see Barker 2008; Berghuijs, Pieper and Bakker 2013; Marler and Haddaway 2002). This may have been Petra’s understanding of spirituality—as a word that has less negative connotations than religion and thus seems more relatable. Yet my focus in this essay is more specific contents of the term, and how these correspond to specific aspects of knitting practice. I work according to a cluster of understandings of spirituality as a distinct religious form—or particular mode of religion—that is the result of, and reaction to, modernity (see Heelas 2008). This cluster includes a spectrum from mind-body-spirit practices to New Age to Paganism, all of which have the common key features of emphasis on inner experience of the individual, valuation of seeking and self-development, pluralist tolerance of other paths, embodiment, and interconnection and holism (Vincett and Woodhead 2009). Fiona Gardner’s broad definition of spirituality, aimed at those working in professional care contexts, is ‘that which gives life meaning, in a way that connects […] with a sense of something greater’ (2011, 9). In attempting to summarise the sphere of spiritual activity they term the ‘holistic milieu’ explored as part of the Kendal Project, Heelas and Woodhead write:
On entering the milieu, one is immediately struck by the pervasive use of ‘holistic’ language: ‘harmony’, ‘balance’, ‘flow’, integration’, ‘interaction’, ‘being at one’, and ‘being centred’. The great refrain, we might say, is ‘only connect’. […] Above all, the activities of the milieu provide the opportunities for participants to ‘grow’: to move beyond those ‘barriers’, ‘blocks’, ‘patterns’ or ‘habits’ associated with ‘dis-ease’ by making new connections. […] For the spirit is that in which all things come together, and in which each life reconnects with its deepest dimension. (2005, 26).
An explicit link between knitting and the word ‘spirituality’ is found in memoirs The Knitting Sutra: Crafting as Spiritual Practice (Lydon 1997) and Zen and the Art of Knitting (Murphy 2002). Callie Janoff explains why she and friends founded ‘The Church of Craft’:
we asked each other, ‘What in your life is spiritual?’ […] We all came to the same answer: making things. When we make things we are connecting to that part of ourselves that we imagine is the spiritual part, the part most resembling divinity (2008, 55).
In the quotation from Janoff, we see craft as spirituality in a sense that is framed around beliefs—in the connection between creativity and spirituality—as well as practices. Yet I would argue that knitting for wellbeing can be understood as spirituality in a more implicit way, concerned with the reasons and effects of taking up certain practices—seeking a sense of unity, wholeness, and peace—rather than any transcendent concepts underpinning them. This we see in the increasingly commonly-drawn link between knitting and wellbeing. For some knitters, their craft forms a deliberate project of self-development and self-care: discovering what is meaningful and valuable for oneself, and enabling coping with the demands of family, work, and modernity. Thus it is arguably on the spectrum of ‘expressive-therapeutic practices’ (Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Sointu 2006; Sointu and Woodhead 2008) such as aromatherapy and yoga, and may indeed be regarded as a form of spirituality, or implicitspirituality, that has many of the same aims, and is the result is the result of the same conditions of modern life, as those more ostensibly ‘spiritual’ practices.
To return to my conversation with Petra, while the tape was still running:
P: So what got me through, what kept me sane during [that] time was really the knitting. I once saw a T-shirt somewhere in a shop window that said ‘Gardening: cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes’. And you can transfer that to knitting quite easily. You get socks!
AF: In what way? Why do you think that is?
P: There is something very soothing about knitting. I mean, it’s the repeated actions; if you’re doing a complex pattern it kind of puts things into perspective, it takes your mind off stuff that goes wrong. I find knitting colours very soothing […] something like that <gestures to her bright magenta scarf and shawl> really lifts me.
The aspects that Petra lists here—the ‘soothing’ rhythm of the repetitive action, the absorption of the mind in a specific and satisfying task, and enjoyment of the materials used (colours, in this example, but also the tactility of the yarn)—were reported by several of my participants and are mentioned throughout the increasingly voluminous research literature on the benefits of knitting to wellbeing (see Kenning 2015; Riley, Corkhill and Morris 2013; Reynolds 2000; Stannard and Sanders 2015), including in specific healthcare contexts (Clave Brule et al 2009; Duffy 2007). Betsan Corkhill’s Knit for Health and Wellness (2014) describes itself as a ‘self-help manual’ drawing on her research as part of the Stitchlinks project. According to the homepage, the aim of Stitchlinks is to research ‘the use of therapeutic knitting as a healthcare tool–unravelling the neuroscience behind its bilateral, cross midline, rhythmic, automatic movements and the complex combination of physiological, psychological, behavioural, social and creative benefits experienced’ (http://www.stitchlinks.com/). It seems that knitting is increasingly adopted by healthcare practitioners and services, linked with ‘de-stressing’ and wellbeing in popular media (see for example Caiola 2014; Kay 2017; Knapton 2018; Merz 2014; Wilson 2014). A recent report, consisting of a literature review and survey results, by the charity Knit for Peace summarised the findings that knitting:
• Lowers blood pressure
• Reduces depression and anxiety
• Slows the onset of dementia
• Is as relaxing as yoga
• Distracts from chronic pain
• Provides an opportunity for creativity (at a time of reducing capacity)
• Increases sense of wellbeing
• Reduces loneliness and isolation
• Increases sense of usefulness and inclusion in society
(Knit for Peace 2017, 3).
As Stannard and Sanders write, ‘[k]nitting has been endowed an almost Zen-like quality that allows the individual to retreat from a hectic lifestyle and focus instead on a simple, creative process’ (2015, 101).
Similar ideas about the benefits of knitting to health and wellbeing were expressed by my fieldwork participants. One had set up a knitting group at an HIV care centre, and described the impact of learning to knit for some of the service users with chronic mental health issues. An example she gave was a woman for whom ‘it’s really quite extraordinary to see the difference’ in that she is now able to sit and knit for 45 minutes or so before taking a cigarette break:
but then she’ll come back in and she’ll do the same again. […] it’s done loads for her self-esteem because she is very proud of it, but I think the most significant thing is that it’s completely settled her.
One knitting group attendee told me that she learnt to knit to help manage her neurological condition, because of its benefit to motor skills, and the desire for a hobby to help with anxiety, especially during wait times at hospital. Hazel, 54, described to me how she took up knitting again after a twenty-year gap having come across an online article that ‘knitting was a good way to prevent Alzheimer’s’. Interviewee Carla responded to my question ‘What do you get out of knitting and spinning?’ with the following:
It’s very relaxing. There’s a whole kind of thing about…I don’t know if you’ve heard of EMDR? It’s all to do with sort of your left and the right side of your brain and putting things back in the right compartments. And knitting’s—that whole functionality of doing something with both sides […] kind of re-sorts things. So I think that’s why lots of people find it relaxing, but maybe don’t realise why they do. So I find it very therapeutic in that sense.
The word ‘therapeutic’ came up throughout my interviews. In Turney’s research, ‘[t]estimonies repeated that knitting was an activity undertaken outside other more specific tasks, so respondents spoke of “sitting down and picking up” knitting almost as a reflex action; a physical and psychological “time out”’ (2009, 155). Stannard and Sanders report that ‘[t]ension-release benefits were highly important to the participants who found knitting to be one of the absolute best ways for them to calm down during the day.’ (2015, 108). Knitting writer Rachael Matthews describes how ‘[d]eep within a knitter is a unique home. Let us called this the “sacred space” […] built around the heart of creativity; fortified by experience, it grows to become a safe place for us to be, make things and find our wisdom’ (2017, 59). Vanessa, a 61-year-old Episcopal Christian, drew parallels between the contemplative space opened up for her by knitting and the more conventionally ‘religious’ practice of going on retreat:
if I know I’m getting wound up […] if I knit, I know that just the feel of the yarn and the movement […] I’ll pick up something like a sock, that I don’t have to look at and I can just sit and knit round and round. And undoubtedly I find that really calming […] an almost unconscious entry into a more prayerful, more attentive way of being […] it feels a bit like—I went on retreat to [centre name] every year for 20 years […] And I would get to the gate […] and sort of feel my, the cares of the world left behind on one side. […] it was somewhere I just knew for certain that I was going to engage with God, and something would happen. And I think picking up my knitting when I’m feeling out of sorts is a bit like that.
In an article written in 2011, I reflected that ‘knitting has been a sustaining comfort and distraction during particularly difficult times’; in my experience of chronic depression I found that ‘more than anything [knitting] gives me a general sense of purpose; a structure to my life that might otherwise have been lacking. I always have something to do that I enjoy, something that keeps me engaged’, particularly important for that pervasive loss of enjoyment that is characteristic of depression (Fisk 2012, 162).
Reaching for one’s knitting in order to calm down, to feel grounded, or remove oneself from anger or stress, may be an example of what Martin Stringer terms ‘coping religion’. In his ethnographic research with working class British women, Stringer’s observation of spiritualism, astrology and grave-side visits—but also meet-ups with friends and watching soap operas—for him marked these women’s efforts to live with ‘uncertainty and deprivation’ (2008, 95). Stringer’s overall argument is that such practices suggest an ‘elementary’ mode of religion, ‘probably the most widespread and most common form of religion, […] to which human beings revert when all other forms collapse’ (2008, 101). While Stringer emphasises the distinction between the holistic spirituality discussed by Heelas and Woodhead, claiming it is ‘not related to […] coping religions’ (2008, 102), I would argue that there is a continuum between attempts towards self-development and managing day to day. At the core of Stringer’s analysis is a dichotomy between religion for ‘transformation’ and religion for coping, yet many expressive-therapeutic practices will have the twin benefits of immediate relief alongside more long-term projects of self-realisation. My participants’ accounts of learning to knit in order to harness its therapeutic benefits forms a case in point, with a more symbiotic relation between transformation (learning a new skill, finding a new community), and coping (always having something to do that you enjoy, that will calm you down).
In the remainder of this essay, I consider two critical issues in knitting as implicit spirituality, both ‘troubling the norms’ in the context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and the study of religion. Both themes—gender and mindfulness—indirectly respond to the influential paradigms in religious studies exemplified in Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality (2005), in which the individualism and consumer culture of contemporary western ‘spirituality’ is critiqued as neoliberalism’s ‘silent takeover of religion’. Cultural studies scholar Ann Cvetkovich argues that the prevalence of spirituality in everyday life—‘standing alongside trips to the gym and the therapist’ (2012, 198)—as well as its place ‘at the conceptual crossroads of distinctions between the religious and the secular that are central to histories of feeling and the public sphere’ (2012, 199)—means that spirituality should be taken seriously (see also Heelas 2008). I concur with this, and my findings with knitters are deployed to support gender-informed arguments against the caricature of women’s engagement in holistic spirituality as self-indulgent consumption. I do have sympathy, however, with critique of the co-opting of religious contemplative traditions, particularly ‘mindfulness’, which has become increasingly associated with knitting. Yet, like Cvetkovich, I argue that the therapeutic, implicitly spiritual uses of knitting may also have revolutionary political potential.
Gender and Knitting as Spirituality
Both knitting and spirituality (whether explicit or implicit) are gendered, with the overwhelming majority of practitioners being female. There are cultural reasons for knitting itself being regarded as the domain of women (‘[w]hen one first thinks of knitting, one thinks of women’ [Turney 2009, 8]), but there are also interesting parallels between the motivations for knitting for wellbeing and the explanation that Linda Woodhead (2007, 2008, see also Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Houtman and Aupers 2008; Sointu and Woodhead 2008) gives in response to the holistic spirituality ‘gender puzzle’. In this analysis, women are more likely to be involved with holistic spirituality because of the particular anxieties of agency and duty faced by contemporary (particularly middle-class and middle-aged) women. The rapid shift of social expectations within just a few generations, as well as the common experience of managing a career at the same time as carrying the burden of care for family, means that
[p]ost-traditional women are therefore more likely than post-traditional men to be haunted by the questions of meaning and identity that are evoked by detraditionalisation […] ‘What is it that I really want?’, ‘Is this really the sort of life I want to live?’, ‘What sort of person am I, really?’. Post-traditional women are more likely than post-traditional men to embark on a spiritual quest and sacralise their selves (Houtman and Aupers 2008, 110).
These arguments have been formulated in response not only to the ‘gender puzzle’ but also the common perception that holistic spirituality, with its emphasis on the intuition, authority and development of the individual self, is narcissistic self-indulgence (see Heelas 2018, 6-9). As Steve Bruce recently puts it,
at least in its more popular forms, New Age individualism does tend to the self-regarding […] The Buddhist notion of “self-compassion” is supposed to be a precursor to compassion for others, but when it is reduced to “aim to discover what you want to do, not what you think you should do, it does seem the “others” are going to have to wait a while. (2017, 41).
From a feminist perspective, such (admittedly droll) characterisations of holistic spirituality are problematic not only because of potential for implicit misogyny. They also overlook the impact of gender on sense of self and a tendency to define oneself according to others, alongside the material social conditions of bearing primary responsibility for care for others. As Woodhead writes, ‘for many women […] the project of independent, entitled selfhood remains fragile and elusive’ (2008, 150). The holistic milieu (and, I contend, knitting for wellbeing) is part of women seeking such selfhood, even if that is simply through ‘the mere fact of taking this time for yourself, paying for it, and entering a […] woman-dominated space’ (Woodhead 2008, 157).
In autumn 2014, I facilitated a session of the AHRC-funded ‘wellMAKING Craftivists’ Garden’ research project, run by Sarah Corbett (of the Craftivist Collective) and Ann Roberts and Fiona Hackney. One participant responded to the question ‘How does crafting enable you to contribute productively to society?’ with the answer ‘I contribute productively to society in other ways—my crafting is for me’. In her knitting-come-spiritual autobiography, Susan Lydon Gordon claims that ‘[w]omen experience so many pressures to give up being who they truly are in order to take care of everyone around them’ and ‘flower creatively only when they finally learn how to ruthlessly protect their time’ (1997, 10). This theme emerged throughout my interviews: for example, stay-at-home mum, Laura (33) emphasised that she rarely knits for her 2-year-old son:
when he was born I was a bit like ‘I’m not gonna knit anything for you because I spend all my time looking after you, my knitting time is my time now, it’s just for me’. So I got a bit selfish.
Beth (38) commented on how she had not experienced the same difficulties as a friend of hers had on giving up work after having a child, perhaps because her social life had always been based in craft and church rather than work, but also the role her craft practice has as a form of self-development:
I think a big part of it has to do with the crafting, because I’m in the middle of learning something new […] and trying things that are challenging to me and things that I find not just comforting, but intellectually stimulating. It meant that not going back to work was not a big deal, because I wasn’t relying on that for my kind of…for that part of my life. Craft does that a lot for me. I read about it, I think about it, I talk about it with people […] and so I don’t miss paid employment, because I am still working, it’s just not in the same way. But I’m working on projects that are just mine, that are just for me, and that do challenge me, and so it makes it a lot easier.
The role that women ascribe to their craft practice may also relate to the tensions of work-life balance as well as family-versus-career. Pauline (59), a public health specialist, told me that she very rarely takes her knitting to work with her because ‘it’s important to keep something of the things that you enjoy out of your working life, your professional life, so that you’ve got something for yourself’.
Yet perhaps knitting is so popular as an expressive-therapeutic practice partly because it is an enjoyable process that results in practical items that can be given to other people as gifts. Many interview participants commented on how knitting can convert leisure time spent watching the television into time spent doing something ‘useful’, and is commonly reported in the literature (Adey 2016; Corkhill et al, 2013; Mayne 2016; Stannard and Sanders 2015). This demonstrates a certain tension between leisure as self-care and the importance of practicality, with several linking this with their Scottish identity, and one indeed with growing up in a ‘Calvinist’ culture. Participants explained how they appreciated how in knitting there is a physical end product, ‘something to show’ for your time and effort. Catherine (38) told me that she found the material nature of making to be a particular source of satisfaction, which is not the case in her professional work, and as a parent ‘you’re working all the time, but all you have to show for it at the end of the day is that the kids are still alive!’ Janet, unable to work because of chronic depression, explains why she chose to take up knitting in her forties for the first time since childhood:
Because I don’t work, because of my health, a lot of the time I don’t feel that I’m achieving very much, and I think I was looking for something that I could look at and think ‘I’ve achieved something, I’ve spent two hours doing it, but I’ve got something that I can show for it at the end of that time’. And, you know, I’m not an artist, so there was no point in me taking up painting or art or anything like that. So I thought ‘Well, Mum’s got loads of knitting needles, just try knitting again’. And I did, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
The perception of knitting as everyday, domestic and lacking the status of ‘art’ meant that for Janet it was a non-threatening practice to take up for the benefit of her self-esteem. She knits nearly every evening, and several participants reported that they ‘need’ to knit every day, even if it is just a little bit. The way in which the sense of achievement provided by producing something physical raises interesting questions about the value ascribed to labour; the concern for doing something ‘useful’ while chatting with friends or watching television is demonstrative of anxieties around leisure time, which is arguably influenced by gender (see Adey 2016, 237-45).
This tension is also shown in knitters’ attitude to yarn ‘stash’, with how much yarn they own being a topic of conversation in nearly all my interviews; for some having a large amount of costly yarn was a source of anxiety, but in the main a source of self-deprecation and non-serious guilt. Laura (33) compared her own tendency to break her resolve to buy yarn that she already has a planned project for, with her mother’s approach:
It’s interesting because my mum doesn’t understand having a stash […] She couldn’t buy yarn and then go ‘Oh what am I gonna do with it?’ She’s got to have a plan, and then she buys it. […] I think it’s a generational thing in a way. The way she talks about yarn is quite—I say ‘old fashioned’, she says that I speak about yarn in an American way.
At age 67, retired NHS mental health practitioner Emma was the oldest participant in my fieldwork; I also found her to be the most enthusiastic in asking me about the academic aspects of my research. We met at a knitting group that meets one evening a week in the public library of one of Scotland’s smaller cities, which I attended after having interviewed another member. Emma was knitting a scarf in dark coloured, fine and fuzzy yarn, which was looking beautiful but progressing slowly, because she is a relatively new knitter who mostly only knits while at the group. Emma was first taught to knit by group members, and she joined the group in order to learn. She explained to me that craft activity had been somewhat discouraged by her family when she was growing up, and she decided to learn to knit after reaching the age of 60 and realising she had nothing she could do with her hands. Similarly, Lydon associates both spiritual and crafting personal development with women’s stages of life, in which menopause is the time to construct a new identity, for ‘we, who have always been in the service of others, [to] discover an authentic self’ (1997, 42).
In retrospect, in the early stages of this research my thinking on the implicit spirituality of knitting was structured by models of revival and conversion. Perhaps biased by my own experience (as a relatively young woman, for whom learning to knit in my late teens was indeed life-changing, see Fisk 2012) as well as the emphasis in the literature, I uncritically accepted the discourse of a resurgence, of vast numbers of new and younger knitters, thus neglecting those for whom knitting never really went away (see Hackney 2013, 176). These assumptions were challenged by my fieldwork. While the majority of the participants in the knitting group I observed were indeed in the younger age range—and one of these (aged 22) attended the focus group—of my formal interview and remaining focus group participants the youngest was my own age at the time of the interview (33), with three in their late 30s, and all others aged 43-61. Some of the women in this age group had knitted continuously since childhood, and others had chosen to take it up again more recently after a break. Yet many of these participants did report a change in their approach to knitting in more recent years, which some contrasted with their mothers and grandmothers who first taught them. For example, during the focus group discussion Kate (aged 56) reflected:
our parents used to knit but it wasn’t so much for a pleasure activity it was for […] necessity. I think people lost the love of the knitting for a while; it became ‘What’s the point of spending all this much time? You can buy stuff that’s nice and cheaper’. But then there’s a revision of the whole attitude towards knitting out there, it’s much more fashionable, popular […] It’s got a resurgence, with younger people coming back in and getting a little bit more ‘this is fun, this is relaxing’ […] I mean, I used to knit a lot a long time ago, and then I just got thinking ‘there’s not really much point in this’. Then I heard [of local group] […] and I thought ‘Oh that sounds great, I’d love to go along, it’s been ages since I enjoyed knitting’.
For these women, knitting is no longer regarded primarily an economical way to clothe one’s family, with cheap yarn used to make items always intended as gifts or donations to good causes (as remains the tendency for many of the older generation–For example, the Knit for Peace report on the benefits of knitting to health and wellbeing lists ‘having no one to knit for’ as one of the two main barriers to knitting reported by their survey respondents, of whom 70% were aged over 60 [Knit for Peace 2017, 3, 32]). Instead, knitting is an elective practice adopted as something personally fulfilling.
Perhaps the shift in knitting culture is a microcosm of the wider social shift to the ethical individualism of Charles Taylor’s ‘subjective turn’. Heelas and Woodhead (2005) posit this as an explanation for the decline in ‘life-as’ religion, with its emphasis on common duty and identity, and the flourishing of ‘subjective-life’ religion, focused on self-development and fulfilment, of which the rise of holistic spirituality is especially indicative. While knitters of previous eras will have enjoyed their craft, found it to be a source of community and connection, there is not the same emphasis on ‘this is something I do for myself’.
Knitting and Mindfulness
Several years ago, emerging from a lengthy period of severe depression and anxiety that followed the completion of my doctorate, I wrote the following:
For the last three years I have been thinking, planning, researching, and discussing a project of theological reflection on knitting, with reference to spirituality and materiality and other ‘alities’ that start to seem relevant, but not in a way that I am able to pin down and clearly articulate. Ideas and directions have come and gone, swirled around and got lost amidst the other things I have had going on in my life and work, to the point at which the whole concept is a source of anxiety related to my not yet getting on the first rungs of an academic career. I feel unable to write anything, and a terrible fear at the thought of even trying to write something. This is all something I grieve about regularly, and this morning a sudden shift in mood related to something else has turned into these familiar thoughts and feelings of inadequacy and sadness, of all the work wasted on redundant research areas and aborted proposals and failed applications.
To get through it, I am knitting. A complex lace shawl, for which I need to concentrate through every other row and refer to the chart for every stitch. Although I need the chart to tell me what each stitch entails (yarn over, or slip slip knit, or slip two knit one pass-over, or knit two together, or simply knit), I can read from the fabric in my hands what shapes should be emerging, the lines of the eyelets and the decreases have an intuitive sense, and thus I am able to tell when something has gone wrong. There is a very simple and profound sense of satisfaction when the work is working, when I can see the lace pattern emerging. This is intrinsic, unrelated to the beautiful finished object that my imagination and prior experience can project into the future, or the knowledge that this success is the result of effort and skill. Those things are pleasing, of course, but they are one degree removed from the instantaneous satisfaction of the stitches themselves. That satisfaction is momentary and material. It is in the connection between my fingers and my eyes and the needles and the yarn. It is its own good. For a split second, it is all that matters.
A couple of months later, I contextualised this passage in a presentation at a research retreat, as a response to the ‘self-loathing despair’ of not having ‘produced any really new words concerned with this research’:
That morning I decided to make myself write something, something relevant to my research. Write about what I was feeling. Write about my knitting, and how my knitting helped me to breathe. (Fisk 2014a)
My writing demonstrates knitting as Stringer’s ‘coping religion’ (‘to get through it, I am knitting’)—at the time it felt like an act of survival—but also indicates what it is about knitting that makes it an effective coping mechanism, something that ‘helped me to breathe’). I am a person with a mind that follows the threads of destructive thought patterns—at times to the point of unravelling—yet with a ball of fine yarn in my hands and a complicated lace knitting pattern to attend to, I am able to hold off those thoughts, to gain some temporary relief.
My words—of the ‘momentary and material’ ‘satisfaction’ of ‘the connection between my fingers and my eyes and the needles and the yarn’—cohere with psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1992, 1997) concept of ‘flow’. Csikszentmihalyi defined ‘flow’ as the state of being fully engaged in what one is doing, ‘a few moments in time when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that nothing else seems to matter’. He states that:
when we are involved in creativity, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.
When I first read of the theory of ‘flow’ in David Gauntlett’s influential work on contemporary craft, Making is Connecting (2011), it seemed to encapsulate my experience of knitting. I thought of flow when Beth (38, a homemaker) described to me her experience of handspinning cashmere using a supported spindle. The transcribed text only goes some way towards conveying the delight that suffused her:
The yarn isn’t the best yarn I’ve ever made but it’s the best experience I ever had, because it was just like the cashmere wanted to be spun that way. […] It was tricky at first […] But by the end, I was just like, ‘this is like magic’. You know, when everything clicks and you’re like, ‘this is magic, this is happening!’ And I was just like ‘this is the best time ever’.
Flow also maps onto associations of knitting with spirituality, because the ‘flow’ of knitting includes a sense of connection with ‘something larger’. Recently, Kate Lampitt Adey has provided an extended analysis of amateur knitters’ experience of and motivations for knitting in terms of flow, focusing on its three elements of feeling of ‘being “in the moment”; achieving a degree of challenge which can be met; and finally, experiencing a sense of control’ (2018, 87). It is that first element of the flow of knitting, the ‘being in the moment’, and its relation to meditation and mindfulness practices, that I explore in the remainder of this essay.
According to booklet ‘The Key Steps to Mindfulness’ by organisation ‘The Moment Is Now’, given to my partner at a mandatory workshop for staff of the charity he works for, mindfulness is
a life skill which can help reduce stress and anxiety, increase a sense of calm and self-acceptance, and encourage feelings of happiness. It involves paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, with an attitude of openness, kindness and non-judgmental acceptance. Mindfulness is about ‘coming back to your senses’ and noticing the little details in all you encounter. (Duncan and Watson 2017)
According to a spam email from ‘Results Driven Group’ in my university inbox yesterday, promoting a ‘Mindful Leadership and Mindful Coaching’ course, mindfulness is
about actively paying attention to what is actually happening in the moment, in order to respond with integrity and thus remain focused on our strategic results. This enhances our ability to succeed in today’s ever more dynamic and complex world. […] those who are more mindful have a greater capacity to flex their own mental and emotional states, which benefits themselves and their organisations. We have developed this cutting-edge interactive workshop to help managers become less stressed and defensive, and consequently more resilient, emotionally intelligent, and authentic as leaders.
According to the materials given out at the 8-week Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioural Therapy course I participated in on prescription from the NHS in 2014,
Our aim with this program is to be more aware, more often. A powerful influence taking us away from being “fully present” in each moment is our automatic tendency to judge our experience as being not quite right in some way. […] We can regain our freedom if, as a first step, we simply acknowledge the actuality of our situation […] The body scan exercise provides an opportunity to practice simply bringing an interested and friendly awareness to the way things are in each moment, without having to do anything to change things. (Taken from Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013, 169).
And according to Tara Jon Manning’s 2004 manual and pattern book, Mindful Knitting: Inviting Contemplative Practice to the Craft, mindfulness is ‘engaging in what is happening from moment-to-moment, allowing ourselves to be aware of what is occurring in our minds and in our surroundings without judgment or interpretation’ (2004, 9).
I quote these various explanations of mindfulness in order to demonstrate the ubiquity of the concept in various secular contexts—public, private sector, and individual consumer—all with little or no mention of its religious origins in Buddhism. The popularity of mindfulness practice in seeking wellbeing and self-development—including with knitting—is perhaps an example of the transformation of religion as spirituality throughout everyday life, just one of the choices offered on the marketplace of worldviews in postsecular society. Or perhaps it is a case in point of the secularisation of eastern religious concepts in practices in western culture, depending on whichever side of the secularisation debates one has placed oneself (see Bruce 2017; Campbell 2008; Woodhead 2012). First popularised by US professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn as ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’, the proliferation of mindfulness in mainstream western culture is a significant topic of current research (see Bazzano 2014; Forbes 2016; Monteiro, Compson and Musten 2017; Purser, Forbes and Burke 2016). This includes stringent critique of how ‘McMindfulness’ has stripped the Buddhist Pali Canon’s concept of sati of its ethical and soteriological essence in the service of neoliberalism (Doran 2018; King 2017; Purser and Loy 2013; Stanley 2012; Wilson 2014).
At the ‘Knitting and Mindfulness’ class I took at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival 2018, as we arrived and took our seats, the tutor commented that ‘it’s unusual for a knitting class to be set up with the chairs in a circle like this’. Yet bringing knitting and mindfulness together is not so unusual: in an implicit sense, it is often noted how the rhythms and textures of knitting ground one ‘in the moment’, allowing the stresses and strains of fast-paced modern life fade to the background as one focuses on forming the stitches. Knitting and mindfulness are explicitly combined in books such as Manning’s Mindful Knitting (2004) and Rachael Matthews’s The Mindfulness in Knitting: Meditations on Craft and Calm (2017), and to western versions of the traditions of other cultures more widely. Betsy Greer compares knitting to meditation and yoga in her description of its ‘inner rhythm’ and ‘inner stillness’ (2008, 1-2); Susan Gordon Lydon describes the rhythm of knitting in terms of shamanic drumming:
Just as a shaman will ride a drumbeat out of his body and into the spirit world, a knitter will trail the soothing rhythm of the clicking needles into the deep quiet recesses of her mind’ (1997, 114).
In knitting one takes a length of thread and, through rhythmic repetitive motions made by clicking two needles together in such a way that they catch the thread, creates interconnecting loops, which eventually grow into a garment to clothe and warm the body. Knitting, like drumming, is a feat of home-grown magic. It is the simplest and most ordinary of activities, yet somehow it mysteriously contains within itself the potential for expanding our conscious awareness. (1997, 137)
Turney summarises texts which discuss this aspect of knitting as describing ‘a state of transcendence […] which enhances the potential for meditative and contemplative practices […] the creation of a space in which one can exist in the here and now’ (2009, 155). She notes that such discursive ‘fusion[s] of knitting, spiritual awareness and self-help’ are, like the knitting itself, ‘repetitive […] say[ing] the same thing to the same audience’ (2009, 152). There is some truth to this rather barbed observation. Yet, in the texts I have read closely there are some key differences from a religious studies perspective: in Gordon Lydon we find a typical spiritual seeker (see Sutcliffe 2008) of the 1960s/70s countercultures, drawing from multiple and eclectic spiritual traditions (Navajo tradition, Sufism, Arica, twelve-step recovery meetings). In contrast, Manning’s book is explicitly rooted in her Shambala Buddhist practice, although she makes clear that knitting mindfully need not be related to any religious tradition. Hers is the text that spends more time explaining the basic concepts of mindfulness, and guides the reader in developing a personal practice of regular mindfulness meditation combined with knitting. This relates to the sense of knitting as self-care discussed in earlier in this essay: ‘clearing out a quiet moment for yourself […] in the midst of your daily routine’ (2004, 11); ‘[w]hen we meditate, we give ourselves a gift of time and a bit of open space in our day […] removed from the demands of deadlines, chores, and appointments’ (2004, 15).
Rachael Matthews’s The Mindfulness in Knitting is an attractive hardback including pretty illustrations; one suspects it was intended for the Christmas stocking-filler market, and is one of a series of Mindfulness gift books. However, it would be unfair to present Matthews as a purveyor of commercialised ‘McMindfulness’; she is an artist and was a founder member of the radical knitting collective Cast Off Knitting Club. In the book, she notes her original dislike of the cliché that ‘knitting is the new yoga’: ‘I was opposed to the suggestion that one craft could replace the entire philosophy of an ancient practice’, although she came to think that ‘[i]nstead of replacing the study of yoga and meditation with knitting, crafters began to notice how ancient mindful practices can enable similar discoveries’ (2017, 67). Rather than discuss the specific religious traditions that generated mindfulness practice, Matthews presents it as a generic ‘ancient wisdom’ concurrent with that of craft:
From the origins of society’s natural evolution, two ancient cultures have emerged, guiding the way for our heads, hearts and hands. One of these cultures is knitting, or to be more descriptive, the addictive habit of forming a soft textile with your hands. The other culture is mindfulness […] listening to the pattern of your breathing and exploring the flow of intimate thoughts (2017, 7).
Knitting and mindfulness have worked together over millennia to guide us through our growth. The utterly absorbing process of creating textiles provides us with an informal meditation space while connecting us with a heritage we cherish and ultimately a universe we understand. (2017, 8).
Matthews, like many proponents of mindfulness and the benefits of craft for wellbeing, presents it as a counterpoint to the excesses of modern life: amidst ‘[t]his generation’s rapid fads, economic downfalls and rising capitalism’, ‘unwanted news images, adverts and social networking gossip’, ‘[w]e have found ourselves longing to engage with a tangible material’ in making ‘authentic and functional thing[s] to be proud of’ (2017, 8). This gestures to a key thesis of my overall project: that knitting practice is sought as a salve to the particular wounds of modernity, as a way of recovering something that has been lost; a form of subjective-therapetic project that is, of course, uniquely modern.
Betsan Corkhill’s self-described ‘self-help’ manual Knit for Health and Wellness includes this same contextualisation in modernity: ‘[m]uch of the information is common sense but in our modern stress filled world common sense sometimes needs to be voiced more loudly’ (2014, 11). While Corkhill does not discuss mindfulness specifically, she does use the word ‘meditative’ (2014, 34-35, 62) and recommends techniques akin to those of mindfulness: ‘[e]njoying the moment and process […] gives the brain a break from worrying thoughts about the past or future’, ‘the sanctuary of a quiet mind’. After listing the numerous benefits of meditation, Corkhill acknowledges that it is most difficult for those who need it most, and here one of the benefits of knitting is that it does not require an understanding of the concepts of meditation in the way that more explicit practices do: ‘[e]ntering a meditative-like state appears to happen as a natural side effect of knitting’ (2014, 35). A physiotherapist and practice-based researcher, Corkhill’s findings include ‘knitting as having the power to break into, and push out, cycles of rumination, so the automatic nature of the movements could be playing an important part in refocusing the mind onto more positive, forward thinking thought processes’ (2014, 36). She quotes participant responses: ‘[k]nitting is calming…The benefits are like meditation or prayer’ (2014, 137) and ‘[i]t wasn’t until I started knitting everyday that I really felt at peace’.
I had read these texts before attending the ‘Knitting and Mindfulness class’, and noted several points of connection, such as a comparison with the ways of the past (the Scandinavian tutor’s great?/grandmother was a farmer’s wife, and he supposed that craft was her only opportunity for meditation) and with the nature of craft itself: ‘mindfulness is about presence in the moment, and I believe that to be a skilled craftsperson means being present while making’. There was an emphasis on the rhythm of knitting, likened to the rhythm of a mantra (he chanted a few rounds of om namah shivaya by way of demonstration). There was also wry self-awareness: in the 2.5-hour class we knitted cotton dishcloths, which apparently all the hipsters are making nowadays after learning about microplastics. The tutor commented that these days you can buy books on mindful walking, mindful cooking, mindful gardening and so on, and expressed a concern that mindfulness should not ‘add an extra level of stress to the modern way of life, along with a vegan diet, yoga, and meditation on top of childcare and work. Striving will only create another layer of stress, and being mindful is about accepting’. He emphasised that mindful knitting is about giving ourselves positive energy, and referred to the concept of lovingkindness. Within the class we were introduced to a number of the basic Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practices, including ten minutes focus on the breath, followed by ten minutes knitting, as well as the ‘body scan’ exercise. Before becoming a full-time knitting designer and teacher, the tutor trained as a practitioner in psycho-motor therapy, and the class included physical exercises ‘to get the blood moving’ and lessen the strain on the body of repetitive motions and prolonged periods of sitting still. He told us of the Positive Psychology movement of Martin Seligman, including Sonja Lyubomirsky’s ‘equation’ that one’s personal happiness depends on 50% genes, 10% circumstances, and 40% under our voluntary control. Thus, the tutor said, by knitting we are improving our happiness levels, which is a good reason for buying oneself high-quality yarn.
My concern is not to question whether mindful knitting is yet another example of cultural appropriation, or to debate whether or not ‘secular beats spiritual’ (Bruce 2017). Rather, my own—deeply ambivalent—interest is the parallel between the commodification of mindfulness and knitting for wellbeing, and the utilisation of both as individualised regimes in response to problems that are social and political as well as physiological and psychological. I happened to be first reading Corkhill’s Knit for Health and Wellness, with its discussion of knitting as a therapeutic tool for patients living with chronic pain and mental health conditions, at the same time as taking the NHS mindfulness course. It was a few months after I was knitting that red shawl; the course had been recommended as a follow-on from a block of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions prescribed after a period of severe depression and anxiety, which was also treated by restarting the antidepressants I had slowly come off of the previous year, after 13 consecutive years on the same drug. I found both CBT and mindfulness helpful, and I still use some of the techniques, such as focus on breathing or attention on the sensations of a particular part of my body, in order to cope with anxiety. ‘The mind has mountains’, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s brilliant metaphor, and, along with knitting, with these techniques I find a momentary place to shelter.
The mindfulness group therapy course had been explained to me by my CB therapist, before recommending me for the programme, as intended for people with long-term depression who are currently well. By that point, this seemed to include me. Yet in listening to my peers on the course, it became clear this was not the case for everyone: other members of the group were living with suicidal ideation and psychosis. Others were facing bereavement, isolation, and financial hardship. Thus I became more critically aware of how mindfulness and CBT are over-relied upon by hard-pressed health and social care services where more resource-intensive therapies may be what is needed (see Burkeman 2016), not to mention structural social change. Reading Corkhill, I wondered if perhaps the same thing was happening with knitting: that craft is being asked to hold more weight that it can bear. She writes, ‘[t]his book is about your wellbeing and how you can use knitting as an extraordinary, flexible tool to enable you to live life well’ (2014, iv, emphasis mine), and by putting the onus on you, it seems to me to be an example (albeit small, well-meaning, and, to some extent, effective) of the late 20th/early 21st-century tendency for a discursive shifting of responsibility for wellbeing onto individual subjects rather than communities and the state (Sointu 2005). CBT and mindfulness are deployed as cost-effective options for public services amidst a reduced welfare state and underfunded NHS, and some argue that knitting should be utilised in the same way: Knit for Peace publicised their 2017 report on the benefits of knitting to health and wellbeing as ‘having the potential to save the NHS millions’ (Knapton 2018).
I would argue that the notion that our circumstances influence only 10% of our happiness is offensive as well as false (see Whippman 2016). To take just my own case, I could not have derived any sustained benefit from knitting or mindfulness without several contingent circumstances beyond my immediate choice or control, not least of which is an NHS that provided mental health crisis care and longer-term individual therapy in my teens and early twenties, and prescription drugs for over two decades. Feeling grounded in the present moment may be profoundly reparative, but it is not the solution to poverty and inequality, to under-researched chronic health conditions, to abusive relationships and unequal burdens of childcare, or punitive immigration legislation. While knitting and mindfulness both have myriad and profound benefits, I am concerned they are being co-opted as anaesthetising strategies for temporary relief in circumstances which are intrinsically intolerable.
Mindfulness and knitting for wellbeing are individualised responses to the affects resulting from wider social structures, such as the stress and anxiety exacerbated by neoliberal capitalist working conditions and economic precarity. Ann Cvetkovich’s previously-mentioned work, Depression: A Public Feeling, explores depression ‘as a cultural and social phenomenon rather than a medical disease’ (2012, 1); pointing to a social rather than medical model of depression entails ‘advocat[ing] revolution and regime change over pills’ (2012, 2). Reading Cvetkovich has made me think about how the treatment for depression I have received since the age of 13—including psychotherapy, medication, CBT and mindfulness—have all worked according to a model that the problem is individual to me—my biography, my physiology, my ways of thinking—rather than being (at least partly) a natural affective response to the world I am part of. And while these therapies and strategies have enabled my survival, this has required patterning how I think, who I am. When I was writing the sentence of above (‘I am a person with a mind that follows the threads of destructive thought patterns’) I struggled to find a phrase that was less of a CBT cliché than ‘destructive thought patterns’, but I decided to let it stay, as a demonstration of that very same patterning, in the words I use to describe my most painful experiences. With the ubiquity of CBT and mindfulness, the profound and far-reaching influence of these norms becomes troubling—a mass ‘internalization of regimes of discipline and self-formation that make us good and docile subjects’ (Cvetkovich 2012, 191).
Thus knitting as mindfulness may become woven in with inherently conservative social norms of depression and anxiety, in a way that perhaps undermines its long and recurrent association with feminism, radical politics, and activism. It is for those of us who advocate most loudly about the significant and wide-ranging goods of knitting to continually, and grumpily, challenge its appropriation as a panacea to social ills. However, I will end by noting knitting as mindfulness may also reclaim the craft’s more radical potential, firstly, in the sense that it may ‘be a way to build the spiritual warrior self necessary for doing other kinds of work in the world, including organized political activism’ (Cvetkovich 2012, 169). Secondly, in using craft directly in seeking change through craftivism. The slow, material process of craft as forms of activism allows for making space for envisaging a different world (see Corbett 2017), for troubling the political norms. Mindful knitting may be a way of reflectively seeking change, rather than learning to feel better in accepting how things are.