Knitting: ‘Meditation, with a jumper at the end of it’
Dyed-in-the-wool knitting enthusiasts speak of how it helps them relax, sharpen focus, retain information better and improve self-worth
Spring Wools, Ballymount Road, Walkinstown, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Bella Fitzpatrick’s tattoo. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Bella Fitzpatrick at Spring Wools, Walkinstown, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Lucy Clarke at Spring Wools, Walkinstown, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Zita Spring of Spring Wools, Ballymount Road, Walkinstown, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Socks aren’t the most obvious stress reliever. There’s nothing obviously soothing or cheering about them. They’re just socks. But whenever I find myself feeling overwhelmed by the many distractions of modern life, I pick up five spiky bamboo needles and a ball of yarn and get sock knitting. And I’m not alone.
In Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, a beautiful new collection of essays edited by Ann Hood, well-known authors including Barbara Kingsolver, Anita Shreve, Andre Dubus III, Jane Smiley and Sue Grafton write about how knitting has enhanced their lives. Knitters will relate to many of their stories.
I learned to knit at primary school in the 1980s, producing several strangely rectangular teddy bears. In my early 20s, I picked up the needles again, inspired by the American feminist magazine Bust, whose editor, Debbie Stoller, would later publish the best-selling knitting book Stitch ’n’ Bitch.
And although my first project as a born-again knitter, a scarf knitted on sparkly lurex yarn, was a wonky, scratchy disaster, I was hooked. I haven’t stopped since.
In 2010 Bella Fitzpatrick and her friend Hannah Cagney founded Trinity’s Knitting Society (Knit Soc). Having knitted their way through lectures together, they decided to expand.
“[Cagney] was teaching me some new techniques and that’s when we decided we needed to set up a group,” says Fitzpatrick, who has several knitting-inspired tattoos. “It made a huge difference to my skills as a knitter, as incredible knitters came out of the woodwork and we had a technique class every week.”
For Fitzpatrick, there is more to knitting than fun. She has a short-term memory disorder and dyslexia, which makes it hard to retain information.
“When I just read, it was like the words were going from a conveyer belt from the page, into my eyes, into my brain and straight into a furnace never to be seen again. Writing down helped me remember, but it was extremely time-consuming.”
But when she started knitting during her lectures, “I found that I recalled the lectures better,” she says. “I tried consciously to read more deliberately and with greater intent, so as to reroute the information to my long-term memory. I found that if my hands were busy knitting while I read, it was less of a strain for me.
Many say knitting helps them focus on the present. Although non-knitters may presume that someone knitting a jumper isn’t paying attention to anything else, we knitters know that it only enhances our ability to focus on the world around us.
Zita Spring’s parents founded Spring Wools in Walkinstown (springwools.com), and she now works in the family business. “For me knitting is such a natural physical process it makes me feel very much in the present,” she says.
“If someone’s having a conversation with me or if I’m watching a movie, [those things] still have my attention. It’s like I have one thing that’s putting me in a peaceful mindset so I can give whatever is important my full attention.”
It’s not just about relaxing, of course. My friend Kate once described knitting as being “like meditation, except you get a jumper at the end of it”. And there are few things more satisfying than wearing something nice that you’ve knitted yourself, even if it’s just a scarf (you haven’t known smugness until you’ve answered the question, “That’s lovely, where did you get it?” with “I made it”).
For Derek Montgomery, who runs Montgomery Millinery and Wools in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, finishing a project is particularly satisfying.
“Setting myself goals and achieving them is very important,” he says. “And with knitting or crochet my goals are always reached, which gives me a huge sense of self-worth.” It’s a self-esteem boost, “especially when I see someone enjoy the item.”
But for many knitters, that’s all secondary. Bella Fitzpatrick doesn’t actually wear her knitted creations – she doesn’t like the feeling of wool against her skin, so her projects are generally gifts.
I’m with the band
“That feeling of actually finishing something is lovely, but it’s separate to why I like to knit,” says musician and designer Lucy Clarke, co-founder of children’s clothes label Si+Lu, who began knitting when she was pregnant with her daughter.
“Once you give up on the idea that you’re going to finish any time soon, and [accept] you’re doing it for the sake of it, it’s just your hands taking over and there’s something really nice about that. The muscle memory kicks in. It’s like playing an instrument.”
Knitting has traditionally been a female pursuit, but more men are discovering its charms. About half of Trinity’s Knit Soc members are male. Derek Montgomery has found other men are intrigued by his passion. “Oddly enough it’s not men who view me as different, it’s women,” he says.
Knitting brings people together. Many are taught knitting by older relatives, but you don’t need a knitting expert in the family to get started. Knitting and crochet groups have sprung up all over the country in yarn shops, cafes and schools, where novices and experts can chat and share tips.
Lucy Clarke began knitting as part of a knitting group, and I first learned how to turn a heel at a sock-knitting workshop at Dublin yarn shop This Is Knit (thisis knit.ie). For those who prefer to stay home, there are great books and Youtube videos.
But they all offer a route to finding moments of calm in a hectic world, one simple stitch at a time.