Unleash your creativity: Ways to get crafty at home

From jigsaws to art from your fridge, there are mental health benefits from make-and-do

Towards the end of November, I found myself inexplicably bursting into tears at random moments. Perhaps it’s not so inexplicable: there’s a killer pandemic out there, and relentlessly bad news on the airwaves. Maybe random tears coupled with a consistent numbness of feeling is a reasonable response. It’s also one of the definitions of a mild depression. I took to painting anglepoise lamps.

Doing something creative – and occupying the mind and the hands – gives relief from spirals of negative thinking and, even if you’re not depressed, make-and-do can alleviate anxiety. It is also good, gentle fun.

Making in time of Covid is a world away from pursuing latent dreams of being an artist. Making in time of Covid is about distraction, occupying time in a fulfilling way, and aiming small for surprisingly transformative results. The ways in which we are creative have changed from last spring, when the nation was gripped by competitive bread making. Things are now in a lower key. We have also got away from the notion that all our activities have to be monetised, and are re-remembering the joy of making for making’s sake.

While you can find people who have done extraordinary things: there's a man in England who built Harry Potter's Diagon Alley in his spare room, and a guy in California who got all Eat the Peach (remember the 1986 film, where Stephen Brennan and Eamon Morrissey built a Wall of Death in their back yard?) and made a full-scale roller coaster in his parents' garden; most of us are enjoying quieter ambitions. One reason for this is that anxiety and stress reduce concentration, so the most emotionally supportive crafts are also the easiest to get into.


Another reason is that over time we have been living with Covid, the public side of our lives has dwindled, and with that has come a shift away from doing things for their show-off value. In fact, the idea of showing off seems both tired, and out of kilter just now. Instead, we are recognising the value of doing, rather than gloating over the end result.

"When we had lots of money in the country, people stopped making things, and instead went out for pleasure," says artist and maker Caroline Schofield, who works with the Waterford Healing Arts Trust and the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland. "There's a generation who stopped learning certain things," she continues. "I learned to knit and sew from my grandmother. When I grew up everyone around me was making." Now, she may go into a school where few of the nine and 10-year-olds will ever have held a sewing needle. "I bring elastoplasts," she says with a wry laugh.

Making, agrees Schofield, gives you a valuable time out from your mind – or rather, from that part of your mind engaged in worry and anxiety. And even though you may return to your concerns when your crafting session is done, your brain still benefits from the more relaxed mental patterns you have experienced.

At Cork's Vibes and Scribes. a craft and book shop in Cork (vibesandscribes.ie), Joan Lucey says that there's a definite difference to what people were buying in the first lockdown. "This time people are knitting like crazy. We're selling so much wool." Her big sellers last March were elastic and fabric – for mask-making; and jigsaws. "Jigsaws were huge. I love them, you can stay up half the night. You're concentrating, so you're not snacking or drinking, and the satisfaction is huge."

Alongside knitting, crochet is another big trend. You can get further faster with crochet (it’s mainly holes, with wool round the edges), and it’s very simple to master. “It could be to do with the colder weather,” says Lucey, “but more because of the ease of it.” Meanwhile, she continues, “millinery has gone completely. We haven’t sold a thing to do with it since last February. No one is making hats, and it used to be one of our most popular things.”

The key to third-wave Covid creativity is that absolutely anyone should be able do it, and a strong Vibes and Scribes seller is Paint-by-Numbers. These are, if you think about it, the art version of a jigsaw puzzle: they let you get straight to the making part, without the additional burden of searching for a subject. Some are remarkably elaborate, see also the range at daretopaint.ie, from €28.

Another aspect of the new wave of making sees people working with what they happen to have at home, making something magical out of the mundane – and after all, isn't that what lockdown has taught us to value? For some that's upcycling, but for Jacki Gordon, it's fridge leftovers. Using figures from model railway sets, and anything from a half-eaten boiled egg to a teacake, Gordon's micro photography was, as she puts it, "a survival technique during lockdown. I suddenly had very limited opportunities for going out."

"Creating these pictures is utterly immersive," says the Glasgow-based mental health consultant. "The figures stick to my fingers, they fall over, I can lose myself for a couple of hours, and for that time, I'm thinking about nothing else. It has the added benefit," she continues, "of making people laugh. During Covid, we're a bit low on the fun factor." Discover Gordon's fridge art, which has struck a chord around the world, at totiephoties.com, and on Instagram at @jacki_gordon.

Third lockdown crafts are definitely more old-school, but they can have a contemporary twist. Another that is easy to pick up and doesn't require a huge outlay is cross stitch, and the results can be pure joy. While embroidery might make you come over all Jane Austen or Bridgerton, today's templates (downloadable via sites such as etsy.ie) include mini samplers of expletive-ridden responses to the current crisis, and colourful versions of the virus microbe itself. Find more traditional cross stitch kits from €11.20 at sew-irish.ie.

Catherine Staunton of Dublin stalwart, Nimble Fingers (nimblefingers.ie), says that jigsaws have been huge among their customers too. While they obviously aren't going to suit households where the table is already in demand as an eating, home office and homework space, "they're still going strong," she says. "But nothing like last year." A jigsaw saw her through the first lockdown, although differences in opinion over the best way to tackle Central Park almost cost her relationship. "It was Divided City New York [by Ravensburger, from €22.99]," she recalls. "We set the bar too high. We still haven't finished it. It's a good test of a relationship!"

"Some things stand the test of time," continues Staunton. "But there are crazes too. There was one for melting wax crayons on a page, and another for painting rocks. Mindful colouring books have made a bit of a comeback, and cartooning. That's a good one, you just need pro-markers and paper. People are making up their own stories, and there are online tutorials, books and pieces on Pinterest to get you going." Check out Modern Cartooning by Christopher Hart €26.59 at easons.com, or sites such as craftcrazy22/cartooning on Pinterest.

"People are obviously getting fed up," adds Staunton, who also notes that many parents are getting satisfaction from doing craft sets with their children, a theme picked up by Jane O'Mahoney from Silkes of Limerick (silkes.ie). "In the first lockdown, we were doing a lot of packs for children," she says. "Now we're selling colouring pencils, it's that idea of therapy art. Paint and canvasses are the all-time favourites, and we're also selling a lot of clay."

Another popular craft, according to O’Mahoney is felting. “People have time now to try new things, and felting is relaxing, it’s therapeutic.” Not sure where to get started in your quest to turn bits of yarn into fabric, and from there into anything from adorably lopsided animals to statement jewellery? Discover ways and means, and a whole lot more on the Design and Craft Council’s Get Ireland Making channel on YouTube (see panel).

As for me, my mood has got bumpy again, which is, surprisingly, hugely preferable to utterly flat, and I have swapped anglepoises for painting horses once more. It’s difficult to know whether long walks with a borrowed dog, good food, talking about it, a break from work, the time spent in the deliciously abstract space of making, or a combination of all of these have been responsible. But if you’re feeling at the edge of stress, or even at the edge of feeling nothing at all, getting making can be very good medicine indeed.

Where to go for Make and Do

The Design and Crafts Council's Get Ireland Making channel on YouTube has short videos on everything from homemade stained glass to pom pom flowers, felting to kite making. youtube.com

The Department of Arts, Culture and Lots of Other Things have started a weekly roundup of online courses, demonstrations and exhibitions from partners including The Chester Beatty, IMMA and the National Gallery. Find out more at bit.ly/WellbeingHighlights.

Vibes and Scribes have a Keep Busy section, with ideas to get you started when you simply don't know where to start. They're also launching a template to make quilting a breeze. vibesandscribes.ie/keep-busy.

Creativity At Home is the Glucksman Gallery's daily live art and activity sessions aimed at children, but there's nothing to stop adults having the craic too. glucksman.org.

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture