When my husband, Matt, then a fit, healthy 53-year-old, called to tell me he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and I was in Rhode Island helping my 84-year-old mom recuperate from a lumpectomy. Matt was at home in Virginia with our young daughter. The news came as a complete shock. Two of the most important people in my life had cancer.
After hanging up the phone, one of the first things I did was head to Fresh Purls, a Providence yarn store. I was looking for a dose of “yarn therapy.” I knew I would feel calmer after squishing some alpaca and merino, and that I would walk out of the shop with a really great hank of yarn ready to tackle a project and be productive. And I knew that project would be a pair of socks for Matt. I had been promising (or threatening) Matt with hand-knit socks for several years—ever since he started teasing me about how he was going to give me $5 and send me to Target to buy socks so I didn’t have to spend hours knitting them.
But my need to turn to my knitting in the wake of this news wasn’t about the socks. For me and many others, knitting is a way to cope with stress, increase focus and engender a sense of accomplishment during uncertain times.
In fact, research from the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, the British Journal of Occupational Therapy and many other top-notch medical sources shows that activities like knitting elicit a relaxation response, increase concentration and can delay memory loss.
In their recent book The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands, the husband-wife team of physicians Alton and Carrie Barron draw upon the latest psychological research, personal experience and their combined expertise in psychology and orthopedics to reveal that creative action such as knitting can help ease depression and anxiety, create community and fuel well-being.
I am a lifelong knitter. My mom taught me when I was about 10, and when I look back, I have instinctively turned to knitting during times of stress. I knit Icelandic sweaters during the early ’80s at Holy Cross during exam study breaks. I made scarves and baby sweaters for friends in the 1990s as I traveled to Bosnia and Pakistan and other hotspots for work. A year or so after adopting our daughter from Russia, I started an evening knitting group at a local coffee shop to help deal with the stress of being home all day with a very active, headstrong 3-year-old who had spent her first 17 months in an orphanage. In those years, I knit mostly fun fur scarves and little girl ponchos.
For the last several years, I’ve been “cancer knitting” everything from chemo caps for friends and strangers, to thank you shawls, cowls and fingerless gloves for friends who, over the past five years, have helped us with rides, offered support and looked after our daughter during Matt’s cancer journey. Of course, I’ve knit several pairs of socks for Matt, who no longer offers to send me to Target.
I’ve done a lot of this knitting in medical waiting rooms where inevitably from a screen overhead the local news is issuing a live report on the latest shooting, or the talking heads are screaming about health care or a fake judge is yelling at some guy about how he needs to pay his child support. I settle in with my knitting—tuning out the blaring TV and letting the rhythm of the needles calm me. Usually several people in the waiting room turn away from the TV and smile as I click away, and I can count on someone to start up a conversation about how she’d like to learn to knit some day or about how my yarn is such a soothing color.
And I’m usually still clicking away as the tech takes my husband’s blood pressure or the nurse hooks him up for treatment or the doctor walks in with scan results. “What are you knitting?” “Is that knit or crochet?” “How can you do that without looking?” Amid conversations about test results and surgery, it’s reassuring and calming for both my husband and me to have these humanizing, equalizing encounters with the doctors and caregivers. I think it’s helpful to the doctors too. My knitting provides an icebreaker and levels the playing field a bit. It helps me be a quiet, supportive presence to my husband. Knitting is a centering activity during stressful times. ■
Michelle Maynard ’84 is the executive director of Project Knitwell, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit that provides knitting instruction and quality supplies to people facing stressful situations. (For more information, visit projectknitwell.org)