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My mental health hangs by a thread and that thread is a yarn

Photo by Nikita Sharma

Every summer my grandmother would ask my childhood self what my favourite colour is. By the time winter rolled around, she would have knitted me a sweater to bundle me in my favourite colour. Old family photographs have my brother and myself posing in the same sweaters, all knitted by my grandmother, worn when we were the same approximate size and cuteness. These sweaters, like inheritance, will be passed down. Their knit and yarn would ensure they last, weaving my grandmother and all of us who wear these sweaters in a warm and scratchy togetherness.

Now, grown and away from home, a writer (and knitter) in London, I have an orange sweater too big for me. When I wear it, it holds me. My grandmother knitted it for my mother when she was in college. This sweater is older than me. It was forgotten and tucked away, until I found it and since then have never let it far from reach. In my enclothed cognition, this orange sweater lends me solace - a product of my grandmother’s love, a veteran of my mother’s youth, and big and comforting as both their hugs.

It is through knitting that I have known the most lasting, tangible, labours of love.

Social media can yield a cornucopia of mental health challenges but fortunately for me, some algorithmic luck led me to knitting (searches for Tom Daley, an Olympic diver who openly knitted in stadiums to cope with pressure, may or may not have been involved). Knitting is a gateway to a state of calm. The rhythmic movements of the needles, the necessary focus to count stitches, elicit a ‘relaxation response’ that lowers heart rate and alleviates stress. Still, it wasn’t the mental health benefits of knitting, nor the desire to be the best-sweatered woman in every room, or even the militant urge to fight fast fashion, that made me take it up. I started knitting to give back the knitted love that I had received.

My first knitting project was a scarf with pockets at its ends for my grandmother. Its colour was purple - unlike my childhood self, her favourite colour had been consistent. Why pockets? It may be hard to imagine how wearing gloves can be difficult, but if you are old with stiff joints and arthritis-ridden fingers, or know someone who is, it isn’t. During winters, it is now my grandmother who wraps her favourite-coloured scarf around her neck and slips her hands into the pockets to keep them warm.

Even though knitting is something one does on their own, it is seldom done in isolation. One either knits for someone or with someone.

While my grandmother had complexly detailed knitting books and magazines to learn from, and I had many YouTube videos to pause and replay and then play again at 0.5x speed, we both also had friends - knitting friends - to solve problems, share ideas, and keep busy company. Beginning knitting would have been a lot less encouraging, and much harder, if I could not have knocked at my housemate Andrea’s room, holding up my knitting, asking her to figure out the mistake I had just made, or my friend Mari who fired up the Zoom whiteboard to explain the pattern I was about to knit. The more I owned knitting as a part of my personality, the more knitters I attracted, or the more I converted the ones around me.

Knitting breeds community. Because those who knit are so involved in knitting - visiting yarn stores, discussing patterns, fixing each other’s mistakes - they are surrounded with opportunities for passionate communication - salves in disguise for individual loneliness. And one mostly ends up knitting for others anyway (for there are so many socks and sweaters and hats one can wear). Knitting for charities improves one’s sense of self, making one feel purposeful. While knitting for those around us strengthens ties with warm yarns.

Writer Ann Patchett used her knitting needles as a crutch to give up smoking. Whenever her fingers yearned for the slender cylindricity of a cigarette, she would pick up her needles, knitting row after row, until the urge to smoke passed. Instagrammer Mia (@anxiousgirlknits) would knit before eating to allay her mealtime anxiety. Among women suffering from eating disorders, knitting has proven to quell rumination and help progress in therapy. Stitchlinks’ Betsan Corkhill found therapeutic knitting made people feel happier and shifted focus away from chronic pain. She suggests the repetitive poking and wrapping of yarn, the growing river of wool in one’s lap, induces serotonin production that calms, lifts mood, and dulls pain. She also argues that knitting actually requires a lot of brain capacity, creating neural pathways that help maintain brain health. Older people who engage in crafts like knitting show lesser signs of mild cognitive impairment, linked with reduced risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

For me, knitting saves me from myself. Dermatillomania, or skin picking, is a physical manifestation of anxiety. The slightest rise in my heartbeat would often coincide with my digging my nails into the skin around my fingers, peeling, plucking, with sometimes even pain or blood failing to put an end to it. If the tips of my fingers are ever smooth, unhurt, or unbandaged, there is a strong chance that I have a knitting project going on.

I started knitting as an adult while I have been picking my skin since childhood. The nature of dermatillomania is such that I may never learn to manage it and continue picking my skin well into old age. But I hope I can carry on knitting in my old age too.

Photo by Nikita Sharma

The last time I stayed with my grandmother, I saw her lifting one foot with both her hands, propping it onto her knee with silent pained breaths, to slip on a sock. My grandmother is old now. Arthritis in various joints makes it feel more real. She no longer knits.

But when I carry my knitting to her, unsure about what mistake I have made but sure that I have made it, she takes the needles into her hands, slips the yarn through her fingers (both of which were aching just now), and seamlessly knits it into the fabric with a shocking dexterity. As if she had never stopped, nor the years gone by. I watch in wonder.

And when she looks up at me, I am my grandmother’s little granddaughter again, telling her what my favourite colour is.


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