Five Fingers, Five Reasons: How Knitting Comforted My Mom

By Genevieve Howard | Dec. 02, 2016

 

My most treasured item is a blue, acrylic sweater my mom knit me. It has a horse on the back and my nickname in block letters on the front: GEN. I only wear it once a year to keep it from fading and falling apart.

I didn’t always treasure my mom. When I was younger, I often felt confused, embarrassed and overwhelmed by her behavior. She lived with schizophrenia her entire life and had episodes of feeling suicidal. She told me she felt so bad in second grade that she went on the roof of her elementary school and wanted to jump off.

Her life was topsy-turvy with high peaks of joy and dark moments of panic, sometimes within the same day. She went through periods on and off various medications, but she never found the perfect treatment plan. She was hospitalized many times. Employment was difficult for her because of the unpredictable nature of her issues.

It’s a mystery to me how she learned to knit, but she picked it up in her early 20s. Through knitting, she found a meaningful method to express her creativity for more than 50 years. Among other things, knitting allowed her to succeed, socialize, calm herself, regain control and participate in a craft on a limited income. I’ll explain:

  1. A path to success

    Respect and encouragement were in short supply throughout her life. Strangers called her “crazy” within earshot. But her knitting ability earned kind words from people who recognized her talent. Each time she finished a sweater or an afghan, her wide smile gleamed with success. This sense of accomplishment helped with her self-esteem and identity. She was proud to call herself a knitter.
     
  2. Social connection

    More than 38 million people knit and crochet. Knitting gave her a welcoming community that helped cancel out feelings of isolation. Her craft gave people a reason to approach and visit with her. With knitting needles in hand, she had a built-in conversation starter.

    “What are you making?” curious onlookers always asked.

    Usually something for a baby! A proud grandma, she loved to show off her latest project and share a picture or two of her grandkids with complete strangers.
     
  3. A calming activity

    The simple, repetitive motion with her hands was soothing. Knitting wasn't a cure, but it was a way for her to feel better (and it was healthier than smoking!). She brought her knitting bag with her everywhere. Knitting allowed her to stay seated during meetings when she often felt anxious. The softness of the yarn gave her an anchor and a feeling of safety. She focused on the work right in front of her and less on her fear and hallucinations. It helped to quiet her mind.

    Also: How many times in life can we get a do-over? You can with yarn! If my mom made something she didn’t like, she simply unraveled it and started over with the same yarn. No problem.
     
  4. A way to regain control

    My mom couldn't control many aspects of her life. In her knitting, though, she had the power of choice: She decided what she wanted to work on. She picked her own colors and yarn. She poured through patterns to choose the perfect one; she was free to express her creative spirit however she wanted.
     
  5. Inexpensive hobby with no expiration date

    Unlike paint that dries up, yarn never goes bad. It’s patient. Sometimes my mom wasn't well enough to do any needle work. Yarn didn’t care that she needed to take a break and put it down. It waited for years while she took time to regroup. It was ready when she was strong enough to pick it up and begin again.

    And anyone can get started for less than $10: You only need a skein of yarn and two needles to knit or one hook to crochet. Visit your local library for beginning-level books or explore these free learning resources online:

My Tribute

After she died in 2009 from lung cancer, I taught myself to knit using a book so I could honor her memory. I respect my mom more after learning her hobby—I understand her in a new way. She was a sophisticated, creative, brave woman who rose above her limitations.

You, too, can be a knitter, regardless of any mental illness you live with. Reach out to your circle of friends and let them know you’re interested in knitting. If you don’t have many friends, check your community for local knitting circles—some yarn stores offer free space to sit and knit. As with any new activity, you might find knitting tough in the beginning. Be patient! Stick to simple projects. After you get the hang of it, you will come to rely on knitting as a source of relaxation and so much more. And when you hold your first finished piece you made by hand, you’ll have a deep sense of satisfaction.

Once a year, I wrap myself in the horse sweater my mom made me by hand. I prize the thousands of perfect stitches, each motivated by her affection for me. The blue yarn holds her love around my shoulders, all these years later. Beyond illness and death, her love remains and I can feel it now more than ever.

 

With a deep affection for knitting, crochet, hot tea and puttering, Genevieve A. Howard plans to reach her peak as an old woman. Author of the Creative Women's Devotional, you can connect with her at genevievehoward.com

Comments
Jenni
I used YouTube to learn to crochet 2 years ago. I have bipolar disorder and crocheting helps so much. I love listening to audio books while crocheting and I've even sold a few hats to friends!
12/30/2016 12:05:08 AM

MomCat
What a beautiful sweater! As I write this I am wearing a woolen shirt that was my stepfather's. I loved him so much. A number of years ago my mother gave me a set of interchangeable knitting needles. A few years later, I started to tell her that it was the best gift she had ever given me--then stopped as the revelation hit me. "No" I said, "The best give you have given me was teaching me to knit." It was almost 60 years ago and I am still knitting. This article reminds me why I want to teach knitting when I retire. Thanks.
12/29/2016 1:25:21 PM

Kathy Fredrickson
I like to use the looms to knit. I like making hats, scarfs and neck warmers. It clams me down when my mental illness gets the best of me. It helps when I am in a group of people and my anxiety gets out of hand. It is nice because people will ask me what I am making and it is a joy to make hats and scarfs for people and see them get a big smile. It brings joy to me and keeps me calm.
12/29/2016 12:33:25 AM

Stacie Larson
Thank you for sharing this. I learned to knit as a child and got skilled to the point that I could follow a pattern to make an Aryan sweater Then I had a stroke in my motor center a year and a half ago. The most peculiar result, and what I missed most, was that I completely forgot how to knit. I couldn't even remember how to hold the needles! I've had to figure out the processes logically, and practice, practice, practice! I've finally reached the point where I can use a knitting loom to create a hat or scarf without unwanted holes, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to complete the sweaters I was working on. I never realized what a complicated process knitting was!
It uses both hands doing two different jobs at the same time: one hand controls the yarn and the tension, while the other hand feeds the yarn into the proper stitch. I'll keep working on it, and in the meantime, the loom allows me to make warm hats and scarves for people who might need them.
12/28/2016 6:14:26 PM

Julie Sires
As an avid knitter, I agree how much knitting can help your mental wellbeing.
Thanks for sharing.
12/28/2016 6:07:34 PM

Edward
Knitting and crochet have been constant companions through my 30 year struggle with schizoaffective disorder. I credit them as much as medication with any successes I have had.
12/28/2016 5:16:16 PM

Tina Leftwich
My husband has a mental disorder and knitting (& crochet & a host of other hand crafts) helps me to distress after helping him through a tough day.
12/8/2016 2:56:15 PM

Kathy Auch
NAMI National Alliance on Mental Illness would benefit in knowing this information. I tagged them to this web site. If I did it right...??
12/7/2016 1:53:44 PM

Nancy
I love to knit and crochet ! And anyone can do it; men, women, girls, boys. Thanks for reminding me it's okay to just sit and knit.
12/5/2016 10:23:44 AM

Lori Ann
My solace is Crochet. I have a whole host of mental health issues. The biggest demon is anxiety. I, too take yarn everywhere.
12/4/2016 7:40:55 PM

KathyB
Your horse sweater is beautiful. Such a graceful and creative present from your mom. I have knitted but never anything that complex. It truly was a wonderful outlet for her and a way to be in the moment and perhaps more centered.

Thank you for sharing her story.
12/4/2016 7:27:28 PM

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