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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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