Stitching Through Covid 19

How Crafting Soothes Stress, Calms Cabin Fever, and Creates Joy

By Elizabeth Fishel

A decade ago, a good friend took me my under her wing and taught me how to do needlepoint. She patiently showed me the way to finesse the careful, repetitive, but oddly calming stitching on the gaily painted canvases and create vibrant images that might become pillows or doorstops or eye-glass cases for mothers-in-law.

“This will get you right through the NBA play-offs,” she whispered conspiratorially, luring me into the trending craft that’s not just for grandmas any more.

Well, that was then, that faraway time when our biggest home challenge was three hours of couch sitting, watching young, healthy guys crisscross the court, shooting hoops.

Now, basketball-as-we-knew-it is history, and while we’re sheltering at home, many of us are finding stitching — needlepoint, knitting, quilting, crocheting, and the like — has become more of a lifeline than ever.

Just as after the divisive 2016 election, when the owner of a San Francisco needlepoint shop I frequent confided that business was booming as people needed an outlet for their feelings, once again, today, the homebound and overwhelmed are turning to needlework to get them through this pandemic.

Now my husband and I spend so much time on the couch, we leave a dent in the cushions. While we’re denting, we’re also girding ourselves for the latest coronavirus statistics on the evening news — and crafting. He took up knitting again to join me (he’d learned it from his mother as a young boy) so while I stitch, he knits — nubby socks or striped wool beanies and scarves for friends (yes, he’s part of another trend, hashtag #realmenknit).

There’s something meditative and comforting about the mindless tiny hand movements and familiar muscle memory of our busy needles. When I reached out to Orinda, California-based psychotherapist, Leah Potts Fisher, for a professional opinion, she agreed (it helps that she’s a knitter, too). “Using our hands can effectively reduce our restlessness,” she pointed out. “It provides a form of motion that doesn’t require going anywhere,” she added — a perfect fit for sheltering in place.

Instead of panic, cooped-up crafters experience that “What do you mean it’s time to make dinner again?” state of flow, when the rest of the unraveling world falls away.

Yet another plus: playing with the vibrantly hued and named colors — aster! shamrock! adobe! — transports us from the disturbing national news to a happier place. And once a piece is completed, we feel that endorphin rush of satisfaction and pride — often doubled if we give it away.

Explained Fisher, “When so much is broken and out of our control, there is reassurance and hopefulness in creating something that is whole and controllable.”

Turns out, recent research as well as history confirm our hands-on observations. The Craft Yarn Council’s 2019 survey of almost 3000 people, “Stitch Away Stress,” wove together the connection between yarn crafts, self care, and stress reduction: 97 percent of knitters and crocheters used their crafts to slow down from their busy lives; 93 percent experienced a feeling of accomplishment; and 68 percent felt an improved mood after they knit or crochet.

The CYC also reported that a third of all younger women, 25–35, have taken up needle crafts, boosted by the popular Maker Movement and the buzz from showing off projects on Instagram (even Taylor Swift posted a needlepoint piece she made for her BFF Ed Sheeran).

Going all the way back to the First World War, doctors found that embroidering was a way to calm the minds and steady the hands of shell-shocked soldiers. The Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry was established to offer war-rattled veterans the opportunity to earn some much-needed income and rebuild their self-esteem.

During World War Two, women on the home front did their part for the cause by knitting socks, sweaters, vests, scarves, and balaclavas for soldiers by the armful. Now we’re fighting another war of sorts, and it’s not only personally helpful but socially useful to keep our hands engaged. In this crisis, too, needle-workers are answering the call.

Suddenly long silent sewing machines are purring again as people stitch protective masks for themselves and their loved ones, (elastic’s now as precious a commodity as toilet paper and yeast). Knitters, too, are lending their hands during the pandemic, producing shawls and lap blankets for seniors in facilities around the country and donating them through the Craft Yarn Council’s charity, Warm Up America! [For info on contributing: https://bit.ly/2JbeJFl]

Homeless shelters are also reaching out for knitted goods, as Oakland, California knitter Risa Nye heard from a friend who worked at one.

Nye found a pattern online for a sweet baby hat and scrounged in her leftovers for yarn, a necessary “stash project” as most local yarn shops are still closed and online ordering is swamped. “You can knit a hat in an afternoon,” she reported, adding, “I had enough bright yellow and soft white yarn to make eight little hats in all different sizes.”

Then she set to work on a personal passion project: knitting a doll from the pattern her daughter Caitlin, 42, texted her (emoji: praying hands). Caitlin is a married mother of two and a nurse on the Covid 19 frontlines at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, New York. The doll she requested is a pint-size nurse, dressed in familiar blue scrubs. What makes it unmistakably timely: beneath two dark, piercing, woven eyes, she’s wearing a white, life-saving mask.

Nye packaged up the doll quickly for Caitlin to share with the overburdened crew on her hospital floor. She hopes it will bring them all good luck until we get to the other side of this crisis.

Elizabeth Fishel is a needlepointer and the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide To the 20-Something Years (co-written with Jeffrey Arnett).

Elizabeth Fishel is a journalist, writing instructor, and author of five nonfiction books including Sisters; Reunion; and Getting To 30 (with Jeffrey Arnett).

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