How yarn holds us together

It started with Egyptian cotton socks. Well, the 1000 year-old socks are the oldest relic found from a knitting culture, so it actually started before then. The point is women (and men) have been creating fabric using needles to loop yarn around itself for a long time, but for this millennium knitting has gone global.

Utilitarian at first, the word “knit” is derived from the Old English “cnyttan” and Dutch “knutten” which mean “to knot.” Fibers spun from cotton, flax and wool were fashioned into breathable yet warm garments much easier to wear than animal skins, and the tools were-and still are-portable, as opposed to hefting a fabric loom around the continent.

In light of today’s research, women in earlier societies, responsible for clothing their families, may have found knitting (and crocheting) welcome respite. Sitting by candle light, knitting and purling sweaters and socks probably kept them from worrying about their men away hunting, at sea and at war.

Clicking needles are now joined by clicking keyboards, where a Google search brings up 36 million results for knitting and more than 5.4 million for crocheting. Podcasts, newsletters, forums and patterns are available for the beginner and the professional. Knitting is universal, and it’s not just for grandmas anymore.

Thousands of online posts proclaim the benefits of knitting and crocheting from stress relief to pain relief. “It helps me keep my sanity,” laughs long-time local knitter Barbara Lewis. Lewis is part of an informal knitting group with friends Linda Seco, Patty Adams and Ruth Hare, who insist that simply getting together to knit and drink coffee relieves their stresses du jour.

Adams says that crocheting is a form of relaxation for her, and she enjoys creating items for family and friends. “Seeing the appreciation someone has when you give them something that you’ve made really makes you feel good.” Lewis and Hare echo said satisfaction of crafting a special piece for a special person who appreciates it. Lewis recalls her son asking three days before his birthday, “Aren’t you making me a sweater this year?” She quickly purchased the yarn and finished a sweater in time for cake.

“I like doing something. This keeps my hands limber. While I’m knitting, my mind is thinking about what project I can do next. It’s a constant stimulus for me,” says Seco, who owns a Wheeling yarn shop and knits in part for those physical and mental benefits. She isn’t alone.

In a complicated Princeton University study on serotonin, the gist of the summary is that stress destroys brain cells, contributing to depression; repetitive activity (like knitting and crocheting) increases the production of serotonin, which boosts production of brain cells, thus alleviating depression. Those who use knitting or crocheting in their treatment for depression also report feeling better about themselves and develop self-esteem by accomplishing a task and making something tangible and useful.

Chronic pain sufferers report marked decreases in pain as they turn to knitting and crocheting. The physical explanation lies in the fact that the brain processes pain information from nerves in the affected area. Even in these days of multi-tasking the human brain can really only concentrate and process one thing at a time. Thus, if the brain is occupied with counting stitches and the movement of needles and hooks, it is not available to process the pain signals.

Hospitals around the world have introduced knitting and crocheting to cancer patients going through chemotherapy for the same reasons: stress relief and displacing the brain’s focus and physical reactions of nausea. No less than the Mayo Clinic came out with recent study results that repetitive activity like knitting also contributes to between a 30 and 50 percent decrease in memory loss later in life.

If nothing else, most knitters experience content not only in creating but in giving. The research is endless on how giving in general makes humans feel better. Everyone wants to contribute to the greater good, and using yarn is literally one of the warmest, fuzziest ways to do it.

Knitting for a cause is not a new concept. Throughout history women have sent off knit bandages, socks and blankets to battlefields and war hospitals. Church groups traditionally participate in programs with hospitals, missions and homeless shelters. In today’s shrinking world opportunities range from “Afghans for Afghans” to “Warm Up America!,” and list 45 charities accepting donations of caps, sweaters, afghans and soft mats for animal shelters.

Locally, Crafts 2000 at the Ohio Valley Mall has just kicked off its annual “Warm Up America!” project, sponsored by the Warm Up America! Foundation and the Craft Yarn Council of America. Until the end of February, Crafts 2000 is accepting donations of yarn, completed afghans and 7″ by 9″ blocks, knitted or crocheted. The blocks will be sorted into afghan “kits” for volunteers to assemble. Interested knitters and crocheters can pick up information booklets at Crafts 2000 or call 740-526-0930. Store Manager Randy Boring says they are hoping to end up with 40 to 50 completed blankets that will be distributed to area hospices, nursing homes and other places in need.

Whether knitting and crocheting for relaxing, relief or social responsibility, any number of websites will show you what you need and what to do with it. Casting on, binding off and all the stitches in between are the same now as when you watched your grandmother in her rocker and as they’ve been throughout the centuries before. Knitting’s tradition and comfort is part of the human community, and yarn is the common thread.

Valenti can be reached at