When I told her, pre-first lesson, that I was a complete beginner I don’t think she realized that meant I had never knitted a stitch in my life. People downplay their abilities all the time. Not me. It took me a full hour to grasp how to make the slipknot needed in order to cast on. I even had to be shown how to hold the needles, for crying out loud—but I digress.
“You’re overthinking it,” she said. I couldn’t argue. Overthinking is what I do. In fact, I’ve made it an art, not merely a way to procrastinate. Over the next few weeks I thought a lot about my overthinking while I knit row after row after row—only to take out every stitch and restart from scratch multiple times.
I really like knitting. It’s incredibly soothing to sit, mug of tea close at hand, repeating the same stitch again and again, watching as a lovely (in my current project) swath of deep purples, plums, and blues—like a night sky over the ocean—grows in a gentle swell beside me. I haven’t quite reached the phase where I can knit without looking (though I can glance up, hold a conversation, etc.), but I can let my mind roam—or my mind insists on roaming all on its own. And with my hands busy, whatever topics I dwell on, even not-so-nice stuff and “hard” things, seem more manageable somehow.
As a culture, we’ve benefited a lot from automation and the invention of a bazillion machines and tools to replace work previously done by hand, free time being our biggest gain. Yet in losing those types of chores, I find myself wondering if we also haven’t lost something important—an age-old way our brains used to cope with worry, stress or sadness.
When doing productive work that engages my brain just enough to keep me attentive to my surroundings, but not so much that I can’t think about separate things, solutions to everyday problems seem to arrive out of nowhere. It’s like moving through the rows of a project causes my thoughts to move forward too. I can’t stay stuck on one track or dwell too obsessively.
And unlike so many other parts of life where there are no easy answers, perfect solutions, or quick fixes, there’s something very satisfying and rewarding about this type of tangible-results task: I worked for this long; I accomplished this.
North American culture, one of the wealthiest and most pleasure-orientated of any society, ancient or modern, is also one of the most unsettled and discontent. We’re bombarded by noise, images, and information constantly—at work, at school, and, ever-increasingly, at home too—and all too often we have no outlet, no avenue to deal with the sensory overload.
Enter knitting—or some other wooly-brained pursuit. I don’t think the majority of us will ever make all our own clothing, blankets and bedding again, but we can all benefit from reclaiming some of those old skills. Learn to knit, even just to make your own dishcloths. Darn socks and sweaters (and teach your kids). Bring back the mending basket—where shirts or pants with torn seams sit, then get repaired on a wet afternoon, instead of being thrown out. It’s healthy for the pocketbook, environmentally responsible—and good for our heads.
I suspect I have many, many scarves in my future, and that’s, well, perfect. I like scarves. And so does my brain. Never felt a minute’s stress or mental overload? Lucky jerk, ha ha—knit anyway. It’s also just plain fun.
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“Wooly Thoughts” by me, Ev Bishop, was originally published in the Terrace Standard, November 26, 2014 as my monthly column “Just a Thought.”