During the recent succession of lockdowns I made a discovery. Even the most dedicated reader, it turns out, can feel like they’ve read enough. I wanted something different. Like millions of others I turned to crafts. I didn’t have enough creativity left to engage in creative writing or art – like I’d been doing for years – but I craved something that would put my mind off the dystopian nightmare the world had become. I’d tried my hand at knitting before and figured, now that I was stuck at home, I might as well try something new.
Things got out of hand, as they always do. Over the course of the past two years I knitted two jumpers, a cardigan, several hats, and a very long scarf. I embroidered a llama. I depicted Big Ben in cross stitch. I sculpted and painted enough animals to fill a miniature zoo. I even tried diamond painting. For the uninitiated, that means sticking tiny plastic bits – misleadingly known as gems – onto a sticky surface to form a pattern. As you can probably tell, I was getting desperate by this point.
All jokes aside, with lockdowns hopefully a thing of the past, I am still making things. Another scarf is waiting to be finished. If it had eyes it would give me accusatory looks from its basket: why are you writing when you could be working on me? I have just ordered another load of embroidery thread. Not only am I still crafting, I am still enjoying it. So there must be something to it.
Of course the explanation is simple. Most crafts involve working with colourful materials which – in case of knitting or crocheting – are pleasantly soft. Today is yet another grey winter day and the prospect of holding bright pink yarn in my hands when I continue to knit my scarf is something to look forward to, however pathetic it may sound. During lockdowns opportunities for fun were few and far between and few could afford to be picky. I certainly couldn’t.
But there’s more. Knitting or embroidery force the crafter to repeat the same small movements over and over again, as do many other crafts. I’ve never been a successful meditator. No matter what I try, I always get monkey mind and give up long before the supposedly heavenly peace has had a chance to set in. But while stitching tiny crosses to form a miniature airplane I entered a state that came close to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow state”, or “ state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work”.
Then there’s the satisfaction of mastering a new skill. User experience researcher Jasper van Kuijk recently pointed out that pastimes such as model kits often seem counter-intuitive. Instead of going through the painstaking and time-consuming process of building a model airplane, why not just buy a ready-made one? Because, van Kuijk argues, the satisfaction comes from the building, not from looking at the finished project. I could have bought the jumpers I knitted and saved myself a lot of time and hassle but that would have been no fun at all. The adrenaline rush that comes with buying a finished item doesn’t lost as long as the feeling of smugness caused by knitting an jumper from scratch.
Staying with jumpers, knitting two has also taught me how much work actually goes into making items we don’t think twice about buying on the high street. Hardly any fashion brands sell hand-knitted jumpers, of course – the labour costs alone would be prohibitive. But the cost of quality material alone has made me feel even more uncomfortable about fast fashion than I already did. The amount of yarn needed for a jumper is usually more expensive than a fully finished jumper one buys off the peg at your average high street shop. Somewhere along that chain something, or someone, is suffering to keep the price of that jumper low. Of course I already knew this but making an item of clothing myself has really hammered the message home. I now think twice about every purchase and more often than not decide that I don’t actually need it.
But perhaps the most surprising discovery has been that crafters form close-knit (sorry) communities. The web is awash with hangouts where crafters discuss their favourite yarns, the best way to keep your drip painting symmetrical, or share photos of their latest creations. Even if you’re not a crafter yourself, you can still join in. Diamond painters in particular have discovered that their skill can give ASMR-style pleasures even to those not actually participating and have responded by making long (VERY long) videos for a growing and appreciative audience.
In my own life, I have made new friends with whom I can share the joys of creating cute and colourful things. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the metal music-loving martial artist I used to be. Of course I am still that person too – one can be many things at once. And knitting that fluffy pink scarf is even more fun with Black Sabbath blasting in the background.