Knitting Knows Best

Over the last couple of years, the healing power of arts and crafts has been well documented, with study after study popping up to reveal just how good hobbies can be for health and wellbeing. Whether it’s NHS nurses picking up their knitting needles to de-stress and improve memory or quilters boosting their self-esteem by stitching psychologically-uplifting colourful squares together, the case for keeping well through craft – at a time of economic uncertainty, when job losses and rising prices really have taken their toll – has never been better.

One happy crafter who has come to realise the benefits of these handy pursuits is Dr Carol Cheal, the mastermind behind the Helen Bamber Foundation’s Knitting Group, part of the trust’s Creative Arts Programme. For the uninitiated, the Foundation is a human rights organisation set up in 2005 to help survivors of human rights violations and it was for this very reason that the Knitting Group was established, all the way back in 2008.

Dr Cheal, herself from a family of knitters, picking up the craft from her grandmother at the age of four, explains that when the workshops first began three years ago, very few people came but this built up over time, with between eight and ten people now coming regularly to knit and natter, making scarves, blankets and even crocheting “crinkly little sea creatures”.

“There were therapeutic benefits that I hadn’t foreseen,” she says. “These people have had horrible experiences. Some of them suffer flashbacks and somehow the knitting helps them to focus and block out memories.”

However, Dr Cheal is quick to stress that the group is not intended to serve as a platform for people to share stories of their past and, in fact, knitters and crocheters who attend prefer to chat about other issues, such as help with their children or going to the local Job Centre.

“There usually isn’t deep discussion about what people have been through,” Dr Cheal remarks, although that’s not to say that crafters can’t talk about their experiences if they want to.

People typically focus on their backgrounds, rather than their trauma, she continues, recalling a couple of Kurdish women who regaled the group with anecdotes from their previous lives and how they grew up learning about knitting patterns but also working with sheep, “taking wool back to as far as shearing the sheep and spinning the wool”.

Although the nature of the knitting circle is dynamic and crafters come and go fairly quickly, with many in the middle of an asylum claim and having to move on when successful, friendships do spring up and a sense of family and community is fostered, with former knitters keeping in touch and sometimes returning to the group to say a quick hello.

Given that there is now a waiting list of people referred by clinicians, all keen and eager to pick up a needle or two and start knitting, this may well be the key to the circle’s success.

Images by Jeff Blackler.

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