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Knitters say their hobby relieves stress, and that's no yarn

John Lundy

Forum News Service

DULUTH, Minn. — Ask Jody Ondich why she knits, and she volunteers the primary reason without hesitation.

"The biggie is that I get to play with color," the Lake Superior College instructor said recently.

But as Ondich sat at a table, knitting and chatting with friends in a back room at Yarn Harbor in the Lakeside neighborhood, they contended it also calms them, helps them focus and increases their feeling of well-being.

It also might spare them from less-productive pursuits.

"I think it cuts down on alcohol consumption," Alice Adams said to laughter from the group. But Adams, a masterful knitter who is retired from the faculty of the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus, was serious.

"Your hands are busy, and it's relaxing, and I think it really does," she said.

There aren't a lot of studies out there on the health benefits of knitting, but some evidence has been trickling in over recent years. Among them:

- An online study of 3,545 knitters worldwide was led by Jill Riley, lecturer in occupational therapy at Cardiff University in Wales, and published in the February 2013 edition of the British Journal of Occupational Therapy. "The results show a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy," the authors reported. "More frequent knitters also reported higher cognitive functioning."

-A 2011 study led by Dr. Yonas E. Geda, a neuropsychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, concluded that craft activities such as quilting and knitting were among those that reduced the odds of having mild cognitive impairment by 30 to 50 percent.

Calming effect

Elizabeth Miller, a longtime knitter who teaches fourth grade at Lakewood School,

learned knitting from her grandmother when she was 10, she said. Now 56, she has found that her focus and concentration improves when she knits. She gets other benefits as well.

"It calms me down and lowers my blood pressure," Miller said. "I bring it when I go to the doctor."

The portability of knitting is a benefit that came up in the group sitting around the Yarn Harbor table that included Ondich, Adams, Iris Schraw and Cecelia Riehl.

"I've brought knitting to pretty much every event in my life from babies being born, to my father dying, to sitting with friends in their crises," said Schraw, 56. "It brings a calm to me."

For Kathy Thomas, the greatest benefit of knitting is stress reduction, she said.

She owns Yarn Harbor, as well as a gardening, maintenance and design business. Running two businesses can be stressful, Thomas said, but sitting on the couch at the end of the day with her knitting helps keep her grounded. And as with Schraw, it also helps during life crises.

"Sitting in the hospital with your dying grandma ... to have some knitting keeps you calm," Thomas said. "So that just helps everybody."

Focus factor

Adams is on board with Geda's study, which concluded that knitting and similar activities are  better for your gray matter than watching television. Admired by the other knitters for the challenging projects she takes on, Adams exercised her right not to reveal her age -- except for the hint that she started knitting at age 5 and has been doing it for more than 70 years.

"It is a productive pastime to counteract the idiot box," she said of knitting.

Thomas said the younger generation -- who can connect online at sites such as Stitchlinks.com and Ravelry.com -- find that to be true as well.

"To do something where you're actually producing something with your hands and you're not staring at a screen is pretty cool for them," she said.

Caryn Walter, 34, who lives in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood, took up knitting about 10 years ago, she said, because she wanted a hobby. She was self-taught, learning her skills online.

A licensed therapist currently employed as a social worker, Walter said knitting "correlates with some of the mindfulness skills that I teach my clients, being in the here and now and being focused on what you're doing."

It also can be a frustrating hobby at times, she said, as when a mistake is discovered late and a lot of work has to be redone. But even that is a benefit, Walter said, because it builds frustration tolerance and patience skills.

Students who take up knitting often find the craft increases their ability to focus, Adams said.

"I had no qualms about a student knitting while I was lecturing because their mind is more tuned to my lecture when they're doing that," she said. "And likewise when I got tenure I took knitting to faculty meetings."

Ondich, 58, also takes knitting to faculty meetings, saying when she does so, "I am much less restless and antsy."

But she brings something basic, like a sock she's working on, Ondich said, not a more complex project such as she had at the table that day. She was closely following a pattern as she worked, although she also was able to carry on a conversation.

Even working in the presence of other knitters can threaten the more intricate knitting, Adams said.

"Some projects you can't bring here because these people disturb --" she said in a mock scold as the others laughed. "And you wind up having to go home and fix it."

But the social aspect can be especially valuable, said Walter, who has knitted in a monthly women's group. "I think (it) is a health benefit to stay connected with people and have a common interest," she said.

Repetitive motion

By far the most experienced knitter in the group, Adams also brought up what may be the single potential health detriment. It has to do with the repeated hand motions.

"It's a repetitive motion, OK?" she said, sounding very much like a teacher. "And one does have the fear that one will do damage and not be able to do it."

Adams has sought to prevent that, she said, by learning two different ways of knitting so she can switch from one motion to the other. Lately, she also sometimes switches from hand knitting to machine knitting.

Ondich said it's good for knitters to occasionally stop and stretch or get up and walk around. A couple of small bags of chocolates on the table offered one incentive to take a break.

The knitters said their hobby cuts across all demographic groups: age, gender, race. It's an international preoccupation, said Schraw, who has found knitting to be a conversation-starter everywhere from a park in China to a teenager in a train headed to Glacier National Park.

It can be a spendy hobby. Ondich was wearing a shawl with a fringed end she had knit. The yarn for it, she said, cost $60. A sweater that Adams had knit sat in a basket on the table. Patterned in lilac and white, it looked warm, comfy and beautiful. The yarn for it cost more than $150, Adams said.

"Our grandmothers did it to save money," Riehl said. "(Now) it's much cheaper to buy a sweater."

But the benefits outweigh any costs, knitters say.

Schraw talked about the shawls she knit while her father was dying and while she was taking care of a new baby. Looking at them, she said, can bring back memories of grief or joy, but "it mostly brings comfort."

"I get an overall sense of well-being when I'm knitting," she said. "It calms me. ... I can be in the midst of a lot of chaos and stress and have my knitting, and I'm OK."

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