Looped In

How Knitting Became the New Meditation

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By Christina Austin

After a day of analyzing content metrics, managing employees, and brainstorming pithy content, Heather Muse is looking to unwind—quite literally. The way some people pour a glass of wine, the 46-year-old director of audience engagement at USA Today’s Reviewed reaches for a ball of garnet heather yarn. “For me, it’s a signal that the workday is done, and I’m allowed to finally relax,” says Muse from her Brooklyn apartment, where she stores her crafting supplies in wire baskets next to the couch. She spends the remaining hours of the evening knitting a one-of-a-kind cardigan that is the color of fire and incorporates the buttons from her late grandfather’s firefighter uniform. Not only does the rhythmic cadence of knit, knit, purl, knit, knit, purl quiet the chatter in her mind, each finished garment comes with a neurochemical-fueled sense of accomplishment. “Some of my best ideas have been sparked when I’ve been knitting, because it occupies the busy part of my mind enough to let more idealistic thoughts through,” she says.

Muse is one of many who have turned to this centuries-old practice during a daunting year of sheltering in place. A hobby that was once relegated to rocking chairs is now the realm of 20-something DIYers and mid-career execs searching for a path to enlightenment that doesn’t involve sitting cross-legged. As the New York Times—which published four articles on the trend over the last year—noted, Google the terms “knitting” and “pandemic,” and 23 million hits appear. It’s been called cool. A craze. The future of sustainable fashion. Even the Duchess of Cambridge is doing it.

“It’s the new yoga,” says Sophie Thimonnier, who has made a business out of teaching stressed-out workers the potential to find calm at their fingertips. Her HeartKnit workshops travel to offices (often via Zoom these days), including recently the Today show, to lead device-free mindful knitting courses. “Knitting has superpowers,” she says. “You can do it anywhere … and you feel the effect right away.”

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For many reasons, knitting has been an ideal antidote to the recent collective malaise. It’s solitary, cheap, and portable. Less obvious, though, are the emotional and cognitive benefits. Studies have shown that the repetitive motion lulls the mind and body into a meditative state, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. The many downstream benefits include reduced chronic pain, emotional distress, and likelihood of developing cognitive impairments such as dementia. But there’s more: unlike a sitting meditation practice, needlework produces a tangible result, which initiates a feel-good dopamine surge.

Muse, like many others, picked up knitting in the early 2000s, when the hobby saw a similar resurgence to the one that’s now hooking millennials and Gen Zers. A friend from graduate school in Philly taught her, and when she was stuck on the couch after foot surgery later that year, the habit became a lifeline. When lockdowns were imposed, she once again found purpose in the needle, sending handmade hats to friends. It has even “made quarantine seem to go by faster,” she says.

It’s become a familiar global trend: knitting recedes to the background only to be revived during times of hardship, such as war and calamity. The Craft Yarn Council, a Texas-based trade association, traces the explosiveness of the latest boom to social media and the pandemic. Ravelry, a digital yarn crafting network, now has 9 million users worldwide. Sh*t That I Knit, a popular knitwear accessories brand, pivoted its business strategy last year, launching the Quarantine Knitting Kit, which has sold thousands of sets. Because, as the cardinal meme of the moment illustrates, knitting is “not a hobby. It’s a post-apocalyptic life skill.”