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Knitting the Winter Blues

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 15, Winter 2015. Illustration by Jo Waterhouse.

I’ve never quite understood why people don’t wear especially cheerful colours in the winter. With little light, the world is at its drabbest, but we needn’t be! This is when apple red, marigold yellow, cornflower blue, beetroot pink, grass green, shades of hydrangea – you name it – are needed most. I’m not suggesting you have to go full-on Crazy Textile Lady, but a step in that direction would certainly brighten my day. I’d be willing to compromise and accept softer tones in the summer when nature’s abundance seems to make even these colours sparkle. Sadly, I don’t have that level of bargaining power.

On the fashion colour front, the new black is blue in an unprecedented way, or at least since the early 90s. It is being served as the main dish, not just as a side of jeans. The craft world too is awash with shades of indigo. We’ve embraced the shades of sky (day and night), bruises, gentian, sapphire, and newborn baby eyes. This time around it’s ideally naturally dyed in urine vats, and perhaps even spun and woven from local fibres. In this way, it is a new spin on the 70s, when denim reigned supreme and everyone was all about the DIY craze. Now I am going to go out on a limb here; I’m going to tie together our current blue period with our increasing awareness and openness about depression. We still have a long way to go but, like double denim, being blue really isn’t as taboo as it once was – it is everywhere.

At the tail end of August, the fourth In the Loop conference took place in Glasgow. Sadly, I didn’t get to attend this year, but I did have the pleasure of attending the third iteration a couple of years back. One of the talks was by Betsan Corkill and Jill Riley. They spoke about ‘Knitting for Wellbeing’ and it struck a chord with many of us, both as knitters and as teachers. It’s possible you were one of the 3,545 Ravellers worldwide who took part in the extensive survey they conducted. Though the focus of their lecture was on their research related to the alleviation of chronic pain and depression, the curative and distracting nature of knitting rang true to many of us. Betsan Corkhill has now written a book entitled Knit for Health & Wellness: How to knit a flexible mind and more…, which is very much on my reading list if I ever manage to put my needles down for long enough.

Through research such as theirs, the health benefits of knitting, particularly for mental health, are gaining increasing attention. A knitting project requires engagement in something outside of yourself and helps you envisage a future in which, at the very least, you have a finished item. It’s a gentle way to be social which can even encourage you to leave the house. If you don’t, it still involves movement, albeit just with your hands, eyes, and brain, which if you’re depressed is no small feat. Whatever level your knitting is at, there’s choice, skill, and learning involved – all good things. A little challenge, or a whopping great knitting conundrum, keeps your brain spry whether you are 5 or 95. It’s well known that engaging in activities and in society helps to improve life expectancy. It’s something a lot of us have known in our bones all along. I’m convinced many of us, knowingly or not, self- medicate with our stitches.

As we enter the darkest months, I think it’s important to remember that knitting puts the ‘win’ in winter. You can be productive while sitting under a pile of blankets fuelled by a pot of tea and snacks. Up the pleasure stakes with the addition of a hot water bottle (knitted cosy optional, but thoroughly recommended). Outside may be varying degrees of cold and dark, absolving you of the feeling that you should be out enjoying the sunshine or getting some air. If you can persuade a friend into your nest, all the better. If you relish being alone, you may just be in luck; you can delight in extending an invite without the hassle of actually hosting since they will probably opt to stay home.

While there are many occasions for knitters to meet and we are often social creatures, the truth is quite a few of us also like doing it alone. That’s where social media plays a funny role in allowing us to be chatty crafting loners. It makes us both more and less social and continues to intrinsically shift the way we communicate as we form and maintain communities. We don’t need to be physically present to share a project, buy yarn from a ‘friend’ or solve stitch-related (and a few of life’s other) problems together. But there are issues with this cyber existence. It both alleviates and perpetuates feelings of isolation. It keeps us even further than arm’s length apart, though our projects and long- distance friendships are truly close to our hearts. Often it feels terribly modern. At the same time, it isn’t a world away from having a pen pal of the sort you may have signed up for in secondary school or that a faraway aunt hooked you up with. It certainly mediates our experiences and allows us to be more creative with our self- presentation.

While these social networks for knitters have many positive sides, we must be wary of how they feed our unhealthy habits of jealousy and feelings of low self-esteem. I am thinking about our constant inclination to think someone else’s life is easier. Whether it’s their career, kids, family, love life, or knitting, we jump to the assumption that other people have it better. We know we are getting a mediated view, a fraction of the full picture, yet we would readily crown someone Penelope Queen of Intarsia, Well-Behaved Children in Handmade Attire and Regular Good Shags, while considering ourselves crap, lowly fudgers. There are people who really draw the shortest straw in life, but for most of us there are ups and downs. Ask yourself who you know who has a straightforward, easy life and whose knits are always stellar? Who woke up instantly accomplished at everything they do? Anyone? No? Now ask yourself why this would suddenly apply to someone on the other end of a gadget. If it bums you out to see a stranger presenting a beautifully edited version of their life, unfollow them. If they are a friend, you probably know the bouts of chaos that occur behind the scenes. Why would strangers be exempt from that?

As knitters we are inclined to feel the winter blues as much as anyone, but, luckily, we do have at least one extra incentive to love the season. Dark, chilly days and long evenings call for copious layers of wool and motivate a multitude of creative projects. When I lived in California, where seasonal transitions are near non-existent, I missed that sense of celebration that the changing world around us inspires. Discernable winters make fleeting summers a constant party with light till late and happy people out to enjoy. We make an extra effort to savour summer; it’s an acceptable thing to do. Liking winter makes one a little odd, but so does knitting. Let’s revel in that, vanquish the green-eyed monsters and let knitting the colour blue sooth away our troubles. We have the wool to make it happen. Knitting truly provides a reason for the season and helps beat the winter blues.