The Benefits of Handwork
Writer: Emily Larson
Self-care. Wellness. Mindfulness. Theses are twenty-first century buzzwords that have gained importance as our amount of screen time, work hours, and speed of life increases. We live in a rushed society—everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere or move on to the next thing. We are expected to multitask, to always be available via our electronic devices. They are an integral, and important, part of our lives, but the pressure of being constantly connected to them can be harmful to our well-being. The result is often added stress and anxiety, fatigue, and exhaustion.
In a 2019 Harris Poll survey, 50% of women said they often don't feel present in their daily interactions with people. And 60% acknowledged that the less time they spend on their own well-being, the less they ultimately get done.
As a creative person, you probably use sewing, knitting, or stitching to relax and gain life balance that might be missing otherwise. How many times have you heard (or spoken) the phrase "quilting is my therapy" or "knitting is my therapy"? Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we experience cathartic and therapeutic effects from working on creative projects and doing handwork. Studies show it is a great way to quiet the mind.
Respondents of a 2013 survey of knitters reported they derived a wide range of perceived psychological benefits from their craft: relaxation, relief from stress, a sense of accomplishment, connection to tradition, increased happiness, reduced anxiety, and enhanced confidence, as well as improved cognitive abilities. Crafts such as hand-sewing, embroidery, and cross-stitch can provide the same effect. Slowing down and focusing on a handwork project can lift the chaos of day-to-day minutia and quiet your thoughts. The repetitive hand movements are calming. Stitch by stitch, you are slowly constructing and creating something. And with creation comes confidence and pride, with positive effects on one's self-esteem.
Handcrafts have been shown to benefit the creator's mental health. Writer Kathryn Vercill has written extensively about the healing benefits of crafting. Vercillo says, "The more you slow down and work with your hands, the quieter the noise in your head. The less you ruminate, and the less you allow for distractions, the easier it will be to know your own true self." For college student Leo McGrath, who has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), cross-stitching provided him a productive way of dealing with ADD by keeping his hands busy and focusing his thoughts. He finds his handwork to be meditative because, as he explains, it "lets me turn off my brain, and my hands take over."
What makes this happen? Your brain focuses on following a certain order of steps in creating a project in order to achieve a successful result. Because the brain is focusing energy on creating something, it has less energy for negative or ruminating thoughts. Quilter and blogger Florence Knapp says, "There's a rhythm to a sewing project. Each time I return to it, I find myself instantly slowing down and focusing on the task in hand, whether that's choosing fabrics, cutting papers, or sewing pieces together. It's meditative." Through repetition and concentration, one's mind and body start to feel at peace.
Handwork can indeed have the same effect on our bodies as meditation and similar mindfulness practices. Working at a slower pace with your hands and focusing on your next stitch not only stimulates the brain but also can help lower your blood pressure and improve your mood. Crafting can provide a much-needed break from our multitasking, hurried, digital-centric lives. Slowing down and working with our hands helps to quiet some of the noise. Next time you have a few free minutes, instead of scrolling through social media or watching videos, try pulling out your craft of choice—whether quilting, beading, embroidery, or even crayons and a coloring book. Center your thoughts on the tactile sensory engagement of the materials, the quiet calm of each step, and the creative process—and savor the moment.