It’s fairly rare for my day job (clinical psychologist) to collide with the knitting thing, but today a new book is published that spans both of these worlds, and I’ve been given the chance to review a copy. “Well if you absolutely insist,” I said. Actually, that last bit is a lie: I jumped at the chance. Allow me to introduce you to The Mindfulness In Knitting by Rachael Matthews, published TODAY by Leaping Hare Press.
It’s rather a beauty, don’t you think? Not that I’m superficial enough to judge a book by its cover…
Mindfulness – just in case you haven’t made its acquaintance – is a set of techniques derived from traditional Buddhist meditation. The purpose is to free oneself from angst about the future, the past, and the unknowable, by learning to tune in acutely to all of your senses in the present moment. (Melded with cognitive therapy, it’s created an approach that’s achieved a pretty impressive evidence base in treating recurrent depression amongst many other problems.) Mindfulness is mostly the brainchild of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a man who looks so uncannily like George W. Bush that it’s tricky to concentrate on anything he says because one is so busy marvelling at the resemblance. I once attended a ten-day conference-workshop with him, so I speak from experience.
But I digress.
This is no dry textbook, and I had to switch off my impatient day-job brain. It’s a series of reflections on the meaning of knitting, the purpose of knitting, the role of knitting, and the benefits of knitting. Reading each chapter (whilst knitting, of course) felt like a meditation on an aspect of our craft. The author hails primarily from a knitting and knit-activism background, rather than from a mindfulness/therapy background, but I can’t help respecting a woman who’s been thrown out of the bar of the Savoy for knitting.
The whole book feels like a peaceful space into which you can step at will to reflect on the significance of the stitches on your needles. Matthews recognizes that the process of knitting is particularly compatible with mindfulness. In her own words, “The utterly absorbing process of creating textiles provides us with an informal meditation space while connecting us with a heritage we cherish and ultimately a universe we understand.” And both knitting and mindfulness are increasingly recognized for their health benefits.
The six chapters each address an aspect of the craft, considered mindfully. There are accompanying exercises designed to help you bring mindfulness deeper into your knitting, for example one contains a list of questions about the place that knitting occupies in your life right now. For me, these exercises were the least interesting part of the book, and I was far more absorbed when reading Matthew’s anecdotes and wisdom.
My favourite chapter is Knitting Circles And Craftivism, perhaps because Matthews’ background is rich with interesting experiences in this area. This section is a meditation on the implications, the politics, and the power of knitting in public, and knitting in groups – especially groups set up with the purpose of using knitting as a form of activism. Like the Yarn Harlot (Stephanie Pearl McPhee) before her, Matthews writes about the unifying nature of making textiles, irrespective of the makers’ origins. It’s true, though: I’ve met knitters of many ages and backgrounds, but whilst we’re knitting together, we’re sisters (or brothers) in yarn.
I enjoyed this book most when Matthews wove in anecdotes, material from history, and other information. Early on, she considers her relationship with our knitting forebears, and – further back in time – with the practitioners of naalbinding, a frustratingly slow precursor to knitting that tested even Matthews’ yarn-related patience when she gave it a try. As she says, “the knitting experience is as much about the occupation of mind as it is the working of fingers”. Too true, as anyone faced with the instruction to knit acres of monotonous garter stitch can attest.
There were reflections, too, that caught my attention, for example about how “someone, somewhere was probably knitting with us in mind in the months leading up to our birth”. I wonder what that person was hoping, expecting, and dreaming. My mother is a knitter, my grandmother was a knitter, but I’m not sure what if anything they created in the weeks before I arrived. I was also drawn to the section on the complexities of knitting for others, how a gift can in fact be a weapon when it arrives, hideously inappropriate but with the firm expectation that it shall be worn and appreciated. Knitting for others is a minefield, and we’ve all probably got some horror stories from times when we’ve been the giver or the receiver. Matthews is wise in her unpicking of what exactly is going on when we give or receive a hand-knitted gift.
I like this book. It’s not what I expected, but once I sat back, put my feet up, cast on, and lost myself in each of its six meditations, I enjoyed it very much. And since I finished reading, I think I’ve approached my works-in-progress in a more mindful way, thinking beyond the immediate demands of knit or purl.
The Mindfulness In Knitting, Meditations On Craft And Calm by Rachael Matthews, is published today by the Leaping Hare Press, hardback UK price £8.99, and is also published in Australia, New Zealand, and South East Asia. Enjoy.
(Usual disclaimer: I did not pay for this book, but all opinions are my own.)