When she was in her late 20s, Katie Sorrell saw a pattern forming in her life.
Constantly stressed at work or sitting in front of a screen, she found herself in the midst of a “classic burnout.”
She quit her job in Toronto as a veterinary technician and travelled for six months through Southeast Asia and New Zealand with one constant companion: her knitting needles.
Taking them on planes, trains and buses, she found the pastime soothed her nerves and was like meditating — but easier.
“I find it gives you something to focus on that’s entirely positive,” said Sorrell, who is now 30, amid the clacking of needles and the chatter of conversation at a recent knitting circle at the Purple Purl yarn shop on Queen St. E.
Sorrell joined the Purl a few months ago to be social and now works there part-time, as well as at a veterinary technician job. She carves out knitting time almost daily, crediting the pastime with helping her deal with anxiety and stitch her way back to a healthier state of mind.
It’s a purl of wisdom more and more people are taking to heart, discovering mental health benefits of knitting for themselves. And there is science to back up knitter’s fond feelings.
A 2009 study at the University of British Columbia of 38 women with anorexia nervosa found 74 per cent reported knitting cleared their minds, reduced the intensity of their fears and worries, and had a calming effect.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences of 1,321 older adults found that engaging in activities such as knitting, as well as playing games and reading books, was associated with decreased odds of having mild cognitive impairment.
Karen Zila Hayes, a Toronto life coach, runs a class called “Knit to Quit” to help smokers kick the habit, and another, “Knit to Heal,” to help people deal with grief and trauma.
“Knitting raises our endorphin levels in a very healthy way,” said Hayes. “Knitting helps calm people down, it helps divert them from their feelings.”
It’s also an activity that can be done in bed while recuperating from an accident or illness, and relaxes people’s minds when they are dredging up difficult traumatic experiences, Hayes said.
Paul Poulin worked with Hayes to learn a basic stitch while dealing with intense anxiety that led him to make frequent hospital visits.
Whipping out his needles — he created an orange scarf — soothed him, he said, adding that although he hasn’t knit since, he felt the process gave him a sense of control during that difficult time.
“Knitting is the thing that kind of solved the problem,” he recalled. “In the process of focusing in the current moment, you’re automatically taken away from all of that ‘what if’ dialogue in your head.”
Although she didn’t take one of Hayes’ classes, Kim Harris said she used knitting to quit smoking, replacing cigarettes with her needles when tempted to light up with friends, taking them with her everywhere.
She said it also helped her deal with her grief when her mother died about six months ago.
“It’s a process,” Harris said. “Knitting’s a process and grief’s a process.”
Knitting can also be a social pursuit, providing a chance for conversation and bonding, which has its own health benefits.
“I think that there’s a really nice camaraderie and community sense about coming somewhere,” said Sorrell, back at Purple Purl knitting circle, working on a pair of teal and purple fingerless gloves.
“It’s definitely a good way to unwind at the end of your day.”