Excessive Knitting and Addiction
A brief look at the "dark side" of knitting.
Posted Jan 26, 2017
In a previous post, I briefly looked at "quilting addiction." While I was researching that post, I also came across a number of academic papers on the sociology of knitting and various references in the academic (and non-academic) literature to "knitting addiction." In previous posts, I have written about the work of Dr. Bill Glasser who introduced the concept of "positive addiction" in a 1976 book of the same name.
In a more recent 2012 paper on the topic in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, he claimed that he had heard numerous stories from many different individuals claiming they were positively addicted “to a variety of activities such as swimming, hiking, bike riding, yoga, Zen, knitting, crocheting, hunting, fishing, skiing, rowing, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, and many more."
Glasser (1976) argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. He also asserted that positive addictions must be new rewarding activities that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.
This idea has actually been put into practice with knitting. Dr. Kathryn Duffy published a paper in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery about knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management for females in addiction group therapy at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. Duffy claimed her knitting program had been successful in facilitating discussions and beneficial in providing a skill for moderating stress and emotions, both for female inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol addicts.
A more recent paper by Dr. Betsan Corkhill and colleagues examined knitting and wellbeing (in a 2014 issue of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture), using the World Health Organisation’s definition of wellbeing as “an ability to realize personal potential, cope with daily stresses, and contribute productively to society." Their paper argued that knitting contributes to human wellbeing and has therapeutic benefits for those that engage in it because it is a behaviour (like many others) that can be used as a coping mechanism that can help overcome the daily pressures of life.
One of the more interesting papers that I read on knitting was one published in a 2011 issue of Utopian Studies by Dr. Jack Bratich and Dr. Heidi Brush about “fabriculture” and “craftivism”:
When we speak of ‘fabriculture’ or craft culture, we are referring to a whole range of practices usually defined as the ‘domestic arts’: knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking, quilting, embroidery, sewing, doll-making. More than the actual handicraft, we are referring to the recent popularization and resurgence of interest in these crafts, especially among young women. We are taking into account the mainstream forms found in Martha Stewart Living as well as the more explicitly activist (or craftivist) versions such as Cast Off, Anarchist Knitting Circle, MicroRevolt, Anarchist Knitting Mob, Revolutionary Knitting Circle, and Craftivism … When we use the term craft-work, we are specifically referring to the laboring practices involved in crafting, while fabriculture speaks to the broader practices (meaning-making, communicative, community-building) intertwined with this (im)material labor.
The paper also outlined how women who knit in public (such as during a lecture or a conference) are often castigated and/or ridiculed for their behaviour. They even cited Sigmund Freud in relation to why knitting in public causes discomfort for onlookers:
Freud institutionalized a concept denoting the jarring and disorienting effect of being spatially out of phase: unheimlich. The queasiness of the unheimlich occurs also when interiors become exteriorized (especially the home, as it also means unhomely). Knitting in public turns the interiority of the domestic outward, exposing that which exists within enclosures, through invisibility and through unpaid labor: the production of home life. Knitting in public also inevitably makes this question of space an explicitly gendered one. One commentator observes that knitting in public today is analogous to the outcry against breast-feeding in public twenty years ago (Higgins 2005). Both acts rip open the enclosure of the domestic space to public consumption. Both acts are also intensely productive and have generally contributed to women’s heretofore invisible and unpaid labor. But could such an innocuous activity as knitting have such social ramifications? How disruptive can fabriculture be when crafting women are more in the public eye than ever before? Many of us may know that Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and other celebs knit.
The paper goes on to say that there are various knitting blogs (such as Etherknitter) that “expose the dark side of knitting” including excessive consumption and addiction. I then went onto the Etherknitter website and located an article specifically written on knitting addiction ("Etherknitter" turned out to be the pseudonym of the individual that runs the site).
Here are some extracts from the article which also notes some of the shared terminology between drug addiction and knitting addiction:
It’s been a revealing several days. I have discovered that I am incapable of not knitting. The only thing that would have stopped me would have been pain… In college, when I flirted with smoking cigarettes for six weeks…Alcohol has never appealed…In my profession, an uncomfortable number of practitioners succumb to the siren song of drug addiction…Then we get to knitting. I can’t not knit. Well, I can, but it hurts too much to be worth it. (I wonder if that’s why addicts stay addicted.) I was talking to a [fabric store] owner recently…She commented that the staff in the store sees a lot of people at the store who act out their neediness through yarn. She saw it as uncontrolled buying. Since we were talking about obesity in America at the time, she was tying it into alcohol/drug and food addiction. [The Too Much Wool website] pointed out our knitterly use of the word 'stash,' and its clear crossover to the drug culture. Blogworld is full of knitters describing uncontrolled stash acquistions [such as ‘majorknitter’]. And trying to hide the size of the stash from significant others. And selling parts of their stash to others. The addiction to fiber and knitting is probably more benign, except for the financial aspects, and the time constraints. I really do have to beat myself to fulfill the more boring paperwork obligations in my life since I started knitting. The needles (aha! Another crossover analogy) are more fun. I don’t plan to do anything about my knit-addiction quite yet. But it does bother me.
In researching this post, I came across a number of online accounts of people claiming to be genuinely addicted to knitting. This extract was particularly revealing as this short account seems to highlight many of the core components of addiction such as salience, conflict, and withdrawal symptoms:
So, I'm 22 and I go through all that typical 22-year old stuff. Sometimes, my life gets rough and I have trouble coping. Rather than going out with friends and drinking till I puke, or going and smoking a few cigarettes or a joint, or having sex with random boys, I turn to my knitting in times of crisis. This might sound like a constructive thing. After all, I'm creating rather than destroying, right? Wrong. I say that I'm addicted because I am. I can't function on a normal level without my knitting bag at my side. I can't sit still in class or on a break if I'm not knitting. My head hurts, I sweat, I get jittery if my hands are doing nothing. And it gets worse. I skip classes to go to yarn stores. I come back late from breaks at work because I needed to finish just one more row. I already have one knitting tattoo and another planned. I pay my rent late because I spent my entire paycheck on yarn. My boyfriend's half of the apartment is slowly being taken over by my stash. My life isn't complete without knitting. I bought two spinning wheels so I could spin my own yarn. I think that if I ever lost a hand or arm due to an accident I would probably kill myself because I couldn't knit…I've admitted to myself that I have a problem, but most people see knitting as simply my hobby. It goes so much deeper than that and I feel like I finally needed to say something.
Academically, there is little on knitting addiction. In an unpublished thesis by Christiana Croghan, she noted in one paragraph that:
Baird (2009) supports the theory that knitting alters brain chemistry, lowering stress hormones and boosting the production of serotonin and dopamine. Dittrich (2001) argues while there are many health benefits associated with knitting there is also a health risk of the possible development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Research suggests knitting may also have an addictive quality that Corkhill (2008) considers to be a constructive addiction that may replace other more severe harmful addictions. Marer (2002) interviewed professional women who knit during lunch hours and found a consistent theme of relief from anxiety and a sense of clear-headedness at work. Marer (2002) also found patients with severe illnesses such as cancer experience a greater sense of coping when they knit.
More specifically on addiction, a 2011 issue of Asian Culture and History, Hye Young Shin and Dr. Ji Soo Ha examined knitting practice in Korea. Their qualitative research revealed that:
Immersion in knitting projects can become so intense as to create anxiety for some knitters after the completion of a knitting project. They confess a sense of emptiness or feeling lost after a period of deep mental and physical engagement. This suggests that knitting can become an activity that does not arise out of necessity or has a clear purpose. However, knitters who have a lot of experience with knitting practice tend to say that long experience with knitting has enabled them to handle this urge to indulge in knitting, a typical symptom in the early stage of one’s knitting career.
Their paper includes the following quotes from knitters that they interviewed:
- Extract 1: “Knitting is a kind of addiction or drug. I feel so bored and empty and a sense of being lost when I’m done with one project.”
- Extract 2: “For example, I check the time when a TV drama begins and I can stop knitting when the drama starts. When I first started knitting, I couldn’t control my urge to keep knitting on and on, but now I can; otherwise I can’t enjoy it as a pleasurable and long-term hobby. I still want to carry on when I sit for knitting, not wanting to stand up to wash the dishes, but now I can control myself.”
I have always argued that is theoretically possible for an individual to become addicted to anything if there are constant reinforcements (i.e., rewards). The anecdotal reports in this article suggest that a few individuals appear to experience addiction-like symptoms but there is too little detail to say one way or another whether knitting addiction genuinely exists.
Baird, M., (2009). Fighting the stress with knitting needles.
Bratich, J. Z., & Brush, H. M. (2011). Fabricating activism: Craft-work, popular culture, gender. Utopian Studies, 22(2), 233-260.
Corkhill, B. (2008) Therapeutic knitting.
Corkhill, B., Hemmings, J., Maddock, A., & Riley, J. (2014). Knitting and Well-being. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 12(1), 34-57.
Croghan, C. (2013). Knitting is the new yoga? Comparing techniques; physiological and psychological indicators of the relaxation response. Unpublished manuscript.
Dittrich, L. R. (2001) Knitting. Academic Medicine, 76(7), 671.
Duffy, K. (2007). Knitting through recovery one stitch at a time: Knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management in group therapy. Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery, 2(1), 67-83.
Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Glasser, W. (2012). Promoting client strength through positive addiction. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 11(4), 173-175.
Etherknitter (2006). Public displays of knitting. Etherknitter Blog. Accessed April 19, 2006.
Marer, E. (2002). Knitting: the new yoga. Health, 16(2), 76-78.
Shin, H. Y., & Ha, J. S. (2011). Knitting practice in Korea: A geography of everyday experiences. Asian Culture and History, 3(1), 105-114.