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Is Craft Booming in COVID Because We're Starved for Touch?

In the absence of human contact, people are turning to another kind of touch.

Source: Diego Pontes/Pexels
Source: Diego Pontes/Pexels

As people around the world practice physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, we're experiencing something almost unprecedented in human history: an abrupt, society-wide interruption of social touch.

Whether it's a kiss, a handshake, or simply a grazing of fingers in an exchange of cash or goods, most of us regularly come into contact with other people, and this interpersonal touch plays a central role in supporting our emotional and psychological well-being.

With the stroke of a hand, we can communicate emotions as varied as love, disgust, or fear. Affectionate touch soothes our stress , measurably slowing our heart rate and lowering our blood pressure.

Deprived of interpersonal touch, we can feel unmoored, detached from our bodies and our surroundings. At a time when we're grappling with the threat of disease and struggling to adapt to new, circumscribed ways of living, this just increases our chances of becoming depressed or anxious.

The Rise of the COVID Crafter

Many people are responding to this lack of human contact by rediscovering another kind of touch: handiwork.

Social media feeds are filled with adventures in crafting and DIY. For some, these are long-time hobbies that were relegated to the back burner in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Others have taken on projects they might never have tried if it hadn't been for COVID-19.

According to librarian Amanda Bulman, this is the first time she's had the opportunity to learn a new skill in seven years. “I think in my day-to-day life, I’m so focused on working and paying off my loans that I’m kind of stuck on the lower part of Maslow’s pyramid .”

Bulman says that crafting, by engaging her body in physical work, prevents her from becoming consumed by concerns related to COVID-19: "Keeping my hands busy keeps my brain from fixating on small things that become big things in my mind.”

Source: Lori Savory, used with permission
A multicolored peacock rug hooked by Lori Savory during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Source: Lori Savory, used with permission

Lori Savory, a civil servant who’s working from home during the pandemic, has resumed her hobby of rug-hooking in her spare time. She explains that part of the reward she derives from the pastime comes from handling materials and manipulating them into new forms.

“The tactile nature of the craft and simple motions like cutting and pulling the fabric through the burlap eased my mind and my heart,” says Savory. “Picking the colours, finishing sections, and reaching a final stage were all things I could control. I'm now planning my next project!"

“Cross-stitch is great for many reasons,” adds Kathryn Burke, a theater artist who recently took up the hobby again after enjoying it as a teen. “I can do it while watching TV, it stops me from snacking so much, but mostly, it's easy to do with my current lack of concentration, and shows me tangible progress, which in turn makes me feel like I'm achieving something while sitting on my couch."

The Allure of Craft

Why are hands-on projects so appealing during this period of uncertainty and isolation?

If they’re simply a pleasant distraction, why are we choosing them over other diversions like books or video games?

If it’s the satisfaction of a physical activity, why aren’t we seeing a similar explosion in at-home exercise?

Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

The answer is at our fingertips.

Tactile projects like woodworking, knitting, and embroidery draw us into a deeper relationship with the physical world around us. They force us to pay close attention to our material reality, and they make us mindful of the small movements of our own bodies.

In so doing, they keep us from getting lost in our heads and wallowing in negative thoughts. When we feel adrift, craftwork regrounds us in our environment.

Craft as Touch

We live in societies that are highly visual and, to a lesser extent, auditory. The average person in Europe or North America spends much of their day staring at screens, reading documents, and listening to music or podcasts. By comparison, we pass very little time focusing on touches, tastes, or scents.

Now that the pandemic is preventing us from being together in person, from touching one another, from sharing space with each other, our sensory world could shrink even more. Between business meetings on Zoom and drinks with friends on Facetime, we could find our daily lives compressed to the dimensions of a laptop screen—and just as flat, smooth, and lifeless.

Instead, by immersing ourselves in craft, we’re ensuring that touch remains a vital part of our everyday experience.

Source: Diego Pontes/Pexels
Hands stitch a pattern into cream-colored leather.
Source: Diego Pontes/Pexels

Interpersonal touch allows us to think through our hands, to communicate and interpret emotion by the feeling of skin on skin. Craftwork is also a form of manual thinking. As we craft, we use our hands to express ourselves, to make decisions, and to problem-solve.

Like social touch, handicraft reduces stress and, ultimately, brings us a type of sensual pleasure. Instead of the gratification of a loving caress or a friendly pat on the back, it’s the delight of a feathery wool, a coarse burlap, or a silky thread, the thrill of puncturing fabric, of twisting yarn, or of shaving wood.

When the work is done, crafting leaves us with a tangible object. Something that, when we touch it in the future, will reconnect us with the physical memory of its making and will continue to bring us enjoyment and satisfaction.

In the end, since so many crafters relish giving their works away to friends and family, perhaps the projects that are keeping us anchored during these strange times will also be the bridges that reconnect us with our loved ones when we eventually meet again.