I first learned to knit as a child, but about five years ago, I took up the hobby seriously. When I say seriously, I don’t mean that most of what I make is any good but that I spend serious amounts of time on it. When I returned to the hobby, I was looking for a distraction from work. What I found was the solution to my digital distraction problems.
Knitting has undergone a renaissance in the last decade. Plenty of those drawn to knitting are those who want to feel more in touch with the artisanal, the hand-crafted, the locally sourced.
Some people have realized that it offers a meditative hobby, in keeping with the “mindfulness” concept. What I’ve found is slightly different: Rather than being calming and contemplative on its own, knitting’s meditative properties allow me to engage more productively with digital media.
I don’t know about you, but for me, access to multiple digital devices doesn’t just make multitasking an option—switching between tasks becomes a compulsion. I will check my email and Twitter twice while reading a single article. At the same time, I’m probably texting and checking whether a new episode of a podcast has arrived.
Knitting helps me to tame this impulse. While knitting, I will listen to a whole podcast episode without checking my email once. The practical reason for this is obvious: Knitting takes both hands, which can make it an excellent discipline for the chronic fidgeter or phone-checker. As an added bonus, I also end up making things.
Do you remember spending whole afternoons, even days, reading as a child? I just can’t do that anymore. My attention span for reading seems to have shrunk to the point that I find reading a magazine in one sitting a chore. It’s not that I don’t like reading: It’s that I can’t seem to tame my impulse to click.
Knitting has turned out to be my reading savior. I buy audiobooks and somehow having the knitting to keep me focused allows me to listen without distractions. I’ve now knitted through long books I would not have had the patience to sit and read on the page. (Repetitive knitting patterns that don’t require full attention really help with this.)
It also allows me to binge-watch Netflix and not feel like I’m wasting time: I mean, I’m making something! In fact, thanks to Netflix, I could even watch other people knit in real time, filmed by Norwegian Slow TV, if I wanted to. (I don’t.) But I do feel like something is missing when I sit down to watch TV without a knitting project in my hands.
Knitters are often divided into two groups: process knitters and project knitters. Process knitters are driven by the enjoyment of the activity in itself. These are the “journey is the destination” folks. Project knitters are driven by the end result. These people really want the cute sweater.
I’ve met some process knitters who don’t even know what they are making: They just cast on some stitches and start. For them the appeal is the meditative rhythm of stitch after stitch. Making the same moves over and over is like repeating a mantra, in terms of calming the brain waves and achieving a meditative state. At the end they just unravel it and start again.
Despite my love of the knitting rhythm, I’m not one of them. I remain a project knitter. My goal is the dress, or gloves, or cardigan I’m trying to make. Unfortunately, when I choose a project, my reach often exceeds my grasp. I attempt complicated garments, like an over-keen contestant on Project Runway, with frequently tragic results. Unfortunately, one of the reasons it’s such a good counter to our on-demand options is due to the delay in gratification: A large garment can take more than 30 hours to complete. That makes particularly “homemade”-looking results sting, but even disappointing efforts demand a Zen-like acceptance.
And in fact, the hobby’s slowness emerged as a feature, not a bug. The English form of knitting most hobbyists know (one needle in each hand, palms down) was never designed for speed. It was the form used by ladies of the 19th century, when production crafts were transformed into hobbies for the leisure class. Where women knitted for a living, rather than as a dainty pastime, the posture was different. One needle was held fixed: under the arm, in a belt, or even between the knitter’s thighs. With only one needle moving, production efficiency improved. This was not necessarily elegant, but it was effective for women who needed to keep cranking out sweaters to sell. Leisure knitters didn’t need speed, so for them it evolved as a slow-moving activity where it didn’t really matter if that sweater wasn’t finished this month (or ever).
As hobbies go, knitting is still very affordable, with a low barrier to entry. Almost anyone can learn the most basic stitches in a few minutes. High skill takes years, but a simple piece like the classic novice-knitter scarf, is pretty easy. Patterns for all kinds of things are available online (including vintage newspaper patterns at Trove)—a far cry from the glossy brochures full of boxy sweaters my knitting store carried when I was growing up.
But even the simplest knitting project offers tactility and embodiment in an increasingly virtual world. It brings to mind cozy evenings by a fireplace and the rhythms of a pre-digital age, but these days, knitting is a great way to improve your digital life.