Knitting with a Disability: How I Adapted So I Can Enjoy the Craft I Love

29 June 2022
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Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that “disabled” is a word that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. There are a great many disabled people in the fibre and textile community who will not or cannot use the word to describe themselves, and that’s okay. We all make our individual choices to use a label or not. I also want to mention that while this essay is about my experience with my set of challenges, there are an infinite number of other ways to be disabled. No one disability is more or less than any other.

image description: four pairs of hand covers designed for supporting hands at work, made of different materials

My tools of the trade. Using compression gloves and specialized splints to support my hands and wrists means I knit slower, but I can still keep knitting.

I learned to knit in 1983 and from the minute I picked up those needles, I was hardly ever seen without a project in my hands. Knitting led me to spinning, and spinning led me to weaving, but I always circled back to knitting. I was one of those “never not knitting ” people—it kept me focused and it kept me sane. When I knitted, I was calm and happy.

Then, in early 2013 I started having pain and stiffness in my hands. My wrists swelled up every time I knitted. I was knitting less and less because it hurt. A lot. Over the course of the summer, I developed more joint pain, then other symptoms, and that fall I was diagnosed with symmetric psoriatic arthritis.

My rheumatologist advised me to continue knitting to keep my joints moving and the tendons and ligaments in my hands limber, so I kept knitting. But it was no longer enjoyable. I knitted grimly, with a clenched jaw, until I ruptured a tendon under my thumb. I stopped knitting in early 2015.

Psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes joint and tendon pain, skin lesions, and fatigue. It is associated with metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and depression. The common treatment is a cocktail of fairly intense medications that come with a lot of side effects. Very few of the symptoms are visible, and the symptoms are constantly shifting, meaning my ability to function is always changing.

It was 2016 when a doctor first used the word disabled to describe me. It was a shock—I didn’t think of myself as disabled. I resisted that word for a long time.

Disability is often defined as a condition that interferes with or prevents a person’s participation in an activity, and I had decided it was my condition that was preventing me from knitting. But if you really think about it, disability is always defined by context. If you meet an expected set of standards for participation, you are able. If you cannot meet those standards, you become disabled. Sometimes the world around us sets those standards and sometimes we set them within ourselves. Realizing this changed everything for me.

I took me some time to determine that a large part of my problem with knitting was that I was holding onto a set of participation standards that I could no longer meet. But what if I simplified those standards, or set new ones? So, I tried a simple garter stitch shawl with minimal shaping. I knit slowly and deliberately, adjusting how I tensioned and threw the yarn, stopping when my hands started to hurt. It took me three months to knit that simple garter stitch shawl, but I had knit something.

image description: a stack of handknit shawls

Knitting simple garter shawls is my favourite form of self-care. Knitting within the limits of my disability serves as both physical therapy for my hands and wrists and as much needed mental health care. Knitting keeps me grounded in my craft and my community.

My next attempt was a lace shawl. It didn’t take long before my hands hurt again and I abandoned the project. But instead of giving up, I took the time to compare my expectations to my abilities and I had a lightbulb moment. I could knit just fine—slowly and cautiously, but fine. It was purling that was causing the problem. I had always analyzed and explored how the physics worked in my spinning, so I took some time to ponder the act of purling. I tried different techniques and found that no matter how I purled there was a certain pressure on my wrists that I was no longer capable of doing repeatedly. I’ve been knitting again for four years. I have adapted my hand movements and I have learned when to stop before there is pain. I tend to choose patterns where there is minimal purling, which turned out to be surprisingly easy to do. Garter stitch has so much potential, and just about anything knitted in the round can be purl-free too. Socks and shawls are my go-to projects. There are still days when I cannot knit, but it’s okay, because I know that if I rest, I can knit another day. I am still learning to adapt to and live with my illness and the physical challenges it continues to bring me. I wear splints and use mobility aids and I’ve learned that showing my disability comes with its own set of challenges. There are those who will infantilize you, those who will be “inspired” by you, those who will deny that you are disabled because you can do certain things. We all fear losing our abilities and status to something as unpredictable as a random disease or accident. But the terrible truth is, we all get older; we all have the potential to be sick or injured; we all gain and lose abilities every day. By choosing to see disability as the limits imposed by the world around me, rather than as a fault in my own functioning, I have learned to approach my crafting and my community with much more compassion and creativity.

All images courtesy of Michelle Boyd.

Copyright © Michelle Boyd except as indicated.

About Michelle Boyd

Michelle Boyd is a Master Spinner, weaver, and writer who lives in Olds, Alberta, located in Treaty 7 Territory, the ancestral lands of the peoples of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Michelle learned to spin in 1995 when her local yarn shop closed, and she became obsessed with the art and science of making yarn. She has taught workshops across North America and instructed for the Olds College Master Spinner Program for fifteen years. She is also a frequent contributor to both PLY Magazine and Digits & Threads and is currently completing her first book about spinning.

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