The science behind the feel-good power of fibre and textile crafting
When the Going Gets Tough…
In February, 2021, I was interviewing craft shop owners about the ups and downs of running their businesses during a pandemic when I noticed something interesting. Almost every person I spoke with described how creating things with fibre and textiles had helped them cope, not just with pandemic stress, but with grief, health issues, and loneliness. That made me wonder: what is it about working with fibre that is so good for our brains?
It turns out that occupational therapy, education, and cognitive neuroscience researchers are asking the same question, and they’re developing ways to measure and confirm what we crafters have known all along: Making things with fibres and textiles can help us manage stress, fend off depression, delay age-related cognitive decline, learn, grow, fail, and even build communities.
*Knit 1, dopamine 1; repeat from *
Despite hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, the human body reacts to someone cutting us off in traffic in the same way that it once reacted to a stampede of woolly mammoths: activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The SNS triggers our “flight-or-fight” response, increasing heart rate, blood flow, and respiration. Too much of this stress response causes hypertension, higher cholesterol levels, heart disease, digestive issues, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, reduced immune response, and even accidental injuries.
The antidote? Fibre and textile crafting!
In 2013 a group of researchers conducted an international survey of more than 3,500 knitters and found that 81% of the group reported feeling happy after knitting and more than 50% said they felt “very happy.” The source of all this happiness? Dopamine. Dopamine is a mood regulator and the main chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) in the brain’s reward system.
But how exactly does knitting—or crocheting, spinning, weaving, embroidery, sewing, etc.—trigger the brain’s reward system to make dopamine?
You know that feeling when you’re “in the zone?” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this as a state of “flow.” It is a feeling of intense focus and pleasure that crafters often experience while doing creative work. Repetitive motion, the texture or colour of the crafting materials, even sound, can activate flow states, slowing your heart rate, reducing anxiety, improving mood, and helping to manage pain. The fact that fibre crafters experience flow during creative work suggests that these activities positively activate the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine, and offering a non-pharmaceutical option to manage stress, self-regulate strong emotions, and ease the symptoms of obsessional phobias, anxiety, and depression. In their 2018 paper “Why Our Brains Love Arts and Crafts,” Huotilainen et al. suggest that using flow states to help the brain move from one type of focus to another may help with therapeutic treatments for conditions like ADHD.
Flow isn’t the only positive state associated with fibre and textile crafting. Meditation and mindfulness training create a “relaxation state,” lowering blood pressure, respiration and heart rate, and increasing immune system response. According to the Craft Council in the U.K., “Mindful activity activates the parts of the cortex associated with regulating emotions and dampening activity in the amygdala which is implicated in processing negative emotions and fear.” The repetitive movement of many fibre crafts can create a meditative space for contemplation and calm. Olympic diver Tom Daley was far from the first to use fibre arts to help clear his head and keep him focused: Albert Einstein was said to have knitted between projects to calm his mind and clear his thinking.
When you handle crafting materials—stroke a skein of yarn, or let beads run between your fingers—that sensation activates specific parts of the brain, causing what is known as somatosensory stimulation. This kind of tactile stimulation facilitates mindfulness and activates motor areas of the brain, which is good for our overall wellbeing.
And finally, activities like pattern design and problem solving use logic, sequencing, and categorization skills that activate the dopamine-ruled left side of the brain, alleviating depression and making us better able to react to and recover from stress.
The Plastic Brain
The brain is a remarkable organ for many reasons, but one of the most impressive is its plasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brains to change both their function and structure in response to our experiences and actions. When we keep our brain active, it responds by preserving existing neural connections, making new ones, and creating stronger neural networks.
But not all brain-strengthening activities are created equal. It turns out that the combination of skill-building, problem-solving, learning, determination, tactile and visual stimulation, and repetitive motion used in fibre and textile crafting activates so many parts of the brain that it creates more new neural connections than reading or even walking in nature!
Failure: Your New SuperpowerAs much as fibre and textile crafting is good for us, it can also be incredibly frustrating at times, especially when we’re learning something new. But guess what? It’s all part of one of the most amazing superpowers you will ever develop: the power to fail. Learning to fail builds resiliency and determination. Fibre crafting gives us a safe space to fail and to learn how to handle the emotions that go along with it. It encourages a growth mindset in which we can learn to accept challenges and keep trying; lets us experiment with out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving, and then helps us deal with disappointment and frustration. So, fail well, and fail often, fibre crafters—it’s good for you!
We’re All in This Together
Community groups, stitch nights, beading circles, and classes all provide opportunities to learn, share, and forge the social connections that allow us to belong to something bigger than ourselves.
In groups—even virtual ones—members share diverse experiences and give each other support. Online classes improve technology skills, resilience, and self-reliance. These experiences cause our brains to release the neurotransmitters oxytocin, which helps to build and maintain relationships, and serotonin, which makes us feel good.
And then there is the mirror neuron system. As the name implies, this group of specialized neurons is responsible for “mirroring” actions and behaviours that we see around us. It allows us to learn, to understand intentions, and to imitate each other’s actions. It is vital for skill learning and helps us to understand and respond to social and emotional cues, facilitating social connections and emotional bonds. It is even thought to have formed the foundation of human culture.
The Future’s So Bright…
To date, there has been little research into the relationship between fibre and textile crafting and the brain, but that is beginning to change as new studies and new technologies allow researchers to expand their exploration of our brains on fibre. Every day we learn more about how our brains work, and how fibre and textile arts impact psychology, education, industry, occupational therapy, clinical neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and—perhaps most importantly of all—how they might help us to find new ways to connect and relate to one another, one stitch at a time.