Coping by Crafting: How Making Helps Us Get Through Tough Times
Melanie Berg has been blessed with what she describes as an easy life. She has a wonderful family and a rewarding career. But just over a year ago, like so many before her, Melanie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Life throws challenges at all of us, and we each develop ways of coping. But it’s striking how many makers say their craft helped them cope with the most difficult periods of their lives. The evidence for this isn’t just anecdotal. People like Betsan Corkhill, the founder of Stitchlinks, have been investigating the therapeutic benefits of crafting in collaboration with academics and clinicians for decades. These are the stories of five incredible women and how they got through some of the toughest periods of their lives.
Melanie, who is better known to many as Mairlynd, first learned to knit when she was six or seven years old, but it didn’t really stick. After a brief second bout of knitting as a teenager (she made a scarf for a friend and he never put it on) she finally returned to the craft when she had her first child, 13 years ago. “All of a sudden I had this little human being and I just wanted to create something with my hands to keep her warm and safe,” Melanie explains, a feeling she says many mothers who knit have in common.
From then she was hooked. She discovered Ravlery and started playing with patterns, often making tweaks to the designs she found online until she was making so many tweaks she realised she might as well design her own garments. For the past 10 years she has been designing incredible knitwear, including Loop favourites like On the Spice Market, Under the Milky Way, and Wintermute.
When Melanie first received her diagnosis, she didn’t share it very widely. She went silent on her Instagram page as she went through weeks of coming to terms with the illness on her own. But that changed once she had come through her first surgery. “I started to talk about it on social media and the support was really overwhelming. I felt blessed and very thankful. But at the same time I felt so sorry for all the women who don’t have that kind of support.” This inspired Melanie to share her own story, as openly and honestly as she can, to give some hope to women who are going through breast cancer, and the one in eight women who will experience breast cancer at some point in her life.
Knitting also proved to be an important element of her treatment. Not only was it a source of comfort and distraction, but also played an important role combating neuropathy, the nasty chemo side-effect of tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, which can be permanent. The cooling gloves and boots used to minimise this effect can be very uncomfortable, and knitting helps bring circulation back to the hands once they’re removed. Melanie also said she always used to look forward to slipping into handknit socks when the treatment was over. These were lovingly supplied by her sister and a close friend, both of whom love knitting socks (they’re not Melanie’s favourite thing to make).
But more than anything, Melanie says her ability to keep a foot in the knitting world—and in the world of work—was the most important thing her craft gave her during treatment. “You are in the cancer universe when you get the diagnosis,” she says, “everything is just circling around your diagnosis, and I was just so happy to have parts of my life that did not do that. Working part-time or quarter-time was super helpful, both because it was knitting, which is good for your mind and your body, but also mentally because I didn’t feel useless.”
Once Melanie started feeling better, she designed two sweaters that reflect her journey with cancer. The first, Peach Fuzz, celebrates her completion of chemotherapy, her return to strength, and the return of her lovely hair, which she was so happy to see even if it did resemble the titular ‘peach fuzz’. The second, Pink Is for Power, is a bright pink sweater with a motif on the front that is reminiscent of the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon. It was designed to pass along the message of strength to anyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and came out of a close collaboration with her friend Susanne Grashoff of Wool of Fame, who created a custom colour for the sweater. Susanne is an old friend of Melanie’s. Although she has emigrated to Mallorca, she spent much of Melanie’s treatment travelling to her native Germany to spend time with her mother, who wasn’t well. Because of these trips, she was able to visit Melanie regularly, and the two schemed up the sweater together. Now, it’s a wonderful celebration of friendship and strength to all who knit it.
Melanie is not the only person who has turned to knitting in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Marieke MacMahon, mother-in-law to Loop founder Susan’s son, found knitting was one of the only activities that she could still do during chemo. She describes a type of anhedonia that is sadly common among cancer patients. “I felt very ill and fatigued and found no joy in my usual routine. On the bad days it was as if I was suffering from a severe hangover and flu.” Like Melanie, Marieke says knitting gave her a sense of purpose when there was little she could do. “Though I couldn’t work, cook, read, watch television, listen to the radio, or socialise, I felt I was making something and I had something to show for my illness. I was productive.” Marieke spent hours and hours knitting complicated yoke sweaters, patterned hats, and socks for family and friends. They took her mind away from the illness. “Knitting is a solitary process, and so is illness. You are alone with both and retreat into yourself with both, and from that you find strength from inside.” But she doesn’t experience this solitude as lonely. In fact, she finds it a source of hope. It is a “simple repetitive activity that helps the mind to rest and your inner self to just be. And that, in turn, restores hope. I don’t mean hope in relation to the future, but in relation to the present. Knitting really helped me to appreciate the beauty of that.”
Loopette Monica Almaraz also sought solace in her knitting needles after her cancer diagnosis during the worst of London’s Covid lockdowns in autumn 2020. “It came as a huge shock although I knew subconsciously something was not quite right,” she explains. Knitting saw her through the immense uncertainty that followed. “Knitting kept me steady and focused on processing everything that was happening while my world was crashing around me. Knitting kept my hands from shaking.” Heading into surgery alone due to even more Covid restrictions, Monica armed herself with a pair of socks to knit and a crocheted blanket and prayer cloth her mother had made for her the previous year as a source comfort. As she recovered from surgery and learned she would need chemotherapy as well, Monica kept knitting. In fact, she knit nine pairs of socks by Christmas, enough for all her loved ones to get a pair. She also knit through chemo, working through a mustard yellow shawl that brought a little sunshine to each of her visits to Charing Cross Hospital. Monica’s journey with cancer isn’t over yet. “While thankfully I’m cancer free, I’m still being tested and looked after every few months for the next four years. ‘Scanxiety’ is a real thing but I’m learning to live with it when it comes around. And I still always take my knitting.”
It’s not just cancer that knitting can help with. In 2009, Marta Rudolph was facing the dissolution of a 38-year marriage. Unsure of how to cope, she drew inspiration from her grandmother. During the second world war, with both of her sons fighting on the front lines, Marta’s grandmother began knitting gauze bandages to be used in leper colonies. Having a task, a purpose, and a repetitive motion to get lost in kept her mind occupied. Bandage technology has moved on a bit since then, so Marta learned to knit, seeking the same respite her grandmother had found so many decades earlier.
Marta chose to knit washcloths. Similarly practical to the bandages her grandmother knit and achievable in scale, the project fit the bill. The design she chose—a square cloth knit from one corner to the other in garter stitch with increases and decreases along each edge—was challenging enough to hold her attention while also being repetitive enough to create a meditative rhythm. Marta was searching for something to soothe her mind and her heart in a difficult time and knitting was the perfect balm. More than a decade later, Marta is still knitting the same style of washcloth and the homes of most of her close friends are well stocked with her lovely creations.
Anna Beckett has been a crafter for as long as she can remember (as her Instagram handle @annamakeseverything will attest). She first learned to knit as a child, but like so many of us, she put the craft aside for most of her adolescence. Then, in her early 20s, Anna found her way back to it. “At first it was frustrating and difficult,” she says of coming back to the craft, “but soon I realised it was allowing my brain to switch off completely.” Soon she was knitting and crocheting on a regular basis, making hats for herself, toys for friends’ children, and granny squares galore.
Crafting really came to Anna’s rescue during the Covid lockdowns. Living alone, she found the solitude incredibly difficult. “I’m quite a social person, and all of a sudden I had all this time where I just had to be by myself,” she explains. She threw herself into craft. She even crocheted a doll in her own image for a work self-portrait challenge. Soon, crafting became not just a way to pass the time, but a real creative outlet during the otherwise unstimulating days of London’s many lockdowns.
When we were all allowed to go outside again, Anna broke out of lockdown in style with her friend Jayne Edwards. Both keen cyclists, together they cycled from London to Durham to visit Anna’s family. And that’s where the tables turned on all of Anna’s years of making gifts for friends: Her aunt knitted gold medal ribbons for the pair to celebrate their 350-mile journey.
What has crafting helped you get through? Whether an illness or another difficulty, the crafting community and craft itself is a source of comfort for so many, and we want to hear your stories.
If you’re interested in learning more about the therapeutic benefits of knitting in the face of all of life’s challenges, we encourage you to check out Stitchlinks, where you can read the latest research, learn more about how knitting can be beneficial in all kinds of settings, and even start your own therapeutic activity group.
If you are able, we encourage you to donate to some incredible charities doing wonderful work with people who are affected by cancer.
MacMillan Cancer Support – an organisation that supports people experiencing cancer with all the different ways cancer affects a life.
Macmillan Trust – providing emotional, practical, physical, and financial support to people who have cancer at every stage of their cancer experience.
Talk about flower power! These sweet Retro Flower Buttons are blooming brilliant in eight different colours. Whether you’re looking for a functional button with flourish or just an embellishment for your latest project, these buttons fit the bill. Whether you choose one colour or mix and match, these 23mm resin buttons will bring a little life to your garment.
It’s almost time for the Knitting & Stitching Show to return to Alexandra Palace and we are so excited to have four pairs of tickets to give away! The lucky winners will be able to choose which day they attend the show, which will be at Alexandra Palace from 6-9 October. Two pairs of tickets will be given away on the blog and two pairs will be given away on Instagram. To enter via the blog, leave a comment below about a hard time that crafting helped you get through or about what you would be most excited to see at the show. To enter via Instagram, follow @looplondonloves and leave a comment tagging the person you’d bring as your plus-one if you won. Winners will be selected Thursday 22 September!
We’re also delighted to be able to offer Loop customers a discount on tickets. Use the code LOOPKNIT for £2.00 off adult advance tickets and concessions from now through 23:59 on Wednesday 5 October, when the code expires. Please also note the discount is not available for tickets on Saturday 8 October.
Take good care of yourselves xx