Close×

Crafting is being hailed as phenomenal for your physical and mental health – why? Jane Carstens reports.

“There is a paradox,” writes Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. “As children, most of us think we are highly creative; as adults most of us think we are not. What changes as we grow up?” The short answer is restrictive education systems, narrow job descriptions, and an overwhelmingly time-poor society. The long answer takes an entire book - but change is in the air. Crafting is moving away from being a hobby associated with women-of-a-certain-age, and towards being embraced by people of all ages and ability.

Researchers have also sharpened their pencils and are busy studying the benefits of crafting. Early results point to its capacity to help reduce stress, improve mood, cope with chronic pain, and halt cognitive decline. While we’re creating, it’s not just our hands that are busy. Our brains are diligently releasing dopamine, which is a natural antidepressant, a fact that gives credibility to the old proverb, “Idle hands make fretful minds”.

An antidote to busyness

“When we move and engage in activities we change the neurochemistry of our brain in ways that a drug can change the neurochemistry of our brain,” asserts Kelly Lambert, neuroscientist at the University of Richmond in the USA who invented the word 'behaviorceuticals' to explain the benefits of this process. Lambert says 19th century doctors commonly prescribed knitting for women as a remedy for anxiety, which might sound simplistic, but they sensed it calmed them down. Repetitive movement increased certain neurochemicals, and the hat or scarf produced were the tangible rewards for their efforts.

New opportunities are springing up for people to learn crafts. Thea Bollington and her husband Pete built an arty oasis called Meet Gather Collect in a quiet Canberra suburb that sits deliciously close to the rough and tumble of Parliament House. Their aim was to create a place for Australian artisans to display and sell their wares, and to provide a space for people of all ages and skill levels to learn different crafts. Classes offered include hand building with clay, making macramé wall hangers, botanical watercolour painting, basket-weaving, wooden spoon carving, and floristry.

“Our busy lives make it hard to turn off, so we focus on introducing people to a new experience that allows them to focus on the process and get lost in it,” explains Bollington. “Feedback from people who take our classes is that they find something new to try, appreciate how things are made, and love the opportunity to be creative. The experience is also hands on and tactile, something that is getting lost in our digital age, and gives them the chance to mentally switch off.”

Crafting as a health tonic

The explosion of markets and online selling opportunities means crafting can become a business. Naturopath Carrie Walters was always drawn to candles, and then found making them restored her health. “Naturopathy is a caring occupation and you carry the energy of your patients. I realised this was having a negative effect on my health, so I took a break three years ago when the opportunity to buy a soy candle-making business came up.”

Walters said she stepped away from naturopathy with the attitude, “If I go back to it then that’s OK, and if I don’t go back to it then that’s OK, too”. She found the process of creating soy candles with different essences both emotional and healing, and even developed a secret spiritual ritual around making them. “I never make my candles when I am in a bad mood. My customers say to me, ‘I just love your candles’ and I think to myself, ‘I know you do because there is love in them’.”

Evidence to support the benefits of crafting is building, mostly from observational studies and surveys. However, you don't need a scientific reason to craft. Just go for it! There’s nothing to lose and lots to gain including tapping into the crafting-induced benefits of 'flow' which happen when you become so absorbed in the creative process that you’re able to forget your worries, ‘to do’ lists and even physical pain. And if you get a handmade woollen scarf or pottery coffee cup at the end of the process, then that’s just another upside to joining the crafting revolution.

The spiritual side of crafting

When Tibetan monks create intricate mandalas from coloured grains of sand, they chant and meditate over their slowly evolving image to transmit positive energy to those around them. Even though each mandala can take several weeks to build, once it’s completed it is ceremonially destroyed, and the sand collected in a jar then taken to a river where it is released back into nature.

You don't have to be a monk to tap into the spiritual aspect of creativity. When Maggie Oman Shannon, author of Crafting Calm: Projects and Practices for Creativity and Contemplation, was asked what would happen if more people took up crafting she responded, “Our world is in a very precarious state, and we desperately need each person alive to feel empowered, to have a real sense of his or her inner creativity. Crafting can spark that feeling; it is a way of saying that what we do matters, who we are matters. And when we witness what we have been able to make – something that never before existed – we are more inclined to see ourselves as creators, as people who can make a difference in the world.”