And it looked like this... I can’t say I truly like it, but I do have a lot of affection for this quilt. It has a kind of mangled, arrow shape to it now, which I find intriguing and appropriate. I named the quilt “My Divorce Quilt: Through the Wringer” because that’s what I felt it looked like—like it had been through one of those antique manual washing machines — and that’s also how I felt about what I’d been through emotionally with my divorce. Now I had no idea that I was working through my feelings about my divorce while thread-painting this quilt, but it turns out that is what I was doing and it was incredibly therapeutic for me.
I hung this quilt in my quilting guild’s annual show. And it elicited a huge reaction from people—both the quilt itself and the title I gave it. One woman told me that she thought the folds were my way of trying to tuck away the memories of my marriage. She even suggested I might feel compelled in the future to fold it further, to signify my healing from the divorce and moving on to a new life. I was fascinated by this insight. Whatever I had made, and it certainly wasn’t a typical quilt, expressed something deep inside of me—the chaos I felt, the hurt, whatever. But this quilt definitely says something, not only to me, but to others. It’s an art quilt! Making it and showing it to others helped me to heal myself after my divorce, and to feel whole again, this time as a single person. The process also made me realize that it was time for me to pursue life without a strict adherence to a plan, as I’d always done before. Since then, I’ve opened up creatively and emotionally to exploring life in general as more of a process, and trying to enjoy the twists and turns, rather than just rushing to the goal.
There are relatively few studies on the health benefits of crafts—and I wouldn’t want to bore you by going through a lot of research anyway. I’ll just take you through some of the key research. One seminal study was sponsored by the Home Sewing Association and published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association in the mid-1990s. Researchers at New York University took 30 women, 15 experienced sewers and 15 novice sewers, and had them perform 5 tasks that required similar eye-hand movements: sewing a simple project, playing a card game, painting at an easel, playing a hand-held video game, and reading a newspaper. They measured their blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature or perspiration—all gauges of the stress we’re feeling—before and after they did these tasks, and found that sewing was the most relaxing activity . In contrast, stress measures increased after the women performed the other tasks, especially after playing a card or video game—presumably because of the competitive elements to those games.
Results were particularly strong for reductions in feeling stressed, sad or blue, anxious or jittery.
Taking up craft work after being diagnosed with a chronic illness such as multiple sclerosis or chronic fatigue syndrome can help in coping with the disease and feeling more satisfied with life on an everyday basis. Reynolds F, Prior S. “A lifestyle coat-hanger: A phenomological study of the meaning of artwork for women coping with chronic illness and disability. Disability & Rehabilitation. 2003;25:785-794. Reynolds F, Vivat B, Prior S. Women’s experiences of increasing subjective well-being in CFS/ME through leisure-based arts and crafts activities: A qualitative study. Disability & Rehabilitation. 2008;30:1279-1288.
Taking up craft work after being diagnosed with cancer can be an outlet for negative and fearful feelings, and can help them retain their identity beyond their cancer diagnosis. Reynolds F, Prior S. The role of art-making in identity maintenance: Case studies of people living with cancer. Eur J Cancer Care. 2006;15:333-341. Oster I, et al. Art therapy improves coping resources: A randomized, controlled study among women with breast cancer. Palliative Support Care. 2006;4:57-64.
I believe that certain crafts can be helpful when you’re feeling a certain way... When you’re sad, you might try quilting or sewing because the bright colors of the fabrics can boost your mood. When you’re anxious, try knitting or cross-stitch, because the repetition of the movement can relax you. When you’re reflective or pensive, try scrapbooking or collaging to give you a chance to recall key moments in your life—and let you “be” with these feelings. And when you’re angry, do something active like ceramics, sculpting, or gardening to release some of your aggressions.
Physical benefits. It’s now well-accepted that most health problems have both a physical and mental element to them—meaning your psychological state can exacerbate or improve a physical illness. So by releasing negative emotions through crafts, we can help to heal ourselves. This has been proven most strongly in medical studies of asthma patients who end up having fewer asthma episodes after they start keeping journals to record their stressful feelings. Admittedly, this is still a largely untouched area of investigation. Most of the medical evidence is based on stories rather than on clinical trials. Hopefully, more trials will be conducted—though I wouldn’t hold my breath on that score. Till then, the stories are pretty amazing. For instance, one woman told me that she used sewing to help her recover her eye-hand coordination after brain surgery. Her doctor had told her it would take as long as nine months for her sight to return, but because of her sewing, her sight improved dramatically within two weeks. Another woman told me she used knitting to keep her arm functioning after she lost her elbow to cancer. She figured out a way to knit two to three hours a day by bracing her arm on couch pillows. Even though it was painful, it worked because she still can use her left hand. A third woman, who was bedridden, told me that making jewelry kept her busy and distracted, and made her feel less helpless in the face of her illness. Even though she wasn’t mobile, she was still productive and creative.
Here’s another key study. A psychiatrist at George Washington University named Gene Cohen did a two-year study of healthy older adults (over age 65) sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. He found that people who engaged in painting, writing, poetry, jewelry-making, or singing in a chorale had better overall physical health, made fewer visits to the doctor, used less medication, and had fewer health problems than a control group that didn’t participate in cultural programs. The “artsy” group also had better morale and reported less loneliness thanks to a feeling of self-control and mastery, and from maintaining their social engagements. Creativity often peaks as we get older, and we feel more compelled to be creative. That may be because we become more creatively free as we get older—we care less what other people think about what we do, and we’re more comfortable in our own skins, we know ourselves better so we can express ourselves better. But more than that, researchers say we need the charge of doing something creative to feel good mentally. The level of the brain chemical dopamine, which brings on a natural high, declines with age. By seeking out new experiences and doing novel things, we can trigger dopamine surges and regain that feeling. Creativity also promotes brain plasticity (flexibility and growth) and even prompts our brains to rewire, which may fend off dementia and help to maintain health. When you challenge the brain, your brain cells sprout new connections, called dendrites,“and new contact points, called synapses, that improve brain communication. Another benefit of creative activities: They’re sustainable. They’re much easier and more fun to stick with than exercise or a diet!
Next, we come to the spiritual benefits of crafting. Crafts can help you reconnect with your authentic self, your core beliefs and values, and your higher power, whatever that is. Creativity guru Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, told me “the act of making art is actually a form of prayer.” She believes that when you get in touch with your creativity, you get in touch with your spirit and vice versa. And she says that as gifts of the spirit and to the spirit, crafts bring beauty to the world. When I was interviewing crafters for my book, many told me how much their craft helped them in a spiritual way after 9/11. Making a quilt or knitting a sweater made them feel more peaceful and connected to themselves. It gave them an opportunity to think about things, to center themselves, to be quiet and contemplative for a while.
So how do you reap the healing benefits of crafts? How do you turn them into more than just enjoyable pursuits? Actually, it’s quite simple.
First, you want to find a craft you love. That may seem commonsensical. Not all crafts appeal to all people. Some of us are Martha Stewart types who like detail-oriented crafts, like my quilting—while others may have a passion for plunging in and making a mess, and learning as they go, so they might prefer ceramics or painting or something like that. Basically, you need to match your craft to your personality. That’s when you’ll find what you love to do, and you’ll get the healing benefits.
Next, make time for your craft. Don’t look at it as a self-indulgence. If you were taking a medication, you wouldn’t skip a dose because you’d lose the benefit, so don’t skip your weekly or even daily doses of crafting either. You’ll feel good while you’re doing it, and the benefits will stay with you throughout the day. First, though, you have to give yourself permission to take time for yourself—and that’s often a hard thing for women to do. Harvard psychologist and researcher Alice Domar, author of Self-Nurture, says about women: “Some of us feel bad about [taking] time for creative expression. One would think that we’d view creativity as ‘more productive’ and hence less guilt-producing than leisure, yet we still seem to believe that self-expression is less of a priority than satisfying the needs of others.” Taking time for yourself is a good way to mentor your kids, by the way. It shows that you value yourself, which sets a good example for them in learning how to nurture themselves and build their self-esteem.
Also, find a little piece of your home that you can claim as your craft space. Yes, this can be a tough one. If you’re lucky, you can put dibs on a whole room. If not, claim a corner of a room, the attic, a space under the stairs, or even just a basket that contains your knitting. Rather than just occasionally commandeering the dining room table, you want your stuff to be in a prominent and easily accessible place so you can get to your craft often. That way, you can do a few minutes here and there, whatever you can spare. You don’t have to clear the table to work and then put everything away each time, which usually means you won’t do it very often.
Build a social network of crafters. Humans are social animals and we need to interact with other people to stay healthy. It’s been found that life-long learning and having a strong social network are two of the keys to healthy and happy aging, and crafts can help you on both fronts.
Next, exercise to stimulate your creativity. Physical activity helps you get unstuck when you’re faced with creative roadblocks. Research shows that physical activity, such as walking, both calms and energizes you at the same time, reduces stress, and boosts your mood. And it can help you switch from a frenzied, every-day frame of mind into a more creative mood for crafting. Studies at Baruch College in New York also suggest that regular exercise makes you think more creatively, probably because it improves blood flow to the brain.
Enjoy the process. Once you’ve made something, no matter how pretty it turns out to be, the experience is over. “What you make is only the residue of how much fun you’ve had,” says fabric artist and designer Diane Ericson. The key is to revel in the task of creating—the materials, the colors, the patterns, the techniques, the new ideas, the discoveries, the mistakes—rather than mindlessly keep pushing forward to finish a project. That’s the fun part, that’s the healing part.
Forget perfection. Let your craft challenge you, but don’t let it drive you crazy if you’ve made some mistakes. Give yourself permission to be imperfect, to be a beginner, and to just play and discover new ways of doing things. Allow yourself to be wherever you are on your personal creative journey without comparing yourself to other people. You can admire others’ work, and aspire to be as good as they are at a particular craft, but don’t let yourself feel bad if you’re not an expert like they are.
Finally, remember to cultivate your creativity on a regular basis. Researchers have noted that craft skills can apply to your everyday occupation. The ability to problem solve is a key attribute of a great employee in 2009! After work, crafts and other creative activities can enhance well-being and reduce stress—especially in tough economic times as we’re facing right now. Carry your creativity with you every day and in every way. “You have to own your creativity, develop it, grow it like a garden,” according to Diane Ericson. Ultimately, that’s how you’ll reap the healing benefits of crafts.
I like to say that if life constructs stress, crafts help us to deconstruct stress by allowing us to become absorbed in a joyous, creative activity. That feeling of expressing ourselves, of bringing something unique and beautiful into the world—THAT is the very essence of the healing powers of crafts.
Craft to Heal with Nancy Monson
Craft to HealNancy MonsonCreativity, craft and health writerHealth coachAuthor of Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul withSewing, Painting, and Other PastimesEmail: email@example.comWebsite: www.nancymonson.com
Life is Stressful • Most Americans today are feeling moderately or even very stressed out— and they know it’s affecting their health American Psychological Association, Stress In American Survey, 2011 2
How Crafts Can Help:Psychological Benefits• Relieve stress• Help you relax• Distract you from worries—and from overeating!• Give you a feeling of achievement• Raise your self-esteem• Allow you to examine your inner feelings and express them• Boost your mood• Can be shared with others 3
Home Sewing AssociationStudy• 30 women• Five tasks requiring similar eye-hand movements • Sewing a simple project • Playing a card game • Painting at an easel • Playing a hand-held video game • Reading a newspaper• Measured gauges of stress before and after doing five tasks• Results: Sewing was the most relaxing Journal of the American Medical Association. 1995;274:291. 6
Hey—I Did a Study!• 11 women (9 in crafting group, 2 in control group)• Ages 37-64• Craft ½ an hour a day for a week• Take stress survey before and after crafting• Craft group: Everyone benefited, with modest to excellent results• Control group: One person had no change after reading/ watching news, one person felt increased stress 7
Chronic Illness Research • British studies of women with chronic disabling illness •Can do craft despite ill health •Fills a void in their lives when they couldn’t work anymore •Distracts them from thinking about their illness and from pain •Enables them to express their grief •Provides a social network 8
Cancer Research • Studies of people living with cancer show crafts and art- making allow them to be more than just someone with cancer •Allows them to do something meaningful with their lives •Decreases depression and anxiety •Improves self-esteem 9
Physical Benefits of Crafts• Your mind has a powerful impact on your body• By releasing negative emotions through creative endeavors, we can help heal ourselves 11
Creativity and Aging Study • Older adults followed for 2 years • Those who participated in creative activities such as jewelry-making and singing: • went to the doctor less often • used less medication • were less lonely and depressed 12
Spiritual Benefits of Crafts • Crafts can help you reconnect with your authentic self, your core beliefs and values, and your higher power • Creativity guru Julia Cameron says “the act of making art is actually a form of prayer” • As gifts of the spirit and to the spirit, they bring beauty to the world 13
Find a Craft You Love•Not all crafts appealto all people•Some are MarthaStewart types wholove detail-orientedcrafts•Others are morespontaneous Match your craft to your personality! 15
Make Time for Your Craft • Reframe your craft time in your mind: It’s not a self-indulgence, it’s a medical necessity • If you stop taking a drug, you’ll lose the benefit— the same is true for relaxing activities such as crafts 16
Make Space for Your Craft • Give yourself permission to take time for yourself—and make a place for yourself in your home…even if it’s only a bag filled with your supplies! 17
Build a Network of Crafters • We need to interact with others to stay healthy • Life-long learning and having a strong social network are two of the keys to healthy and happy aging • Crafts and hobbies can ward off feelings of loneliness and isolation and help caregivers reach loved ones 18
Exercise to Stimulate YourSenses • Helps you get unstuck when you’re faced with creative roadblocks • Calms and energizes you at the same time • Reduces stress • Boosts your mood 19
Enjoy the Process • Once you’ve made something, no matter how pretty, the experience is over • “What you make is only the residue of how much fun you’ve had,” says fabric artist Diane Ericson 20
Forget Perfection• Let your craft challenge you, not drive you crazy • Perfection is exhausting!• Give yourself permission to be imperfect and to play• Allow yourself to be abeginner or wherever you are on yourpersonal creativity journey• Don’t compare your work to that of others 21
Crafty Is as Crafty Does• Carry your creativity with you every day and every way to reap its healing benefits• “You have to own your creativity, develop it, grow it like a garden,” says Diane Ericson• All human beings are creative• Creativity can take any form ...doing a craft ...gardening ...cooking ...solving a problem at work …writing in a journal 22
Crafts aren’t just fun… they’re therapeutic! 23