Most people know Perri Klass, MD, as the pediatrician—writer, author of many nonfictional and fictional books, including A Not Entirely Benign Procedure: Four Years as a Medical Student. Some of us, though, also know Dr. Klass is a knitter. Being a knitting addict myself, and having read Dr. Klass's essays on knitting, this is my primary image of her.
In an article she wrote for the Fall 1996 issue of Knitter's Magazine, Dr. Klass wrote that “Medical lives are busy, overstressed—and, for the most part, full of waiting time, lectured-at-time, ideal times for knitting.”1 Many knitters find that knitting can help keep them focused during staff meetings or classes. As a pediatrician, Klass notes that she often waits to be called into the delivery room, and comments that other hospital physicians may face similar “down time,” in “the emergency room in the middle of the night, the intensive care unit when you're waiting for a patient to arrive.” Patients, too, may find knitting a more soothing (and productive) way to spend waiting-room time than reading magazines.
As well as keeping idle hands occupied, knitting may confer health benefits. Dr. Herbert Benson, founder and president of Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute and author of The Relaxation Response, recommends the “repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity” to elicit the “relaxation response”—decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.2 Even the most complex knitting patterns are usually repetitive, and all are based on only two stitches, knit and purl. While some patterns—complicated lace, for example—can occasionally raise rather than lower a knitter's blood pressure, most stitch patterns, once mastered, are truly meditative.
There is also some evidence that knitting and other creative or social activities can keep our brains as well as our fingers nimble; the authors of a study of a cohort of 2,040 people 65 and older concluded that “regular participation in social or leisure activities such as traveling, odd jobs, knitting, or gardening were associated with a lower risk of subsequent dementia.”3 I would speculate that this may be related not only to knitting's ability to bring on the “relaxation response” but also to its creative aspects, which can include designing patterns from scratch, from conceptualizing a design to doing the math necessary to formulate the pattern. (A similar, if more grim, description of the benefits of knitting for older people is documented by Anne L. McDonald in No Idle Hands. She writes that Ann Stephens, in her 1854 book Ladies Complete Guide to Crochet, Fancy Knitting, and Needlework, advised young women not only to take up knitting but also to practice with their eyes shut, in preparation for that “‘dark day when eyesight begins to fail [when] the stocking wire and nimble fingers will be found a great resource against unwilling idleness.’”4)
There are some health risks associated with knitting. The particularly avid or the production knitter runs the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. And of course there is always the danger posed by the absentminded knitter who leaves her or his needles unattended on a couch or chair. But for those of us who knit, the benefits outweigh the risks; for us, knitting is the perfect antidote to life in the hurried and harried world. It offers a very tangible way to connect with the past and to create something truly useful as well as beautiful. In a world whose technological advances—food processors, bread machines, online books—have deprived us of many of life's tactile pleasures, the feeling of wool or cotton yarn and the steady repetition of stitch after stitch is a restorative tonic, producing “not a virtual something that can be altered with a single click, but a real and tangible something….”5
1. Klass P. In sickness and in health: knitting in the hospital. Knitter's Magazine. 1996;13(3):10–4.
3. Falmigoule C, et al. Social and leisure activities and risk of dementia: a prospective longitudinal study. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1995;43:495–90.
4. MacDonald AL. No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.
5. Klass P. Y2K … the year to knit! Knitter's Magazine. 2000;17(3):78–9.