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Needles and the damage done: A brief look at ‘knitting addiction’

In a previous blog, I briefly looked at ‘quilting addiction’. It was while I was researching that blog that I also came across a number of academic papers on the sociology of knitting and various references in the academic (and non-academic) literature to ‘knitting addiction’. In previous blogs I have written about the work of Dr. Bill Glasser who introduced the concept of ‘positive addiction’ in a 1976 book of the same name.

In a more recent 2012 paper on the topic in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Glasser claimed that he had heard numerous stories from many different individuals claiming they were ‘positively addicted “to a variety of activities such as swimming, hiking, bike riding, yoga, Zen, knitting, crocheting, hunting, fishing, skiing, rowing, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, and many more”. Glasser (1976) argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. He also asserted that positive addictions must be new rewarding activities that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

This idea has actually been put into practice with knitting. Dr. Kathryn Duffy published a paper in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery about knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management for females in addiction group therapy at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. Duffy claimed her knitting program had been successful in facilitating discussions and beneficial in providing a skill for moderating stress and emotions, both for female inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol addicts.

A more recent paper by Dr. Betsan Corkhill and colleagues examined knitting and wellbeing (in a 2014 issue of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture), using the World Health Organisation’s definition of wellbeing as “an ability to realize personal potential, cope with daily stresses, and contribute productively to society”. Their paper argued that knitting contributes to human wellbeing and has therapeutic benefits for those that engage in it because it is a behaviour (like many others) that can be used as a coping mechanism that can help overcome the daily pressures of life. One of the more interesting papers that I read on knitting was one published in a 2011 issue of Utopian Studies by Dr. Jack Bratich and Dr. Heidi Brush about “fabriculture” and “craftivism”:

“When we speak of ‘fabriculture’ or craft culture, we are referring to a whole range of practices usually defined as the ‘domestic arts’: knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking, quilting, embroidery, sewing, doll-making. More than the actual handicraft, we are referring to the recent popularization and resurgence of interest in these crafts, especially among young women. We are taking into account the mainstream forms found in Martha Stewart Living as well as the more explicitly activist (or craftivist) versions such as Cast Off, Anarchist Knitting Circle, MicroRevolt, Anarchist Knitting Mob, Revolutionary Knitting Circle, and Craftivism…When we use the term craft-work, we are specifically referring to the laboring practices involved in crafting, while fabriculture speaks to the broader practices (meaning-making, communicative, community-building) intertwined with this (im)material labor”.

The paper also outlined how women who knit in public (such as during a lecture or a conference) are often castigated and/or ridiculed for their behaviour. They even cited Sigmund Freud in relation to why knitting in public causes discomfort for onlookers:

“Freud institutionalized a concept denoting the jarring and disorienting effect of being spatially out of phase: unheimlich. The queasiness of the unheimlich occurs also when interiors become exteriorized (especially the home, as it also means unhomely). Knitting in public turns the interiority of the domestic outward, exposing that which exists within enclosures, through invisibility and through unpaid labor: the production of home life. Knitting in public also inevitably makes this question of space an explicitly gendered one. One commentator observes that knitting in public today is analogous to the outcry against breast-feeding in public twenty years ago (Higgins 2005). Both acts rip open the enclosure of the domestic space to public consumption. Both acts are also intensely productive and have generally contributed to women’s heretofore invisible and unpaid labor. But could such an innocuous activity as knitting have such social ramifications? How disruptive can fabriculture be when crafting women are more in the public eye than ever before? Many of us may know that Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and other celebs knit”.

The paper goes on to say that there are various knitting blogs (such as Etherknitter) that “expose the dark side of knitting” including excessive consumption and addiction. I then went onto the Etherknitter website and located an article specifically written on knitting addiction (‘Etherknitter’ turned out to be the pseudonym of the individual that runs the site). Here are some extracts from the article which also notes some of the shared terminology between drug addiction and knitting addiction:

“It’s been a revealing several days. I have discovered that I am incapable of not knitting. The only thing that would have stopped me would have been pain… In college, when I flirted with smoking cigarettes for six weeks…Alcohol has never appealed…In my profession, an uncomfortable number of practitioners succumb to the siren song of drug addiction…Then we get to knitting. I can’t not knit. Well, I can, but it hurts too much to be worth it. (I wonder if that’s why addicts stay addicted.) I was talking to a [fabric store] owner recently…She commented that the staff in the store sees a lot of people at the store who act out their neediness through yarn. She saw it as uncontrolled buying. Since we were talking about obesity in America at the time, she was tying it into alcohol/drug and food addiction. [The Too Much Wool website] pointed out our knitterly use of the word ‘stash’, and its clear crossover to the drug culture. Blogworld is full of knitters describing uncontrolled stash acquistions [such as ‘majorknitter’]. And trying to hide the size of the stash from significant others. And selling parts of their stash to others. The addiction to fiber and knitting is probably more benign, except for the financial aspects, and the time constraints. I really do have to beat myself to fulfill the more boring paperwork obligations in my life since I started knitting. The needles (aha! Another crossover analogy) are more fun. I don’t plan to do anything about my knit-addiction quite yet. But it does bother me”. 

In researching this article I came across a number of online accounts of people claiming to be genuinely addicted to knitting. This extract was particularly revealing as this short account seems to highlight many of the core components of addiction such as salience, conflict, and withdrawal symptoms:

“So, I’m 22 and I go through all that typical 22-year old stuff. Sometimes, my life gets rough and I have trouble coping. Rather than going out with friends and drinking till I puke, or going and smoking a few cigarettes or a joint, or having sex with random boys, I turn to my knitting in times of crisis. This might sound like a constructive thing. After all, I’m creating rather than destroying, right? Wrong. I say that I’m addicted because I am. I can’t function on a normal level without my knitting bag at my side. I can’t sit still in class or on a break if I’m not knitting. My head hurts, I sweat, I get jittery if my hands are doing nothing. And it gets worse. I skip classes to go to yarn stores. I come back late from breaks at work because I needed to finish just one more row. I already have one knitting tattoo and another planned. I pay my rent late because I spent my entire paycheck on yarn. My boyfriend’s half of the apartment is slowly being taken over by my stash. My life isn’t complete without knitting. I bought two spinning wheels so I could spin my own yarn. I think that if I ever lost a hand or arm due to an accident I would probably kill myself because I couldn’t knit…I’ve admitted to myself that I have a problem, but most people see knitting as simply my hobby. It goes so much deeper than that and I feel like I finally needed to say something”.

Academically, there is little on knitting addiction. In an unpublished thesis by Christiana Croghan, she noted in one paragraph that:

“Baird (2009) supports the theory that knitting alters brain chemistry, lowering stress hormones and boosting the production of serotonin and dopamine. Dittrich (2001) argues while there are many health benefits associated with knitting there is also a health risk of the possible development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Research suggests knitting may also have an addictive quality that Corkhill (2008) considers to be a constructive addiction that may replace other more severe harmful addictions. Marer (2002) interviewed professional women who knit during lunch hours, and found a consistent theme of relief from anxiety and a sense of clear headedness at work. Marer (2002) also found patients with severe illnesses such as cancer experience a greater sense of coping when they knit”.

More specifically on addiction, a 2011 issue of Asian Culture and History, Hye Young Shin and Dr. Ji Soo Ha examined knitting practice in Korea. Their qualitative research revealed that:

“Immersion in knitting projects can become so intense as to create anxiety for some knitters after the completion of a knitting project. They confess a sense of emptiness or feeling lost after a period of deep mental and physical engagement. This suggests that knitting can become an activity that does not arise out of necessity or has a clear purpose. However, knitters who have a lot of experience with knitting practice tend to say that long experience with knitting has enabled them to handle this urge to indulge in knitting, a typical symptom in the early stage of one’s knitting career”.

Their paper includes the following quotes from knitters that they interviewed:

  • Extract 1: “Knitting is a kind of addiction or drug. I feel so bored and empty and a sense of being lost when I’m done with one project.”
  • Extract 2: “For example, I check the time when a TV drama begins and I can stop knitting when the drama starts. When I first started knitting, I couldn’t control my urge to keep knitting on and on, but now I can; otherwise I can’t enjoy it as a pleasurable and long-term hobby. I still want to carry on when I sit for knitting, not wanting to stand up to wash the dishes, but now I can control myself.”

I have always argued that is theoretically possible for an individual to become addicted to anything if there are constant reinforcements (i.e., rewards). The anecdotal reports in this article suggest that a few individuals appear to experience addiction-like symptoms but there is too little detail to say one way or another whether knitting addiction genuinely exists.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Baird, M., (2009). Fighting the stress with knitting needles. Located at: http://heal-all.org/art/18/human-body/1999/fighting-the-stress-with-knitting-needles

Bratich, J. Z., & Brush, H. M. (2011). Fabricating activism: Craft-work, popular culture, gender. Utopian Studies, 22(2), 233-260.

Corkhill, B. (2008) Therapeutic knitting. retrieved from www.knitonthenet.com/issue4/features/therapeutic knitting/

Corkhill, B., Hemmings, J., Maddock, A., & Riley, J. (2014). Knitting and Well-being. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 12(1), 34-57.

Croghan, C. (2013). Knitting is the new yoga? Comparing techniques; physiological and psychological indicators of the relaxation response. Unpublished manuscript. Located at: http://esource.dbs.ie/handle/10788/1586

Dittrich, L. R. (2001) Knitting. Academic Medicine, 76(7), 671. Retrieved from: http://knittingbrain.com/results.php

Duffy, K. (2007). Knitting through recovery one stitch at a time: Knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management in group therapy. Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery, 2(1), 67-83.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (2012). Promoting client strength through positive addiction. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 11(4), 173-175.

Etherknitter (2006). Public displays of knitting. Etherknitter Blog. Accessed April 19, 2006, http://etherknitter.typepad.com/etherknitter/2006/03/please_picture_.html

Marer, E. (2002). Knitting: the new yoga. Health, 16(2), 76-78.

Shin, H. Y., & Ha, J. S. (2011). Knitting practice in Korea: A geography of everyday experiences. Asian Culture and History, 3(1), 105-114.

It’s no fabrication: A brief look at ‘quilting addiction’

“I am addicted to quilting enjoying the color, texture and patterns. This [Pinterest] board inspires me in color, quilts, designs and quilting!” (Kim Hazlett)

“My name is Laura and I’m addicted to quilting. I know there could be worse addictions, so all things considered, quilting is a harmless addiction. Unless that is, you are running out of time to do it all!. I did 4 [square blocks] over the past week and a half. I jumped ahead. I couldn’t help it. The more I make, the more I want to keep on making them! At this rate I’ll surely have all 111 blocks finished by 2012. Not that there’s a deadline)” (Laura)

“Addiction to quilting? Are you being serious?” I hear you say. Obviously there is no scientific research on ‘quilting addiction’ (although there is academic research on quilting that I’ll talk about later in this article) but a quick Google search shows there are numerous websites devoted to the topic (for example, Addicted to Quilts, My Quilting Addiction, Sew Addicted To Quilting, My Quilt Place, Quilt Addicts Anonymous, Addicted to Fabric, etc.). None of these sites are really about addiction but more about people’s overwhelming love of quilting (either professionally or personally). There are even books on the topic such as Get Addicted To Free-Motion Quilting (by Sheila Sinclair Snyder) and dedicated webpages such as ‘Addicted To Scraps’ on the Quiltmaker website or ’15 reasons to get addicted to Kantha quilts’ on the Houzz website.

Renelda Peldunas-Harter (RPH), author of From Ensign’s Bars to Colonel’s Stars: Making Quilts to Honor Those Who Serve and author of the online article ‘Are you addicted to quilting?’ asserted:

“Quilting is habit-forming and I’m going to try and break down certain aspects of the addiction. I’m going to throw a disclaimer in right here – I am not trained to diagnose or explain anything, I am merely an observer and chronicler of the quilting animal and want to share my observations. Quilters can display many ‘habit-forming’ behaviors”.

RPH breaks quilting into three categories – the fabrics, the tools used, and stash building (more of which later in the blog). More specifically, quilting addiction depends upon the type of fabrics chosen to make quilts, the number of different tools the quilter owns to make quilts, and (probably the most obvious indicators of an addiction) the accumulating of quilting paraphernalia. For RPH, stash building encompasses many things:

“It can mean an obsession to make quilt related gifts, compulsion to collect quilt magazines, quilt gadgets, quilt patterns, fabric/items with a certain theme, machines, patterns, or buying large/medium/small amounts of fabric in general with no earthly idea of what to do with it – otherwise known as stash building!”

With tongue firmly in cheek, the article outlines ‘The Quilting Commandments, which if adhered to could certainly indicative of addiction: “(1) Always buy new fabric no matter how much you already have; (2) Sew all day and night – absolutely no cooking permitted; (3) Always start a new quilt before the last one is finished; (4) Repeat Step 1”.

While researching this article, I was surprised to find that there had been quite a bit of research on quilting. In a 2001 paper in the World Leisure Journal, Dr. Faye King examined the social dynamics of quilting (based on her own 1997 PhD thesis). Based on her research, Faye reached three main conclusions: (i) quilting expresses powerful rhetorical statements about the maker’s values and social concerns (in which Faye provides a number of examples of where quilts were created to make political statements); (ii) quilting can have a social impact on society as well as their individual maker (those donated to charities and hospitals for sick children); and (iii) quilting provides meaning for the maker and as a leisure activity can help help reduce stress in one’s life (which indirectly provides a reason as to why some people might theoretically develop an ‘addiction’).

A qualitative study by Dr. Rhiannon Gainor of 25 quilters that run their own quilting websites and/or blogs examined motivations for quilting and their expressions of personal creativity. One of the salient themes that emerged was ‘quilting as passion’ and described by some as an addiction. More specifically, Gainor noted that:

“Quilters also wrote about quilting being a passion, an addiction, and a lifelong interest. These kinds of comments on the sites made it clear that quilting for many is more avocation than pastime, supporting Stebbins’ (2004) definition of the serious leisure enthusiast as one finding gratification and fulfillment, rather than mere fun, in their chosen activity”.

Dr. Marybeth Stalp has written a few papers on quilting. In one of them published in a 2008 issue of the journal Home Cultures, she examined the “stash” of those that engaged in domestic handicraft (including quilters). She makes a reference to addiction:

“Those who create domestic arts and handcrafts are quite familiar with the term ‘stash’ and may even have one (or more). While it is not a reference to addictive drugs (or is it?), questions regarding the stash illuminate the themes that exist within the stash and the ‘lifeworlds’ of the collectors of the stash”.

Via participant observation and interviews, the paper examined the meaning and role of the stash in the lives of knitters, quilters, and crocheters. Arguably, the findings use the language of addictions in various places:

“Handcrafters collectively refer to their collections as ‘stash,’ hoard whatever they collect over time, find un/official support groups to support their habits, and together strategize hiding places and storage. Collecting, hoarding, and hiding stash is quite normal for crafters, yet such acts are often deviant to others, particularly those who share their living space. Often the stash is portrayed negatively by non-crafting family members and friends, as well as the popular media, and sometimes even by handcrafters themselves…The handcrafter continues to acquire and stash fabric, yarn, floss, etc. despite how much space the stash demands, or how the stash influences relationships with others. The larger social structures of family, work and friends shape how we think about our stashes”.

In an earlier paper published in a 2006 issue of the journal Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, Stalp presented her results of a four-year ethnographic study of 70 US amateur quilters. She examined the “guilty pleasures surrounding quilting practices, including the deviant acts of hiding both identity and fabric from family members and friends”. The paper describes how quilters slowly build up their stash of fabric, purchasing more fabric than they need than necessary, and both hoarding and strategically hiding it from their families. She then goes on to say that:

“Women’s anxieties surrounding acquiring, hoarding, and hiding their fabric stashes highlight their diminished ability, relative to their spouses and their children, to pursue leisure activities without a stigma. Collecting and hiding the fabric stash become symbolic of women’s attempts to carve out time and space for themselves amid the multiple demands placed on them by such greedy institutions such as family and the workplace”. 

Another academic who has written a few papers on quilting is Dr. Rosemary Wilkinson. Her first paper on the topic in the International Journal of the Humanities examined the rhetoric of obsession, addiction, guilt, and subterfuge in two Australian quilters’ magazines (Down Under Quilts and Quilters Companion) over a five-year period. She reported that while some of the quilting publications describe the benefits of quilting to individuals and communities, she also noted the ways in which the magazines integrate the “rhetotic of addiction” in constructing of the identity of quilters. She concludes that:

“[This] ploy seemingly at odds with the overall positive and promotional tone of the magazines…[the findings] demonstrate that the concept of addiction is exploited within the magazines to reinforce the quilter’s creative drive, her communal belonging and her vocation”.

In a more recent 2014 paper in the journal TEXT, Dr. Williamson reprised the same findings:

Both the turning towards and the intensity of commitment to quilts may be expressed through metaphors of addiction, illness or affliction. The rhetoric of addiction is well established among quilters generally, and has occurred in [Australian quilting magazines] since their inception…Profiles from 2010 to 2013 contain references to, for example, catching ‘the quilting bug’…or other phrases that translate commitment into popular clichés of addiction (‘Jenny began a creative journey that soon became an addiction, as is so often the case’)…Frequent references in profiles to quilters’ passion for what they do, even if expressed in clichés of addiction, connote personal commitment and satisfaction as driving forces for career development that is organic and responsive to, and accommodating of, personal circumstances”.

In reading the academic papers on quilting, I got the sense that the word ‘addiction’ was being used in a non-clinical sense and as a metaphor for justifying the amount of time that quilters engaged in their passion and pastime. There was little evidence of negative detriment although some quilters clearly feel they need to lie about or hide away aspects of their hobby.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bratich, J. Z., & Brush, H. M. (2011). Fabricating activism: Craft-work, popular culture, gender. Utopian Studies, 22(2), 233-260.

Gainor, R. (2011). Hobby quilting websites and voluntary provision of information. New Directions in Folklore, 9(1/2), 41-67.

King, F.L. (2001). Social dynamics of quilting. World Leisure Journal, 43(2), 26-29.

Peldunas-Harter, R. (2014). Are you addicted to quilting? Take the quiz. Schiffer Publishing, December 15. Located at: http://schifferpublishing.tumblr.com/post/105289542106/are-you-addicted-to-quilting-take-the-quiz

Sayasane, J.H. (2011). My quilting addiction explained. Quilters Newsletter, March 2. Located at: http://www.quiltersnewsletter.com/blogs/insideqn/2011/03/02/my-quilting-addiction-explained/

Stalp, M. C. (2006). Hiding the (fabric) stash: Collecting, hoarding, and hiding strategies of contemporary US quilters. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 4(1), 104-124.

Stalp, M. C., & Winge, T. M. (2008). My collection is bigger than yours: Tales from the handcrafter’s stash. Home Cultures, 5(2), 197-218.

Stebbins, R. (2007). Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Williamson, R. (2008). Obsession, guilt, subterfuge and penury: The rhetoric of addiction and the construction of creative identity in Australian quilters’ magazines. The International Journal of the Humanities, 5(11), 163-70.

Williamson, R. (2014). Modelling the creative and professional self: The magazine profile as narrative of transition and transformation. TEXT, Special Issue 25. Australasian magazines: new perspectives on writing and publishing. http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue25/Williamson.pdf