I recently wrote an article for Knitting magazine as part of their April 2018 'feel good' issue about a mindful approach to knitting encompassing all the senses, and afterwards it struck me that what I'd talked about and suggested could very easily apply to all kinds of other crafts and creative activities. So here is a slightly adapted version of that article which I hope you'll enjoy and take some ideas from. If you'd like to read the original, you can order the magazine here.
Show me a crafter who doesn’t go into an art or craft shop and immediately want to pick up and touch all the beautiful materials and tools, and I’ll show you a liar.
Many crafts are inherently sensory in nature, and the therapeutic benefits have been written extensively elsewhere. But let’s face it, most of us don’t need to be told this – we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t enjoy it so much.
I began knitting because I wanted something to do that was creative, after years of being without this kind of hobby, that would teach me new skills, and that was a relaxing break from work. The feel-good factor that has grown goes far beyond simple enjoyment though, and in the purest moments can be quite meditative. I've recently begun working on a cross-stitch project which takes this meditative concentration to whole new level!
I’ve always been a ‘touchy-feely’ sort of person (not in a weird way…), running my hands over tree bark as I walk by, cutting labels out of clothes so that they don’t scratch, and yes, picking up yarn and fabric to feel how soft it is. But what about the other senses? Can they be engaged and honed through crafting too?
I believe yes, they absolutely can.
And you’re probably already doing it without consciously realising.
So here comes everyone’s favourite M word: Mindfulness.
Call it what you like – being fully present, engaged, in the moment, concentration – but for me, it simply boils down to giving your full focus to one thing, instead of the usual multi-tasking we’re so used to as we try to cram more and more busyness into our days.
Knitting in front of the TV while checking Instagram, and trying to avert World War 3 among your family while dinner’s in the oven?
So how about a different approach?
You might have heard the expression “beginner’s mind” before, and I think it’s a great way of taking things back to basics and starting to engage all of our senses when we’re enjoying our favourite crafts.
Think about it – when you’re just learning, you have to fully concentrate on every detail because the slightest distraction can result in a disastrous mess.
Bringing this kind of focus to your crafting now, even if you’ve been an expert for decades and could do it standing on your head with your eyes closed (I don’t actually recommend you try this), could, I believe, lead to even greater enjoyment of the process, deeper relaxation, and a greater sense of wellbeing.
We all know the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. I’d also like to add a sixth sense to the list, and that’s mood or emotion.
How can we tap into each of these while we’re crafting then? I’m sure you’ve got some of your own thoughts, and I encourage you to consider what works for you, where your particular strengths are, any that you’d like to develop, or perhaps any that aren’t available to you.
First, let’s tackle taste.
Please, please, please – unless your particular creative passion is cooking or baking - don’t eat your materials!
I’m sure that goes without saying, but, you know, just in case! However, I’m sure you’re likely to have a beverage of your choice close by, perhaps a delicious snack, so every time you take a sip or a bite, really savour the taste, the sensations and flavours in your mouth, the temperature and the textures, and let that be all you concentrate on before you continue with your next task.
Sight should be an easy one. Look only at the work in front of you, seeing the way your hands hold the tools and how they move, the colours of the tools or materials, the texture of your skin. Watch how you manipulate the items you're working with.
There should be no judgement in any of your observations, this is purely about acknowledging how things are right now. You could think about describing what you see, either in your mind, or perhaps later in your journal, but you don’t have to – simply be in the moment.
Hearing is perhaps one of the senses that others pick up on about certain crafts – the sound of clicking knitting needles, perhaps the whirr of electric tools, maybe a muttered curse or two when it's not going to plan... But is there more to it – is the quality of the sound different if you use tools of different materials? Do you have a particular rhythm, and when does it change? Do the materials have a sound as they move through your hands? Do different materials sound different from each other?
The sense of smell is likely to be most closely associated with the materials you’re using. The smell of paints, wood, essential oils, paper, glue, butter and sugar... Can you detect the subtle smell of different animal or natural fibres? If you work with dyed fabrics or materials, is there any difference in the aroma of different colours depending on the compounds used to create them? How about the musty smell of things that have been packed in plastic in a warehouse for just a bit too long?
The sense of touch is probably the one we think of most, and perhaps one we take advantage of when doing that crafting in front of the TV thing I mentioned earlier. We know what our favourite craft feels like in our hands, so we can carry on and on without looking. But what else can you feel as you work? Focus on the size, texture and temperature of your tools, the sensation of the joints of your fingers moving, any tension in your arms or shoulders, the tug of the yarn or thread as you make each stitch. And of course the materials themselves – are they rough or smooth? Warm or cool? Soft or hard?
Now mood - how do you feel as you craft? When you’re sitting and fully engaged with the process do you notice any shifts in your emotions? Do you feel calmer and more relaxed, or are you working fast and feeling stressed because you’ve got to finish this whatever-it-is for so-and-so’s birthday in two days’ time? What do you notice about the tension of your work if you carry on when you’re angry about something? Do you feel excited and relieved when you master that tricky bit you’ve been fearing? Does your breathing change as you settle into a rhythm?
I hope you’ll give yourself the opportunity to practice crafting and fully immersing yourself in the sensory experience, even for half an hour one evening. You could try focusing on one sense at a time and seeing what you discover, or choose to concentrate on one aspect, such as your tools, and engage all your senses on that one single thing.
Whatever you do, I hope it will bring more mindful focus to your projects, and enhance your enjoyment of crafting even more.