Hooked on the craft

Exploring crocheting and knitting during quarantine and beyond

Jackie Lee, Copy Editor

Crocheting is a balancing act. To make each stitch, one hand grips the hook and the other controls the tension of the yarn: Too taut, and the project will turn out cramped, stunted; too loose, and it will be flimsy, undefined.

I was 10 when my Oma taught me to crochet, and it took a full week. Each day we practiced together, her worn but still-deft hands guiding mine until I could yarnover, chain stitch, and single crochet. I marveled at the diversity in her repertoire, from delicate lace doilies made with thread to bulky crewneck sweaters spun from Icelandic sheep’s wool. My first project was restricted to a simple square (though it looked more trapezoidal), but it felt like mine—here, at last, was something I had made.

There’s something magnetic about crafting, whether it’s crocheting a scarf or knitting a sweater. For many students, it becomes a reprieve from the hustle of everyday life, a chance to wretch our hands from the vice of our keyboards. Just as uniform stitches require careful attention to balance, students too must work to manage their personal and academic lives during remote learning semesters and beyond. While academics may in some ways prove a hindrance to crafting, they are also a conduit by which to channel creative energy. Unlike nebulous professional or personal aspirations, which may prove fruitless despite best efforts, crafting is foolproof: Learn the technique, follow the instructions, and voila—a handmade, three-dimensional scarf, sweater, blanket, or amigurumi has been transformed from a simple ball of yarn.

Crafting becomes a meditation, a mindfulness that rewards the practitioner not only with a creative outlet but a physical, meaningful result. Although crocheting and knitting was once pegged as tedious monotony, it is this very consistency that offers a sanctuary from the difficulties of present life.

Crocheting is to knitting what snowboarding is to skiing —parallel techniques and common materials mean the communities often overlap. Both use a tool to manipulate a fibre into a woven textile. Crochet uses one hook, while knitting uses needles; crocheting is often faster, but knitting uses less yarn. Compared to weaving, knitting, or other handicrafts, however, crocheting is relatively contemporary, with complete patterns emerging only in the early nineteenth century. Previously, crocheting was often considered a frivolous pastime, only used for superfluous projects like lace edging and decorative change purses.

Now, of course, crocheting is indiscernible from the stereotypical image of the elderly woman knitting diligently in her rocking chair. For me, despite numerous attempts, I’ve never been able to grasp knitting—I’m a proud crocheter, even if I do envy the elegant drape of a knit shawl or cabled sweater.

I remember sitting on my Oma’s front porch in Kitchener, Ontario, curled up in a wicker chair as I fumbled with my hook. It was a balmy evening, the summer sky still bright despite the hour, and I had the third Hunger Games book propped in my lap, eyes glued to the page while my hands made quick work of the acrylic-blend skein. This habit carried over to middle school, where I would crochet during class, fielding questions from peers and skepticism from teachers. Part of me preened under the attention in that righteous, edgy way only seventh graders can. The other part was self-conscious at the grandma-esque persona I was accruing. The ability to focus better with my hands occupied, though, won out over this concern.

Olivia Valentini, U2 Arts, has been knitting since she was a child. Her grandmother, who could create hats and sweaters on request within two days, taught her, and eight-year-old Valentini was enthralled by this magic, eager to try herself. As a crafting veteran and the vice-president (VP) workshop of McGill’s Knitting Club, Valentini is responsible for knitting and crocheting workshops for beginners and intermediate members alike.

Valentini, like myself and countess others, regularly knits or crochets while occupied in another, more mentally taxing task. While pre-pandemic eras saw crafters on public transit, waiting rooms, or lecture halls, remote learning makes it easier than ever to squeeze a row or two between—or during—classes.

“So you know when you’re 10 minutes into a Zoom class and you slowly feel yourself zoning out into another dimension?” Valentini wrote in an email with The McGill Tribune. “Well, when I start to feel that, I pick up my knitting needles and start doing a really easy stitch that doesn’t take a lot of effort. For whatever reason, keeping my hands busy with something keeps me really grounded and suddenly I’m able to focus better on what is being said.”

Crafting is a welcome alternative to the perpetual blue light of Zoom classes, and it also connects students who might otherwise feel isolated. Amrita Singh, U2 Science, started knitting last February through the McGill Knitting Club. As the group was looking to fill executive positions, Singh ended up accepting the VP communications role. Beyond facilitating a space for community and connection in the club, Singh found that knitting helped motivate her to study.

“When I lack focus and feel like procrastinating, I use the Pomodoro technique, where you study for 25 minutes and take a [five] minutes break,” Singh wrote in a message to the Tribune. “During the break, you should avoid social media since it will be hard to get off them later on, so therefore, I will knit a couple of rows during this time. It helps me take a break from constantly looking at a screen and gives me some quiet and peaceful time.”

Andrej Jermilov, president of McGill’s Knitting Club, first started knitting three years ago, when he joined the club after visiting the booth during Activities Night. For Jermilov, COVID-19 restrictions during the summer provided free time and limited commitments, driving him to knit more. Remote learning has stifled some of that energy.

“During the summer, my creative drive really soared,” Jermilov said. “It gave me the time to think about what knitting means to me, and what I want to do with this skill I have [....] I find that school definitely keeps me from knitting, [but] I try to set aside [time] once a week to knit and keep that knitting flame burning until I have the free time to pursue it more.”

By highschool, I had embraced my grandma-brand and regularly crocheted in class. My classmates sometimes requested their own pieces, unaware that yes, yarn costs money, and projects like detailed sweaters can take dozens of hours of work. Having been commissioned by a few teachers in eighth grade, I eventually decided to create a shop. My tiny enterprise did not translate into big bucks like other entrepreneurship-minded teens —Depop was not on my radar—but I sold handwarmers to my friends and mittens and baby shoes to my teachers. I fell out of the practice when my in-person customer base dwindled, and continuing would necessitate moving my platform from an Instagram portfolio to an online marketplace like Etsy. As university admission applications loomed, I quietly retired the account.

Other creators have successfully managed to transform a hobby into an income. To millennials and older Gen Z, the “side hustle” is another facet of life in this day and age. Especially for students, who often micromanage their timetable in order to balance studying with leisure, it’s tempting to see every hour as a chance to maximize one’s productivity.

Some can balance both: Chris Lau, U3 Management, with friends Kinda Wassef and Jana Beydoun, created an Instagram shop in December, and Lau has recently opened her own Depop. Lau used to knit sparingly in highschool, but revisited it during lockdown in April. She began crocheting shortly after, enticed by its more forgiving nature—crochet stitches are more flexible and easier to undo. Lau expanded on why income-driven work rather than creative work has not stifled her motivation.

“I enjoy crocheting, but I don’t want to keep everything I’ve made,” Lau wrote in a message to the Tribune. “Especially in quarantine, [...] I’d rather sell it to someone who will make good use of it. I don’t think my motivation has changed that much. It’s been fun working with people [...], but it definitely does add a layer of pressure making sure people are happy with the final outcome. But I think it just pushes me to have more attention to detail than I would have making something for myself.”

Others find that their interest wanes when shifted to financial-minded goals rather than personal ones. Although Valentini even considered pursuing fashion design, for her, knitting and crocheting remain a hobby.

“I think knitting and crocheting takes way too long for me to actually make enough product to rationally monetize it,” Valentini wrote. “I’m also the type of person who gets unreasonably stressed when my hobby becomes something I have to do for customers or money.”

While Jermilov has dabbled in commission work, he has decided for now to leave the potential financial element out of the equation.

“While I would love to be able to live off of just knitting, I don't think I'd be able to do it, at least not if my income was coming primarily from physical pieces that I was creating,” Jermilov said. “Even if I had all the resources at my disposal, [...] once knitting moves from something that I'm doing because I feel like doing it, to something that I'm doing because I have to do it, my enjoyment of it tends to drop and quickly leads to a burnout.”

Jermilov sees designing patterns as a possible alternative to the labour required of small creators selling their work.

“I don't think I'd run into this same [burnout] problem if instead my income was coming from designing patterns and selling those instead of the actual physical pieces,” Jermilov said. “This way, I get to explore my creativity and try to push myself as a creator and also get a bit of renewable income from it.”

In a world saturated with fast-fashion, sustainable alternatives have proliferated as brands attempt to cash in on the trend. Handmade goods offer a way to support small creators, but are not feasible for all.

“I think it would be really great if handmade goods became the norm, but it can often be just as financially inaccessible as sustainably branded companies,” Lau wrote. “Handmade goods are having a difficult time competing with fast-fashion brands because they have devalued the true cost of clothes. Because of that, people are not able to afford or willing to pay for handmade goods even if they are an investment and support small businesses.”

Valentini agrees and suggests supplementing sustainable brands with one’s own creations.

“When you know how much time it takes to design, make a pattern, buy the right fabric, and sew the garment, you understand where the cost [of sustainable fashion] is coming from,” Valentini wrote. “Try your hand at making your own stuff! It’s so rewarding and endlessly fun.”

The act of crafting is a solitary one, yet for many, gifting their finished projects is the most rewarding aspect. The joy of giving is a unique type of gratification—not only is the crafter dedicating time and effort into a gift tailored specifically for the recipient, the knowledge that it is handmade makes it infinitely more valuable. Despite the amount of work, there is definite fulfillment in having a new plushie or scarf and in the process of creation itself.

“I usually create things for myself because oftentimes they're super intricate pieces of clothing that take me months to finish, which results in feelings of attachment,” Valentini wrote. “When I make crochet plushies though, I always give them as gifts. Something super cute like a tiny penguin always puts a big smile on someone’s face!”

Crocheting and knitting do not just feed the creative soul: Some studies suggest that knitting can boost cognitive function, manage chronic pain, and improve mental health.

“I continue [knitting and crocheting] because it takes my mind off of everything that’s happening in the world and in my life, and in the end, it’s also an esteemable act,” Valentini wrote. “Knitting or crocheting something really cool and being able to say, ‘I made that!’ is a tiny joy that really makes a world of a difference.”

I’ve used crocheting as a coping mechanism myself when my Oma passed just before I started ninth grade. My hooks and yarn held memories now tinged bittersweet. In an effort to process the loss, I decided to finish a striped blanket I had found in her house. Completing the last couple of rows and stitching around the perimeter, I felt connected to her in a way that provided closure without pain. Eventually my grief subsided, but I remain grateful for this skill she passed on to me. I continue to make my own projects today.

“There's no deep meaning behind why I always come back to knitting,” Jermiov said. “Ultimately, it's just a fun activity that allows me a creative outlet, and for now, that's all I need it to be.”

Design by Chloe Rodriguez.