I was listening to the Woolful podcast recently and the interviewee said something that really got me thinking.
We used to make, to mend, because it was a necessity to life, Now, I'm seeing more and more, people are making to mend their bodies and their minds. It's a therapy....
I re-started crocheting and knitting in 2008, when my husband was in the hospital for six weeks following surgery. I learned to knit and crochet in childhood, but hadn't touched it in years. However, I was starting to go a bit stir-crazy sitting by his hospital bed, and I suddenly thought, "I could be crocheting!" I made time to pick up a pattern book with instructions to refresh my memory, and some yarn, and it's been a constant ever since.
I think it's historically been common for women to work on their handwork when sitting at the bedside of a sick person. Of course, historically, women always had sewing, mending, etc. needing done; I've seen an old photograph taken somewhere in Scandinavia showing young women knitting as they walked across the fields. Because it's not that long ago that if anyone were going to have warm socks or sweaters in the winter, someone had to knit them. If you were going to have clothes, someone had to sew them by hand. You had to take every opportunity to work on clothing items, when you weren't churning butter or washing your pots & pans & dishes by hand.
Most of us wouldn't want to go back to the days when all but the very wealthy HAD to be makers to survive. We like that our knitting, crocheting, spinning, etc. is a leisure activity. But more than that, like Tif Fussel I'm hearing many makers say that it's benefiting them in certain ways.
Evidence is growing that needle arts are good for the brain. It may even delay the onset of dementia. Simple knitting can serve to help you pay attention in meetings and such---see Cognitive Anchoring by Heather Ordover. There's even a book called Crochet Saved My Life. People are crediting handcrafts with emotional healing.
And yet, I doubt the old hand-knitters of the Yorkshire Dales considered knitting therapeutic. They churned out socks, gloves, and fisherman's sweaters day and night for pennies per item to supplement their meager incomes (until the industrial revolution put them out of business) .
So how did knitting go from drudgery to the magic cure-all?
I think the transformation of western economies to where so many of us are knowledge workers of one stripe or another, where all of our work is done with a keyboard and a mouse, is no more good for us than any kind of excess. Staring at a screen all day starves a fundamental aspect of how we were created.
We were created to do and make things with our hands. Our brains as well as our bodies were wired for it. So when you've been neglecting this aspect of your inborn nature and then you start using it---it just feels good!
There's something about doing things with our hands that keeps us in tune. And we still need to think as well. We don't need to chuck everything else and just knit all day... what we need is balance.
Some people do have a calling to knit a lot, to design knitwear, and so forth. And those people should also spend some time doing other things that aren't knitting. Like baking, balancing their budgets, bicycling. You can get a repetitive stress injury from knitting as surely as from keyboarding. Those Yorkshire knitters could have used a break from knitting; alas, they were in survival mode.
We modern denizens of Ravelry, and other makers, occupy a unique position in the history of humanity. Yes, we have to specialize to earn a living--but we don't usually have to work day and night at that specialty. We can earn enough in 40 hours a week to give our leisure time over to something that exercises other capacities. It is actually possible for us to have some balance.
So actually, becoming a maker isn't some kind of salvation. It's just a way to wake up a part of your brain that might have been atrophying. Be grateful for it, sure. But don't elevate it overmuch.