The crafting of utility items is as old as humankind. And women, particularly, have always been drawn to create decorative 
spaces. In spiritual life, mandalas have been made since early times to serve as tools for practice and as representation of the universe. Aside from these values, arts and crafts also have interesting psychological benefits and social purposes. Also, brain researchers tell us that craft activities serve us well neurologically.

One of the interesting angles for viewing craft is as an avenue of self-assertion and protest. 
A fifty-one-year-old voice-hearing woman called Agnes Richter was admitted to a German state asylum at Hubertusberg in 1895. She died there in 1918 at the age of seventy-four. A seamstress in her pre-hospital life, Agnes used her time on a locked ward to create a most intriguing jacket from her institutional garment. On the inside it is tightly embroidered with an indecipherable narrative, coiled in the cursive script of the late nineteenth century. The jacket is described and thought about by psychology professor and biographer Gail Hornstein in Agnes's Jacket (2009), in the context of patients who have sought to record their stories, sometimes in disguise. Whatever Agnes's story, or her protest or lament, she wore it close to her body, protecting it from the evaluative scrutiny, the close monitoring and diagnostic pronouncement, and the deprivation of small wonders that would have been her lot as a mental patient. "The text on Agnes's jacket is not neat", says Hornstein (2009: 259), "It is not feminine. It is an angry testimony" stitched liberally with the words "I" and "mine". How the self must want reclaiming in the catastrophe of theft that madness brings! The jacket remains preserved at a museum in Heidelberg.

Also in the vein of protest, 'craftivism' was the term coined by Betsy Greer in 2003 as part of a feminist re-evaluation of women's craft work and a process of collective empowerment. It was in this context that the "knit-in" came to be, with knitters occupying public spaces to knit as a form of protest and to bring attention to social issues. 

Before this, Ghandi had used the spinning and weaving of cotton cloth as a political tool to challenge colonial values 
and exploitative modern manufacture. With this, the traditional spinning wheel became a symbol of freedom for the Indian people (Brown and Fee: 2008). 

The contemporary practice of yarn bombing in urban spaces began in the US and is now 
practised worldwide. Its purpose can be decorative or its initiatives can be part of charity drives. Significantly, it is also used as an activist tool to protest and raise consciousness about all manner of social and environmental issues (Knit one, purl one: 2014).

An innovative use of knitting once caught my eye in a Muizenberg coffee-and-bakery shop on a winter's afternoon. A woollen scarf on needles was placed at the front of the shop, with a friendly invitation to patrons to knit their bit, so that the finished garment - and subsequent ones - could be distributed to warm up the winter for people in need.

Craft is also an avenue for play, a salient capacity for our development and wellbeing. “It is in playing and only in playing," said 
British psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott, "that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality Quotes).

Craft can be a generational binder, and an ingredient of nurturance. Initial curiosity and apprenticeship in crafts often happens at the patient elbow of a grandparent. When
 hearing people's relational histories, I sometimes notice how the fallout for children from neglectful parenting was tempered by grandparents or other relatives who taught and mentored a cherished craft. In these cases shared crafting activity has been a forge for a vital sustaining relationship. 

Archway, The Owl House, Nieu Bethesda By Kim Stevens 
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Artist-crafters sometimes leave intriguing creations that once served as their private world-within-the-world. South Africa's Helen Martins created the Owl House at her home in the small Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda in the 40's - 70s, literally shreading herself in the making of crushed glass-encrusted walls, offset by dazzling mirror pieces that were placed to reflect light in the ways that pleased her. Her work has been richly described within the genre of outsider art (Ross: 1997). Neither Helen Martins - a teacher by profession, nor the men who helped her - who were labourers by trade - were defined as artists at the time. And like many a crafter, they made use of everyday materials that were readily available (mainly glass and cement) to create an extraordinary space of art. "This is my world" is the handworked explanation that appears at the Camel Yard, Helen Martin's outdoor section comprising hundreds of sculptures. Ironically, the very sanctuary that sheltered her unusual and reclusive life also attracted a good deal of curiosity and spectatorship. In a small conservative town like Nieu Bethesda, her creations were bound to lure onlookers, commentators and disparagers.

Nek Chand Garden By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Nek Chand Garden)
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via 
Wikimedia Commons

In India, Nek Chand crafted an 11 hectare rock garden in a secret clearing in a forest over a period of 18 years. He used mainly 
discarded debris from the city of Chandigarh to mosaic-decorate his sculptures. He too had no formal training in the arts, and spent his days in an average job as a transport official (Baird: 2005: 12). The remarkable 'garden' was discovered in 1975 and is now a tourist hot-spot. My fantasy is that Nek Chand's real work happened after hours, when he came alive as an expressive and imaginative person, fully immersed in his great creative task. Why, I wonder, did he keep it secret? Perhaps the identities of transport worker and artist felt insufficiently compatible? Perhaps he needed a secret space in which to reveal his artist person to himself. Secrecy, though, can also be a form of protest and self-empowerment. 

Historically, crafts have been closely linked with formation of collectives and collective power. The guilds of 
crafters established in the Middle Ages found their strength in the collective rather than in the individual. People of particular crafts banded together and were able to gain control of the production and marketing of their particular shared craft. Whilst craftspeople had little power as individuals, as collaborative groups they had considerable influence (Medieval Guilds: n.d).

Knitting has been called the “new yoga” and considered to have a few things in common with mindfulness. It's been shown to promote wellbeing, particularly for people who knit in groups. In a research study on knitting, UK-based knitting therapist Betsan Corkhill was able to correlate knitting with improved mood (Neuroscientist Explains: n.d.).

A 'knitting therapist' of a different order was Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund and a leading figure in international psychoanalysis, 
also one of the first child analysts. She is said to have had a very natural way with her analysands, and she sometimes knitted during their sessions. Psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist Erik Erikson was one of the knitted-with patients during his training analysis with Anna Freud. She also gave him a hand-knitted jersey for his newborn baby (Casey: 1991). I wonder what that was like for him ...

Brain science studies show that crafting can reduce the risk of brain deterioration. A study by Yonas Geda and others (2011) found 
that doing crafts such as knitting and quilting, or other activities such as computer use, playing games, reading books, and watching less TV, were associated with 30 - 50% reduced odds of having Mild Cognitive Impairment, which is the stage between the cognitive changes associated with normal ageing and dementia.

In a web article on the unexpected benefits of crafting, Christina Frank (2016) refers to other small-scale studies demonstrating the value 
of crafting for people living with eating disorders and chronic pain.  

The benefits of crafting could be linked with a state of "flow", suggests Jacque Wilson (2015) in a CNN article. Flow is the focused mental 
state of being fully immersed in what one is doing, and living more fully whist in that state, an idea first described by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

And then there's the question of the environment. On an individual scale, when we select materials judiciously, crafting becomes 
useful as a non-wasteful upcycling venture. But on a much larger scale, says Indian goldsmith Uzramma (2014), because of the massive damage done to the environment by industrial production, there is now a great opportunity for craft production to repossess, in sustainable ways, some of its former economic importance.


Baird, H. (2005). The Complete Practical Guide to Mosaics. London: Hermes House.

Brown, T.M. and Fee, E. (2008). Spinning for India’s Independence. In American Journal of Public Health. 2008 January; 98(1): 39. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from

David Wolfe website. (n.d.). Neuroscientist Explains Why Crafting Is Great For Mental HealthRetrieved August 26, 2016, from

Frank, C. (2016) The Unexpected Benefits of CraftingRetrieved August 26, 2016, from

Geda, Y. (2011). Engaging in Cognitive Activities, Aging and Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Population-Based Study. In Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences Volume 23, Issue 2, Spring 2011 pp 149-154. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from

Hornstein, G.A. (2009). Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meaning of Madness. New York: Rodale.

Ross, J.I. (1997). This is my world. The life of Helen Martins, creator of the Owl House. Cape Town: Oxford University Press Southern Africa.

Casey, C. (1991). Review of How Four Good 'Mothers' Changed Analysis: MOTHERS OF PSYCHOANALYSIS: Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein by Janet Sayers, W. W. Norton & Co. In Los Angeles Times October 22, 1991. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from

State University of New York at Oneonta Arts College Website: Medieval Guilds and Craft ProductionRetrieved August 26, 2016, from

The Conversation Africa website (March 5, 2014). Knit one, purl one: the mysteries of yarn bombing unravelled. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from

Uzramma. (2014). The Spirit of Craft. Convocation Address delivered at Indian Institute of Craft and Design, Jaipur. In The Encyclopedia of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from

Wikipedia on Craftism. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from

Wilson, J. (2015). This is your brain on crafting. CNN. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from

Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality Quotes on Goodreads website. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from