Knitting isn’t just fun, it develops neural pathways that lead to physical and mental benefits. That’s what knitter and immunologist Ellen B. Rubin, Luv2Knit & More shop creative director, intuited. And now research supports it – knitting (and other hands-on crafts) are good for you! Ellen’s shop, and the non-profit organization, Therapeutic Crafters on Call, encourage active knitters and help beginners of all ages get started in a supportive, Covid-safe environment. So pick up some yarn and needles to boost your dopamine and lower your blood pressure!
How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Even as a young child, I discovered that I needed to be creative just as much as I needed to breathe. I was always making things as a child, but my creative path was quite circuitous. As a senior in high school, I was an art and a biology major. I decided to primarily focus on the biological sciences but continued to dabble in the arts on the side by making jewelry and working as a clown.
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I found that inherently I had to be creative with whatever I was working on. One even has to be creative as a scientist to troubleshoot problems or with basic laboratory techniques. With regard to knitting, I learned how to knit much later in my life as an adult. My creative path has evolved over the years, but creativity has always been within my person.
Who or what are your main influences and inspirations?
All knitters and crocheters have been my primary influence because the skills build upon one another. I love books, reading, and I’ve always really loved learning. I’m inspired by a lot of different people in a lot of different fields.
Elizabeth Zimmermann is a big influence with her interesting construction methods, and also her daughter, Meg Swansen, with her technical expertise. Kaffe Fassett is also a big inspiration with his use of color. Norah Gaughan, a biologist who started designing knitted work that incorporates the repeating patterns that you see in nature.
Leonardo Bonacci or Fibonacci was a mathematician of the Middle Ages who discovered the mathematical sequence known as a Fibonacci sequence is one of my favorite influences. I have some designs which utilize Fibonacci because it is very pleasing to the eye with its repeating sequence. It frequently appears in the arrangement of flowers and leaves and elsewhere in nature.
Why knitting? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
What is great about knitting and crochet is that it fulfills multiple purposes. Not only can you be creative by thinking outside of the box and design something unique, but most importantly, it is portable, its tactile nature is very pleasing, and you use both of your hands. Bimanual activities are very good for the brain. I have a project with me at all times just in case there is some spare time.
Knitting also engages other people. If I’m sitting at the airport or sitting in a park, people come by and say, “Hey, what are you doing?”, it brings up other conversations and inevitably leads me to learn more about other people, too. Additionally, it lends itself to community-based endeavors like making items for charity. There are always people that need clothing. Handmade items are cherished because there is love and care woven into the items. This past winter, I was handing out hats and scarves to homeless individuals in Philadelphia. Their eyes light up when they feel cared for.
Knitting is also analogous to life in many ways, and I incorporate that when I teach, too.
What is Therapeutic Crafters on Call, and did the idea come to you fully formed or did it evolve gradually?
Therapeutic Crafters on Call is the non-profit division of our brick-and-mortar store and our e-commerce store, Luv2Knit & More. We work to serve different individuals and different populations that can benefit primarily from knitting and crochet and other handcrafts. We currently have helped autistic individuals, cancer patients, foster children in Philadelphia, young adults with social and emotional difficulties, maternity patients on long term bed rest, nurses and support staff at a local hospital to prevent compassion fatigue (prior to Covid), therapy patients that have been resistant to traditional therapy. The nonprofit and store work has been an intensely collaborative process. I came up with the initial idea and the nonprofit has manifested with immensely dedicated volunteers. The work of both organizations is similar in that the primary purpose of both is to teach individuals for the therapeutic benefits.
My goal was to set up a nonprofit but ultimately came to the conclusion that the only way for the non-profit to be successful was for me to set up a brick-and-mortar store because I needed to teach people how to teach! I also needed to find these individuals who would actively want to participate in the non-profit division. My thought was that just like other nonprofit organizations, there would be people who were retired, semi-retired, didn’t work or only worked part-time in relevant fields that would want to be a part of this new concept. So, the store opened, and I started the outreach programs prior to applying for the nonprofit division. This also allowed me to do a proof-of-concept model to see if what I believed people needed, actually was needed.
My idea evolved gradually and coalesced with different observations. It all started with me volunteering to teach knitting to some people at the preschool that my kids went to. I had participated in a craft show there for the holidays. I got such a large response to make hand-knit items that it was impossible for me to make everything. So, I offered to the parents of the students, as well as the preschool teachers that I would teach them how to knit. When I did that, I found that I really LOVED teaching.
Eventually, I was asked to run an enrichment program for children at our local elementary school where my kids attended. Part of that, of course, was for me to teach kids how to knit. It was magical to see how much it affected them. At the same time, I was also teaching at five local knitting and crochet stores. What I was seeing from my interaction with people and because of my scientific training, I noticed how beneficial knitting was for people.
Additionally, when my dear friend Sheryl had cancer, I taught her how to knit and it benefitted her substantially. She could get lost in her knitting and could focus on other things than her current situation.
Talk with us a bit more about the benefits of crafting by hand. How do activities such as knitting, embroidery, quilting, beading, ceramics and woodworking contribute to one’s well-being during difficult times?
My elevator speech to everyone I meet is that crafting (especially knitting and crochet) helps with stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, drug and alcohol addiction, grief, compassion fatigue and more. We can focus on something other than our internal and external stressors. Aside from producing something and being able to utilize or donate it, I had heard that knitting and crocheting was meditative. You get into the meditative zone which is called flow. Eventually, you get into this flow state where you’re just in a very relaxed state of mind. (Of course, there is the initial frustration curve of learning something new.) The more that you practice knitting and crocheting and crafting, you start thinking inherently differently. I like to describe it to people that you start to have more light-bulb moments.
And as an immunologist, I observed and interpreted what I saw scientifically but really wanted to know why people felt this way. Finally, after years of pondering what was actually going on, I found scientific research which substantiated my observations. When crafting, the brain produces neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. And when under stress your body produces high levels of cortisol from your adrenal glands. These high levels are detrimental to your health. Lower levels of cortisol are good for your immune system.
Crafting also lowers your blood pressure and your heart rate. So those are all very good, tangible things good for your body. At a biological level, it is assisting you in a very holistic way. The mind and the body are connected in very intimate ways. Furthermore, I believe that these changes assist with your brain making new neurons and new connections with existing ones and that of course is very helpful.
As an example, I had one student who had very invasive surgery. After the surgery, I received a Christmas letter stating that the young woman, who was in her 30s, could not read or watch TV but she could knit. And that made me think something’s going on here in the brain with neuroreceptors. Why could someone who’s had this major surgery be able to knit but not read or watch TV? I would love to see more scientific studies done and I have thought of some of those and actually proposed some to my alma mater, Drexel University
I also noticed that knitting and crochet was helping people who had experienced trauma, people who had drug and alcohol abuse, and many other conditions. So, the concept gradually evolved over many years of planning prior to the desire to set up a non-profit where we would help other individuals. Eventually, I realized that I was using knitting during a difficult period in my life, which helped me get through a traumatic experience.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’d have to say it’s a combination of both. There are certain fundamental things that must be planned, for instance, if designing a sweater, I need to plan some very basic fundamental things like, “Is it going to have a raglan sleeve?” or “Is it going to be a set-in sleeve?”, or “Do I want a drop shoulder?”
I also like to improvise. I will find a yarn that I want for a particular project and the yarn kind of speaks to me in the sense that I can look at it and say, “I think it will look good with this pattern, or this stitch,” depending upon if it’s marled or solid, the ply and the fiber content.
I’ll have little light-bulb moments, and sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, and you rip out your work. It’s like life, sometimes you just have to try things out.
If we asked a good friend of yours to describe your work, what would they say?
I think they would say my work is outside of the box and that I am an intuitive teacher. I have been told that I am very observant. And I will be the first one to confess that I don’t know everything about knitting or crochet because there’s always something new. But I think they would say that my work is very creative.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have one space in particular in my apartment where I have lots and lots of books. Some parts are neat and other parts are disorganized. So, it’s very organic I should say. I basically converted my dining room into a little studio.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I have a lot of knitting needles, knitting needles and crochet hooks in both metal and wood. I have preferences for different needles because different fibers react differently with different materials.
There might be a certain project where I like to use a brushed nickel needle with a sharp tip or another one that I like to use with a very smooth metal needle, or I just want to work entirely with wood. I have lots of locking stitch markers. They are an indispensable tool for knitters and crocheters. They’re great for picking up a drop stitch, marking where you have to do something like an increase or decrease or even in the process of putting together a sweater.
I also utilize colored pencils so that I can sketch out designs, as well as for designing a unique blanket for customers, I sketch out what it’s going to look like and lay things out visually. Additionally, I have a rather large yarn stash with all different types of yarn.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I use a sketchbook and a journal. More often, I use just a little sketchbook and sometimes just a piece of paper because I might have an inspiration and not have a sketchbook beside me. Pieces of paper help my work develop because I’ll need to make little notes and sketches and frequently calculations. And a lot of times, things are just in my head, but I have a very good memory for something that I see. I’m very — not surprisingly — visual.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Sometimes, I like complete silence so I can focus. A lot of times, I will have music in the background. My musical selections are very eclectic. It ranges the gamut from very serene, Enya, classical music, all the way to pop, funk and punk. It’s probably no surprise that I listen to science podcasts frequently.
If I’m doing routine knitting where I’m going to be working for a while, I will watch a movie or documentary.
The other thing that I do that some people find interesting is that I can knit without looking at my work. So, sometimes I actually read and knit. It was a necessity when my kids were young. I wanted to keep my eyes on them when they were on the playground. So, I said to myself, “Let me knit one stitch without looking, then let me knit two stitches without looking.”
So eventually, I taught myself how to do that which then benefited me when I was teaching somebody who had no vision in one eye and only partial vision in the other to knit. One can knit by just feeling the stitches.
What kinds of creative projects are your favorites?
I love to create something where I’m learning something new or doing something different. I am definitely more of a process knitter than a product knitter. You can never get bored with knitting or crochet. Some people just like to make scarves or make hats and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for me, I like to challenge myself to try something new and to learn something new. So, it really could be anything that I’m trying to develop or design something different. The most creative project I made was an entrelac hat designed by Kathryn Alexander.
Who is the most creative person that you have ever known?
Within the field of knitting and crochet that would be Elizabeth Zimmermann who lived to be almost 90. She created designs that were outside of the box and were composed in unusual manners. She was an extremely creative woman. Also, the books she wrote were extremely funny. One of the funniest laugh-out-loud books is Knitting Without Tears.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Both. Some people are naturally inclined, with a genetic predisposition to be creative, but I believe that creativity can also be learned. I’ve seen it first-hand, how people become more creative over time, and I believe this is especially important for children. In fact, at Waldorf schools, knitting is a part of the curriculum. It teaches creativity, eye and hand coordination, simple and difficult math, sensory integration and more. This is important for a young developing mind. Unfortunately, many school programs have been cut which I believe will hinder creativity in children in the future.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
They can overcome it by trying something outside of their comfort zone. Just like riding a bike, learning something new is not something that you’re just going to pick up immediately. With knitting and crochet, I explain that their hands, muscles, and tendons all have to get used to doing these motions. So I like to give a lot of positive reinforcement and explain that I found knitting very frustrating in the beginning. I give a lot of tips and tricks to remember different techniques.
To enhance your creative abilities, you have to push yourself, just like anything in life. A lot of times you learn things when you encounter challenges in your life. But when you push yourself, then you can overcome these things and you have abilities that you didn’t think you necessarily possessed.
Also, I like to say that if you’re uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily bad. Stretch yourself and try new things. And don’t give up too easily. Give yourself the time to be patient with yourself. People say to me, “I don’t have the patience to knit.” And I reply, “No, knitting is what can make you patient. If you’re not a patient person, don’t discount that you can’t learn how to be patient.”
If you were no longer able to use the medium that you are now working in, how else would you express your creativity?
I’d probably go back to making jewelry or drawing. I really enjoyed scientific drawing when I was in college.
Making glass beads is another medium I enjoy. Working with molten glass and a blow torch can be very mesmerizing. I had to put glass bead-making tools away when my son was young because I was concerned that he might blow up the house since he was into everything.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I both lecture and teach workshops. Soon I will be speaking at Drexel University for a Materials and Processes in Art Therapy class. I’ve talked also at other events like the local Rotary Club, the Women of Willow Grove and the Kiwanis Club.
I teach workshops all the time, primarily at the store but also offsite. Because of COVID, I have a HEPA air cleaner, and I allow fewer people in a class. I also give Zoom lessons.
Individuals can get in touch with me by calling the brick-and-mortar store at 267-886-2000, or they can email us at [email protected]
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
We have two websites, one for the non-profit and one for the store. The store, Luv2Knit & More, website is www.luv2knitandmore.com, and the nonprofit, Therapeutic Crafters on Call, is www.therapeuticcraftersoncall.org.
I hope people will gain when visiting either site is to take a look and consider picking up and learning how to knit or crochet for the therapeutic benefit, for themselves, or for someone they know. They can create something that will be cherished for themselves or someone they love. I hope they will understand that it is not just that knitting – and crochet – is meditative, but it is so much more; it’s actually helping their body, helping their soul, and helping their mind.
On the nonprofit website, we list the scientific benefits of knitting and crochet with links to studies. I truly believe that if more people knitted or crocheted that the world would be a better place, and you can learn too!
For more information on Therapeutic Crafters on Call, contact Yolanda Pressley, Managing Director at 267-908-4981.
Interview posted October 2021
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