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Needlework saved my mother’s life. Literally.

Posted by on Tuesday, September 6, 2022 in Uncategorized.

Laura Carpenter is a 2022-2023 RPW Center Faculty Fellow. This year’s group is exploring the theme of “Mending and Transforming.”

Needlework saved my mother’s life. Literally.

On a Monday evening in February 2021, I got a text from one of my mom’s cronies. Carole hadn’t logged on to Zoom with her crochet and knitting group that afternoon and she wasn’t answering her phone. Did I know if she was okay?

Zoom “Stitchin’ Time” was a highlight of Mom’s social calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic, a definite do-not-miss on Monday afternoons. But hadn’t she mentioned a doctor’s appointment when we’d chatted over the weekend? Fiercely independent but increasingly frail at 82, Mom carried a cell phone for emergencies but refused to turn it on, much less answer it. A handful of previous disappearances had turned out to be simply shopping excursions or watching TV with the volume so loud she couldn’t hear the phone. I called and left a message, then went to bed.

By mid-day Tuesday, I was worried. My mother lives alone, 700 miles away from me. In the past, I’d been able to check in with her neighbors, but one family had just moved away, and the other was out of town. I phoned the local police department to request a wellness check. They found Mom on her bathroom floor, too weak to stand or even crawl to the phone. Thirty-six hours had passed since she had tripped getting into the shower. The water—now cold—was still running when the EMT team arrived.

Fortunately, Mom recovered and continued to enjoy her weekly virtual get-togethers with her fellow needleworkers. For my part, I decided to delve deeper into questions I had already begun to ask, as a social scientist (and passionate knitter), about the life-enhancing effects of practices like needlework and the social relationships they foster and sustain.

I had been thinking about these issues since the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when my colleague, Cynthia Gadsden, and I noticed each other knitting (me) and crocheting (her) during an online workshop. An art historian at Tennessee State University, Cynthia shared my suspicion that needlework could be life-saving—albeit typically in ways less dramatic than my mom’s experience. For one thing, many needleworkers seem to approach their craft as a kind of meditative embodied practice, good for soothing the soul. Others tout the supportive communities—social threads—that emerge among fiber artists, even in times of isolation.

Still, our evidence was anecdotal. Surprisingly little research explores the health and social effects of doing needlework, despite the incredible popularity of practices like knitting, crochet, needlepoint, embroidery, and cross-stitch. Cynthia and I decided to design a study to learn more.

Our project, Strings & Yarns: Needleworkers Forming Community through Creativity, Connections, and Stories, is a collaborative, interdisciplinary investigation of the experiences of people who knit or crochet. With funding from a Mellon Partners for Humanities Education Collaboration Grant, we constructed an original online survey and a guide for one-on-one qualitative interviews. The data we are gathering will help us document how needlecraft has helped people to sustain themselves emotionally and to (re)activate and maintain social networks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally we seek to learn how social factors shape needlework networks and practices more generally, and to chart how needlework facilitates knowledge transfer across social groups. For example, we expect that certain key individuals are critical in “stitching” these groups together. In addition, this study will contribute to an emerging body of research on social responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and shed light on reactions to massive social disruptions more generally.

So far, we have gathered 77 survey responses, and we hope to add another 75+ by the end of the year. The first of 40 intended one-on-one interviews will be conducted this fall. Our online exhibit showcasing participants’ needlework creations and sharing key insights from our research is currently under construction. We plan to write at least two articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals, one from a social science perspective, the other rooted in art history. Stay tuned for more!

 

Laura M. Carpenter, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Sociology. An expert on gender, sexuality, and health over the life course, she is author of Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences (NYU Press, 2005) and coeditor of Sex for Life: From Virginity to Viagra, How Sexuality Changes Throughout our Lives (NYU Press, 2012). She is currently completing two books, one about public controversies over male circumcision, the other about road trips and family stories. Her newest project explores how needlecraft, like knitting and crochet, helps people form and sustain social relationships. Her research has received support from the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Aging, Social Science Research Council, and National Institutes of Health.