Late last summer my cousin gave me an antique copy of Longmans' Complete Course of Needlework, Knitting and Cutting Out, which was written by a Miss T.M. James and published in 1906. The course is complete, all right. Its 452 pages contain instructions for every kind of hand sewing. From basic stitches (i.e., tucking, pleating, and herring-boning), to ornamental stitches (i.e., hem stitching and scallops), to lesser-used techniques (i.e., french seams, smocking, and "gathering for shirtwaists"), to mending (i.e., patching in flannel and calico-patching), to darning (i.e., fixing stocking ladders and setting a "breakfast-cut darn"), instructions on how to cut out a garment (such as chemises, drawers or knickerbockers, nightgowns, pinafores, flannel petticoats and combinations), to drills in basic skills such as how to wear a thimble (no less than seven illustrations are provided to enlighten the reader on this crucial maneuver), this book can tell the reader everything she or he ever wanted to know about hand sewing and more.
The knitting section of this book contains absurdly detailed instructions on how to hold a knitting needle, a dissertation on "the parts of a stocking", some lace stitch patterns, and patterns for a man's stocking and a boy's stocking, mittens, cuffs or wristlets, mufflers, babies' boots, babies's gloves, babies's shirt, a hug-me-tight, a school cap, "knee-caps", "washing gloves", knitted cord (which the book assures the reader is suitable for use as a stay lace), a "kilt pattern for petticoat", a woolen comforter or three-cornered shawl, and a raised leaf pattern for a quilt. There are no illustrations of finished items given for these patterns, so how they'll look when done is anyone's guess.
Then, too, Miss T.M. James offers us her cast-iron opinions on the importance of needlework skills. She states in the introduction that "one of the essentials of good wifehood and motherhood is to know how to use the needle, and apply it in everyday use, for the benefit of others as well as themselves, and in this way to cultivate the Christian grace of unselfishness", that "by following and perfecting themselves in womanly and home accomplishments, they will be doing their part in life's great problem as effectually as any heroine of whom they may have read or heard", and that when teaching needlework to the young, "not only lessons in the subject itself will be given, but a deep and lasting moral training in habits of thrift, observation, comparison, exactness, construction, and economy".
Even though I don't expect I'll ever need to cut out a flannel petticoat or patch any calico, there is quite a lot of useful information in this book and so it has its place in the bookcase that holds all my knitting and sewing patterns and crafting reference books. Hand sewing techniques haven't changed much at all in the past century, though of course we now use them to add details to machine-sewn garments that don't much resemble those worn in 1906. I am glad, however, that I don't have to rely on this book for knitting instructions and patterns. I have not only The Ultimate Knitting Book published by Vogue Knitting and other knitting instruction books that offer much clearer instructions and photos in my bookcase, but also a host of online resources that include YouTube videos and the incredible resource that is Ravelry. Knitting and crafting instruction has gone high-tech and easy access in the last century.
The way we think and talk about the intangible benefits of needlework has changed as radically as our access to technical information on how to knit. No one needs to know how to sew or knit these days, and understanding needlework isn't at all essential to being a good wife and mother. I wouldn't go any further than to say that it's a good idea for everyone, male or female, married or not, child-rearing or not, to learn how to sew on a button and change a hem and stitch a seam that's coming apart back together. Thankfully, we've stopped trying to convince women that being a good homemaker is her sole or highest possible purpose in life, and though there's still a huge gender divide in terms of who is most likely to take up needlework, we've at least stopped referring to it as a "womanly accomplishment".
I have fewer bones to pick when it comes to Miss James's argument that teaching needlework provides "a deep and lasting moral training in habits of thrift, observation, comparison, exactness, construction, and economy". I find parallels to this statement in modern discourse about knitting and other types of needlework. No one considers needlework "moral training" now, but it's fair to say learning needlework skills can give us money-saving options and can teach us to be more observant and detail-oriented.
These days anyone who writes about the benefits of knitting tends to point to peer-reviewed research studies rather than making such high-sounding sweeping statements. The Washington Post reports that scientific literature shows that hobbies such as "arts and crafts, music, meditation, home repairs and reading stimulates the mind, reduces the effects of stress-related diseases and slows cognitive decline". According to this CNN.com article, crafting is also unique among leisure-type activities for its ability to involve many different areas of the brain. Crafting not only employs memory and attention span but also visuospatial processing, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.
Those of us who knit have always known how enjoyable it is and how happy it makes us, but now scientists are investigating just how beneficial enjoying knitting can be. As mentioned in the Washington Post article, in a study of 38 anorexic women who were taught to knit, "74 percent of them reported less fear and preoccupation with their eating disorder, the same percentage reported that knitting had a calming effect, and just over half said knitting gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment". In another study, mentioned in this article by the Craft Yarn Council, that involved oncology nurses suffering from work-related burnout or "compassion fatigue", all the nurses studied showed improvement in terms of their "burnout scores".
Thinking back over my own 32 years of knitting, I can't say that knitting has improved my morals or made me a better wife or mother (probably because I never did get around to taking on either of those roles), but I will say it's given me a sense of accomplishment and confidence. I have long been very quick to tackle a new project in a medium I've never worked in before and am always bemused by those who think they can't learn to knit or do minor hands-on projects. At the age of ten I never doubted that I could learn to crochet because I'd already learned to knit at eight and how different or much harder could crocheting be? As time went on, I reasoned similarly about needlepoint, rug hooking, counted cross-stitch, embroidery, dressmaking, drawing, painting and other fine art mediums, stained glass, and then home renovation skills. Each new skill learned was another brick in the wall of my confidence, at least when it came to skills involving my working with my hands. (More holistic physical skills such as downhill skiing can still scare the crap out of me.)
Some people have said to me that knitting must teach self-discipline. I don't think it does, but then self-discipline is such a nebulous concept. Yes, I once kept doggedly (if intermittently) at a fingering weight fair isle sweater until I eventually finished it two years after I started it, but that was because I really wanted the finished sweater and I had the skills to get there eventually. There have been many times in my life when I've spent time knitting when that time should have been used attend to other things that were more important and pressing, such as my schoolwork, and while I suppose I exercise discipline in some areas of my life, such as finishing nearly every project I start, in other arenas I am quite disastrously the reverse. In my late twenties I had to make a rule that I would only let myself knit during time that would otherwise be non-productive: while watching TV or movies, during lunch break at work, while commuting or travelling, and while talking on the telephone, and I've kept that rule quite consistently for a dozen years or so, but I have yet to rein in my habit of aimless internet surfing.
Self-discipline is more a matter of strategy and planning and working with your own character's needs and motivations than it is about strength of character. The military is known for their discipline, and they don't hand their new recruits a list of tasks to be accomplished and expect them to use their inherent sterling worth to get everything done. Rather, the military organizes and regulates their soldiers' lives in nearly every respect, trains and drills them until whatever specific things they are required to do are nearly second nature, and expects everything to be done according to very specific rules and regulation and on a strict schedule. Knitting will teach knitting skills, is productive, eases stress, gives one a creative outlet, and instills a certain confidence and sense of achievement that makes a knitter generally more ready to tackle other things, but it won't help knitters to keep their houses clean, meet deadlines at work, write a novel, or be better parents, as those tasks require strategies and skills of their own.
And I hope by analyzing the personal development benefits of knitting I haven't take all the fun out of it for you, or come across as some sort of modern-day Miss T.M. James, who sounds to me like the type to rap knuckles if she sees someone isn't demonstrating proper thimble-wearing form. In the last analysis, we knitters don't need all these research studies to tell us what we've always known: that knitting is enormously pleasurable and a way for us to make beautiful, useful items for ourselves and for those we love.