What is “therapeutic knitting”?

Is “therapeutic knitting” a real thing?  Is it different than everyday knitting?


The term “therapeutic knitting” was first used by Betsan Corkhill, a British physiotherapist with a focus on “whole person health.”  In order to get scientists to pay attention to knitting, she described it as a “rhythmic, bilateral, midline crossing psychosocial intervention.”

Any activity that is bilateral and crosses the midline uses up a lot of bandwidth in the brain.  Research has shown that Alzheimers and dementia both are more likely to develop when the brain isn’t challenged.  The phrase “use it or lose it” is seems  to describe the progressive loss of cognitive function, so bilateral and midline crossing is important.

Secondly, research has also shown that we can grow new neurons in the brain, along with increasing the amount of interconnections between neurons, if we continue to “use it.”

What does this mean for knitters?

All kinds of good news for our brain health!  There are so many techniques, patterns, yarns, etc.  Knitters are always learning.  This is fantastic for retaining our mental faculties.

If knitting, without any conscious effort on anyone’s part, is so great what’s the difference between plain ol’ knitting and “therapeutic knitting?”

What then, is therapeutic knitting?

Ms. Corkhill says that there is a meaningful difference between them because therapeutic knitting involves intentionally using knitting to address a variety of health issues.  It does not seem to involve approaching knitting any differently in terms of technique or materials, beyond making sure the yarn feels good, something I am in complete agreement with.

She also says that therapeutic knitting can be valuable for those who are currently healthy.  I’m less clear on how she expects this to work, although she points out that visualization, a common knitter’s activity, changes brain chemistry.

Of course, it’s easier to learn to knit while you’re healthy, so maybe if you learn to knit solely for the health benefits it’s “therapeutic knitting?”

Meditative-like or Meditative?

Ms. Corkhill is surprisingly reluctant to call knitting a form of meditation.  Instead she calls it “meditative like.”

The results are in.  Knitting induces the relaxation response in the body.  Knitting causes the brain to produce alpha waves, just like mindfulness meditation, yoga and taiji.  Knitting is meditative, when we want it to be.

Perhaps it’s hard for Ms. Corkhill to accept that knitting can be a form of meditation because knitting requires movement.

The truth is that anything can be done as a meditation.  Walking meditation, and other forms of moving meditation, have been recognized for centuries in cultures with long meditation traditions.

The difference between, say cleaning the toilet meditatively, and knitting meditatively, is that it’s much easier to reach a meditative state with the latter, for obvious reasons.  Knitting’s great advantage is that its pretty easy to reach a meditative state when you’re doing something that’s rhythmic, comfortable, and by it’s nature, requires and supports just the right amount of attention.

Open Attention & a Sense Of Humor

Like other forms of meditation, knitting requires a certain amount of focus while allowing thoughts to pass freely through the mind.  This is called open attention.

The reason open attention is important is because it allows us to calmly contemplate our emotional baggage.  It seems that because knitting is a “rhythmic, balateral, midline crossing” activity, it keeps the brain too busy to get caught up in the emotions we might otherwise attach to our thoughts.

Perhaps because the brain capacity is occupied with the physical aspects of knitting, thoughts that may normally be emotionally charged come and go without provoking a more stressful response. This can allow knitters to process these thoughts in a more relaxed fashion that carries over to non-knitting times.

Humor isn’t mentioned by Ms. Betsan, but I have a theory.  I think knitting promotes the ability to laugh at oneself.  I suggest this because of the large amount of silly knitting terminology and silly knitting patterns out there.  As a group, knitters laugh at themselves a lot.  Laughter is good for your health, too.


Although we feel pain in specific locations, usually, the reality is that pain is determined by the brain.  Neurons send signals to the brain, which interprets these signals as pain.  If the brain doesn’t receive the signals, or interprets them differently, than we don’t experience pain.

Because of knitting’s bilateral, midline crossing characteristics, it takes up a lot of brainpower.  This is theorized to be how knitting distracts from pain.   The brain is so busy working on the knitting, it simply can’t process the pain signals coming in from the body.

There are many types of pain.  Chronic pain involves a wide variety of factors, some of them more emotional, social or cultural than physical.  Once again, knitting comes to the rescue.

I’m not convinced.

I have no doubt about the health benefits of knitting, but they’ve been there all along.  Maybe scientists need a special term to go along with a “rhythmic, bilateral, midline crossing psychosocial intervention,” but their needs don’t change anything about knitting.

Knitting has always given us the relaxation response.  It’s always been psychosocial in nature.  All the other wonderful health benefits and characteristics have always been there.

“Therapeutic knitting, ” as Betsan Corkhill describes it, is not significantly different.  It just sounds better to researchers and insurance companies.


If Ms. Corkhill can get my health insurance company to buy me yarn and needles, I will call it whatever they want!

What do you think?  Am I being fair to Ms. Corkhill?  Did I miss something in her description of “therapeutic knitting?”  Let me know in the comments section below!

2 thoughts on “What is “therapeutic knitting”?”

  1. I’m often on boring, large group conference calls for work, knitting is perfect for balancing my attention. If I don’t have knitting, I start checking emails or something and tune out of the meeting. With knitting, I keep the restless part of my brain happy without losing track of the conversation on my computer.

    • Hi Kate, I love the way you describe it – that knitting keeps the “restless part” of your brain happy so you can focus. Maybe someday employers will appreciate how knitting helps their employees!

      Thanks for stopping by!



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