Vintage EcoSalon: Using Your Hands to Soothe the Brain

Revisiting a series that launched a knitwear line, became required reading in some knitting groups, and even got a few off their meds.

When we launched Using Your Hands to Soothe the Brain last January, it was with the goal of educating people about the simple mental health value of keeping their hands moving. Whether knitting, sewing or weaving, chemical changes can in fact occur in the brain to alleviate mood maladies and in some cases, mental illness like depression. The more people we interviewed, the more we discovered. But before it even launched, this series was inspired by two women: A dear friend who overcame depression and anxiety (and consequently two powerful medications for it) with daily knitting, and a blog post by Alabama Chanin designer, Natalie Chanin.

Chanin, a sustainable designer and now gratefully a bi-weekly columnist for EcoSalon, had caught my attention when she cited neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, author of Lifting Depression on the Alabama Chanin blog:

“Lambert shows how when you knit a sweater or plant a garden, when you prepare a meal or simply repair a lamp, you are bathing your brain in feel-good chemicals and creating a kind of mental vitamin. Our grandparents and great grandparents, who had to work hard for basic resources, developed more resilience against depression; even those who suffered great hardships had much lower rates of this mood disorder. But with today’s overly-mechanized lifestyle we have forgotten that our brains crave the well-being that comes from meaningful effort.”

That meaningful effort was explored from two angles in Part 1 with textile artist and sustainable fashion writer Abigail Doan of Ecco Eco and Occupational Therapist and Founder of FiftyRX3 Jill Danyelle. Doan, who was “fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the soil, build fences, spin wool, and learn a variety of fiber-crafting skills,” growing up on a farm says working with one’s hands creates a “one-to-one relationship that makes everything else simply fade away. It’s a healthy sort of addiction that replaces other forms of disease.”

Part 2 affirmed Doan and Danyelle’s own finds but explored another aspect of hand work: how using our hands not only enhances our sense of well being, but how it also creates a sense of self-sufficiency. Owyn Ruck, one of the founders of Brooklyn’s widely respected Textile Arts Center says “Even in a sense of finances, we are taught to feel that money equals freedom, but what if you didn’t even to need to buy half the things you did, you could make them or simply make something last longer? That’s freedom.”

Designer Titania Inglis enjoys her own fashion freedom by creating a sustainably produced, eponymous clothing line. Having begun her career in the hopes of being a successful graphic designer, Inglis also agrees the positive effects of using our hands to do meaningful tasks can benefit our overall health and well being.

In Part 3, of Using Your Hands to Soothe the Brain, Inglis says “I love clothing design for its communicative and aesthetic possibilities, but also very much for the craft of it. Many designers prefer to simply hand off sketches to a pattern maker, but for me, the process is the design. It feels a bit pompous to talk about the integrity of the piece and purity of form, but those are qualities I strive for, and I really can only get there with my own two hands.”

What can we learn from this sustainable stretching out of the fashion movement that harks back to the glory of heritage and craft? One might say that perhaps we have lost much in the translation of living fast paced lives filled with convenience. That rethinking the use of our hands to create and mend and touch is a missing part of our successful life equation. That, simply put, strands of fiber and our ability to know how to do something with them might ultimately hold the key to our spiritual happiness. At the very least, it’s fun to create our own wardrobe.

Image: Bruce Turner

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