When I decided to write about knitting a jumper last year, my wrists immediately started screaming “never again”. I’ve written previously about how great knitting is for chronic pain, but I didn’t mention how damaging it can be.
When I’m knitting or crocheting, I tend to get lost in the pattern and flow. I’ll usually have a show on in the background and tell myself I’ll knit to the end of it … then the next episode would play, and I’d have to keep going until that one ended too.
While it feels productive to knit for hours, I have ended up with pinched nerves and carpal tunnel because I overworked myself. Because of my fibromyalgia, my body reacts to stress by setting off pain signals, so after a knitting spree I’m exhausted.
Knitting is supposed to be relaxing. And it’s fun! It’s rewarding to see a pattern form itself in your hands. But it’s also a physical activity. I won’t go as far as to call it exercise, but the same principle applies; you need to stretch and take breaks, or you’ll end up hurting yourself.
This is an area I struggle in. I’m an artist too, so it should be baked into my routine to stretch my wrists and hands often. But because of the way my mind works, I really struggle to remember that. I also carry a lot of stress in my body during what’s supposed to be my relaxing hobby. I hold the needles too tight, so then my stitches are too small, making it harder to knit new stitches. It’s how I end up with a very tight pain in my elbows, and why my knuckles complain every time I lift a pencil. It also doesn’t help that my posture is terrible, and knitting leaves me hunched over my desk.
My knitting skills were put to the test last year when I decided to knit myself an entire jumper (or sweater, for those of you in the US). The pattern I used was Paton’s Oversize Jumper, and I knew it would be my most ambitious knitting attempt yet.
Before this, the biggest thing I’ve crafted by sheer size was a baby blanket as a baby shower gift for my friends. That was certainly time-consuming, but it really came down to a sequence of squares all sewn together. A jumper is a different beast altogether; it has a neckline and sleeves, and the front has to be shorter than the back, and each piece has to line up evenly enough to be a functional piece of clothing! I had a few moments of doubt. Often I worried that I’d get bored and give up halfway through, wasting a lot of time and the money it took to buy the materials. I also worried that my skills would not be up to par and it would turn out a mess.
But I was only making this for myself, and there was no time limit. It didn’t matter if I made mistakes, because it’d just end up as something I wear around the house.
Once I got started, I remembered why it took me so long to finish any knitting projects. After a while of working away at the hem, my wrists and upper back started aching, and my shoulders cramped. It took me months to finish it, having to undo and redo steps that I messed up the first time. The more complicated the step, the more frustrated I’d get, and the more I’d clench my jaw and tighten my grip.
But bit by bit, the jumper came together, taking shape in my hands. It was an exercise in patience, both to wait for the pattern to be complete, and to stop myself from knitting before my chronic pain flared up again.
When I was finished it was hardly perfect. There was a hole in the neckline where the yarn had stretched; my sewing up was uneven, and the sleeves were far too long. But it was done. Finished is better than perfect, in my mind, and I had something I could be proud of. Not anything I could sell or give as a gift, but a treat I had made for myself that was cozy and kept me warm.
I still have a lot to learn when it comes to managing my chronic pain. I can work away at something for hours and not realise how much pain I’m in until I have to lie down. Doing a big, long-term knitting project like this forces me to take breaks or risk a bad pain day that will take even longer to recover from.
But there’s something special about taking real, proper time to finish something. We’re so used to having everything at our fingertips now that I find it difficult to do something without immediate results. Working on the one garment over several months was very grounding. I focused on every stitch and felt the clicking of the needles as they tapped together. It was meditative as much as it was hard work.
There is value to taking things slow. And there is value in taking care of yourself so that you don’t burn out. My chronic pain has made many things difficult, but I won’t let it take away the joy of crafting.