The physical and psychological benefits of craft are increasingly being recognized. From the stress-relieving characteristics of everyday making to the medical applications of material skills, Rosy Greenless and Joseph Lo report on how can we expand and promote the positive impact of craft on the well-being of societies.
This is the third in our Future at Hand series.
Absorption in rhythmic, repetitive movements characteristic of many craft activities…
“…not only occupies and distracts the brain but has also been clinically proven to raise levels of the clinically mood-enhancing chemical serotonin whilst inducing the mindfulness more often associated with meditation.”
Dr Karen Yair, Craft and Wellbeing, Crafts Council, 2011
The physical and psychological benefits of craft are increasingly being recognised. Current demographic trends show that the percentage of the aging population is set to increase in the coming years and the Covid-19 lockdown saw many people and families isolated. Health and well-being came to the forefront of the national and international consciousness in light of the pandemic. From the stress-relieving characteristics of everyday making to the medical applications of material skills, how can we expand the role of crafts and investigate how it impacts and promotes the well-being of communities?
This session was chaired by Rajni Patel, Creative Learning Director, who works to provide alternative ways to improve schoolchildren’s mental health by enabling children to learn traditional crafts in outdoor settings.
Panellists were Adil Iqbal, Cultural Practitioner, Twilling Tweeds and the Mahraka Centre (Scotland and Pakistan); Satish Sah, Manager of the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre (Nepal); Gabriela Martinez Ortiz, designer, textile artist, creator of Ofelia and Antelmo (Mexico); and Monica Auch, textile artist with a focus on weaving and medicine (Germany/Netherlands).
Facilitators were Lindy Joubert, Vice President, World Crafts Council Asia Pacific, academic, University of Melbourne, Australia; and Lynn-Sayers McHattie, Professor, Design Innovation, Glasgow School of Arts
The discussion focussed on the following themes…
How craft can demonstrate well-being in communities
Adil Iqbal has been working in the region of Chitral, NW Pakistan. He shared a quote from the area: ‘every finger of her hand has its own skill’ or in short, ‘skilled hands’. In Pakistan, he explained, 34% of the population suffered from anxiety and health issues, especially anxiety around infection, in light of Covid-19. During the post-Covid period, there had been a significant loss of income and sometimes starvation for the most vulnerable. There has been an increasing rate of suicide with 68% being young unmarried females. The largest factor is the intergenerational gap, leading to strained relations between parents and offspring. His project brought together social enterprises in Scotland and Pakistan to create a space for young women to volunteer and learn. The Mahraka Centre in Chitral enables young and senior female artisans to socially connect and volunteer. This encourages cross-generational skill exchange and engendering communication through skills. Through art, design and personal development, the women were able to escape domestic duties as a mother and wife and come to the centre to forget the stresses of everyday life. Whilst the impact was scientifically unquantifiable, Adil could see anecdotally the positive impact of this work on the women.
Satish Sah described how at the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre in the Dhanusha District of Nepal they had established a diabetes awareness project. The aim was to build awareness, prevention and control of type 2 diabetes through art and craft activities. The local women were not allowed to work and did not exercise. This sedentary lifestyle was having an impact on their health. Here, there was a more direct link between craft activity and physical health benefits. They would participate in painting, screen printing, sewing and pottery. They would make props, for example, paper dumbbells or costumes of sugary drinks and promote the benefits of physical exercise and a healthy diet. Such activities brought the women together which then led to performances and festivals.
For Gabriela Martinez Ortiz, the positive impact of craft – embroidery – on mental health was a personal experience. Following a personal loss and crisis in her own life, she took up embroidery. She discovered that the act of stitching created quiet time, enabling her to learn to be alone and to know herself through the things she was making. Importantly, adopting a slow-movement philosophy made her realise the impact of the fashion industry. Having studied textiles and fashion design at university, she started working with two women to create a small range of clothing – ‘Ofelia and Antelmo’, named after her grandparents. When the pandemic began, she started to provide online embroidery classes. She has received many testimonies from those people who found that the courses had helped them find some peace.
Monica Auch also focused on stitching but explored a more scientific path by investigating the impact on people’s brains. As a visual artist and medical doctor, she had wanted to find out what craft and making meant as a way of being creative. Working with the Amsterdam Brain Research Institute, she first started looking at her own brain and this led to an empirical study of 300 people. In the project Stitch My Brain all participants were provided with a pack of materials and invited to perform the same task of stitching a brain into a soft sculpture. The project had been focused on the impact on people after working over long periods with their hands. The project also investigated how people felt about the task. The original intention was not specifically about health and well-being. However, with the pandemic, it had become increasingly clear how important it is to make with one’s hands.
Analysing the results, Auch found that anecdotal responses included people saying that being involved in long-time work helped organise the chaos in their heads, especially in complicated circumstances such as when they lost their job or had to nurse a sick partner. Giving people a task – but with the freedom to be creative within the boundaries of the task – alleviated stress but also created a community which was very important. She cited earlier examples such as the AIDS Memorial Quilt project in the USA which collectively commemorated those who had died from Aids. Another example was cited – the use of stitching in psychiatric hospitals in the 19th Century where sewing gave the women a sense of identity and alleviation from the terrible conditions they lived in.
How craft connects communities and who were the partners that helped facilitate this.
For Gabriela, Domestica, the internet platform with whom she collaborates, was incredibly powerful for her work. It was a game changer in connecting her to other people interested in similar work. She felt that for people who are not very social like herself, digital access is enormously helpful in sharing knowledge and experiences with like-minded people.
In the case of the Mahraka Centre, the Chitrali Women’s Co-op Kho and Kalashi facilitated Adil’s connection with the women. The NW frontier of Pakistan is a very conservative area and only by working with the co-op was he able to reach the women. Trust has to be built over the years and collaboration was central to the way that Adil works.
For Satish, the project relied heavily on partners and would not have existed otherwise. The diabetes awareness project was delivered in partnership with the local health agency and University College London who provided the medical information required. This was then translated into simple, pictorial forms through the artists and artisans who participated in the project. Through these drawings and props, complex health information was made understandable and comprehensible to local communities.
What particular types of craft or factors are associated with health and well-being
The panel generally felt that all manners of making by hand were significant in this context.
Adil Iqbal thought that working in groups enabled women to understand their own histories. Such a collaborative process was a very effective tool both in health and well-being and in undertaking craft. The cultural heritage of the cloth woven in Chitral was an important cultural practice but it was declining. Senior artisans were disappointed that younger people did not engage in the craft because they found it messy and old-fashioned. Yet, the artisans described their craft as being not only a means of income generation but also a means of relaxation. When they were weaving or carding they felt less stressed and actively sought the activity because of how it made them feel. Furthermore, it was a means of cognition with the older women describing how when they spin, the younger ones were always observing and learning.
…arts and crafts are magical because they can render sorrow into something beautiful…
Gabriela felt this chimed with her experience of embroidery and the notion of slow making. The technique enables one to think but it is also a means of creative expression. Significantly, Gabriela shared that embroidery has been a form of secret writing for women in Mexico. Throughout history, Mexican women could not write but they could tell stories through needle and thread. This was a powerful means of expression. Many people worry that embroidery is very technical and needed much organisation/planning to execute a design. But Gabriela teaches ‘freestyle’ embroidery and encourages them to follow their design instinct and the stitching that they do. Gabriela thinks that everyone, – even if they do not think so themselves – is innately creative. Moreover, stitching can transform loneliness into a shared experience; a deep collective experience. As such, arts and crafts are magical because they can render sorrow into something beautiful and in this way, they can save people. Embroidery for Gabriela captures both her pain and delivers her from it at the same time. She elaborates that humans are social beings and art touches everyone. Doing things with one’s hands connects people with their souls. It is a shared experience and language. Hence, one does not have to speak Spanish to connect with what she does, i.e., embroidery. In this way, it is an international language that cuts across communities, languages and cultures. Embroidery reminds her that she is not alone but in a community of others.
For a while, it seemed as if the digital had taken over from making with one’s hands but Monica Auch observed that now digital-making was just another tool. Being humans, we crave the touch of materials or another person. Whilst weaving requires lots of tools, embroidery does not. It is economical and easily accessible. Embroidery skills can be learnt from family members, the local community or even online. But one needs the experience of touch – to understand what is wool, what is silk. However, children and young people do not have these skills. They can swipe a phone screen but they do not know how to use needles and threads.
All agreed that education is the key issue and that craft needs to be elevated and mainstreamed. Young people need to start at an early age and understand their intangible cultural heritage, of which craft is a part of. Also, learning these skills makes young people aware of the waste and environmental impact of modern living; the best way to eliminate waste is to show children how things can be made from scratch.
Health and well-being for who?
The discussion then turned to the question of whether the health and well-being benefits of craft were the same for the professional maker as well as the amateur crafter.
Monica thought that there was a distinction in economics between the two. For the professional craftsperson trying to survive economically, craft can be a very stressful and pressurised profession. If one wants to run a business as a craftsperson, one either has to go into manufacturing and production or need some other form of income. So, in such a case, Monica said that the health and well-being factors could be more negative than positive.
However, Satish and Adil were both of the view that making improves the health and well-being of artisans. Satish spoke about how artisans describe making as meditation and for Adil, working with one’s hands definitely improved health and well-being. He agreed that there was a distinction between professional craftspeople and amateur makers. However, the participants in his projects are stressed about their economic situation but making helps them with their mental health issues. He felt that it was a double-edged sword. Working with one’s hands is good for mental health and well-being but in economies where handwork is not valued, then stress is generated from the economic instability of being a maker.
Gabriela made the point that craft as a means of health and well-being is accessible to all. For embroidery, is not a technique where one needs very much; in fact, one can embroider with one’s own hair. It only requires practice and patience, and it is not necessary to spend hours doing it to experience the magic of handwork. She thought that it was, however, challenging to earn a living from making. As a professional occupation, it is misunderstood. Thus, one has to be secure in one’s ambition and go for it even if one does not have a vision immediately because that will evolve eventually. There is still a job to be done educating people about craft and as a maker, one has to be persistent. But the power of craft is how it brings people together.
Collective benefits of making
Monica also thought that crafting – producing an object – has value because it can be shared with one’s community. She used the example of a character in a TV show who lost his job. So, he wove ponchos for all his friends. This act ‘rearranged his brain’ and he was able to recover and got another job.
Adil described the concept of ‘geve’ which in Chitrali means cooperation – bringing young and old together during long winter nights. Skilled artisans would weave but also entertain themselves through stories and singing in chorus. This practice was something common to both communities in the Hebrides and in Chitral. Working socially, in co-operation, was specific to craft making and a means of supporting the larger community. This concept of social cooperation was important and needed to be safeguarded: as a form of communal health and well-being.
Satish pointed out that making in this context was not just creating craft with value but a value that connects community. When a maker makes something, it is not just for him or herself but for others. The gift of helping others in our community makes one feel good. As such, craft in Satish’s case, is not just a product but about helping others and connecting.
Whilst we believe that craft can bring health and wellbeing benefits, the challenge is how do we elevate it in our countries so it is seen by agencies and institutions as something to be invested in?
Adil thought this had to be done by passing craft onto a younger generation. That meant making it fashionable and trendy through fashion, photography etc. It is important to communicate and understand what young people want. Young people need to be heard. Gabriela noted that Mexico is a country rich in craft but sadly, wealthy people are not educated to value craft because it is associated with indigenous people. The garments that she designs are inspired by traditional clothing and in this way, craft can be more than an object but also an emotional feeling. As makers of today, it is important to address the main issues of today. This means asking what types of products are we making and why are we doing it in the first place.
In Germany, education allows you to be trained to a high level in a craft. Through academies, proper status is given to craft which also enables makers to command a reasonable price for their work. Finally, and ironically, whilst craft may not be valued locally it was pointed out that often local craft is valued internationally.
The panel concluded that craft can help address isolation, both in providing a place to be alone with oneself and to cope with being alone. Craft is a tool for self-expression and that can be fundamental in health and well-being.
However, it is important to elevate the status of craft. It is currently undervalued and there is a generation of children deprived of learning craft. It is vital to get parents to think about making.
There is also a distinction between those who are trying to earn a living by craft which in itself can bring stress and tension and those who can enjoy the relaxation of making.
Producing a product or craft object has value and can be shared. It embodies social cooperation, bringing people together and connecting them. Enticing young people into making needs a contemporary approach that engages them in what they want to be engaged in and offers them something that is innovative and relevant to them.
Craft is multi-layered with both direct and indirect benefits. From the direct relationship of making craft to reducing levels of diabetes in the case of Satish’s work to something more subtle that engages with mental health, as in the case of Adil and Gabriela. Whilst as demonstrated in Monica’s work, craft is not a simple humble activity but also a sophisticated activity.
The projects discussed in this seminar displayed how craft can bring resilience and mental strength both to the individual and also to a community in a collective physical and emotional connection to materials and with each other. The flow of making is powerful: to make and have control over making gives us self-esteem and a rush of positivity.
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