There’s a quote I like about knitting: “Knitting is a distinct virtue,” said the former archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher (who was also a knitter). “It’s reflective and repetitive. Whenever you are engaged in doing a purely repetitive thing, your mind can reflect upon life.” This quote was featured in the margins of Richard Rutt’s 1987 book A History of Hand Knitting. Yes, I thought, reading it. Exactly. Why is that? What is it about repetitive, almost mindless gestures made with the hands that does something mysterious and powerful to the rest of the body?
A story yesterday on Psychology Today unpacked some of this mystery. “Working with your hands does wonders for your brain,” writes Susan Biali Haas, M.D. (whose preferred handwork is cleaning). There are three main reasons behind this, she argues: It’s relaxing (“when we use our hands on a task that doesn’t demand much cognitively, it gives the mind a chance to relax and rest”), it’s pleasurable (“We are made to be active, and have actively used our hands as part of our daily survival for thousands of years”), and, maybe most interestingly, it allows the subconscious mind to stretch around and flex its muscles (“when my brain is ‘offline,’ it gives it a chance to work on problems behind the scenes”).
Personally, I think of knitting and other handwork (dish-washing, for instance) as like a bone I throw to my hands — and, by extension, to my conscious brain and its most superficial thoughts — to get them out of the way so I can think and daydream more deeply. There’s a different rhythm to thinking-while-doing-repetitive-motions that can feel intensely pleasurable, sort of like airing out the mind.
I’ve always wondered if typing counts as handwork, though, or scrolling through a phone, and it seems pretty clear that the answer is: probably not. By definition, handwork is work done with the hands and specifically not with machines. It is a shame, though, because I have probably done upward of 52,000 hours of computer-related handwork.