Pursuing creative arts seems to hold multiple impressive benefits for our brain and our mood, and this is a boon for our elder years.

Painting does this for me, as well as gardening. But yesterday while taking in a pair of pants (trousers) due to a little weight loss, I was surprised at the feeling I experienced while sewing – an ‘at home’ feeling that took me out of my mind, and calmed my heart. It felt so good to be at the sewing machine again, that I decided to research the effects that sewing and ‘crafting’ have on us, especially in our later years.

In Australia we have the CWA (Country Women’s Association) groups that meet weekly for morning tea where women socialise and do craft together. I did go to one of their meetings once but felt it was not for me at the time. I’ve since reconsidered attending, post pandemic, and may attend one local group that seems progressive.

In one article, its been found that sewing is increasingly becoming recognised as an effective way to combat depression, and the absorption demanded by needlework – its flow – calms the mind, reduces stress, and boosts mental health and our immune system.

In another article on Quilting, research published in a Journal of Public Health, showed that making quilts helps people’s cognitive, creative and emotional well-being, and improves fine motor skills, particularly among older adults.

Apparently the selecting and combining colors and shapes, as does the practice of coloring mandalas, has a beneficial, cognitive effect. Selecting colors for specific shapes taps into the analytical part of the brain, while creating the overall color mix uses the brain’s creative side. This exercises the brain in a unique way, by activating areas of the cerebral cortex that control vision and guide fine motor skills.

Sewing and other crafts also help people of all ages and walks of life. A Glaswegian researcher, Clare Hunter, Community Artist, Exhibition Curator and Banner Maker, came across many fascinating, forgotten, little known and overlooked stories of sewing in her research for her book “Threads of Life “.

Clare said she cannot pass a display of embroidery threads without her heart missing a beat. She even dreams about textiles, trailing her hand through long-forgotten fabrics – crepe de chine, duchess satin, tulle net – grazing her knuckles on a crust of beading, smoothing down lengths of fringing and stroking the braille of lace. I have this same experience of viewing or touching beautiful cloth and textiles, and have also dreamed about beautiful encrusted clothes.

The Sew, Create and Make Together project at Canterbury City Community Centre in Sydney, provides a safe space for CALD women to learn to sew, share their sewing skills and knowledge, as well as socialise with other women. It’s a structured sewing class but in an informal, peaceful community sewing setting.

Victoria Brittain, activist, writer and journalist, mentions Ruth First, the late investigative journalist and anti-apartheid campaigner in South Africa, who, faced with long-term imprisonment in solitary confinement, took up needlework to take control of her time. On the back of her lapel she stitched seven black lines to mark her days, but then would unpick one or two as if to gain time, or go forward at her own pace by sewing down the days that lay ahead. Hers was an act of both rebellion and self-preservation.

I was also blown away by what is happening in some prisons in the UK. The organisation, Fine Cell Work involves hundreds of inmates who embroider items to sell online, or make to commission. They’re the only UK-based charity providing social enterprise and earned income for prisoners on such a wide scale. These men also stitch alone in their cells, finding respite from the clang and boom of prison life in the small oasis of peace afforded them by the rhythmic, repetitive act of sewing. You can read about Lewis here as he shares how he got into stitching, and how his time in prison was spent with his needle and thread that kept him calm and gave him focus.

I have to agree with Clare when she says that “in our social media age, as we become more physically distanced from each other, sewing is a safeguard to isolation, a way to stay in touch with each other: hand and mind working in harmony to convey what lies in our hearts. For me and others, it sustains not just a sense of self, but of belonging”.