Helen Fowler: How knitting helps deal with MS

Helen Fowler finds positives around her condition. Picture: Julie Bull
Helen Fowler finds positives around her condition. Picture: Julie Bull
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Hand in hand, my younger daughter and I stand and gaze at the skeins of wool in front of us. We’re at the annual yarn festival in Edinburgh. Dozens of stalls stretch ahead of us, making a rainbow of colour. Many of the hundreds of visitors milling around are wearing hand-knitted scarves, cardigans and jumpers.

I glance at the names of the lengths of wool hung up in front of us: Rhubarb, Endeavour, Parkin, Bantam. We reach out to stroke them as lovingly (and nervously) as if they were still attached to the sheep on whom the wool first grew.

Those cheese-lovers Wallace and Gromit would love it here, I suspect. After all, buying wool these days is a bit like shopping for cheese, with the same kind of names, too. We decide to buy some yarn; its label reveals it to be a blend of Bluefaced Leicester, Wensleydale Longwool and dark brown Masham.

Yes, this is working. Happiness steals over me, just as I was hoping.

One of the symptoms of my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is depression. More than feeling low for a few hours. This is months of wondering what value I have left to offer in my life. It’s not uncommon in people with MS.

The disease itself might be to blame, I’ve learnt. Then there’s the upset that comes with losing function and ability. It saddens me, no longer being able to work, run or garden as I used to do. There are a few gains, too – like people giving up a seat on the bus when they see my walking stick, not to mention my disabled person bus pass – but it can take a while to notice or appreciate those.

The anti-depressants I’m prescribed do a good job. I’m grateful for them. But I’m beginning to understand why Shakespeare talks about knitting up that sleeve of care.

Knitting is rhythmic. Knitting is meditative. Knitting is absorbing. Knitting is creative. I remember all these benefits as later that day my younger daughter and I are sat together back at home. We are both knitting squares for a blanket.

I help my daughter to cast on, starting with a knot and a loop. I demonstrate how to slide the wool onto one needle, then with the other one to wrap the wool around and under, until a new stitch is made. She peers at the stitches, looking as if she can’t quite believe she has created them herself.

As I sit with her, I remember reading that in the 19th century knitting was prescribed for women as a cure for nervousness and hysteria. Maybe knitting should be prescribed along with anti-depressants. It’s an awful lot more productive, sociable and fun than just taking pills every day.

l Helen Fowler is an Edinburgh-based journalist and MS campaigner