A Michigan "M" knit with yarn.
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The World Is Ending, and All I Got Was This Dumb Sweater

I picked up crochet a few months before the world shut down. I’d been dabbling with sewing and embroidery in fall 2019, a few of the many crafts that had come and gone from my list of hobbies, when I saw a crochet TikTok that seemed doable. That’s how they get you.

I was trying (and failing) to crochet one of my first ever projects — a mask, inspired by Billie Eilish at the January 2020 Grammys — when the University of Michigan sent students home. How fortuitous, right?

As the world collapsed inward, gatherings dwindled and commutes were eliminated. Many of us found ourselves trapped inside with a lot of time on our hands. Some replaced that time with baking, Animal Crossing or binging Tiger King. Some replaced that time with a ball of yarn.

When Information junior Julia Kaplan was sent home from school, she and her roommates tried out a few different activities to fill their empty schedules before landing on crochet. Most notably, Kaplan wanted to teach herself Adobe Photoshop. She quickly realized that a digital hobby was only exacerbating her online fatigue from Zoom.

“In the beginning of quarantine, I started picking up a couple of new hobbies, but they were still on my computer,” Kaplan said. “I realized that I just needed something tangible because staring at a screen all day is honestly exhausting.”

So Kaplan ventured into Kerrytown to grab two skeins and two hooks for her and her roommate from the local yarn barn, Spun. Kaplan brought the haul home and began to weave the yarn together into whatever she could manage.

“We just searched up YouTube videos of how to crochet, and we both sat in our beds for like two hours just trying to start it out,” Kaplan said.

The widespread accessibility and digital community surrounding the fiber arts flourished during COVID-19. There were hundreds of YouTube tutorials and TikTok videos catering to beginners, encouraging people to think creatively about the possibilities these art forms offer.

LSA sophomore Nandini Arya credits this modern textiles Renaissance as the reason that she got into the craft. Arya never saw herself as a crochet artist. Her only association with knitting was the chunky sweaters Molly Weasley knits for her kids in Harry Potter. But when she saw a TikTok of a Perry the Platypus amigurumi, inspiration struck.

“I looked at like four YouTube tutorials and decided it was achievable,” Arya said.

From then on, Arya would take to crochet in “bursts,” a few days on and then a few days off, following tutorials and churning out projects. She started with beginner videos and worked her way up the levels of difficulty. Arya still calls herself a beginner. When I argued that she must be at least intermediate at this point, she insisted that she thought her friends would disagree.

Regardless, Arya continued to drill the different techniques for hours at a time. Sometimes, she would spend all day on a project — and she wasn’t alone.

“I remember our friends forced us to leave (our bedroom) because we got so into it so quickly,” Kaplan said.

This sudden, all-encompassing obsession was a common theme among lockdown fiber artists. There were days when I would spend hours toiling over a needle and yarn. The sun would set before I realized how much time had passed.

LSA senior Reagan White also found her foray into crochet devolving into obsession. White started a private Snapchat story with her best friend for the sole purpose of swapping crocheting tips and tricks. They were both novice crocheters but soon became enamored with the craft.

“I definitely did it every day during lockdown, 24/7, even in times I maybe shouldn’t have,” White said.

Fiber arts are a great hobby because they can be done with only part of your attention. Many crafters, myself included, would use this time to catch up on their favorite TV shows, chat with friends or even attend online class. White found that the practice actually helped her focus on whatever else she was doing.

“I have ADHD, so it’s really helpful for me to be doing something with my hands while I’m listening or watching something,” White said. “It helps me digest the information that I’m consuming.”

As a member of the community service fraternity Alpha Pi Omega, Engineering senior Ryan DaCosta learned to knit by making scarves and hats which were donated to shelters around Ann Arbor. DaCosta began knitting recreationally when lockdown went into effect and spent a good amount of time practicing when in isolation with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic.

“At the beginning of quarantine, I was knitting probably every day because being at home and being online for a while, there’s not much to do,” DaCosta said. “It’s also kind of a stress-reliever.”

DaCosta also found himself splitting his attention between knitting and other tasks. He enjoyed having something simple and repetitive to occupy the part of his mind insistent on wandering.

“It’s a great way to divide your attention while still staying engaged,” DaCosta said. “Being able to get that energy out while still focusing was really helpful.”

Kinesiology sophomore Sage Feldbruegge, who learned to crochet from her mother at a young age, was inspired to take it back up after her sister came home during lockdown and gifted her a new handmade cardigan. She wanted to be able to someday return the favor.

“I want to be able to make things for myself and not have to rely on my sister to ship it to me from her apartment when she moves back,” Feldbruegge said.

As a self-proclaimed “multitasking kind of person,” Feldbruegge shared that she rarely crochets without some secondary source of entertainment to accompany the task. That being said, Feldbruegge was doubtful of her ability to crochet during a movie she’d never seen before, much less while attending Zoom classes.

“I don’t think I could be one of the people that crochet in class,” Feldbruegge said. “I would learn things, but I would forget them. Because I would start counting my stitches, and I would forget to listen.”

That was certainly the case in my few failed attempts to crochet during class. And that’s okay. Crochet patterns get complicated fast, and it can be difficult to focus on something new in the background when you’re still building up expertise.

Feldbruegge said there were often times during class where she would yearn to pick up the project. The half-completed sweater would taunt her, sitting there unchanged as the moments ticked by. It could be done, if only she could devote her full attention to it.

But eventually, Feldbruegge would find respite in a nightly Netflix binge, roommate hangout or dog sitting job. She would use the hobby as a stress-reliever at the end of her day, or simply a way to occupy the passing hours.

“I did a lot of crocheting before I went to bed,” Feldbruegge said. “I’d be like, I just want to finish this one part, and then I’d end up getting so into it that I’d crochet until the middle of the night.”

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

When I was younger, my Bubbie armed me with all the knowledge of a good Jewish grandmother. I listened to her advice —  learned to play Canasta and got pretty good at knitting  (for a nine-year-old). But Bubbie told me I was spectacular, so rather than discard the needles, I tucked them away in my coterie of craft supplies, never to be seen again. That is, until lockdown.

Knitting, much like riding a bike or learning a language, is something that you never really forget how to do. This is especially true if you learn at a young age. It’s the kind of skill that’s all about muscle memory. Once you practice it enough, it becomes second nature.

The very essence of fiber arts is repetitive. It requires the maker to stack stitch upon stitch upon identical stitch until suddenly, they coalesce into something entirely new.

“Watching the project grow while it’s in your hands, you can see your progress so clearly,” White said. “And even though some projects will take a lot of repetition of the same thing, you can see the whole bigger picture of it being built in your hands.”

This makes fiber artistry a particularly valuable skill to have during a months-long lockdown. Even though you’re not necessarily accountable to anyone for creating or completing projects, it’s nice to have physical evidence of your productivity — to be able to point to something and say, I made that!

“Especially with the last part of quarantine … it got harder to perceive time passing at the end there, so it was nice to know it actually happened,” Arya said. “To have proof that it did in fact occur.”

In the beginning, progress isn’t going to amount to entire blankets produced in a single day. Still, any change is good change when your daily routines are shattered and conventions of life are forgotten.

“One of the reasons that I love crochet is because you can see the little bits and pieces of progress so even if you just got one row, it’s one more row than you used to have,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very rewarding craft.”

And those rewards are certainly hard-earned. It takes time to build up the muscle memory to be able to knit or crochet — typically up to three months. You must reap before you are able to sew (pun intended).

“It can be super overwhelming when you first get started,” White said. “It can be really foreign to hold the yarn in the ways that they suggest you do for crocheting and knitting as well. I think the best advice would be to just keep trying the same very simple tasks.”

Every single person I interviewed said something to this effect, and I completely agree. For beginners, there is a huge learning curve associated with mastering the stitches and getting comfortable with the tools.

Arya advises newcomers to take things bit by bit. She recommends finding a pattern involving only one or two simple stitches to start out, because when you finally do make something successfully — even something simple — the ego-boost you receive is unrivaled.

“Once I made my first successful circle, I was so happy that I was like, ‘I can crochet anything,’” Arya said. “And that was really the reason why I kept up with it instead of quitting.”

Feldbruegge did quit after her mom taught her to crochet when she was younger. But having started it back up again, she was determined to master the skill. A few months in, after practicing for countless hours, Feldbruegge started a new project: a hat. She was anticipating another bout of days laboring over hook and skein, but after just an hour and a half, the hat was complete. Feldbruegge went to show it to her dad, who joined her in shock over just how quickly she was able to produce the garment.

“The fact that I was not very good at crocheting when I was younger and I just got back into it this year and was already going fast enough to get things done, like finish a project in one day, was just really cool to see,” Feldbruegge said.

Feldbruegge said that people new to the fiber arts should try out different methods of learning before becoming discouraged. Unlike almost everyone I talked to, Feldbruegge preferred written patterns to YouTube tutorials. Once she figured that out, though, she was able to explore the archive of patterns shared across the global digital crochet community.

Home Is Where the Yarn Is

The history of textiles is long and female. Before clothing production was industrialized, women usually made the clothes of their entire households by themselves. Only the most well-off were able to contract out the work, and even they were still donning custom-made pieces every day.

Girls growing up during this era learned to knit and sew just as they learned to cook and clean. Women in their communities trained them in the techniques from a young age. Eventually, the girls would mature into adulthood and pass their knowledge on to the next generation.

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, mass manufacturing took over, and clothing sizes were standardized to sell to the market at large. For the first time in history, people started purchasing clothing for the sake of style, rather than out of necessity. Crochet and knitting turned from a woman’s household tasks to less gendered hobbies. But the collaborative aspect of the fiber arts remained.

Appreciation of the fiber arts is not confined to the artists. You probably have a knit or woven garment in your own closet. Perhaps it was store-bought, but maybe it was gifted to you by a loved one. To make someone something, whether knitting or crochet, is a labor of love. DaCosta told me his favorite project to date was a gift for his sister.

“It was the first thing when I learned how to crochet that I successfully did, and I think it came out really well,” DaCosta said.

And the artists themselves are also constantly interacting with one another to expand the boundaries of the craft. Everyone I spoke to for this piece referenced a friend or a group of friends they’d embarked upon this journey with. For such a seemingly solitary activity, fiber art has garnered an impressively large and dynamic community.

Kaplan described girls’-nights-in during lockdown where her roommates would join her for a group crochet party. She said that crafting alongside her friends was her favorite way of getting down with the art.

“Personally, I can’t just crochet in silence,” Kaplan said. “I need something else. And I think the best way to crochet is just talking. I like it most when it’s a social activity.”

Feldbruegge took this one step further, pulling out her projects when her friends came over, even if she was the only one.

“If we were just sitting around talking I’d be like, ‘Oh, let me go get my yarn,’” Feldbruegge said.

With school starting back up and the workforce returning to their in-person offices, none of us have as much spare time as we did a year ago. To see the world healing is a beautiful thing, but it’s bittersweet to watch our yarn rest quietly in the corner of the room, going untouched for weeks at a time.

“Now, as I’ve gotten busier, only if I have a project in mind that I want to finish will I pick it up,” Arya said.

Like many of the things people tried out during the pandemic, this former obsession has waned to a simple hobby. But many are still working hard to maintain a consistent habit. White said she is making a point to carve out time, primarily for her mental health.

“It takes thought to break down my schedule so that I have time to relax and do this really fulfilling task,” White said.

Kaplan explained that she sees crochet as a nice “treat” for when she gets all her work done early. Feldbruegge said she’s in the middle of three gifts for friends, but they’ve fallen to the wayside as she won’t need to get them done until spring. DaCosta said he’s doing it as much as he can, which admittedly, he detailed, isn’t a lot.

But as I said before, you never really forget how to crochet or knit. Once your muscles are trained, it stays with you. So the next time you have a few hours to spare, consider investing them in this lifelong skill. A whole new world of creation may just open up to you.

Statement Correspondent Melanie Taylor can be reached at meltay@umich.edu.