Sewing mends the soul

Sewing mends the soul

According to Robert Reiner (PhD) of the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Medical Centre, “The importance of a hobby or creative pursuit cannot be over-emphasized...

For more information:

Dr Renata Schoeman (MBChB, MSocSc, MMed, FC Psych, PhD, MBA)

021 913 1868


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More Information

According to Robert Reiner (PhD) of the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Medical Centre, ”The importance of a hobby or creative pursuit cannot be over-emphasized. If we don’t allow our bodies to rest from the pressures of everyday life, we are placing ourselves at risk for heart disease or other illnesses/ Creative activities and hobbies – like sewing – can help a person focus on something productive and get away from their worries for a while”.


I consider myself a ”novice” quilter. My first introduction to quilting shops was hunting for material for my mom and her friends for whatever the ”flavour” of the moment was – purple flowers, little faces, or leaves. It took years of encouragement and convincing from my mom (and her friends) and my aunt, before I made the transition into ”cutting up perfectly beautiful pieces of cloth”. I still find crocheting and embroidering more relaxing, as I still need to concentrate VERY hard when trying to do the curly squiggles of free motion quilting, and my perfectionist nature make me undo many pieces of piecing until my corners are ”just right”. Although I do not have a treasured ”stack” as yet, I have joined a guild (Kaapse Kwiltgenot), and I (proudly, or rather distressingly?) have a number of UFOs (Un-Finished Objects)!


Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book ”Big Magic: creative living beyond fear” defines creativity as ”the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration”. She discuss how we need to find the courage to allow ourselves to be creative, to permit inspiration to find us, and to persist and trust ourselves in our creative expression. ”The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes”.

What is creativity?


Creativity can be defined as

”productivity marked by originality”,

”the purposeful generation and implementation of a novel idea”, or

”the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”.


Ruth Noller, Professor Emeritus of Creative Studies at Buffalo State College, developed a symbolic equation for creativity, suggesting that creativity (C) is a function of knowledge (K) obtained through life experiences, imagination (I) to generate ideas or make connections, evaluation (E) of the advantages or disadvantages of a particular idea. There is one other critical element: a positive attitude (a) and the belief that you are creative, i.e. C = fa(K,I,E)


While we often think of creativity as an event or as a natural skill that some people have and some don’t, research suggests that both creativity and non-creativity are learned. Twin studies showed that roughly 20% of the variance in creativity is due to the influence of genes. Genetic variations may make some people’s brains more open to thoughts, sensations and behaviour that are expressed in creative behaviour, but research showed that practice, training and exposure to unfamiliar ideas and experiences are playing a bigger and essential role in shaping creativity. Certainly, some people are primed to be more creative than others. However, nearly every person is born with some level of creative skill and the majority of our creative thinking abilities can be developed.

Although we tend to think of creativity in terms of artwork and other creations, evolutionary, creativity was also expressed when early hominids started using tools for e.g. hunting, and building shelters. Symbolic expression through e.g. rock art only appeared later when the early humans’ prefrontal cortex (the ”CEO” of the brain) - which is responsible for coordinating brain activities into goal-directed thoughts and behaviour – developed to have more complicated and better integrated connections with the rest of the brain. 


Another crucial ingredient for creativity is social interaction and skills – exchanging ideas and learning from one another sparks creativity. According to Thomas ”It is not how smart you are, but how well connected you are”. 


Finally, being self-motivated and being interested in honing your skills (whether it is playing an instrument, crocheting a blanket, redecorating a room, or painting a work of art), are the determining factor in how you develop and express your creativity.


For more about how your brain are ”wired” to be creative, see


Why is being creative good for you?


According to Ryff and Keyes, we need self-acceptance, positive relations, environmental mastery, autonomy, personal growth and a purpose in life to experience psychological well-being. What better way of addressing all these aspects than through being creative! Creativity has been demonstrated to:


Relieves stress through enhancing ”flow” (a few moments in time when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that nothing else seems to matter)

Improves our overall emotional health through improving psychological resilience – thereby increasing our control over emotional distress and pain. Those participating in arts and (e.g. knitting or quilting), have less depressive symptoms and experience more positive emotions. An interesting study by Riley and colleagues (published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2013) evaluated the benefits of knitting on 3545 knitters’ personal and social well-being. Amongst the 3545 knitters who took part in the study. The results show a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy. More frequent knitters also reported higher cognitive functioning. Knitting in a group impacted significantly on perceived happiness, improved social contact and communication with others. 

Improves our social life and cognitive health. CNN reported in 2015 that elders who socialize (e.g. through shared creative endeavours) are 55 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. 

Increases and rejuvenates brain function through stimulating the production of new neurons, which are crucial for maintaining a healthy brain. In a Mayo Clinic study, Malchiodi (2015) reported that people who take on craft-based projects (such as painting, drawing and sculpting, woodwork, pottery, ceramics, quilting, quilling and sewing) in midlife and older have a 45 percent less chance of developing cognitive problems such as dementia. During creative engagements, we also learn new and resourceful ways of solving problems in our ”art” – which provides us with the experience and confidence to solve problems in life.

It enhances self-knowledge. When we dedicated time and energy to develop our own ideas, we respect our inner nature and innate creativity - and are better able to express ourselves to the world on a regular basis.

It builds confidence. When we create, we recognise that our work does matter even if it is not published, displayed or presented to the public. Creativity requires courage, dedication, commitment, and the willingness to fail and try again. We learn to trust our instincts and gain confidence from expressing them, eliciting feelings of accomplishment, but also humbleness and gratefulness. This confidence carries over into decisions we make in other areas of life. 

It saves money. Although buying fat quarters may make your purse temporarily thinner, creative expression, and planning for the process, can help us to control the urge to buy impulsively. We can also save money by e.g. making gifts, instead of buying. Being creative is good value for money (consider R/hour…)


The benefits of quilting


In 2011, Burt and Atkinson interviewed 29 ladies from a quilting group in Glasgow to establish how quilting contributes to their well-being. They have found that the practical process of quilting (e.g. designing, choosing colours and patterns, and the act of quilting itself) was considered a productive use of time, psychologically uplifting, and although challenging and demanding concentration, contributed to relaxation. The social side of quilting (forming friendships, receiving support and affirmation, and sharing with like-minded individuals) boosted confidence and increased motivation for further skill development. Finally, the finished project, whether for own enjoyment, or to give away altruistically, adds purpose to life. 


Final thoughts


Osho said, ”To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it.”


Creativity is a cost-effective mind-body ”intervention” to prevent and address a variety of challenges (body and mind) throughout the lifespan. It is therapy. So…build your stack, cut and piece your blocks, quilt away, and ”show and tell”!


by Prof Renata Schoeman