The future seems out of our grasp. Well, to be fair, many things in America seem right outside of our grasp: universal health care, a COVID-19 vaccine, a day without masks. The daily news scroll is consistently dreadful and our lives now exist predominantly through a screen. There seems to be no end in sight. But on a day-to-day basis, it is the ennui of quarantine that is suffocating. Since there is little a singular person can do to end a pandemic (except staying home and wearing a mask) people feel like they have no agency over their lives. COVID-19, climate change, financial collapse, these are not tangible things, yet they are ruling our lives right now.
To regain control and agency, Americans turned to crafting. In a world filled with existential death and despair, if you can make something physical, real, and creative, then you might just feel a little better about it all. Just scroll through Instagram and notice the array of talents from embroidery to gardening to baking; tactile hobbies are everywhere as the world quarantines. The ability to create something, however small and however futile, creates a graspable beauty that people are so desperate for. Being able to create art, physically with your hands, not only takes your mind off of the chaos of the world, but also allows time for reflection and a space to create something new and delightful.
The tactile hobby movement of the COVID-19 pandemic is extraordinary, but it isn’t necessarily new. During and after World War I, soldiers and domestic workers used crafting as a way to reflect on the horrors they experienced, to process trauma and to learn tactile skills that helped them integrate back into American domestic society. The reflections of pandemic crafting and wartime crafting are in every craft, as are elements of sexism and classism. There is comfort in the history of crafting translating in today’s society; as if saying no matter what, we can hold onto something.
Rosa Inocencio Smith stated in her article “Getting Through a Pandemic With Old-Fashioned Crafts” states:
I’ve turned to old-fashioned crafts in recent weeks to calm my anxieties, to hold something tangible in my hands and my thoughts while uncertainty swirls around me. I don’t know how long the pandemic will last; whether the food I’ve stocked is too much or too little; whether I’ll help my community more by stepping up or by simply staying home. In the long chain of actions and accidents that can lead to a stranger’s life or death, I don’t know where I fit or whether I’m doing the right thing. But I know how to do this; I know how to link one loop of thread into another. I know I can unravel my work and start over if I do it wrong (Smith, 2020).
This poignant observation encompasses the rise in hobbying over the COVID-19 pandemic. The chaos of the world is incomprehensible in times like these especially. However, a simple outlet to calm our fears is right at our fingertips.
World War I Therapeutic Crafting
Extremely traumatized and emotionally broken, many soldiers came back from World War I unable to process the horrors they faced overseas. Domestic programs for retired soldiers popped up across the country where men could work through their trauma in a controlled environment, processing the horrors of war, as well as physically improving movement in their bodies. Author Kristen Hartog states “since WW1, occupational therapy has proved to be very helpful, having a positive effect on patients’ health and well-being, often by creating structure and organizing time. Out of medical environments, studies find that spending time on creative goals during the day is associated with positive mental effects.”
Tactile hobbies, whether femine or macsuline in nature, were extremely popular and therapeutic for soldiers. Pre-arranged pincushion sets were popular for soldiers to assemble, where all the fabric and beading was laid out, and the men could attach different designs and elements as they pleased. Soldiers, some even on the front lines at the time, stitched silk postcards explaining their situation to loved ones, or to simply create something beautiful in the chaos of war. Other examples of art made by soldiers include this necklace and flag embroidery made as therapeutic crafting from soldiers back from war. As author Kristen Denhartog states, “How brilliant to construct something as a means of healing from so much destruction – to stitch, string, mould, weave, paint, paste, and knit in order to put things together again after such a painful time in history”.
It goes deeper than simply hobbies though. The social duties of using simple skills to impact the greater public happened during war efforts and are reflected today. Back in the 1910s, people worked to create Victory Gardens for the war effort. Gardening, a tactile hobby that has picked back up today, is skill with community-based impact. The more produce was grown, the stronger the soldiers overseas would be. Today, there is a similar effort for mask-making, where people see the community-based impact of making masks for those on the front lines of the pandemic, the essential workers in medical fields. The ability to have a hand in fixing an insurmountable problem is therapeutic for those growing the vegetables or sewing the masks, and sincerely helps the effort. Produce were vital to the soldiers and masks were vital to the first responders. It’s a win-win. The problem is still there, but an individual impact made a difference, and that’s the greatest reward.
Hobbies Clubs, like the one featured below, created a sense of community for soldiers returning from war. People were able to show off each other’s hobbies to form bonds and create connections after a time lacking in human bonds. Today, with social gatherings prohibited, social media has taken the place of clubs when showcasing hobby work as a way to share and connect with others. When group restrictions are lifted nationwide, tactile hobby clubs may increase after the pandemic more than they were before, as people learned new skills and now value the company of others in new ways.
If you were on social media at all during quarantine, and I know you were, then you saw people sharing their crafting creations on social media. With uber downtime for crafting and creating art today, this historical similarity is poignant. People are even pursuing the same types of tactile pastimes: bread-making, embroidery, sewing, gardening, puzzling, tie-dying, music production, and painting. The diversity in these hobbies proves the wide-spread phenomenon of hobbies, and yet every hobby is based on tactile creation.
Breadmaking was one of the most pervasive hobbies that was picked up over quarantine. Bread is a simple yet filling food that takes a lot of time, but not a lot of skill to make. It tastes good, it can be eaten at any meal, and any toppings or extras can be added. Emily VanDerWerff wrote an article on the rise in bread making (haha get it?). “For me, baking bread is a way to create nostalgia for the future,” she wrote, “to believe that the world will not just come back to life but will somehow become better.” Bread has gotten people through hard times before, and the historical significance was not lost on people. Smithsonian curator of education Lora Vogt wrote, “While the COVID-19 and World War I/1918 flu pandemic are fundamentally different situations, they have both resulted in shortages of essential supplies, including food.”.This Spring there was a national yeast shortage because so many people were baking bread and hoarding yeast in their homes (VanDerWerff). “It’s not surprising that people are turning toward baking bread as a release,” Journalist Grace Z Li noted. “Baking bread—especially on a weekday—requires time and energy, and it engenders an idyllic and reassuring feeling of domestic control.” This sense of control is psychologically important for dealing with traumatic experiences as well. Something as simple as baking a loaf of bread can be so therapeutic for someone’s mental health, that it can become a national phenomenon. Louise Mirrer, president of the New York Historical Society, expressed similar sentiments, “I never really baked very much before, but there’s something therapeutic, I think, about doing things with your hands.” The ability to connect to our collective roots, baking bread and feeding one another, is rewarding as much as it is restorative.
Vocabulary Differences from World War I to Covid-19
It is important to mention the shifting of vocabulary from WWI to now. Before WWI hobbies such as sewing and embroidery were labeled as “women’s work” and deemed less essential or important than other activities that were considered less feminine. These “girly” activities were considered lesser, and therefore given little academic and social importance. Only after soldiers came back from war and had engaged with “women’s work”, were the skills and activities known as “hobbies” and considered “material culture” for social purposes.
That being said, it is a privilege to be able to explore these hobbies. To have the free time to explore talents instead of focusing on food or housing insecurity is a privilege, especially during the pandemic. As journalist Molly Oswaks argues, while some Americans are turning to television, “others are cutting down on screen time by pursuing old-timey crafts of a bygone era: namely the Victorian times of 19th-century England. When greater wealth and industrialization afforded the privileged upper class more idle time to hang out at home. The new leisure class filled their down time with activities like fern collecting, flower pressing, scrapbooking, board games and playing chamber music on their own instruments.” Several of these hobbies require expensive equipment that working class people may not be able to afford. Still, the rise of this hobby is apparent for middle class and upper middle class people in American who have the privilege to pass the time of the pandemic through tactile hobbies. That does not mean that only upper middle class Americans are the only people to pick up tactile hobbies, nor does it mean that all of these Americans picked up hobbies. The relationship with hobbies and livelihood are different between the working class and the upper class. For common hobbies like sewing and baking are considered hobbies for upper middle class Americans, while they are considered necessities for working class Americans.
Science Behind the Phenomenon
Although Word War I and the Covid-19 pandemic hold many similarities, there is a modern factor leading to an increase in tactile hobbies: screen time is all the time. Technology and internet journalist Nellie Bowles referenced this in her article titled “Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won.” Although we have achieved incredible levels of communication with loved ones, learned new digital skills, and been able to access COVID-19 updates quickly, upper middle class Americans were desperate to put the screen down. As Bowels states “My television is on. My computer is open. My phone is unlocked, glittering. I want to be covered in screens. If I had a virtual reality headset nearby, I would strap it on.. The urge to unplug was colossal mere weeks into March 2020’s quarantine (which is when most people started crafting). The impact on our health from red eyes to severe back problems, to the mental health problems from knowing every global problem in the world during a pandemic, is taxing. And the only thing an individual can do to combat this is stay inside and wash your hands. This constant stress is dangerous. So, the most accessible outlet for that, is hands-on hobbies in the home.
The Miami Herald reported that the most popular hobby for Americans is watching TV, a hobby that includes sitting and watching, not working with your hands. So why specifically tactile hobbies? According to a study done by Antonio Wong and Winton Au of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the “tactile experience is critical to enhancing mood and psychological well-being.”Americans are experiencing the collective stress of the pandemic, and are grieving loved ones, landmark life plans, significant events, and so much more. There is scientific validity in using tactile hobbies to process the traumatic experiences upper middle class people are facing, and using tactile hobbies to create beautiful works of art in spite of their psychological discomfort.
One one level, nurses during World War I saw the positive effects of tactical hobbies, but now we understand scientifically how working with your hands can make a difference. Whether it be surviving a Covid-19 hospital wing, or staying alive while artillery rains down, psychically surviving is only half the battle. Without healthy outlets to process trauma, humans psychologically suffer. But simple things can help. Bake a loaf of bread. Sew a mask. Grow a garden. The solutions are, and always have been, right at our fingertips.
Antonio Ngok Tung Wong & Wing Tung Au (2019) Effects of Tactile Experience During Clay Work Creation in Improving Psychological Well-Being, Art Therapy, 36:4, 192-199, DOI:10.1080/07421656.2019.1645501.
Ben Bengtson, How People at Home are Passing the Time During COVID-19, North Shore News, April 1, 2020. https://www.nsnews.com/community/how-people-at-home-are-passing-the-time-during-covid-19-1.24110743.
Dennis, Ben, “A Hobby Turned Into A Helping Hand: Mask-making Group Aids Those Responding To Pandemic”, ABC 8 News, March 28th, 2020. https://www.wric.com/8news-digital-exclusives/a-hobby-turned-into-a-helping-hand-mask-making-group-aids-those-responding-to-pandemic/.
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Fox, Alex, “Cook These Quarantine-Friendly World War I Recipes”, Smithsonian Magazine, April 16, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/recipes-world-war-i-help-conserve-foods-flew-shelves-amid-pandemic-stockpiling-180974679/.
Hartog, Kristen “The Power of Craft: Occupational Therapy in WW1” The Cowkeeper’s Wish, September 6, 2020.
Jackson, Saraj, “From Your Soldier Boy: Silk Postcards Of The First World War”, Museum Crush, May 4th, 2020. https://museumcrush.org/from-your-soldier-boy-silk-postcards-of-the-first-world-war/.
“LEARN WITH LILY: WW1 SWEETHEART PINCUSHIONS . . .”, Lily in the Labyrinth, January 17, 2013. http://www.lilyinthelabyrinth.co.uk/2013/01/learn-with-lily-ww1-sweetheart.html.
Mak, Aaron, “The Yeast Supply Chain Can’t Just Activate Itself” Slate, April 15, 2020, https://slate.com/business/2020/04/yeast-shortage-supermarkets-coronavirus.html.
Molly Oswaks, People Have Gone Full 1800s, The New York Times, April 30, 2020.
Nellie Bowles, Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won, The New York Times, March 31, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/technology/coronavirus-screen-time.html.
Ogle, Connie, “We found out how you’re passing the time in quarantine. We’re not judging anybody” Miami Herald, April 7, 2020.
Photograph in Negative, Imperial War Museum, Air Ministry Second World War Official Collection. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205451357.
Rosa Inocencio Smith, The Atlantic, How Crafting Can Help Ease Pandemic Anxiety, April 1, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/04/crafts-coronavirus-quarantine-stress-relief/609187/.
Royal Air Force Official Photographer, “”HOBBIES” CLUB AT AN R.A.F. STATION” 1944, Swearingen, Jake, “12 Fantastic Victory Garden Posters”, Modern Farmer, May 13, 2013. https://modernfarmer.com/2013/05/12-fantastic-victory-garden-posters/.
Sykes, Amy, Crafting In World War 1, Bodmin Keep, April 27th, 2020. Https://Bodminkeep.Org/Crafting-in-world-war-1/.
Theresa Machemer, The World’s Oldest Leavened Bread Is Rising Again, the Smithsonian, April 6, 2020.
VanDerWerff, Emily, “How To Bake Bread: On The Existential Comforts Of Coaxing Yeast Out Of Air, Kneading, Proofing, Baking, And Sharing, Vox, May 19, 2020,https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2020/5/19/21221008/how-to-bake-bread-pandemic-yeast-flour-baking-ken-forkish-claire-saffitz.