Most dedicated quilters know the feeling of being so engrossed in their projects that they lose all track of self, time, and the rest of the world. Nothing seems to matter but the careful piecing with quarter-inch seams, the rhythmic hum of the sewing machine, and watching piles of colorful blocks come together to create a unified, pleasing pattern.
The semi-meditative mental state called “flow” was first defined by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Characterized by complete absorption and full immersion in a meaningful and challenging activity, it’s the state that lay people often refer to as being “in the zone” or “in the groove.” This almost blissful sense of focus provides one of several health benefits associated with the art of quilting.
ABOVE: On the Wings of a Dream by Carl Bryer Fallert
In a 2011 paper called, “The Relationship Between Quilting and Well-Being” (Oxford University Press, Journal of Public Health), Jacqueline Atkinson, a professor of mental health policy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, cited other cognitive, social, and emotional benefits she discovered by interviewing quilters from a local guild.
Planning a quilt, choosing fabric colors, mastering new techniques, overcoming challenges, controlling the creative process, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a project are all factors in the feeling of well-being that quilters reported in Atkinson’s interviews, along with the positive impact of social interaction with others in their guild.
Since many famous artists working in a variety of genres have also suffered from mental illness, the relationship between health and creativity is often misunderstood and perceived as negative, Atkinson writes. Conversely, she continues, creativity has also been associated with healthy states of mind, improving mental functions, and diverting attention away from pain and anxiety.
Atkinson adds that, in the post-industrial world, people are employed to deliver information or services that stifle creativity, and they may have intense workloads. Any recreational time left may be spent managing their home lives or just passively watching television.
“Modern life may be seen as suppressing creativity and yet, creativity may be something that humans intrinsically desire,” she writes. “Quilting seems to possess some distinct properties for enhancing well-being that would not be replicable through physical or outdoor activities.”
Quilting and other needlework projects can help take one’s mind off physical pain as well. Peggy Bass of Horton, Kansas says that she has battled arthritis since 1982, but two of her favorite activities—quilting and spinning wool—help her hands remain flexible.
“The most important thing is that I have arthritis; it does not have
me,” she says.
San Antonio, Texas quilter Leslie Tucker Jenison, a former healthcare professional, says she has found fabric arts to be an effective stress reliever. Jenison says she’s sure that being “in the zone” with a quilting project changes brain waves and lowers blood pressure.
“I feel certain that, if someone were to physically monitor the vital signs of a quilt artist during their studio work time, we would find all sorts of positive physical benefits,” she adds. “I know my focus on the work is calming, and I feel quite sure my pulse slows.
“My work as a labor and delivery nurse was mostly joyful, occasionally devastatingly sad, and frequently stressful. I absolutely benefitted from having a quilt project awaiting my return home late at night. This is how I unwound. I found the work very meditative in nature,” she says. “Quilting provides a source of great comfort to me, both then and now.”
Quilting also proved to be a comfort to Caryl Bryer Fallert-Gentry when she suffered a devastating loss.
“There have been many times that I was able to lose myself in a quilting project and get a few hours free from worry and/or loneliness, but this was especially true after my first husband died,” she says.
“I had just launched into piecing a new quilt, with a serious deadline, when he died suddenly and unexpectedly, just before Christmas. After all of the well-wishers had left, finishing the quilt got me through the first few weeks when I was alone in January, the dreariest month of the year.”
Sitting at the sewing machine for long periods of time helps induce a “mental zone” close to meditation, she says. Now living in Port Townsend, Washington where the Pacific Northwest winters are gray and drizzly, Fallert-Gentry says she also finds working under “daylight” bulbs around 6500 Kelvin (color temperature) makes a big difference in her mood.
Color plays a critical role as a mood lifter for both Fallert and quilter
Kathy York of Austin, Texas. York admits she selects colors that feel right
to her intuitively.
“I have a history of selecting bright colors because I feel happy in the presence of them,” she says.
“I get excited by beautiful colors, especially when they are arranged in gradations to create the illusion of an inner glow,” Fallert-Gentry concurs. “I do consciously choose to make work that focuses on the positive themes that make me happy, and I’m thrilled when I find out that they make other people happy too!”
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