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The first time I encountered an oncology patient my age was a few years ago, when my roommate from university, a companion of many adventures, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 34. It was quite terrifying, and the only thing I was able to do, apart from visiting and supporting the best I could, was knit an enormous PI Shawl in Shetland wool to keep her warm and cozy during therapy sessions. I’m happy to say that she recovered and kept the shawl as a dear companion.

A few years later, I discovered the philanthropic organization Gomitolorosa, which is based around the idea that knitting is an effective tool in healthcare.

Gomitolorosa ("Pink Skein" in Italian) has a fascinating history. It sparked from a keen observation of Dr. Alberto Costa, an oncologist, breast cancer specialist, and surgeon from Biella, Italy (which is, incidentally, the center of one of the main textile hubs in Italy, renowned for its many spinning mills).

In many years of practice, Dr. Costa noticed that his patients who were knitting or crocheting in the waiting room were calmer and more centered. In 2012, he started an association to promote the dissemination of knitting and crochet in hospitals, while also making yarn to save raw wool from landfills. Their yarns also raise awareness on different diseases, with each color of yarn being associated with a specific disease. The first color was, of course, pink for breast cancer.

a circle of crocheted hearts with a light pink yarn skein in the center
Gomitolorosa yarn.

As knitters and crocheters, we're very familiar with the state of focused attention that can be induced by our hands moving in harmony with our tools. This peaceful state has been compared to meditation and mindfulness. While the power of meditation has been studied since the 1970s with scientific methods using EEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging, a study proving the mental health benefits of knitting and crochet was yet to be performed.

In November 2023, with the support of Gomitolorosa, the Carlo Besta Neurological Institute in Milan published a scientific study proving that knitting is beneficial for mental health, regulates intrusive thoughts, and increases attention spans. In the case of oncological patients specifically, they found that knitting helps calm the mind, significantly aiding the decision-making process for health in a moment of extreme personal fragility.

one woman teaching another woman how to crochet
Gomitolorosa volunteer teaches patient how to crochet.

Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a neuroimaging technique that maps brain activity, the neurologists and neurophysiologists of the Carlo Besta Neurological Institute recorded the magnetic and electrical activity of the cerebral cortex of forty expert knitting volunteers aged between 27 and 63, before and after a twenty-minute knitting session. This was done to determine and measure any benefits for mental health, focus, and well-being resulting from knitting.

Dr. Davide Rossi Sebastiano, head of the neurophysiopathology operational unit and project leader, declared that, “In people who knit with a certain assiduity, even a short knitting session increases attention, even in the period after knitting. A further innovative aspect is that this attention is achieved immediately, as soon as the work begins, and that it's maintained for another 15-20 minutes after finishing knitting.”

“This increase in attention is very important for those who are experiencing a treatment journey, as it allows them to better understand their own illness and the measures to take to overcome it and achieve recovery. It's a well-known phenomenon in psycho-oncology and is called 'patient empowerment,'” adds Dr. Rossi Sebastiano.

After that first PI Shawl and the publishing of this research, I went on a journey of using knitting as a therapy: knitting for healing friends and family members, for challenging times, or to celebrate the end of them. I had the pleasure of introducing my craft to people I thought could benefit from it.

In many oncological waiting rooms in Italy, it’s now possible to see Gomitolorosa volunteers offering a fiber arts starting kit: a couple of needles or a crochet hook, a skein of yarn, and the assistance to get started.


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