How can crafting improve your mental health?

Issabella Orlando is a writer, arts and culture lover and the filmmaker behind Holy Craft!, a documentary film series illustrating the art of making. Here she looks at how developing a more intimate relationship with crafting can alter your mindset for the better, providing a connection to the past, accentuating the present and offering hope for the future.

WORDS: Issabella Orlando

How can crafting help you to achieve focus and attention in a busy world?

Craft is not just the final product or the how-it’s-made behind the objects in our day-to-day lives. It’s a continuing arc between past and present, a way of weaving together broadly gathered cultural influences, of keeping them alive and offering creatives a foundation of material to learn, blend and build upon. Craftspeople and craft enthusiasts don’t seem to be motivated by nostalgia, however, so much as the possibility of retaining the spirit of craft – that is, the values and lessons it has to teach, respect for the knowledge accumulated by past generations and interest in innovating upon it. There’s also slowness, awareness and intention.

As Graeme Hughes, a multidisciplinary artist, printmaker and tutor at the Oxford-based Ruskin School of Art, says: ‘When you’re working with a handmade craft, I think there are a couple of things that are happening: the everyday chatter disappears and the automatic takes over.’ As a craftsperson recalls processes of making, especially manual forms that they know well and can perform without thinking, the whole body is called to attention. There’s no switching tabs. There’s no multitasking. There’s only the moment, the artisan, the craft and the item in the process of being made by hand.

This requirement of focus and intention places craftsmanship at the opposite end to much of modern life. It feels easier than ever to be distracted, especially in the digital world, where many different areas of life are contained on the same devices, vying for attention at the same time. ‘When I’m making art, primarily, it gives me a focus that I don’t have when I’m not making,’ says Graeme. ‘I feel more present, effectively, and that’s a relationship I think is inherently linked to materials. I’m definitely in a better mental state when I’m making. I think it has something to do with integrity, you know, integrating aspects of your life.’

Having space to make, for some craftspeople, means having space to process and mentally organise what happens to them in their lives beyond the workshop or studio. Graeme isn’t the only artisan who’s experienced the benefits that craft can offer to one’s inner world. Emerging psychological research suggests that a practice of making can help to turn the tide on challenging mental-health symptoms.

What is the relationship between creativity and mental health?

Although creative thinking and practice are largely beneficial, however, Emma Palmer-Cooper, lecturer in psychology at the University of Southampton, notes that ‘essentially, there seems to be this tipping point, where creativity then becomes associated with symptoms of mental ill health’. As exemplified throughout history by artists who are known to have struggled with their wellbeing, it might be that highly creative people are more likely to experience challenges with their mental health. But it’s important to note that evidence to the contrary also exists and that, if they do occur, challenges can be overcome.

Emma, who researches the influence of craft on wellbeing, says: ‘It might be that being able to channel this creativity into craft, something productive and positive, is an avenue to promoting better mental health. There’s lots of really cool evidence that craft can be beneficial to mental health in loads of different and interesting contexts that people might not think.’

Whether dealing with mental health symptoms or simply trying to focus a distracted mind, craft has the potential to offer a calming outlet, encouraging concentration and connection with the body and the present moment. These benefits aren’t limited to artistic ability or traditional forms of making, either. Anything that allows you to access what Emma refers to as a ‘sense of flow’, as outlined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, can glean similar results.

How can crafting bring a deeper understanding of the world and human creativity?

Aside from the benefits of slowing down, makers and researchers are also exploring craft’s capacity to help people interact differently with the wider world and the dilemmas faced within it. US-born blacksmith and sustainability researcher Everest Gromoll says: ‘When I first started blacksmithing, I would labour over some small thing – nails, a hinge, something like that – and then I would walk into a hardware store and I would have this moment where I would extrapolate all of the labour, all of the effort, all of the sweat, the fuel, the steel that went into making this one very small thing. I recognised all that went into it. And that effect begins to snowball. It gets to the point where you can’t walk through any store and walk down the aisle without having this moment of recognition of all the things that went into making it all. You can’t look away from that.’

By offering makers a deeper understanding of the resources and human effort that are behind the material world around them, Everest, who’s based in the Netherlands, has surmised that practising craft ‘leads to more sustainable lifestyles because it completely alters their perception on consumerism’. This feels poignant as the world grapples with climate change and individuals strive to take personal actions to live more sustainably. Importantly, it also suggests that when acting from a place of appreciation, it’s possible for people to make choices fuelled more by love than by anxiety.

Craft is a vast landscape populated by resilience, connection and hope. It invites anyone who engages with it to reap the benefits for themselves and the world around them. It also serves as a reminder that it’s possible for change to be motivated by a wise and gentle inner compass that prioritises what Everest refers to as ‘much more human commodities – self-reliance, cognitive development, fulfilment and satisfaction’.

What are some ideas for crafting projects?

  1. Can you think of an object in your home, workplace or community that needs fixing? Is there a way you can learn to do this manually? For example, you could mend a jacket, fix a broken piece of jewellery, repair a broken chair or transform a stained tablecloth into a set of tea towels.
  2. Is there something you need or want right now – an item of clothing, a home-baked cake, a picture frame? Can you make it yourself? Search online for many ideas that can be made at home – candles, pillowcases, dresses, cakes, birthday cards, to name just a few.
  3. Before and after a craft session, jot down or mentally note the answers to these questions:

How do I feel right now?

Is my mind wandering? Where to?

How connected am I to my body? Am I breathing fast or slow? Can I feel how hungry or full,
hot or cold I am?

Then, compare the difference.

  1. Think about something you did for fun as a child that you’d like to revisit. Maybe sewing clothes for dolls, baking scones, building sandcastles, making jewellery, sketching, metalwork. Explore how you could return to the craft.

Holy Craft!  is available to watch for free on Art Browser TV (


You can read more articles about creativity and wellness in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.