Is it rude to knit at work?

Recently, a county councilor in Wales was accused by a colleague on Twitter of bringing the body “into disrepute” for knitting during a virtual public meeting. The criticism has touched off a debate about whether it is appropriate to pull out knitting needles in video huddles.

Knitters say it isn’t the same as sneaking a phone under the camera or scrolling the internet. Knitting, they say, sharpens their attention, allowing them to focus more than they would with idle hands.

The response to the episode in Wales in January showed that Rachel Garrick, a county councilor in Monmouthshire, wasn’t alone.

Ms. Garrick has been knitting since 2012 to help manage the pain from chronic osteoarthritis and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a group of related connective tissue disorders, even while doing her job as the head of radiological consequences for the United Kingdom’s civil nuclear fleet.

“When I was essentially confined to a wheelchair or stuck in bed,” she said, “it gave me something to do and focus on, which was really, really, really helpful in terms of keeping myself sane and distracting myself from what was some pretty horrific pain levels back then.”

Now, she said, knitting a simple project, such as a baby blanket, helps her concentrate in meetings, she said.

And there’s a reason: The fine-motor movement required for knitting, crocheting, doodling or using a fidget spinner activates the same parts of the brain used for focus, said John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. So, these activities really do help to sharpen awareness. But other activities that require too much concentration, like reading a social media feed or playing a game on a smartphone, can push a person out of productivity and into unfocused multitasking.

“Being involved with something will make a person with flagging attention be more attentive,” Dr. Ratey said. “You will turn on the prefrontal cortex if you’re doing something like knitting.”

Because of those benefits, Ms. Garrick and others say, workplaces should be more accepting of knitting as a method of focusing.

“Different people have different ways of managing tasks, focus, concentration and getting the best performance out of themselves,” she said. “And it’s really important to embrace that diversity and understand it rather than try and have some really retrogressive approaches, which have little imagination and only fit certain people who will fit inside a certain shape box.”

Like many in the hybrid work era, Erin Dreiling finds it far too easy to click away from a video meeting. Once she opens her email, it’s a slippery slope to browsing the internet.

So, she keeps her hands on her knitting needles instead of the mouse. Ms. Dreiling, a senior marketing and communications manager at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, said knitting keeps her attentive and helps with her mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, whether she is in virtual meeting, watching TV or talking to a friend.

“It sort of locks my brain in,” Ms. Dreiling said.

A novice knitter would likely need some practice to reach that point. Justin Harris, the president of the Knitting Guild of Greater Buffalo, first taught himself the craft by watching YouTube videos while working overnight shifts at the front desk of a hotel.

“I have A.D.H.D., so I can’t sit still,” Mr. Harris said. “Like, I constantly have to be doing something, and you really quickly run out of things to do when you’re sitting at the front desk of a hotel.”

As he became more proficient, knitting became second nature. Now that he is in a managerial position, he said, it keeps him level headed when fielding customer complaints. Projects that he calls “vanilla knitting,” like scarves or hats, are easy enough to do without looking down at the needles while he’s in a meeting or reading emails.

When Mr. Harris moved to day shifts, the owner of the hotel where he works initially was put off by his knitting. Once he explained that it reduced stress and helped him focus, he said, the hotel’s owner understood.

Still, Mr. Harris said he has faced judgment for knitting in public — both because people see it as rude and because they are surprised to see a man doing it. But he remains grateful for the craft.

“As soon as I start knitting, I’m laser focused on that one person talking,” he said. “I can tell you how many rows I knit, and I can also tell you everything that they just told me. It’s a big thing for me — it’s helped me honestly advance in my career and both of the organizations I belong to.”

Knitting was a part of Sheree Robinson’s coursework before it became a hobby, having learned it while studying textiles. Now a knitwear designer and lecturer at the University of the Arts London, Ms. Robinson realized that knitting helped her concentrate during virtual meetings when she started teaching in 2020.

“If I’m doing something actively and listening, I’m more focused,” she said. “I think trying to focus without having anything to do, I struggle.”

However, she worried that it would come across as rude — even in the textiles industry — and always kept her knitting off screen. And she is not comfortable doing it during in-person meetings. Sometimes, though, she stitches away alongside her students as they work on projects during her classes.

“It feels like a bit of a minefield, doing it in person at work,” she said.

Ms. Robinson is one of many knitters who have had to explain their hobby to colleagues, friends or family.

Growing up, Lisa Ben-Haim noticed that her mother could never sit still while watching a movie or TV — she always had to be working on a knitting project. Ms. Ben-Haim, an educational technologist at a school in Highland Park, N.J., finally understood why after she took a knitting project to a professional workshop.

“It needed just enough of my attention that I could still pay attention to what was going on,” she said. “And then I realized all of a sudden, ‘Wow, I’m paying more attention than I would if I was just sitting there.’”

Ms. Ben-Haim recalled that a man once called her rude for knitting during a speech at a conference. She noted that he had been typing on his phone throughout the speech, which she considered an actual distraction.

She hasn’t faced any pushback in her current job for knitting during workshops or meetings.

“I always try to bring it back to the student,” she said. “Just like we would give a student anything they need in order to learn, that’s what I need. If it’s disruptive, I will stop. If we’re doing something active, I definitely put it down. It just has to be done with respect.”

Taylor Payne, who was diagnosed with A.D.H.D. after taking up knitting, agreed that the hobby has helped her in her career and personal life. She learned from a friend in 2014, when she took leave from her job to protest police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager.

Now, she says, she knits almost anywhere to help with patience and focus — while waiting in lines, visiting with friends over coffee and attending virtual meetings for her remote job as a service design specialist for a fintech company.

“People sit in meetings and play with their phones constantly,” said Ms. Payne, who co-founded the Yarn Mission, an organization that gives Black people a healing activity to share and offers free knitting materials and lessons.

Ms. Garrick, the councilor in Wales, has not felt comfortable picking up her needles during full council meetings since the Twitter attack, though she said she does so in smaller meetings with fellow members of the Labour Party.

However, the episode prompted residents in her county to start a knitting group, and Ms. Garrick spent the month of March raising money for a charity called Versus Arthritis. She said she’s glad something positive — her efforts to destigmatize knitting in the workplace — has come out of what could have been an entirely unpleasant experience.

“There’s a very, very smooth flow to it, particularly when you’re doing something very simple with it,” she said about knitting. “So you’re in this flow, and it just calms your mind. It stops all those little voices and ripples in your mind. There’s just this calmness, and with that calmness comes this focus.”

April Rubin

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