Hobbies define us. Some even heal us. They are more like tools that help us unwind, unravel our hidden capabilities and often even help us bounce back from setbacks. While the bad news is that many of us are too busy with our handheld devices to pick up or pursue a hobby, the good news is the tools for these hobbies could be at hand. Could that pair of knitting needles nestling somewhere inside our cupboards be one of them? The answer is a big yes.

In 2002, when American novelist Ann Hood lost her five-year-old daughter to a virulent form of strep, she was so distraught that she gave up writing completely. It was month’s later that she, on the advice of a friend, decided to seek solace in the world of knitting by learning the craft and joining knitting groups.

Two years later, she picked up her pen once again to write The Knitting Circle - a moving tale of a woman who after losing her young daughter to meningitis, joins a knitting group to overcome her loss.

Ann Hood is not alone. Stories of women - and men - picking up a pair of knitting needles to find solace in troubling times or to explore the wonders of wool are aplenty.

Hobbies such as knitting can be more than just a salve to a huge loss. They can have multiple health benefits. ‘[Knitting] can help to improve creative thinking, stimulate conversation and provide a wide variety of social support – a space to think, just be or to talk,’ says Betsan Corkhill, a Briton, who has done extensive research on the benefits of knitting and runs workshops teaching people how to improve their wellbeing using therapeutic knitting.

Author of Knit for Health and Wellness, she is also the founder of Stitchlinks, a non-profit global support group for people who enjoy crafts particularly knitting.

According to her, the therapeutic benefits of knitting alone or in a group are mind boggling.

‘In a survey of over 3,500 knitters from 31 countries, [we found that] the more frequently - more than three times a week - people knit, the happier and calmer they feel,’ says Betsan. The fact that knitting involves repetitive, rhythmic movements and can be done pretty much any time and anywhere - while travelling and on holidays - individually and in groups, sets it apart from several other hobbies.

She believes that with our growing fixation to screens - where we switch from one app to another - we tend to spend more time on 2D-based activities which do little to enhance the quality of our lives. Incorporating 3D-based tactile, multisensory activities into our lives on the other hand, particularly at a young age, helps develop the brain.

Her extensive research on the benefits of knitting has shown that knitters learned other transferable skills through knitting. ‘Importantly, respondents to our survey told us they learned patience, perseverance and persistence.’ she says. The hobby has also been found to increase the produciton of serotonin, widely known as the happiness hormone, and induce a natural state of mindfulness while enhancing overall wellbeing.

Celebrities such as Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker, Scarlett Johansson, Catherina Zeta Jones are all said to be avid knitters and can be found clicking needles whenever they find free time on the sets.

According to Google Trends, searches for knitting have increased in countries such as the UK by 53 per cent over the past year, while the emergence of platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube has created vast virtual communities of crafters sharing tutorials, ideas and inspiration.

So is it time for a needlecraft renaissance? Friday meets a few avid knitters in the UAE to find out.

The UAE Amiras - Ruth, Jocelyn, Mel, Shweta, Marielle

‘Just follow the sounds,’ says Jocelyn, one of the original members of the UAE Amiras (princess, in Arabic), a group of mixed nationalities, when I call to ask where she is seated in the cafe that I’ve just entered in Dubai.

I close my eyes for a moment from one corner I hear the faint clacking of knitting needles over the chatter of patrons.

Although it’s around 45C and sultry outside, inside in the pleasant environs of the cafe, the five women, Amiras, as they call themselves, are busy knitting and chatting. Part of a 300-strong group on Facebook, Ruth, Jocelyn, Mel, Shweta, Marielle meet on a regular basis.

In their hands, sweaters, shawls, socks, cardigans, blankets miraculously take shape in no time. Their passion for knitting and fondness for yarn binding them together. The group is also active in making knitwear for charity, be it blankets for the refugees or even teaching knitting to those who are interested.

Ruth Button

‘You collect handbags, I collect yarn,’ Ruth Button, a British expat, tells her non-knitter friends who they raise their brows when they hear the amount of money she sets aside every month for her yarns.

Talk about knitting, and she passionately explains how she and her fellow knitters scour the market for reels of yarn for their hobby. Having learnt to knit at the age of 7 from her mother, Ruth still remembers the knitting bag she received as a Christmas gift from her mum and using it to make her first shawl.

However, she could not continue her passion for knitting for a while during her school and college. ‘But once I started working, which involved long hours and extensive travelling, I wanted something to help me switch off in the evening and allow me to take my mind off work,’ she says. Knitting was the first choice. Ruth has now been knitting on a regular basis for the past 10 years.

From her first project - making a hooded cardigan for her friend’s baby - to having numerous projects in the pipeleine, which she dotingly calls them WIPs (work in progress) she feels the only catastrophic moment while pursuing the hobby is, ‘when you run out of yarn’.

‘Actually, in knitting nothing [can] go wrong; even if it does, ‘we call it a pattern,’ she says.

Has she ever bought a knitted garment?

If there’s a piece with certain designs that require a lot of attention and patience, I prefer buying it from the store, she says.

Mel Wison

A craft aficionado from Australia, Mel enjoys creating things with her hands. Knitting, she admits wasn’t her first love when growing up. As a young girl, when her granny offered to teach her knitting, ‘I preferred climbing trees’, she laughs. It was only later as a teenager that she found this hobby fascinating but began knitting regularly only when she was pregnant with her son.

‘In 2011,I got an email from my son’s school asking if I would like to make blanket squares for labourers,’ recalls Mel. Excited, she quickly signed up even asking her mom who was in Australia to send her knitting needles and yarn from Australia. The search for more yarn brought her to the UAE Amiras and since then, ‘I have been knitting pretty much everyday. It was like finding my tribe,’ she says with a big smile. Nevertheless, she credits her son who got her into knitting things other than blankets. Youtube and the Amiras did come to her rescue. Not one to sit idle, she has her knitting kit with her all the while. ‘If I have to wait or sit somewhere for long, I knit. Even on the plane.’

A collector of yarn, and not one to invest on knick-knacks or souvenirs, all she goes looking for in a new place, is a shop where she can buy some yarn and that’s how she wants to remember it best. Having lost count of the number of socks she has made for her mom, her children and even their friends, all she has to say is, ‘Am happy to keep making them.’

Is it difficult to part with her work? Not really, she reiterates. ‘ For me its more of the process that I enjoy than the final product.’ With several projects on the needle, she chooses to finish only the ones that appeal her on that particular day.

‘It has helped me to breathe end of the day, so to say decompress. When something is whirling in my head, it helps me focus, settles me down and relaxes me a bit. I can sit and think about various things. And if it was a horrible day, it even boosts you,’ she says. Her knitting endeavours are so well appreciated by her family members that if they don’t find her knit, they know for sure that there is something amiss. ‘ It’s a good hobby, good for mental health, keeps your mind engaged,’ she sums up.

Marielle Zatar

She made a cardigan for herself, when she was barely 9 with help from her mother and grandmother. But it was only years later after she got pregnant and had ample time for herself, she began knitting almost regularly. ‘ It hasn’t stopped since then,’ says Marielle Zatar, who recently moved to Jordan. Everytime she flies back home to Germany she makes it a point to meet her fellow knitters in Dubai.

Having knitted basically everything, she is an adept in making her own patterns. She religiously writes them down and later uploads it on Ravelry, a website frequented by knitters all over the world. ‘Knitting has changed my life in a way that it lets me escape into a slower life. I can be creative and it lets me relax but at the same time I can follow my thoughts. It puts me in a mindful meditation. And I love seeing the end product. I have so many nice and unique knitted items now and sometimes the perfect gift for a dear person. Knitting simply makes me happy,’ she says.

Being a perfectionist, an accidental yarn over or a missed stitch though may not be very obvious to a laypersons eye, but for a knitter it is not acceptable. ‘I don’t mind ripping my work and starting all over again. At times it does depend on what and where the mistake is,’ she adds.

Shweta Agarwal

‘I always loved crochet as a child,’ says Shweta, an avid crochetier, who spends 5-6 hrs a day knitting or doing crochet. ‘My day starts at 5 in the morning, preparing breakfast and lunch for my kids and hubby. Once they leave, I sit down with my knitting or crochet in front of the TV for the next couple of hours. This is the only ‘me’ time I get during the day. After my younger one comes back from school, I spend most of my time with her, although I do get to continue with my knitting or crochet while she watches TV or plays with her toys,’ she says.

It was only after moving to Dubai that she started pursing her old hobbies. With ample time in her hands she immersed herself into the world of needlecrafts.

‘Crochet was the most convenient with a toddler watching TV. Slowly I started finding free patterns and yarn stores. After joining the UAE Amiras, there was no looking back,’ she explains. Fairly new to knitting she mostly gifts her projects or keeps it for herself. But given a chance she is ready to sell them too. But more than anything, this craft not only gave wings to her creativity, but gave her an entirely new outlook towards life and most importantly it helped her cope with depression.

Jocelyn Viernes

She is one person among the Amiras, who all look upto whenever they need to dye their yarn. A working mother of four, Jocelyn Viernes, from the Phillipines, taught herself to knit by reading books and following online tutorials. ‘Eventually I picked up more tips and techniques from the UAE Amiras, our local knitting group. I also ended up dyeing yarn because sometimes I could not find the right shade of colour that I wanted for a project,’ she elaborates. On weekends she at times manages to spend 8 hours knitting.

Not one to sell her knitted projects, she gives most of them as gifts or donates it to charity. The only thing she sells is some of her hand-dyed yarn. Spending her time in this hand-based activity, she feels has made her appreciate handmade garments more. ‘I grew up in a family of makers: dressmakers, tailors, cooks so I have always been around people who make things instead of buying them. I am not a dressmaker or a cook but by finding a way to make some practical, wearable, usable things I feel like I now truly belong. Plus knitting has helped me find calm, it is very meditative,’ she reiterates.

From Al Ain: Sonia Bhat

Working as a prosthodontist in Al Ain, this Indian expat is more often busy restoring and replacing teeth of her patients, but once home Dr Sonia Bhat, loves to work with her crochet needles atleast for 2 hours everyday, something that helps her unwind. If not that, she is busy doing glass painting, charcoal painting or even sketching.

Having made her first scarf at age 13, her mother remains her inspiration to this day. A firm believer in colour therapy, her choice of yarn talks about her vibrant personality. Unlike her mother who sticks to white for all her projects, Sonia loves to dabble with colours and finds it difficult to exit from a yarn shop. Once when she was not able to find a matching earring for her dress, all she did was make one. Thanks to her needle skills.

Socks, booties, shawls, mobile pouches, TV cover, doilies are her forte and she has lost count of how many she has given away as gifts. ‘When it comes to friends and relatives I would rather gift them something that I have made, than buy something from the store, and more often people cherish it,’ she says. Not one to watch TV and while her time, she spends it by indulging in her myriad hobbies. ‘Even when we go on long drives, I prefer to carry my crochet needles with me and enjoy it all the more,’ she says.