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a cross-stitch with a picture of a mask reading “SEND HELP,” flanked by two cross-stitched patterns that might be snowflakes but might be coronavirus
Knitting and other crafts are a fun alternative to madness this winter.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

How to get a hobby this winter

I’ve been crafting in various forms for years. Here’s some of what I’ve picked up.

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A friend of mine, likely not meaning to sound so withering, once turned to me unprompted and said, “Alanna ... you really have a lot of hobbies.”

She wasn’t wrong, even if her delivery made me sound at best like a twee little forest nymph wearing a crown made of acorns, and at worst like a dilettante cavorting from activity to activity. I do have an at times alarming number of hobbies, mostly of the crafty variety. I’ve been knitting for almost 25 years and have taught it to students of all ages for the past dozen or so (I’ve also written two books about it); I crochet, embroider, do a little bit of weaving and needle-felting, and have dabbled with clay, jewelry-making, and, for a departure that might just make me sound even more like Matilda’s Miss Honey, sing in a choir.

You might think this makes me well-suited for quarantine during the pandemic; I assure you it does not. I’ve been barely inclined to pick up a ball of yarn since March. Still, in the rare moments when I have felt motivated to make something, it’s had a demonstrable effect on my mental health, or at least on nudging along the inexorable passage of time in a way that does not include my cellphone.

This general set of benefits has not gone unnoticed by the people in my life — anecdotally, I’ve never had more people ask me to teach them how to knit than I did between late March and early May of this year, when it became clear that Covid-19 was not going away after a few weeks of sheltering in place.

As those of us who inexplicably chose to live somewhere with winter staring down its icy barrel, those requests have picked back up, maybe with a slightly more desperate tinge. Everyone, it seems, wants to get a hobby.

Some general rules about crafting (spoiler: there really aren’t any)

Knitting, for all that I love it, isn’t necessarily for everyone. The learning curve can be steep and, for some folks, it can require too much concentration to be truly soothing. With that in mind, here’s how to figure out which craft might be right for you, and how to get started without abandoning it in frustration.

The first thing to know when picking up a new hobby is that you will almost certainly be bad at it, and that is okay. In fact, it’s one of my favorite aspects of making stuff — the permission to fail repeatedly in a wildly low-stakes environment. It’s also one of my favorite parts of teaching children. Obviously, young people are as variable and multifaceted as adults, but I’ve found that the former have a far more comfortable relationship with not instantly being experts at a new task, while the latter are more inclined to give up the minute it becomes clear that they will not immediately become Etsy moguls.

That’s another side of crafting that I personally find, perhaps paradoxically, valuable: how separate it is from my actual work, and how it makes me feel productive without that productivity being tied to the pursuit of money. Of course, plenty of people make their living in part or wholly by selling what they make, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with picking up a craft with the hope that you might be able to sell your finished products. Especially at the beginning stages, though, I’d advise against focusing on that as your end goal, and instead concentrate on turning off your anxious brain, deciding which skills you’d like to get the hang of, or thinking about who you might like to give the first (or, let’s be real, third) fruit of your labors to. No shame whatsoever if that recipient is yourself.

So how do you choose which craft is right for you? There’s no such thing as a “crafty person” versus a non-crafty one, IMO, but your mileage may vary in terms of how much time, attention, and money you’re willing or able to invest. This goes triple during, say, a pandemic, when it should be considered a rousing victory simply to get through the day.

The crafts I tend to recommend to beginners range from deceptively simple (like embroidery and beading) to a somewhat steeper learning curve (knitting), and there are plenty of ways to go about procuring the materials and the resources you’ll need to learn for each. You can even get a sense of how difficult they’ll be before you decide to dive in yourself.

Some general rules of thumb: Your first and best friend in this regard will be the internet; basically every new craft I’ve ever taught myself was thanks to YouTube, or at least to the Instagram accounts, forum posts, and tutorials of people I found online. There are also plenty of paid classes, like the ones you can find on Craftsy, which cover everything from crochet to cake decorating. Whether you’re going the paid or free route, give yourself room to dig around and see what you come up with, and whose teaching and aesthetic styles you vibe with.

There are also plenty of preassembled kits that are perfect for when you don’t want to have to amass all the necessary materials for a given craft yourself; these tend to be pricier than acquiring supplies yourself, however (for example, a beginner knitting kit could easily run you $60, while buying similar materials a la carte can clock in at around half that), and you may find that written directions aren’t enough for your particular learning style. That said, kits are often easy, of high quality, and can make excellent gifts for the aspiring crafter in your life.

If cost is a barrier, or even if it’s not, I’m a big fan of letting whatever materials you already have on hand be your guide. If you have a forgotten stash of neon Sculpey clay or an inherited box of yarn, now’s a great time to figure out how to use them. Odds are, too, that someone in your orbit — a friend, a neighbor, a member of a religious or community group — has random supplies to give away as well. Keep an eye on your local Buy Nothing page to see if anyone is willing to facilitate a safe and distanced pickup.

Okay, let’s get to the actual crafts

There are, by my highly journalistic count, ten bajillion possible crafts you could pick up at this very moment, and likely ten quadrillion more that would require heavy machinery and/or a complete lifestyle overhaul. I’m going to focus on the ones I have some facility with and that can easily be done in the smallest of apartments and remotest of areas: embroidery, air-dry clay, and knitting. That’s roughly the order of difficulty as well. Again, this is a deeply non-exhaustive list of resources and materials, so feel beyond free to use whatever you have, can find, are drawn to, matches your current energy level, whatever. The world is your fibrous oyster.


Embroidery

Embroidery can comprise a bunch of different crafts, like needlepoint and cross-stitch, which often require patterns and gridded fabric and particular stitches; here, I mean “using thread on fabric to create images,” which is far more straightforward than it might at first appear.

If you’ve ever sewn a button back onto a shirt, you know all you need to get started. Still, I recommend this YouTube video as a jumping-off point, which is quite clear and has a jazzy little soundtrack as a bonus. Your first project should likely be a simple image or phrase meant to be displayed in a hoop, rather than immediately jumping to embroidering a denim jacket or a pillow, but your life, your rules.

For materials, you’ll want to get:

  • An embroidery hoop; I prefer wood but plastic works too, and shoot for 6” or 7” in diameter if possible
  • A pack of embroidery needles; you will certainly lose one or all of them
  • Embroidery floss (this is the technical term for “thick thread”) in whatever colors you like best
  • Sturdy cotton fabric; white or cream is easiest to see your work on, but you can definitely get creative with colors
  • Scissors; kitchen scissors are fine
  • A pencil if you want to sketch out your image in advance, which I highly recommend, especially if it will include any kind of lettering

If you’re interested in a kit, check out these ones by ChloeArtCrafts on Etsy, which have rave reviews and feature cute, modern images.


Air-dry clay

Chances are, you follow an impossibly cool girl on Instagram who perpetually posts time-lapses of herself at a pottery wheel and always seems to be running to and from the kiln with beautifully glazed pots and mugs. Unfortunately, you likely do not have a pottery wheel nor a kiln in your house, so you cannot easily become that girl during a pandemic. That’s where air-dry clay comes in. The name is pretty self-evident, but it doesn’t require heat to become firm nor for paint to set, and there are some really decent versions available for very little money. This is an especially great activity to do with kids, although be careful when it comes to any surfaces or fabrics you might be crafting around; acrylic paint can be an absolute nightmare to wash out.

This requires less of a hard-and-fast materials list or tutorial because a lot of it is just playing around and seeing what you enjoy, but it can be somewhat annoying when you’re first figuring out how the clay itself works. Here’s a solid YouTube tutorial that goes over how to make an imprinted jewelry dish, and shows the importance of keeping the clay damp but not too wet as well as what to do if you start to see cracks.

The only thing you REALLY need here is the clay itself and a cup of water for moistening it, but if you want to shape or paint your project with any facility, there are some other materials to keep an eye out for:

  • I’ve used both Crayola and DAS clays and really liked them both. Crayola is a bit easier to store because it comes in a tub, while DAS is maybe a hair smoother and less likely to crack, so really it’s down to what’s available to you.
  • Some sort of tool that can serve as a rolling pin (like an empty bottle of wine)
  • Some sort of tool that can serve as a carving implement (like an X-Acto blade or a small, sharp knife)
  • A cup of water and paper towels for keeping the clay moist; you could use a regular towel or rag but it might be tough to get clean afterward
  • Acrylic paints, sealant (although fair warning that you likely won’t be able to make food-safe projects even if you do seal them), and a paintbrush or two if you’d like to decorate your work.

For the kit-seekers, I’ve heard good things about a company called Sculpd, which provides everything you’ll need to get started and has some very chic paint colors to boot.


Knitting

I hope I didn’t scare you off of knitting altogether, because it’s really The Thing that’s anchored me and brought me comfort in the roughest of times. I wrote an intro knitting book this year that focuses on how to knit a hat even as an absolute beginner; it’s my personal philosophy that so many adults have sour memories of learning to knit because they actually just hated knitting scarves, so repetitive and interminable and which nobody really wants in the first place.

If you’re not looking to make a hat just yet nor give your money to a stranger on the internet (fair!), here is a series of videos by KnittingHelp that I often point newbies toward. It’s as relaxing as a bathtub and half a Xanax and will help you get started with the basic building blocks of the craft. I also highly recommend getting an account on Ravelry, which is a free social media site slash pattern resource and where I’ve found virtually all of the resources and inspiration in my own knitting life.

Your materials will vary depending on what you’d like to knit first. Here are some fairly universal options:

  • A set of circular knitting needles, which you can use to knit round things like hats and sleeves or flat ones like scarves. I recommend sticking with size 7 needles, which are on the thin side of medium, and 16- or 24-inch length for flexibility
  • Yarn that corresponds with your needle size (very thick yarn, for example, requires thicker needles). In this case, I’d suggest worsted weight, which for our purposes basically means medium. Pick up two or three skeins (which is yarnese for those twisty hanks you sometimes see rather than balls) and you’ll be able to make at least one hat plus a few other small projects.
  • A yarn needle, which confusingly sounds a lot like a “knitting needle” but is actually the name for what is essentially a super-jumbo sewing needle you’ll use to close up any seams or get rid of any dangling bits of yarn at the end
  • Scissors; again, kitchen scissors are fine.

KnitPicks, a lovely and very affordable yarn retailer, has a line of beginner kits if you’d prefer to go that route. And here’s some more info in an article I wrote a few years back about how to get started; it doesn’t totally hold up mid-pandemic because you likely won’t be visiting a yarn store and rubbing skeins against your neck any time soon, yet it hopefully provides some useful additional context.

Above all, I implore you not to give up right away, particularly when it comes to knitting but really in whatever craft you choose; if you truly hate it, you can always find another, and you might surprise yourself by pushing through. We’re going to be stuck inside for a while — we might as well make something.

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