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Research and Innovation

During COVID-19 Lockdowns, Textile Arts Helped Older Adults to Cope

textile craft
A recent study explored the importance of textile arts and crafts for adults in senior living facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a textile artist, designer and educator, Kate Nartker understands firsthand how the repetitive process of weaving can be calming. As a researcher, Nartker found that engaging in textile arts also has important benefits for others.

“Weaving is my anchor; it’s my home base, it’s what I enjoy most, and it’s where all my research ideas come from,” said Nartker, an assistant professor of textile apparel, technology and management at North Carolina State University. “More and more, I have found that weaving is taking on an increased role for me in terms of giving me space to reflect and take a step back.”

Nartker has also seen how textile arts and crafts can be an important outlet for others. Her grandmother used quilting to channel her grief after the loss of her daughter – Nartker’s aunt – even though her grandmother had never quilted before.

 “She made piles and piles of quilts. It was her saving grace,” Nartker said.

In a recent study, Nartker wanted to see how quilting, and other textile arts such as embroidery or weaving, might have helped adults who were isolated in senior living facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. She interviewed 12 women between the ages of 70 and 90 about their participation in textile arts and crafts before and during the pandemic. The interviews were conducted between March 2020 and 2021. The Abstract spoke with Nartker about what she learned:

The Abstract: Why did you want to study how older adults used textile arts and crafts during the pandemic?

Kate Nartker: Most of the research on arts participation among the elderly has focused on organized enrichment programs. Consistently, research has pointed to the benefits of social connections from these classes. During the COVID pandemic, though, many people lost that social piece. They lost access to those services and programs that have been shown to be so effective in emotional health. People were very much quarantined in their own spaces. We wanted to see if there were still benefits from engaging with textile crafts beyond the social aspect, and also to see if and how it was connected to coping with the isolation.

TA: How were people affected by the pandemic?

Nartker: In our small study, some people said they weren’t bothered, but for many people, it was devastating. They were very lonely – they said they felt like climbing the walls or losing their minds. It just exacerbated some of the existing mental health problems.

TA: How were people participating during the pandemic?

Nartker: All of the participants were crafting on their own. Some of them joined online communities, but the majority were isolated by themselves. Eventually, some started to meet outside informally.

TA: What kinds of crafts did they do?

Nartker: In terms of their crafting ability, they all were very advanced. Every single participant had been engaged with various craft techniques, such as knitting, weaving, crochet or embroidery, for decades. For some, it was about creative expression. There was one participant who really was drawn to creating her own designs and being experimental, whereas others were more into following patterns or making gifts for others, and it was less about artistic expression. We saw people using textile crafts to document what they were going through during the pandemic. One woman embroidered the word “COVID” with little cells flying all over. She also did a series where she sewed buttons in the shape of cells. She said “I hope we survive this thing” so she could pass it on to her grandkids.

TA: What were some of the most powerful impacts that you saw from textile crafting?

Nartker: Two participants had dementia or Alzheimer’s. One participant said, “with knitting and crochet it’s right there in front of me, I can see what I just did. I can pick it up.” That is really an important piece of information. There is limited research on textile craft activities as an occupation for people with cognitive impairments or memory issues. We want to explore that further.

We also think there is something helpful about repetition. Every textile craft activity involves repeating the same action – whether it’s knitting, weaving, crochet or embroidery. This echoed what people found in other research that repeating mantras or chanting can be therapeutic. It was interesting that they all were able to acknowledge that it was the repetition or the rhythm of the activities that was calming and healing.

For one woman, she was in constant pain, and she talked about how she has to crochet and embroider; it keeps her mind off the pain.

TA: Are you planning future research on this topic?

Nartker: One of the limitations of our study was that every participant I talked to was already in love with textiles. In future work, we want to do a study with a larger population, and talk to a more diverse pool of older adults. I’ve applied for a grant through the National Endowment of the Arts to continue this research on a larger scale.