Life Science Centre, 3rd August 2019
"We were delighted to have James and Dr Thomas from Knit and nibble as our guest speakers at WoolNEss Festival 2019.
How does one talk manage to touch so many emotions?
We laughed, we cried, we felt hope and we learned mindfulness and the audience were captivated.
James worked alongside the WoolNEss team to produce a tailored talk that truly worked with the ethos of our festival"
Lucy McKelvey, Director, WoolNESss 2019
Participation in Knititation and Mindfulness based interventions is entirely voluntary.
Neither McIntosh Publishing, the authors or Dr Thomas Ernst can be held responsible or liable for any wanted or unwanted effects through participation in Knititation® or Mindfulness or the content of this talk.If you have any concerns, please discuss with your Doctor first.
So there you have it, check with your Doctor before knitting…
I’m James, and this is Dr Thomas Ernst, or Tommy to me - him in doors.
Tell me, where do you hide your stash?
Let’s get it out in the open and let’s share ideas.
You see, when Thomas hears our door bell ring, I look sheepish… and then… Thomas arrives into my den in our flat holding packages for me and says in his wee boy voice “not more wool James, not more wool, we are drowning in wool”.
But, Thomas does not know the half of it nor does Tommy understand the real need for extra yarn. Why both the DK and the worsted weights of that particular colour-way are required for my stash.
Thomas at this point is not appreciating that I am being thoughtful when I don't buy the aran weight too. You see my den is my…
STABLE - STash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy.
How many balls do I need?
KTB - Knitting Takes Balls. Fact.
A little spare for darning perhaps?
It’s not about ‘buy what you need’ is it?
It’s about the delicious soft colour for knitting that idea that you have in your head, that, let's be realistic, one will never get round to making.
But that’s not to be discussed in polite society…
Yes I have filled under my side of the bed, the spare bedroom, my den and, Thomas this will be news to you…
I have taken the side off the bath and it’s amazing just how many balls and skeins I have hidden away in all sorts of glorious colour-ways that you have no clue about!
But then again, I do have you as the best dressed Dr in the hospital over the winter!
What’s on your needles Dr Thomas? "Patient's James" ...
Hands up who suffers from a syndrome?
It is fashionable after all to have at least one syndrome to discuss at dinner parties…
…and after all, we are here at a dinner party!
Constantly in my life I suffer, (on average about every 2 weeks) from Second Sleeve Syndrome
It's an agitation, a lack of will, and a contribution factor to my growing 'Work in Progress' stash.
So back to my Second Sleeve Syndrome - I mean, I always start with good intentions, a joy and excitement by new yarn colours.
When knitting a sweater my formula is easy, back, front, 2 sleeves, neckband, sew up, wear until dirty, rinse and repeat.
All of this is ok, the back knits up beautifully, then the front remembering to adjust the decreases due to the neck line, first sleeve…
Then my joy de vivre seems to plummet.
Then I stop.
I don't know why. I just seem to fold all neatly and place them in a bag to prevent moths from an attack and then they sit there.
Until the other half comes into my den and demands the Work In Progress (WIP) bags reduce.
On many occasions I have told Thomas to not comment on my stash in my den or I will get my WIP out, using my Northern Irish accent to my advantage, I skip past the ‘h’ in whip, Thomas gives in and does not realise I’m talking about my Work In Progress bags, which, if emptied, would cover more floor area than just my den.
You see, Dr Thomas has a syndrome himself. I call it yarn myopia.
Yarn myopia is a syndrome where Dr Thomas can not see the difference in 2 balls of yarn and 20.
The fact is there are lots of balls of yarn in our home.
I can see the difference, I can see front's and back's of sweaters in these balls of yarn, perhaps a scarf or a contrast cast on edging.
But the good Dr seems to not be able to see this…
Other knitting syndromes we have heard of:
Second sock syndrome - akin to second sleeve syndrome.
With the slight mutation in its DNA due to heal turning.
Chronic knitting syndrome - I have this one too, it affects all in any walk of knitting life - it’s when you wake up and find your knitting next to the bed as you have just had to finish a few more rows before nodding off and next morning before coffee you have to pick up 3 stitches that have fallen off.
First Sock Syndrome - when knitting for a paid commission and one does not like the colour scheme. #TOAD - Trashed Object Abandoned in Disgust.
It's too nice to knit with Syndrome - when one sees a ball of yarn that is just stunning as it is.
This is the most intimate in all of the syndromes, it’s yarn porn.
It's not turning out how I envisaged so I'll put it to one side and hope it transforms Syndrome - also known as denial and hoarding.
And finally, I reckon it’s one of the biggest knitting pandemics…
PROBLO - PROjects Beyond Life Expectancy.
This one affects my male urges as SEX to me is now a Stash Enhancement Xpedition.
Talking about syndromes, I want to tell you the story of my wellness, through WoolNEss.
Hands up who knows of someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety or panic attacks or what I just call ‘the fear’ - when you wake up and shudder?
Statistics from the charity MIND state 1 in every 4 people in the UK will suffer at one point in any given year.
And I am not ashamed that I suffered.
And I stand here proud to talk about it.
I always believed that someone suffering from depression just needed a good kick up the backside and get on with life, that was until it happened to me and the black dog arrived at our house. I was, and may I state clearly at that point of life, ‘in my prime’!
I was diagnosed with a moderately severe depressive episode.
Life loving me?
At the time, I was 35, I woke up and could not move - could not get out of bed. I was not lazy, I just could not move.
This did not make any sense. Things had bottled up, one thing after another and then the final snap came. I had been publicly betrayed in my native Northern Ireland.
It was too much to bear.
Fear, anxiety, a catatonic physical state, panic, black. Very black.
If you have not been through a mid-life crisis, take note, make it spectacular, because when you fall, it needs to be memorable. Mine was, like me, fabulous. So much so some of it even played out on Prime Time TV.
Meanwhile, while I was breaking, I was also breaking the mould. I have never done things normally, and this was no different.
I mean I spent my gap year in Siberia and used to present TV in China.
I lost the sports car and opted for the older model in the form of Dr. Thomas: who may not look so good in a bikini, but does look great in a raglan!
My head was the deepest black, I had no energy, the depth of sadness in my head was too much to bear.
I could not sleep. I could not eat. I could not function. I had lost ‘me’.
All I could do every day to calm my anxiety was to stay in bed and watch TV. I spent a whole year in bed, I could not get out, Thomas loved me through it and as a Dr himself, he was aware I was acutely ill.
I was conscious I was wasting my life. I felt deep shame from this. I was a distant shadow of myself, my life was wasting away and I did not know what to do, or have the energy to do it. I felt no reward, at least if we lived in Dr Thomas’ native Germany I would be rewarded with the title of ‘Frau Dr.’
Instead I was lumbered with the title of ‘Dr’s wife’.
The old boys club is an inherent cruelty of the UK and more business is carried out at the dinner table than in the board room. I was thankful I studied for an MA in Home Economics and used to work in the Good Housekeeping Institute - ‘menopausal monthly’ as we called it, the non-defined gender roles of today’s London society saved the day.
I had been very successful in life, I was the only Westerner to present food TV in China. At the height of my career I was getting about 100 million viewers a week on my TV shows and was awarded with the equivalent of a BAFTA in China, the only Westerner to ever obtain this in a Communist controlled country.
I was also the Global Ambassador for AGA cookers with whom I had a very long relationship. I had the privilege of launching AGA all over the world, and was the man who brought AGA and Rangemaster to China.
Dr Thomas is a senior Consultant Physician in a large teaching hospital in London. Thomas meditates for 3 hours a day, every day. I assure you ‘There are 3 of us in this marriage, and it’s a little bit crowded’! But his dedication to the practice of mindfulness, is a blessing and shows it's fruits in our lives, both together and separate.
He’s the only NHS consultant that we know of that operates a mindfulness clinic to treat chronic illness and pain. His in-patients are geriatrics, out-patients are related to autonomics - that’s faints and blackouts to you and me. His hours are so long and demanding. Through my illness Thomas would literally carry me into the bathroom to help me with the most simple of tasks, I felt ashamed. I could not function. I honestly don’t know how Thomas managed his career and being my carer.
In my illness Thomas sent his Ward Sister, Suzanne to see me at home after her shift on the ward. In her Southern Irish brogue she taught me to knit with that Irish ward-Sister no-nonsense approach:
‘stick the right one into the loop on the left, wrap the yarn over, then pull it off. There you go, do it again’.
Sister knows about knitting and wellness, handing a ball of yarn to a demented patient can stop the screams of anguish as they are hospitalised while re-living their fears. Dr Thomas says that we all must confront our fears to move on, either to the next stage of our life, or when leaving this world - and this is understandably daunting. People like Sister make the NHS what it is, a treasure we must protect in the UK and encourage therapeutic knitting into treatments and using ‘social prescribing’ in conjunction with medications.
I don’t remember why I started to knit, but I found 2 chopsticks and a piece of string, watched the YouTube to learn how to cast on. Before I knew it I had created a knitted something or other.
I showed it to Thomas and he said ‘let’s get ze wool ja’.
I started to knit a jumper on 12mm needles in beige Alpaca - itchy bloody thing.
The resulting product is somewhat shapeless, but will live as a trophy to my health for many years, albeit at the back of my wardrobe.
Why do moths never eat the ugly items?
I remember putting that misshapen article of clothing on my body, looking in the mirror and for the first time, in so long feeling proud of me again. Albeit looking like a grown up Von-Trap child with knitted curtains for my new clothing. I thirsted for colour in so many ways. Colour is healing. Colour is life.
At this point in my life that beige alpaca was as daring as I could deal with.
My first knitted garment allowed me to love myself again, I felt human. A deeply precious and intimate feeling that Northern Ireland had stripped from me years ago.
I phoned my Mum one day saying my head was like a metal box, and the hammers inside the box won’t stop. You see one’s silence when suffering from depression is the loudest noise. Northern Irish Mum’s are great ladies, within a few hours Mum was in Peckham - the posh part - where Dr Thomas and I live. We started to talk, I started to get better.
We went to John Lewis.
Mum knit the ribs, I did the stocking stitch, Dr Thomas put it in a boil wash.
I had to start again, both with that boiled washed item and my career. You see, the tablets were kicking in. I was getting better, A ‘Dr’s wife’ on antidepressants, stereo-types are harsh. I brought my knitting to the annual society club summer drinks party. I assure you, knitting in a tuxedo makes one rather popular - it avoids the pointless small talk these events are famous for.
Through all of this my mind was racing, it would not stop. Cold sweats were a constant reality. The tender little flame that is my soul seemed to be oxidising in the naked air and it was deeply painful as it was kicked by Northern Irish homophobia and stereotypes in society. My little inner candle flame that was my soul, that was all I was and held dear was nearly blown out.
That one stitch, and then another allowed a sense of calm. A creation growing that I had made, a reason for me to be proud, to find my circadian rhythm with my knitting needles. Each stitch became a breath, each breath a feeling, each feeling acknowledged and understood. Each stitch a tangible product that my feelings were worth something. That I was worth something.
The tablets were not a quick fix or happy pills, thoroughly boring pharmaceuticals that gave a base line, a middle c, the lattice to stand on. Side effects too. Dreams so vivid yet cathartic, metallic tastes, nausea, enlarged tummy.
Slowly, as the knitted items grew from my needles, my confidence was growing too. The tatters of my mind were being knitted back together one stitch at a time. I was able to leave our home again, I was able to have a life. Like the snowdrops in February, I was starting to emerge again, a living functional creature. I learnt to talk about my feelings.
To realise that they were valid, they were mine and they needed to be understood.
A stitch in time, saved my mind.
I call it Knititation®.
A mindfulness practice that brought joy back to my life through hand knitting.
I could see colour again.
Thomas came home one evening and noticed I was able to have washed the laundry. Me doing laundry was a miracle in itself!
I was not exactly better at this point, I was starting to regain a little bit of my normal function.
But I was getting better. And the stitches were growing on my needles.
I’m proud to say, I’m better, whatever that is, and I wake up at 6am every day and have a purpose again.
How did I get better?
Holding 2 knitting needles in-front of me gave me support, it allowed a barrier between myself and someone else - a safety net - to get better.
The anxiety had stopped when I was knitting. My head was clam.
I was never any good at traditional mindfulness or meditation. You see, I’m a fidgeter. Sitting still and feeling the present did not work for me.
Embrace the negatives Dr Thomas would say to me. Don’t hide them, learn to love them.
I did not want to do this, it was too painful and daunting.
Moreover, I did not understand what the Dr was on about. I mean, negatives are not nice things unless you're into mental sadomasochism.
I had enough of the mental pain, so I spent many arguments shunning the advice of the Dr. You know how it is with couples at home? I gave in as I wanted some peace and quiet from the yakking in my ears and asked Thomas how to embrace the negatives while thinking negatives about embracing the negatives.
Thomas explained mindfulness, my head was not able to concentrate on the present, so Thomas suggested ‘mindful movements’.
Picture the scene…
We are both standing in our living room, in Peckham, the posh part listening to a CD whilst being aware of the present, moving as per instructed to the voice of a monotone man who is telling me to move in a particular fashion.
One leg in the air looking like a flamingo in full Ninja mode.
Next thing I was lying on my belly on the rug being instructed by said monotone voice to form the position entitled ‘the lower cobra’.
I was thinking of the Indian Cobra beer at this point. Dr Thomas next to me taking all very seriously and my inner core strength while thinking of the Cobra beer weakened.
My nose hit the rug, I stated to laugh.
Dr was not impressed.
I asked if the Dyson was broken as there was rather a bit of dust on the rug. It’s safe to say that mindful movements were not for me.
But when was the last time you moved mindfully?
Thought about the actions and sensations of your body when carrying out a task like brushing your teeth, walking along the pavement, doing the dishes? When you actively feel the sensations of your body while doing these things - it’s just healing.
Just being in the present and accepting your feelings and sensations is what they call mindfulness, and it does not involve sniffing carpets, just feeling and acknowledging what is in the present and embracing it, and if that involved the negatives, letting your body feel these helps you to deal with them.
Panic subsides, anxiety subdues, worry is dealt with by your body.
I learnt the body actually has the answers, it’s about spending time with the body. Hand knitting is the same, feeling the yarn and needles as a stitch forms allows thoughts to run through your mind as you are aware of them and feel the bodily sensations of stitch creation and that of your bum on the seat and your feet on the floor. This is knititation.
The market was barren for men knitting.
Many knitting patterns were distinctly sexist in their marketing “knit for your man”.
All this to find a jumper in colour, that was not baggy, that fitted and that was fashionable and did not look like the front cover of an LP with Val Doonican in a cardigan.
So I raised the money by crowdfunding, learnt to knit, found the winner of the best food photographer in the world 2 years running to photograph the book, found an editor, got the sponsorship, located models, wrote the marketing plan.
I knit on planes, tubes, trains, in night clubs on the N36 night bus and taught the Chinese army to knit as well.
I designed the jumpers and can now write knitting patterns. Not to mention opening my own publishing company - McIntosh Publishing, and finding distribution for my book and products.
Messages arrived, hand written letters, your stories of your anxiety and depression thanking me for being honest about mine.
It’s humbling to know that my honesty has saved lives in this subject that is not easy to talk about. That many call shame. Depression is a cancer of the mind from my experience as it does not discriminate and devours what health it finds.
Love flows through knitting needles.
I produced a book in colour, developed knitting accessories that are not feminine, yet gender neutral, jumpers that were fitted and not baggy, recipes to nibble at knitting club with games to play with yarn.
Surely gender is the biggest lie in life?
All it says is ‘you can’t’.
Knit and Nibble is a book of joy, intro by Dr Thomas about how knitting is a form of mindfulness that we call knititation and the visuals are stunning.
The title of the most innovative book in the world at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards was bestowed upon my work.
I cried with tears full of colour for the first time in years. It’s now been shortlisted for the best knitting book at the UK Knitting and Crochet Awards this year.
So Knit and Nibble - well, it's a book and brand full of joy aimed at male knitters.
Why men? Well, there is a gap in the market.
A huge one.
And the outcomes of men with mental health matters are not so good.
My knitting group that I started in Peckham two years ago has about 140 members, 50% male when we meet on alternate Tuesday nights. The status quo of knitting patterns and the different stitches is present in my group, but does the industry leave people behind? Pattern images are inherently heterosexual 2.4 children, Anglo-saxon when 1 in 4 school children according to the BBC in England are of Black and other ethnic origins.
I found the industry confronted me by everything I am my friends are not.
But I am no longer depressed.
Thomas and I have had some very tragic situations in our extended family recently and as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the knitting and my mood has not fallen providing I keep working on my knititation.
Knit and Nibble is my come back. It’s gone global with international imprints, never mind the listings in the UK and North America.
Every day I give my thanks.
The press have been so supportive to us, articles in The Telegraph have called the book Purls of Wisdom, magazines talk about the joy and colours of my designs and the book, Let’s Knit magazine have said ‘we cant get enough of James McIntosh’, Knitting Magazine have said ‘Knit one breathe out’, Simply Knitting say ‘don’t count sheep, count stitches’, Time Out London says ‘it will be wool worth it’ and Thomas and I have appeared on Sky News with the story.
What have I learnt?
Perhaps the role of a Dr’s wife is the same as a Vicar’s wife, perhaps that’s why knitting is so femininely orientated as the ‘wife' has more to carry than society appreciates and the inner strength required to carry the other half who deals with life and death and every cut and bruise in-between comes from those knitted stitches?
The biggest negative I found about dealing with the negative is not talking about the negative, or recognising the negative. Remember, 2 negatives make a positive.
Embracing the negatives is not a scary process, after all, they are in the past and as I knit new stitches, the future is literally in my hands.
What have I found?
I found my best friend through knititation, and you know what? He is worth getting to know.
I’ve become very close to him.
I like him and have learnt to love him and spend time with him.
I found my best friend was me.
Whitney Houston was right, ‘learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all’.
And when you learn this, NO ONE can ever take away your dignity.
PSSO - the moral of the story
Or, for those of you who don't knit, PSSO is an abbreviation meaning Pass the Slipped Stitch Over. I liken it to a lot of things in life due to societal pressures where issues are pushed under the carpet and left there decreasing the visibility of an issue like the shaping on a garment edge but it's still there, trying to be hidden.
Feelings and reality can not be passed over, they need discussed and allowed to be visible like a stunning crisp raglan edge resulting from PSSO rather than the bump provided using the alternative of K2tog.
My dreams, I can have them again, my hopes, are becoming reality.
Life is good.
Dr Thomas has now learnt not to put knitting items into a boil wash.
I am James McIntosh, I am well, I am back and it is because of hand knitting, that I am here, and I am alive.
Stitches are life, knitting patterns the manual.
Knitters are fabulous, knitters know true love. Knitters produce a hug.
The sum of the parts of knitting make you whole.
A stitch in time, saved my mind.
I call it Knititation®.
I’m going to leave you with a private confession:
I don't know how to crochet!
I AM JAMES MCINTOSH and I Knit and Nibble celebrating life’s patterns, recipes and games.
Copyright 2019 all rights reserved McIntosh® Publishing.
Knit and Nibble® by James McIntosh and Dr Thomas A. Ernst FRCP is published by McIntosh® Publishing ISBN 978-0-9934196-2-1
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