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Knitting for a sense of achievement with Liz O'Riordan

Liz O'Riordan is a breast surgeon who has herself experienced cancer, twice. She now works as a speaker, author and podcaster providing high quality and accessible information about cancer from her expertise as both a doctor and a patient.


Liz is also a lifelong knitter and more recently a sewer. Although Liz said that she often thinks that knitting is 'just something I do', throughout our conversation it becomes clear that knitting has accompanied Liz through some difficult times in her life and provided her with a sense of achievement, of comfort and a way of showing affection to her loved ones.


If you'd rather listen to this episode click play below or you can read the full transcript at the bottom of this page.


Full Transcript

SPEAKERS

Mia Hobbs, Liz O'Riordan


Mia Hobbs 00:04

Hello and welcome to the last episode of series two of the Why I Knit podcast. My name is Dr. Mia Hobbs and I'm a clinical psychologist who's passionate about knitting and its benefits for our mental wellbeing. Each episode I interview a different knitter about why they knit and how it benefits their mental health. Thank you so much to everybody who's listened to season two, and especially to the people who've got in touch by email or on Instagram to let me know they've enjoyed the podcast, or that knitting has been important to their mental health, or about projects they've been involved in to use knitting therapeutically. It's been such a pleasure to hear from everybody who's got in touch and to know that other people also believe strongly in the therapeutic potential of knitting and have been seeing it in action, either in their own lives or to help other people. I'm already booking guests and starting to record series three, which I hope to be releasing in the summer but if you've got a suggestion of a great guest then please do email me at mia@therapeuticknitting.org. This week on the podcast I'm joined by Liz O'Riordan. Liz is a breast surgeon who's also experienced cancer herself. She is now an author, podcaster, speaker and also a knitter. Please note that during our conversation, we do talk about cancer, infertility and depression, but mostly about knitting. Hi Liz, welcome to the podcast.


Liz O'Riordan 01:36

Thank you, Mia.


Mia Hobbs 01:37

So I always start the conversation with asking how you learnt to knit!


Liz O'Riordan 01:41

Crikey. So I think I first learnt to knit on one of those wooden French dollies.


Mia Hobbs 01:46

Oh yes.


Liz O'Riordan 01:47

My dad's mum and my own mum would do a lot of knitting and I was desperate to fiddle with it, so they got me one of those. It's like a wooden tube with four spiky nails and you kind of knit and get this long, long tube and I'd be at school with my little thing with this growing strand of wool. What are you going to do with it?


Mia Hobbs 02:01

That's what I've always wondered! What do you do with it? [Laughs]


Liz O'Riordan 02:05

I love the making but I hate the joining together and sewing up and cutting off the ends. You're meant to roll it up into a big long rug in a big circle, but life is just too short. So I just had rounds of long knitted ribbons. And that was how I started.


Mia Hobbs 02:18

Okay, so you were what kind of age?


Liz O'Riordan 02:21

I must have been about six or seven, I think.


Mia Hobbs 02:23

Yeah. And when did you graduate to needles?


Liz O'Riordan 02:27

I think that was about 8/9/10-ish with some very basic needles doing a scarf. My mum knitted amazing things like Kaffe Fassett patterns but, you know, we'll start simple. And I just loved the fact that I could produce something, and I would knit clothes for my Barbie dolls because they were really simple to do, and then in my teenage years I started knitting cuddly toys. Some for me and some to give to people as presents. And some of my friends at school were doing it. It was like the GCSE revision break and we'd be there knitting kind of Christmas trees and farmers and we'd get the whole set. And it was just really nice to produce something positive when you're trying to cram your head full of stuff.


Mia Hobbs 03:05

Yeah! And actually, I've ended up interviewing a few doctors who (and certainly for me) found that it was a really good antidote to academic learning along the way!


Liz O'Riordan 03:17

And, I guess, being physical. Doing something with my hands rather than just sitting at a book writing. Using different muscles in the hands as well.


Mia Hobbs 03:24

Yeah. And I felt like it uses different muscles in my brain or uses a different part of my brain. So it kind of allows the learning to percolate a bit when my hands are busy, I feel. I'm interested that you had peers who were knitting, because I think a lot of us grew up as the only knitter in the classroom.


Liz O'Riordan 03:32

And the rhythm. Just getting into that rhythm of knitting. It's kind of calming in a way. You don't need to think; you're just moving the needles and the wool. My mum knitted. She knitted most of her life and she's given me clothes that she knitted, maternity tops that she wore when she was pregnant with me.


Mia Hobbs 03:56

Oh, wow! That's amazing.


Liz O'Riordan 03:58

She's always been knitting, sewing, cross stitch, crochet. We had to move house because there weren't enough wall space to put all our cross stitches on. It was always a very crafty kind of... It's autumn, the nights are getting darker, let's get all the wool and the threads out.


Mia Hobbs 04:13

And have you knitted or crafted the whole way through? Were there ever times where you had significant gaps where you didn't do any?


Liz O'Riordan 04:20

I didn't knit during university. I think it felt... It would almost take too long to do a project and I was so, so busy as a doctor, but I did do cross stitches. I think I found that a bit more technically challenging as well when I needed to concentrate on something else. But as a junior doctor, I started knitting again. I did a PhD and taught half the girls there to knit. We were making scarves on really big size 20 needles. "Look, you can make scarves for all your friends!" And especially when those fluffy wools came out with all the bits in the threads. They were special, like, mesh wools. I got everyone knitting scarves. I've always been very good at making things that don't fit me. Life is too short to make a gauge or make a swatch because of course my tension will be fine! When The Killing came out about 10 years ago, because we watched it on a flight on my honeymoon, I thought "I'm going to make the jumper!" I bought the book and I did The Killing jumper, and it would fit a tiny 12 year old with no bust. Because the minute I did the colour work, the tension was really small. I was like, "I can't get this over my head! My beautiful sweater." So I've had to learn.


Mia Hobbs 05:26

Do you know, I actually have a not dissimilar experience of knitting my first all-over colourwork sweater that was a Tin Can Knits pattern that I added a bit to it. But I hadn't knitted anything all-over colourwork, so I was used to having a yoke, which was probably usually a bit tight, but then a bit of a more forgiving body. I am knitting myself a new version of it as kind of a Christmas jumper, and giving that to my nine year old. [Laughs] I think it will fit her better.


Liz O'Riordan 05:50

Its so depressing. I need to knit like I operate: practice and prepare and make sure. I think, "No, I just want to start! I'm too impatient."


Mia Hobbs 05:56

Yeah. Because you can save that for operating, can't you, and break the rules a bit in knitting.


Liz O'Riordan 06:02

Exactly! Yeah.


Mia Hobbs 06:02

Okay, so you had a bit of a break. So you were kind of a multicrafter really. Do you still do multiple different crafts?


Liz O'Riordan 06:10

I do. I think I get bored. I like to have several projects on the go. I must have five or six cross stitches that I haven't finished from a while ago. I'm a bad finisher. And I've got three jumpers that still need sewing together, which is I what I intend to do. They're knitted. I tend to do jumpers in the round that you knit down without the seams. And I started making my own clothes three or four years ago. I thought, "I have too many clothes and I buy things I don't like and there's so much landfill. So I'm going to make things I actually like." And that's been fun. Again, fabric is free and wool is free. [Laughs] Good job my husband has no idea just how big my stash is! I think it's always been a wintry thing. In the summer, I'm out in the garden. But in autumn/winter, I'll start getting the needles out and just knitting, and it's something to do in front of the telly. And I'd miss it if I wasn't doing something with my hands. And I think when I had to stop operating because of side effects of breast cancer treatment, it was that I need to use my hands. Knitting was a great way of using both of them and just, I guess, calming me down and getting into that rhythm again.


Mia Hobbs 06:23

Are they knitted? Yeah. Do you think the gardening also occupies that same space in the summer, in terms of doing something with your hands? Is it a similar feeling?


Liz O'Riordan 07:23

I think so. I think it's... I want to feel useful. And it's producing something. So you plant a seed and you see it grow. This is a question though. Why do jumpers weigh more than the balls of wool? Because they do!


Mia Hobbs 07:39

[Laughs] Do they? What makes you think they weigh more than the balls of wool? Do they actually?


Liz O'Riordan 07:42

I've not done it, but I was just thinking... I've just knitted a small summer vest and I thought, "I've got the four or five balls of wool, which feel quite light, and then the jumper itself just feels heavy." Am I just going mad? Anyway, I digress.


Mia Hobbs 07:53

It's all the effort and the love and the therapy that you've knitted into it. It must be that, mustnt it?


Liz O'Riordan 07:59

I think so.


Mia Hobbs 08:00

Either that or it's dog hair. [Laughs]


Liz O'Riordan 08:04

A lot of dog hair.


Mia Hobbs 08:05

Yeah. Okay, so you've knitted fairly steadily. It sounds like you started knitting some quite complicated things quite early on, because I think toys are quite fiddly and involve quite a lot of shaping. So you were knitting properly from patterns even at that stage as a teenager. Yeah. And that doesn't at all sound like someone who's a surgeon! [Laughs]


Liz O'Riordan 08:20

Yes. And I think it's me... I'm one of those annoying people who can see something once and pick it up really, really quickly, and I like a challenge. And I don't want to knit a boring stocking stitch scarf. I want to knit a scarf with all the bells and whistles. I think my mum had got a Reader's Digest book of knitting and crafts, and I would knit swatches of all the different cable patterns and things. And I think it's that challenge. I want to do something that's interesting and difficult. Not at all! [Laughs] When I was having chemotherapy I started knitting, and I'd seen entrelac knitting.


Mia Hobbs 08:59

Oh yeah, that rings a bell but I don't actually know what it is.


Liz O'Riordan 09:01

You knit left and right on the needle, and you kind of knit triangles going one way and then triangles going the other way, so it all joins together. People knit in different ways, and I physically move the wool over the needle, whereas my mother-in-law will just keep it and use the fingers. I can't do that. I had to learn to do continental knitting, so rather than turning the work, I could knit left and then knit right, which did blow my mind. I was high as a kite on morphine after my mastectomy, so I knitted an entrelac scarf. In 12 hours. I was wide awake the next morning, a bit high but, "Look, I've made a scarf!"


Mia Hobbs 09:25

And it all worked? You didn't look back at it and think...


Liz O'Riordan 09:39

No, because again, once I get into the rhythm of the pattern, you know what you're doing. It's very simple. It was just learning that technique. And then when it came back again, I started doing brioche knitting, and instead of doing brioche knitting with a nice thick, sensible wool, I thought, "No, I'm going to do it with two mohair strands of wool knitting this cobweb scarf."


Mia Hobbs 09:56

Wow! And how did that go?


Liz O'Riordan 09:59

There was a bit of swearing and a lot of unpicking, but it's beautiful. And I've tried to do another one, but I just don't have the heart to go through the effort to make it again.


Mia Hobbs 10:08

I'm sure the unpicking bit, when that happens, must be...


Liz O'Riordan 10:10

Because it's so lacy, you can't...


Mia Hobbs 10:12

Well, mohair's tricky anyway. I'm knitting with mohair at the moment. And in terms of the types of projects you gravitate towards, is it always the more complicated unchartered territory you're kind of mountain climbing in your knitting projects? Or are there times where you think actually, at the moment, what I need for my mental health or wellbeing is some really simple something.


Liz O'Riordan 10:34

It's exactly like that. So I do knit a lot of scarves and hats and shawls, where I can just sit and watch TV and knit and not have to think, because they're the things that I wear most often. So I knitted just a very boring cream and navy striped Breton jumper, but I've worn it so much and it was so simple to knit. And then challenging projects are often gifts for other people. I knitted a load of tiny little white hearts to give to people at Christmas, and I'll knit little elephants and things, but they are quite finicky. And often it's the joy of something that's easy, that knits up quite quickly, rather than taking months and months and months.


Mia Hobbs 11:09

Yeah. And how much, for you, is it about the process of the knitting (which it sounds like there is something kind of soothing for you, the repetitive movements) versus the finishing a thing and it having a life as an object, like being given to someone or you wearing it?


Liz O'Riordan 11:27

It's the making.


Mia Hobbs 11:28

It's the making. So more process than product.


Liz O'Riordan 11:30

Definitely. I knit a load of things because I want to knit. I don't need another 50 scarves and I don't need another jumper, but I'm going to knit a jumper. And I've enjoyed making it, and then I try it on and say, "Yeah, it's nice, but actually..." Yeah, it's the making. That's really interesting.


Mia Hobbs 11:44

So you would do that even if you were on a desert island and had one ball of yarn?


Liz O'Riordan 11:47

I think so. I'd still be knitting.


Mia Hobbs 11:49

You would unravel it and re-knit it.


Liz O'Riordan 11:50

So it's funny, as a consultant surgeon operating, when you've done the magic, the juniors come in and sew up the scar and make it look pretty and put the dressing on. And I almost need that for my knitting. "Here you are, here it is. Can you now sew the ends in and finish the seams and stretch and block it, please? Because I've done the fun bit!" How do you get used to loving that bit? I don't know. Yeah, I think so.


Mia Hobbs 11:53

So would I. I think I've become more tolerant of all of the fiddly bits of knitting over time, actually. I used to sometimes leave things with just ends in a knitting basket for ages! But now I do that less, I think.


Liz O'Riordan 12:31

I've learnt to do the ends as I go along, which makes a big difference.


Mia Hobbs 12:36

That helps. And I think sometimes I, to be honest, depending on what I'm knitting, can get a bit of RSI, so I think sometimes to change the task, it's quite helpful to have some ends to do. Or you can do it while you're doing multitasking, perhaps, because you don't have to really use your brain. For example, if you were following a pattern, you could do it while you were on a bus or something and it might feel less painful.


Liz O'Riordan 12:58

I was knitting on a train and there was an old guy next to me who knitted as well, and we just spent the next hour talking about his knitting projects. It's amazing how people come out of the woodwork. And this is the thing... Another knitter I follow, she's an Australian breast surgeon called Rhea Liang. She was knitting at a conference, and loads of men around her said, "You can't pay attention, you're knitting." "Sorry, I'm paying far more attention than you are on your phone. I can multitask." Another friend of mine was knitting things for a craft stall in an MDT meeting, and everyone thinks she's crazy. But actually, it almost makes you concentrate more on what you're hearing.


Mia Hobbs 13:33

Yeah. Do you find that? I would always, in a business meeting or that kind of discussion or training, I would struggle to sit still for six hours and learn about something without having knitting. And I think the older I've got, the more confident I've got. And I think also the more awareness there is that actually humans are not really designed to sit still for six hours and just listen. And if I have a very simple basic sock where I'm just knitting in circles, stocking stitch, that would 100% improve my concentration, like you said, stop my brain looking for distractions that would be more distracting, like looking on my phone.


Liz O'Riordan 14:07

Which is what everyone else is doing, aren't they?


Mia Hobbs 14:08

Yes! And would you do that too?


Liz O'Riordan 14:12

I would. I never did it at work. I think I'm always so busy writing in meetings, it was really hard to do that. But especially on Zoom calls and things, I'll often have the knitting there. And it's just a way of focusing.


Mia Hobbs 14:22

Yeah. So you would use it for that reason as well. In terms of what you think knitting brings your life, in terms of your wellbeing generally, how do you think it helps?


Liz O'Riordan 14:35

That's a really interesting question. I've never thought about what it brings, because it's just part of me. I think it's being able to make something and be proud of it and feel I've accomplished something. Because now I've retired, I don't do anything and it's quite nice just to see I've made something. But it calms me down. I guess it's the mindfulness. Kind of the buzzword. It's just a way of relaxing and switching off. But it's that challenging. It's getting my brain, "Let's just tackle something really big" and keeping me thinking. And I like that. I like learning new things. What can I do next? What's different? And god, it's amazing how you can just get lost scrolling down knitting patterns. It's another way of getting bored and kind of doom-scrolling, but knitting patterns and knitting bloggers. But I love that whole... It's a really safe, friendly world. Knitters are great people. It's like a whole other community of friends that I didn't know existed, now,it's kind of opened up online, if that makes sense.


Mia Hobbs 15:25

Yeah, definitely. I don't know whether that's part of the process that you enjoy, like the planning of the project and the picking of the colours, or whether it's more the actual action, or both.


Liz O'Riordan 15:37

I am technical but I don't think I'm creative. I find it very hard to imagine a jumper in another colour, because I see what's on the pattern. I find it very, very hard. If you asked me to draw something, I'd say, "Give me something to copy." But I couldn't draw from my brain. So it's often me looking at a pattern with a colour. I like that I need it. And then once I've knitted it, I may think, "Oh, I can change that because it'll look better." But for me, it's the doing. It's the getting stuck in and using my hands and telling my husband to stop talking to me when I'm casting on.


Mia Hobbs 16:07

[Laughs] When you're counting stitches. Yeah, that's frustrating.


Liz O'Riordan 16:08

He knows! "When I'm counting, don't come near me!" And he'll start shouting out numbers. "No! This is the fifth time!" And it's always when it's like 300 stitches. "Go away!" He doesn't understand it. It's really funny because he's a surgeon. I'm trying to show him, "Look, you could knit. It's just knots. It's just knots and needles." "No, I don't understand."


Mia Hobbs 16:25

I was interested that you said you've started making your own clothes. Is that over and above knitting, or sewing?


Liz O'Riordan 16:31

As well. I think, again, knitting is more a winter thing. I don't really like knitted summer jumpers and it feels weird knitting a big heavy jumper or scarf in the summer because I'm not going to wear it then. And I like just knitting a load of simple jersey tops that fit me. Just a really nice jersey. And I like, again, that process with the sewing machine, of the knitting and the planning and the making. Although it's hard because I live in Suffolk. Where I live, there aren't many fabric shops so you buy fabric online. Same with wool, really: you order it online and think, "Oh wait, this is soft." Or, "It's scratchy, it's not what I thought it would be." It's a couple of hours of me-time as well. It's guilt-free, selfish, this is just me in my room with my machine and my needles, just doing something for me.


Mia Hobbs 17:09

Yeah. And how does it affect your wellbeing once you're wearing the finished product?


Liz O'Riordan 17:16

Yeah, it's a really nice feeling and when someone says, "Oh, I like your top!" you think, "I made it." It's a bit of "Hey, look at me, I'm amazing!" but it's really nice to think I've got something that nobody else has that fits me perfectly. Like a jumper, when you know you can add three inches onto the sleeves because they're never long enough. I love that you can customise the clothes to make them fit you.


Mia Hobbs 17:34

Because I feel like that was something that surprised me when I started knitting garments, because for a long time, I wasn't really knitting... it might have been shawls or scarves or hats, but it wasn't really like... you know, now I wear things I've made every day. And like you said, I had then a barren point in the summer where I thought, "I'm not wearing anything I've made!" and then turned to sewing. But I feel like it's had a very transformative relationship in my... is it body image or I suppose my relationship to clothing, for sure. But also, if someone gives me a compliment, it's not so much about how I look. I can transform it into a compliment that means something more to me. It's like, "Look, you're clever!" or "You're creative!" because I made it myself.


Liz O'Riordan 18:18

Yes, exactly. And they're like, "Wow, you made that? I could never do that." And you think, "Oh, actually, it's not just knitting! This is actually something that is quite impressive for a lot of people." But then you want them to know how simple it is. But I think I am more aware of what my body is like, now I'm having to fit it and accept that this is my shape, learn what works for me and what doesn't. And actually appreciate jumpers and scarves and clothes in shops, and realise what's gone in, and is this made well? And I'll look at the seams and think, "Actually, this isn't. I could do better than this."


Mia Hobbs 18:47

And is it easier... you know you said about that kind of coming to terms with how your body is now? Has that been more challenging if you're making it yourself? Or is that easier than if you were buying in a shop, where you might have an idea about what size or what shape? You know, can you customise it more, and does that feel better, or not particularly?


Liz O'Riordan 19:07

I think the problem for me is that I don't have a left breast, and I don't wear a prosthetic or a bra because of pain, so I am lopsided. My other side isn't particularly big, but it is very noticeable. And especially in a big jumper, when you've got one breast sticking out. And it's kind of patterns or things to distract it. Or when you're sewing clothes, it's how you have to tweak the neckline so it doesn't gape, or I can't wear that. And that was really challenging, seeing beautiful patterns and making them up thinking, "No, this doesn't work. And I don't know how to change it for my shape." And it's kind of working out pattern placement on jumpers so it's not very obvious where I don't want it to be seen. I think that's been really challenging. And learning how to measure yourself properly. And actually forgetting that small could be a large in a different size, and that's just how it's made, and it's just a number. Rather than being, "Oh, I'm always a size 10" or "I'm always a size..." Well, it depends which shop you're in. And that's the same with dressmaking patterns, especially the Vogue ones from the 1970s and 80s. So like a size 8 in Vogue is like a size 12 now, and you just have to forget all of that.


Mia Hobbs 20:09

Yes. But I think you're right. I haven't got to the level of adapting patterns for sewing. That's quite challenging, I think.


Liz O'Riordan 20:18

Yeah, a lot of YouTube videos. And it takes time, because you have to trace out the pattern, then put it onto paper, and then cut it, and then get out the muslin, then make a thing, and does it fit, and then do it again. Whereas you just want to go straight to the cutting. Like making a swatch in knitting. You know you should. [Laughs]


Mia Hobbs 20:33

But you just don't. [Laughs]


Liz O'Riordan 20:34

But you don't. And actually I've learned to do that now. It's not worth spending all that time on this beautiful wool, if I'm not going to do a swatch and make sure it fits me. So I have finally learnt that.


Mia Hobbs 20:44

I'd like to say I have, but there are certain... I have just recently made a hat that I now need to find someone with a very big head who'd like to appreciate it! [Laughs]


Liz O'Riordan 20:45

Oh no! [Laughs]


Mia Hobbs 20:55

Would you say knitting is your main craft now, or do you still do... are you crocheting as well?


Liz O'Riordan 20:59

I've done a bit of crocheting. I made a yellow elephant to go with my podcast, and I was going to make them for all the guests. But I find crochet really painful on my hands because I don't do it very... and when you flip between the two, it's almost like getting your hand muscles going again. I think it's knitting in the winter and sewing in the summer. But I will always knit. I just love that feel of the needles and seeing something grow and the challenge of reading a pattern. And I think I'm really glad I did it at a such young age. It's always been part of my life, and it's something I can hopefully pass on to my own grandchildren.


Mia Hobbs 21:28

Do you think you used it for its mental health benefits when you were younger?


Liz O'Riordan 21:31

Definitely.


Mia Hobbs 21:33

Because I think I probably did, but I don't think I actually realised I was doing it at the time. I think it actually was very late to dawn on me how I was actually using it. But I definitely really was.


Liz O'Riordan 21:46

I've never thought of that, but I think you're right. So I've had serious depression twice in my life, and knitting was something I did. I may just be in the house with my cats or my dog, but I would knit and I could make something and it kind of made me feel that I'm still... useful is the wrong word, but I think it is... It's a really good way of helping your mental health and just centring you again, and helping you... Sometimes it's good thinking time, and that can be bad because you're alone with your needles thinking, "Oh my goodness..." I just tend to have Friends repeats on so I don't need to concentrate. Just background noise, because it can be really... Finding the right thing to do as well. But yeah, I think it's been really important for my own peace of mind and sanity throughout all of my life. And I can almost look at a jumper and say, "Oh, I did that when I was feeling that. And I made that scarf when I was feeling that."


Mia Hobbs 22:29

And how does it feel to have those kind of reminders in physical form?


Liz O'Riordan 22:34

It's weird. In some ways it's a bit sad, being reminded of how you felt at that time. But then you look at the scarf and think, "No, that came out of that. There are positives to come out of it." And I think that it's really nice to see the good when you are in the middle of something difficult.


Mia Hobbs 22:49

Because I think it can be a complicated relationship, can't it? I've spoken to quite a few people who've used knitting during periods of grief, for example. And then you could have very mixed associations with that item.


Liz O'Riordan 23:01

So when I found out I couldn't have children because chemo made me infertile, I suddenly started grieving for the loss of the baby I now knew I really wanted and could never have. My brother had had a son and I'd knitted all the baby clothes, and I couldn't wait to knit them for my own baby, because they're so cute. And I couldn't. And so what I then did was start knitting clothes for premature babies. And you can almost knit... this sounds really awful... either knit clothes for them when they're very, very small, or clothes to be buried in. And they give you the size for a baby hat that fits on an egg. And they were teeny teeny tiny, and I was knitting all of them and I just thought, "No, this is not good for me. It was a nice idea, but doing it is just bringing it back home." So I had to stop. And I think it's okay to stop a project. I can't not finish a book if I don't like it. And if I'm knitting a jumper and I'm just not enjoying it, I have to learn: it's okay to stop.


Mia Hobbs 23:56

Yeah. I allow myself to stop with a book too. [Laughs] If I don't care if the characters live or die, I think, "Well, I don't need to find out." When I do my therapeutic knitting groups, like in schools, I talk a lot about how it's really important for you to think about what you need the project to give you right now. And if it's not giving you that, it's not the right thing for right now. And it might not be the wrong thing forever. You know, maybe that jumper needs to go and sit and hibernate somewhere. But if what you need for your life is a sense of achievement, maybe you need something a lot smaller that you're going to finish, and get the sense of achievement, and then tackle that jumper another time, or unravel it.


Liz O'Riordan 23:57

I've never thought of that: why do you knit? I thought I just knit because it's what I do. But again, is it distraction or is it comfort? Or is it the challenge?


Mia Hobbs 24:47

I think it's probably helpful for our mental health because it's all of those things, or it can be all of those things at different points. And sometimes it could be something soothing and simple and repetitive that's literally just your hands, where your brain is doing a Zoom training or doing something else, or where you're completely wiped and you don't have any bandwidth left for thinking. And sometimes you think, "Actually, I need an escape from the news, or everything, and I need to absorb myself completely in a really complicated pattern so I just can't think about anything else." It can be all of those things, can't it?


Liz O'Riordan 25:19

Yeah, you pick the right project for what you need at the time.


Mia Hobbs 25:24

And does, for example, the materials make a difference, or the colour? Does that make any difference?


Liz O'Riordan 25:29

I'm always drawn to yellows and blues. And I love kind of the Norwegian... like the intarsia kind of colourwork that they do. I love that. But often the patterns recommend really itchy wools. I've made that mistake before: you buy the wool that comes with a pattern and you think, "No, I don't like this." I don't like bright colours. Kind of soft, pale, pastelly neutrals. And I always want the perfect black jumper but I hate knitting with black, because it's so hard to see what you're doing. I think it's an interesting design, either interesting colourwork or an interesting stripe, that catches my eye, rather than the colours.


Mia Hobbs 26:03

And is it more about the process for you? Like the design? Or is it more about, "Oh, I like the look of that. I want to make it"? Or is it more about, "I want to be doing that thing with my hands" like cables or colourwork?


Liz O'Riordan 26:16

I think it's "I like the look of that pattern. It looks interesting." That's what I'm drawn to. And sometimes I'm looking for a really cabley Aran network jumper for my husband, or sometimes I just want something light. Something will just catch my eye because I've always got projects on the go. I can always knit another scarf. I think, "Ooh, that just really excites me, what I want to knit next." And it could be anything. God, it's so haphazard, isn't it? How do you plan what to knit next?


Mia Hobbs 26:40

I think I think much more about process than about the end result. I wouldn't knit something I didn't want, but, for example, I have a jumper that is a very, very plain raglan stockinette jumper with three large stripes, basically, of colour. I love it. It's slightly the worse for wear having had an interaction with some moths. I don't think I could re-knit that for myself. It wouldn't be enough going on. I like to have a plain project on the go that I don't need to think about, for example, doing a Zoom training. So plain socks, for example, are quite good because I can carry them around. And in the summer, you know, if you happen to end up sitting in the park or you're waiting for a bus or something, they're quite good because they're easy and you can stick them in your bag. But I didn't think I would do a whole jumper like that. I'd be more attracted... Like this one has got some kind of detail, like stitch patterns. And I think I would nowadays gravitate more towards something a bit complicated or colourwork.


Liz O'Riordan 27:45

I think you get to a certain stage when you're bored just knitting stocking stitch.


Mia Hobbs 27:49

I definitely plan my projects so that I have different... I like something very challenging, because sometimes I do just want to turn off the rest of the stuff going on in my brain and just be absorbed in it. And then something for stopping me getting distracted if I'm listening. So I definitely would plan them like that. And I think sometimes I do... Like with this project I've got on the go right now that's got mohair, I did really have a hankering for the tactile sensation of mohair, I think.


Liz O'Riordan 28:17

It is lovely and soft, isn't it?


Mia Hobbs 28:18

Yeah. I'd love to hear about a significant knitting project for you, Liz.


Liz O'Riordan 28:23

I think it was probably the first blanket I made, done by knitting squares in all sorts of different colours. And I did that during my A-levels. I look at it and it was a great time of my life, and so many memories were kind of caught up in it. I knitted these huge squares, and then I would crochet an edge around them, and I thought, "Wow, this is amazing! I have made this blanket." It's actually a proper thing that I used and I wore. And I then gave it on. So our local hospital had volunteers who knit blankets for people who were dying. So they have colourful blankets on the hospital beds, and nurses know the blanket means that they're towards the end of their life. And I donated it to them. And that to me was a lovely way of giving something that didn't fit in with my life now on to someone else. And I think the things that mean the most to me are things I've given to people, like really complicated scarves. They're not expected to say thank you. It's that act of love of giving it to someone else that really means a lot to me. I often put more effort into those than I do for things I'm making myself.


Mia Hobbs 29:22

Yeah, so there's a big part of knitting that is about the feeling you get when you give something away to someone else.


Liz O'Riordan 29:29

Yes, completely.


Mia Hobbs 29:30

Do you generally know beforehand? So if you're knitting a scarf like you said, a complicated scarf, would you generally know who's going to receive that, or not necessarily?


Liz O'Riordan 29:38

Generally. So a scarf I knitted recently and gave to someone, I thought it would be for someone and then life happened to someone else. And by the time I'd finished it, life had happened to someone else, so actually no, they need it most. And often I'm just bored. I think, "I want to knit a beautiful intricate lacy scarf, and I don't need one so I'll find someone to give it to when it's done. Because I don't need another jumper at the moment." Again, you can knit so many things and actually you don't wear them because you have so many and it's really hard thinking, "Right. What do I actually want to wear that will go with my wardrobe?" instead of "Ooh, that's a pretty colour!"


Mia Hobbs 30:06

Do the recipients always appreciate? Does it matter to you whether they know what's gone into it or whether they're not going to chuck it in the washing machine?


Liz O'Riordan 30:14

It always matters to me, but they're to close family and friends who know what it's like and how much hours went into it, so they do understand. So I had a group of friends who kind of knit and crochet on Twitter, and one of the first cardigans a friend made looked a bit female gynaecological. So we called it a fanny cardigan. And then we thought we would set up a shop called Tits, Knits and Hookers, because I was a breast surgeon with knitting and their crochet hooks. So we'd sell cake and knit, and that was like, "Right, we will do this. So we all retire and we will just sit and knit and crochet and chat all day long, and life would be wonderful."


Mia Hobbs 30:52

Are they friends you've met online or people you know in real life?


Liz O'Riordan 30:55

Yes, friends I've met online. It all started... So I'd just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I was on the train to London with my husband and we were starting to talk about Christmas knitting patterns. And I managed to find... something led to willy-warmers because I was talking about my time as a urology surgeon, and you could find patterns for men's boxer shorts which had a willy-warmer attached. So we were laughing on the train. And that then led us to finding a pattern for a knitted condom! Which obviously wouldn't work. Which I then made and put Lindt chocolate balls on and it goes on my tree every year. And since then we've just gone looking for crazy knitted things that you'd never ever make.


Mia Hobbs 31:33

So it sounds like that kind of humorous side... So that was how you met this group of friends?


Liz O'Riordan 31:38

Yes. And I've met some of them in person, and it's just lovely. But we have our own little group and we'll share what we're making and have a laugh, and "Oh my god, this looks like this... it didn't look like that on the pattern." It's nice to have that, and just share the mistakes and the pain when your husband makes you lose count.


Mia Hobbs 31:52

[Laughs] Yeah, so craft has brought a new connection.


Liz O'Riordan 31:57

Yeah, definitely more friends. Yes. So again, the Australian surgeon who knits as well - there's like so many people who just get in touch because you're doing it, and it's lovely. And other people have been inspired to learn how to knit by watching a YouTube video because they've seen me post something. And I love that you can inspire other people to get on board with a habit.


Mia Hobbs 32:17

And I think, like you mentioned about knitting on the train, it also can spark up conversations with random people who you probably will never see again, but you could have a nice little chat on a train journey.


Liz O'Riordan 32:20

Exactly. And probably get no knitting done at all, because you're too busy talking. But I love that. And it's not expensive. You can get wool in a charity shop and a couple of needles and actually make something.


Mia Hobbs 32:37

So it sounds like it brings quite a lot of joy to your life.


Liz O'Riordan 32:40

It does. But for me, it's about using my hands in a complex way. It is my kind of, "I'm not operating, but this is how I do it now".


Mia Hobbs 32:48

Yeah. And seeking the challenge, as well, of a new type of thing.


Liz O'Riordan 32:53

Yes, definitely. I think, "What can I do next? I've done entrelac, I've done brioche, I've done intarsia. There must be something else I can do."


Mia Hobbs 33:00

Sure. And I can really hear that it's important to you to get that sense of achievement, and to feel like it's a useful thing that goes out into the world and has a life afterwards.


Liz O'Riordan 33:10

Yeah. I don't get patients flashing me in Sainsbury's showing me their scars anymore saying, "Thank you, Doctor, you can't see it." It's that kind of, I guess, a sense of self-gratification.


Mia Hobbs 33:19

Yeah. And also because I guess as a surgeon, you're someone who's a high achiever, good with your hands, attracted to a challenge, but also really interested in helping people. And it sounds like in a way knitting can allow you to tick all of those boxes.


Liz O'Riordan 33:36

Yeah. And it's lovely. I think it's so nice when you get something homemade.


Mia Hobbs 33:40

From other people?


Liz O'Riordan 33:41

Yeah, you know, they've kind of really taken the effort and thought about you. And I think it's really nice giving someone that gift. Because a scarf fits everybody. [Laughs]


Mia Hobbs 33:49

Yes, this is true! I always end with asking about what the greatest gift is that knitting has given you for the rest of your life.


Liz O'Riordan 33:59

I think it's a sense of achievement, that it doesn't matter where I am or how bad I'm feeling, I can get the needles out and I can make something and say, "That wasn't a wasted day."


Mia Hobbs 34:12

So it's a way of having a kind of soothing activity, but also having achieved something.


Liz O'Riordan 34:20

I think so. Yeah, it's something I can always do that will just make me feel, "Yeah, you can still do something. You're okay."


Mia Hobbs 34:26

Have you found when you were feeling low, you could still knit?


Liz O'Riordan 34:30

Yes. And rather than spending hours doom-scrolling on my phone, I'll just turn it off or put some music on and I will just knit and it's just that thinking time. A lot of thinking time, I've got the dog on my lap but he's got caught up in the ball of wool, but it's just that kind of... I just feel safe. And there's something lovely about the feeling of that heavy blanket growing on your lap. Just that feeling of just me and my wool and I'm fine. Sorry, husband! [Laughs]


Mia Hobbs 34:58

We'll edit that bit. [Laughs]


Liz O'Riordan 34:59

We'll edit that bit! No, he knows. He knows.


Mia Hobbs 35:03

So that's amazing. So it's really the sense of achievement and a feeling of peace and comfort that you get while you're doing it.


Liz O'Riordan 35:09

Yeah, definitely. What about you?


Mia Hobbs 35:13

I think, yeah, all of those things. I think it's really difficult to tie it down to what the... I do feel like it's a way of accessing comfort, in a way. I feel like it is a bit of a superpower that I have, like this secret skill that if I go into a situation that's potentially stressful, it will calm me down. And many people I've interviewed, and I certainly would count myself as someone who's not particularly good at classic mindfulness or meditating, but it is a way that I feel like physiologically, it probably reduces my blood pressure and my stress. I also think I'm not great at concentrating and just sitting and listening to training or something. It's different in therapy, obviously, because I'm more in a dialogue, and I'm engaging. But just sitting and listening, I'm not great at, and knitting really helps me with focus. But I think it's also, in terms of my body image, I feel like I really like the self-expression and the creativity, that I like it being a wearable art, in a way, or a wearable expression of who I am. And I feel like I've kind of opted out of standard fashion, because I'm more interested in the process of making and then I love it and want to wear it.


Liz O'Riordan 36:36

Yes. And it's nice wearing something you've made that no-one else can have, and being a bit different, because the shops are just full of the same colours and you think, "No, I'm going to do orange and purple and red together!"


Mia Hobbs 36:45

And I think I've definitely got a different relationship with colour. When I made this yellow, I used to think I wasn't someone who would wear yellow but it makes me feel happy every time I put it on! So of course I should wear yellow!


Liz O'Riordan 36:58

I'm all about the yellow! Says she wearing black. [Laughs]


Mia Hobbs 37:01

Yeah, so I do think it's brought so much. And I love introducing new people to knitting, and I'm really enjoying working with teenagers and giving them that skill. Like you said, you've had it for such a long time and it's benefited your life. Maybe you didn't realise it always, you know, throughout your A-levels.


Liz O'Riordan 37:17

I don't think I did.


Mia Hobbs 37:18

I certainly had revision breaks in my doctorate where I would knit, and it would allow ideas to percolate if I was writing an essay. And I think that has really been invaluable and I'm really more putting psychological labels on the ways in which it's been helpful to me, but it's been there doing it all along. [Laughs]


Liz O'Riordan 37:37

Yeah, it's amazing, isn't it? It's just that... Everyone should knit.


Mia Hobbs 37:41

They should! And maybe if it's not knitting for everybody, you know, there might be other ways they could have a creative outlet that's something you do with your hands, something that you literally create. Like you said about gardening, I think some people might find that more their medium, but I think a lot of the ways it would help them would be very similar.


Liz O'Riordan 38:02

Definitely.


Mia Hobbs 38:03

Liz, it's been an absolute pleasure to hear your stories about knitting and how it's benefited you, and I'm so glad that it has brought you through some darker times and is continuing to bring joy to you and all the people who are lucky enough to receive your gifts.


Liz O'Riordan 38:19

Thank you, Mia. It's been great to chat.


Mia Hobbs 38:21

If people want to find out more about you on social media, see what your knitting, where would they do that?


Liz O'Riordan 38:27

So on Instagram, I'm @oriordanliz. On Twitter, I'm @Liz_ORiordan. Feel free to drop me a line and I will reply to anybody about anything.


Mia Hobbs 38:37

Super. And I always encourage showing and telling of knitting, so I'd also love to see all your knitting!


Liz O'Riordan 38:42

I'm now going to stalk your profile and see, "Right, what's the next jumper I'm going to make?"


Mia Hobbs 38:46

[Laughs] Well, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you! Thank you so much for listening to the Why I Knit podcast. If you'd like to find out more about therapeutic knitting, you can follow me on Instagram @knittingistherapeutic or at my website www.therapeuticknitting.org. If you're enjoying the podcast, I would really appreciate it if you could leave a rating and a review on your podcast app. This will help grow the podcast and let more people know about the therapeutic benefits of knitting. And don't forget to subscribe too. Thank you!


Liz O'Riordan 38:50

Thanks, Mia.

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