Knitting and Intellectual Development

by Eugene Schwartz

Published: March 2009


Out of an in‑born understanding and psychological insight, many ancient peoples connected weaving, braiding and knot‑tying with intellect and wisdom. Isis, the female goddess of Egypt who exemplified wisdom, became known on earth after she taught a princess and her ladies‑in‑waiting to braid their hair. Athena, who was born out of the head of Zeus and ruled over the world of thoughts, was also the patron of weaving. The preponderance of braid‑like and woven strands in temple paintings and ritual sites in New Mexico, northern and southern Africa, Peru and central Asia confirm the link between the weaving/braiding activity and humanity’s aspirations to the very highest inner activities.

In the Middle Ages, a third mode arose to take its place alongside weaving and braiding. Although the origins of knitting are obscure, old woodcuts and medieval illuminations place its ascendance in Europe at about the same time that the game of chess and the mathematical approach of algebra became known to westerners. It is significant that the most intellectual of games and the most thought‑out approach to numerical problems accompanied the development of knitting. It was as though a new degree of adeptness in the hand has to go side by side with newly discovered capacities in the head.

Recent neurological research tends to confirm that mobility and dexterity in the five motor muscles, especially in the hand, may stimulate cellular development in the brain, and so strengthen the physical instrument of thinking. Work done over the past seventy years in hundreds of schools using the Waldorf method worldwide, in which first graders learn to knit before learning to write or manipulate numbers, has also proven successful in this regard.

What occurs when a child sets about to knit? Needles are held in both hands, with each hand assigned its respective activity; laterality is immediately established, as well as the eye’s control over the hand. The right needle must enter a fairly tightly wound loop of yarn on the left needle, weave through it and pull away, in the process typing a knot. Only a steady, controlled hand can accomplish such a feat, so the power of concentration is aroused – indeed, there is no other activity performed by seven or eight year olds that can evoke such a degree of attentiveness as knitting. This training in concentration will go far in supporting problem‑solving abilities in later years.

To knit properly, the child must count the number of stitches and the number of rows. By using different colours and different row lengths (as in a pattern of a little animal with legs), the teacher encourages not only attentiveness to number, but also flexibility in thinking. As children learn more arithmetic, teachers can devise patterns that call, for example, for two rows of blue, four rows of yellow, six rows of red, eight rows of blue, etc., reinforcing numerical skills in a challenging, yet enjoyable manner.

Lastly, we cannot underestimate the self-esteem and joy that arise in the child as the result of having made something practical and beautiful – something which has arisen as the result of a skill that has been learned. In an age when children are too often passive consumers, who, as Oscar Wilde once said, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”, learning to knit can be a powerful way of bringing meaning into a child’s life.


Excerpt from The Role of Handwork in the Waldorf Curriculum by Eugene Schwartz


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