Every Olympics, there’s a story that transcends sport and captures the attention of the world. We can now add Tom Daley knitting in Tokyo to that prestigious list, with images of the British diver, needle in hand as he sat in the stands between events, perhaps the most talked about photograph of this year’s games.
Daley finally won a well-deserved gold medal in Tokyo at his fourth Olympics, so it says something about our attitude to men knitting that his hobby has probably made more of a splash than his achievements in the pool. The 27-year-old has credited the craft with keeping his mind in the best possible shape for competing, helping him to relax and occupy his thoughts between dives. It has clearly worked. Daley has been diving at the Olympics, and a household name in Britain, since he was 14. And after taking up knitting in 2020, he won his first gold medal this year with partner Matty Lee in the men’s 10-meter synchronized dive, as well as a bronze in his individual 10-meter event. He says, “One thing that has kept me sane throughout this whole process is my love for knitting and crochet and all things stitching.”
Daley has revealed his creations –– including an elaborate Team GB cardigan and tiny hand-stitched case for his gold medal –– to his growing army of more than 1.1 million followers on a special Instagram account dedicated to his knitting that he set up last year. And he is now fast becoming the international poster boy for a new generation of men who knit.
While men remain very much in the minority in the knitting community, male participation is on the rise. Lockdown encouraged many folk to engage with new hobbies at home and to try to be more self-sufficient, a perfect storm for the craft of creating our own clothes. The sale of fabric, sewing machines and other equipment soared. Knitting and crochet community LoveCrafts have reported a notable rise in men joining their ranks, with the majority of their new male members aged between 25 and 34. And the Reddit, YouTube and Instagram sewing communities, once dominated by women, are now seeing more men’s creations being shared.
Regular Mr Feelgood readers may have noticed that actor Gabriel Macht had some of his knitting in shot when he was photographed to accompany our interview last year. “I knit a scarf for [wife] Jacinda when I was making ‘The Recruit’,” he tells us. “Colin Farrell and some of the other cast would tease me but I kept going. I loved it when the drivers and teamsters would stop by and ask if they could stitch for a few minutes. I find it’s a way to calm down, focus, find a flow, and another way to be mindful.”
Brendan Girak, of Perth, Australia, has become something of an accidental knitting influencer, with 75,000 people now following his Instagram page, and he has even played a small role in Daley’s knitting adventure, exchanging messages and encouraging the athlete since he joined the social media knitting community last year.
Daley has experienced some tough times amid his sporting highs, including the death of his father, Robert, aged 40, after a five-year battle with brain cancer in 2011. He is now using the attention on his hobby to honor the memory of his dad, raffling off his creations to raise money for The Brain Tumour Charity. And, like Daley, Brendan says the pastime has been hugely beneficial to his mental health.
He says, “I started knitting when I was about 21, but it wasn’t until I was 24, and I had some personal issues, that I started diving more into my knitting to try and relieve some of the pressures I felt. I have ADHD, and I get a lot of anxiety, and it keeps me stable and level, and helps me to concentrate, find purpose, and get in the zone.
“It’s good for me to have something I can do by myself, and have that alone time, but still feel productive and have achieved something at the end of it. I can just get that fix of feeling good about myself, without having to rely on anyone else.”
Through his knitting, Brendan says he has met a whole community of like-minded people around the world who support and help one another. The 28-year-old is now trying to share some of his positive experiences with others, volunteering in a school teaching knitting to youngsters, and is planning to start going into hospitals too to use the craft as a way to connect with children with mental health issues. This volunteering has opened up a new career path, and purpose, for him personally too, and he is now training to be a primary school teacher.
He adds, “I have jumpers I look at and can remember some pretty tough things I was going through when I knitted it, and it holds a lot of sentimental value to me. Then you can walk around wearing something you’ve made and people compliment you on it, and that’s a pretty cool feeling too.”
It is not just younger men embracing the pursuit. Frank Jernigan, 76, is one of a handful of male ‘master knitters’ recognized by The Knitting Guild Association, and has found the meditative benefits of knitting helpful as he navigates the twists and turns of life, and says the repetitive nature of the process can provide an anchor to help steady the mind.
“Knitting is almost like meditating,” he says. “It’s the same sequence of movements over and over which is very relaxing. And it’s so simple. You don’t have to have special equipment, just a needle and yarn.
“I also do Buddhist meditation which in its simplest form is focusing on the breath, which is repetitive. And knitting works in a similar way. You are thinking about something that is semi-conscious, but you’re aware of it. You’re not thinking about the past and things you regret, you’re not thinking about the future and things you wish for, you’re just thinking about the here and now.”
Frank has seen a shift in attitude to the craft throughout his life, and hopes the likes of Daley can help further inspire a new generation of male knitters.
He says, “I was actually taught to knit by my sister when I was a teenager. I knew I enjoyed it, but I soon realized that, growing up in Georgia in the 1950s, it was unacceptable for a boy to be interested in knitting. I couldn’t even show my father what I had produced, so I left it at that.
“Then when I was about 35 years old, I finally thought, ‘I remember I loved knitting. And if I want to do it, I ought to be able to.’ So I took it upon myself to learn to knit and I knitted a couple of sweaters. But then I got busy with my career as a software engineer, so I put it aside again for another 30 years.
“And then finally, after I retired, I took it up again at the age of 67. I joined a program at the Knitting Guild Association and eventually was awarded a master hand knitting certificate. There are approximately 350 people who have completed the program, and at the time I became a master knitter in 2017, there were just five other men.”
Frank, who now lives in San Francisco, California, and runs a website sharing his work and patterns, adds, “We are seeing more men knitting, which is great. But when I go to a knitting conference, men are still in the great minority. And if I’m in a class with 30 people, I’m still often the only man.
“Knitting is not just for women, and it never was. It was men’s knitting guilds that spread the practice of knitting all across Europe many hundreds of years ago. But it became associated with women’s domestic work, and then in the early part of the 20th century it became absolutely forbidden for boys to learn to knit.
“So it was an evolution, and now we’re trying to reverse that. Because there’s no reason a man can’t knit. Men do all kinds of creative things with their hands.”