When Jan Bingen sits down to crochet a king-sized afghan, it is a distraction.

Bingen, 48, is homeless. She moved to Tucson from Iowa with her husband in April. They came here to get away from the snow and look for work. At the start of September, both were still looking.

Bingen discovered the relaxing effects of crocheting as a girl, taught by both her mother and grandmother.

Fiber arts such as knitting and crocheting have long conjured up images of a grandmother knitting on a porch rocker. Granny, as it turns out, might have been on to something. In recent years, knitting has gained popularity as a social event, bringing people together in libraries, coffee shops and more unlikely places. The rhythmic process of knitting and crocheting can slow the mind down enough to relax. It’s a kind of therapy that transcends all walks of life.

Knitting Shelter

Women at Sister Jose Women’s Shelter wander in and out of the living area, stopping to chat with and watch crafters gathered around a table.

Every Wednesday, the shelter, 18 W. 18th St., piles a small table with tubs of colorful yarn, crochet hooks, glue guns and spools of thread.

A volunteer hunkers down for the morning, helping women of all skill levels with various crafts. Several stop by to knit or crochet. They want to improve or learn for the first time.

“This is a place to sit and crochet, and you’ve got yarn to crochet with,” Bingen said. “It’s calming. I’ve been doing this so long my mind just gets into crocheting, and I don’t think about anything else.”

The shelter kick started the crafting program at the beginning of the summer to build a community and provide a productive way for homeless women to fill their time. When volunteers noticed some of the women knitting and crocheting on winter evenings, they decided to haul out donated supplies once a week to involve anyone interested.

Yarn, needles and other craft supplies get donated by local churches, Kiwi Knitting Company and individuals. In the living- room area at the shelter, colorful, handmade afghans donated by these same groups are draped over chair backs. The crafting program teaches interested women how to make these for themselves.

“As far as learning and knowing how to do it themselves, it kind of takes their minds off their crisis and whatever they’re going through,” said Denise Milne, the coordinator for the shelter. “I think, in some ways, it reminds them of their children, their families, their mothers. It gives them a sense of home when they’re doing it.”

Bingen remembers her mother teaching her to crochet a granny square as an 8-year-old. Her grandmother taught her a different method, and now she loves to teach others, adding her own suggestions to those of the expert volunteer.

“Once I start crocheting, I don’t stop,” she said. “Boom. I just go. I’ll crochet all day. “I can’t help it. I love crocheting.”

Knitting Community

Instead of twiddling her thumbs or gripping the steering wheel during a traffic jam on Interstate 10, Holly Harper has been known to knit.

A true yarn artist can knit or crochet on the couch or on the go. Harper, 50, has also tried taking a ball of yarn and needles with her on the treadmill. It wasn’t her best workout. Less extreme, Lynn Davis, who owns Kiwi Knitting Company, takes her projects with her on trips or to the doctor’s office.

“Knitting fits into whatever you’re doing at the time,” Davis, 62, said. “If you only have a little bit of time, you can make something out of chunky yarn; if you have a longer period of time, you can do something that’s bigger.”

It’s also a social way to pass the time. A group of knitters and crocheters gather weekly at Kiwi Knitting Company, 2540 E. Sixth St., to visit the Knit Doctor and work through knots and tangles in their projects. Sometimes, they munch on muffins while they chat, fingers plucking at woven yarn.

“It’s very warm, very family-like, very cooperative,” said Harper, the assistant manager at the store and the Knit Doctor. “We help each other and give each other advice creatively. Even though we like the sort of meditative state you get into with knitting, it’s nice to have people to talk to.”

Knitting confidence

In a knitting circle for refugees, clinical therapist Norma Mayer watched language barriers dissolve as women from Nepal, Iraq and African countries laughed and helped each other.

Through knitting, they could momentarily forget lives marked by trauma.

“It’s a mindfulness about being in the moment and being aware about what’s in your mind and body without holding on to anything or rejecting anything,” said Mayer, 49. “It’s being able to focus on your breath as a focal point ... but still returning to the knitting process as you’re repeating the motion.”

For five years, Mayer worked with the International Rescue Committee in Tucson as a mental health counselor and also facilitated a several-month knitting circle for refugees. For the duration of the program, these women could draw on pre-existing skills — a small step toward building lives in a foreign culture. Mayer remembers the beautiful scarves they made. Some even sold their creations, boosting confidence in the midst of loneliness and change.

“It’s a coping mechanism and tolerance to help you go through your difficulties,” Mayer said. “We’re not going through talking about what you experienced in the past, but we’re being present and enjoying the moment.”

Knitting Healing

Saumya VanderWyst found relief in knitting after developing a number of autoimmune diseases several years ago.

Paired with visual issues and arthritis, the autoimmune diseases stunted the 35-year-old biomedical engineer’s pursuit of her doctorate at the University of Arizona. Knitting gave VanderWyst a way not just to pass the time, but to enjoy it.

“I had no choice but to spend my days lying down and sitting down, and you get bored of the TV pretty quickly,” VanderWyst said.

Her best friend, an avid knitter, initially taught her to knit. She learned more through YouTube videos and local knitting groups. It has only been two years, but in knitting, VanderWyst discovered a productive activity that does not require much movement. Now, she is the president of the Old Pueblo Knitters Guild.

“It satisfied a deeper need for me,” VanderWyst said. “I just like making things.”

Knitting Compassion

The Old Pueblo Knitters Guild knits for the community, donating finished projects to military members, premature infants and Native American students.

Every winter since 1994, two members of the guild trek to Rocky Ridge Boarding School in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. They take sweaters, hats, mittens, scarves and ponchos to school children in preschool through eighth grade, using their craft to care.

“It tells you someone cared enough to make something with their own hands and give it to you as a person,” said Barbara Askren, a guild member who has delivered the knits to the reservation since the project started. This year, two other members, Cathy Dingell and Nancy Slutter, will take over for Askren.

“I like making something that I know someone is going to use,” said Dingell, 72. “I have knit things for my family or friends that I don’t think were used — or even myself.”

Year after year, Askren, 78, has seen the sweaters in use, faded after months of wear. By now, the children look forward to these pre-Christmas gifts.

“One little girl, she was just the tiniest little thing, kept pulling on her friend and pulling on her,” Askren said. “Finally, she got around right in that little girl’s face and she said, ‘We’re going to wear these for Christmas!’ and they laughed and got so excited. It was the sweetest thing.”

The knitters find themselves more motivated when they know the project will meet a need. They could buy sweaters at Walmart, Askren said, but that misses the quality of handmade and skips a process that “saves your sanity.”

“Sometimes, it’s just quiet time and concentration,” Askren said. “It’s a wonderful hobby.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@azstarnet.com or 573-4357.

Writing about Tucson's heart and soul — its people, its kindness, its faith — for #ThisIsTucson.