Puzzles, knitting, gardening: Slow living makes a fast comeback

When it comes to hobbies during the coronavirus pandemic, what’s old is new again.

Puzzles, photography, knitting, cooking and gardening are among the hobbies that countless Americans are embracing since most of the country went into COVID-19 lockdown.

With large gatherings a no-no right now, they’re ages-old creative outlets that are compatible with social distancing, while also offering a sense of personal gratification as you grow your own salad ingredients, photograph your family or pets, or knit a blanket for your grandchild.

And, let’s be honest here: they offer a welcome distraction from the barrage of grim COVID-19 headlines.

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Pamela Chelinhas worked to improve her photography skills since the coronavirus turned the world upside down. The Los Angeles-based freelance writer says snapping photos has been a “wonderful escape from the monotony of being stuck at home every day and every night.”

It’s a hobby that dates back nearly 200 years. The first known photograph, made byJoseph Nicéphore Niépce, dates to either 1826 or 1827. The image of his home was made on a pewter plate washed with a special solution.

“Getting into the car at night and driving around while listening to music and finding cool spots to photograph has given me something to do that’s fun and that feels purposeful,” she told USA TODAY. “I have posted most of the photos to social media, so it’s also provided some additional connectivity during these isolated times.”

Here’s a brief look at some of the hobbies that are seeing a resurgence right now and who’s picking them up:

Knitting

Believed to date back to the fifth century, starting in Egypt before eventually spreading to Europe and beyond. A mechanical knitting machine, the stocking frame, was invented by William Lee in 1589, revolutionizing the knitting process.

Business is up — way up — at Tempe Yarn & Fiber in Tempe, Arizona.

Store manager Amanda Neal has seen a steady stream of orders from regulars, as well as newcomers looking for something to help pass the time while they’re cooped up at home. The store is offering curbside pickup and also mails yarn and other items.

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“Most of them are just bored,” she said. “Some are a little stressed out. They want to keep their hands busy while they’re watching TV and keep their hands out of the refrigerator. It really does help your brain and keeps you occupied, not focusing on the scary times were living in.”

Typically a favorite of retirees, Neal says she’s seen a number of middle-age women pick up knitting in the past several weeks. Many turn to YouTube videos for guidance on how to get started.

Tempe Yarn & Fiber has seen an uptick in business during the coronavirus pandemic. People have more time to knit, manager Amanda Neal says.

Blankets are a popular option for those new to the hobby — “It’s just a big square or rectangle,” Neal says — while experienced knitters are opting for more complex projects, such as sweaters. A number of customers say they’re already working on presents to give this coming Christmas.

“Making handmade things is always a good thing,” she said. “These gifts are being made with love during this crisis.”

Robin Suber, one of Neal’s regulars, has been knitting for 15 years. Lately she’s been working on shawls or, as she calls them, “Arizona sweaters.” She also knitted a face mask to protect from COVID-19.

“Knitting during the pandemic has been a source of comfort and calm in all the chaos,” she said. “It is something that people can do and not be tied to something that has to be start-to-finish fussy. It can be picked up and put down over and over. It can be as simple as a one-stitch pattern or as complex as lace.”

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The knitting community is a close one, Suber says, and she’s hopeful groups can resume meeting soon.

“I am looking forward to the time we can all be back to some semblance of normal and can get together, because knitting involves community,” she said.

Puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles, originally an image painted on wood that was then cut into multiple pieces, date back to the late 1700s. Later, most puzzles were printed on either cardboard or paper board. Some of the largest puzzles on the market today have in excess of 40,000 pieces and span more than 20 feet.  

Membership in the Jigsaw Puzzle Swap Exchange has jumped about 50% per month since coronavirus led to stay-at-home orders, organizer Aleta Gerard says.

The website helps connect jigsaw puzzle fans, allowing them to swap completed puzzles for new ones.

“Puzzles are a great stress reliever,” says Gerard, whose operation is based in Palm Coast, Florida. “They are also great for mental stimulation and a wonderful alternative to digital addiction. Puzzles can provide a much needed family time activity.”

Gerard has been a puzzle fan since childhood. Typically a hobby dominated by women, she’s noticed more men are swapping puzzles during the current pandemic.

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“Puzzles were a common activity in the home when I was growing up,” she said. “They were great when the weather was bad and you couldn’t be out. Now that I no longer have children at home and have more free time, they give me a break and allow me to let my mind unwind from the thought-provoking computer work that I do.”

Membership in the Jigsaw Puzzle Swap Exchange is up, with more men joining the club.

Keri McClellan, a member of the Jigsaw Puzzle Swap Exchange, says she’s had a number of friends reach out lately, asking to borrow some of her puzzles.

“I have made several puzzle drops to friends’ doorsteps, and people are always texting me pictures of their completed puzzles,” she said. “Puzzles offer a family pastime that every age can participate in, at any hour of the day.”

Catherine McCarthy, another member, says she’s completed a dozen 1,000-piece puzzles since she went into lockdown on March 13.

“Puzzling is a great way to pass the time during the quarantine and stay in place,” she said. “It makes me feel productive. It also forces me to focus on the present rather than on the news and all of the anxiety that comes from watching and listening to all that is going on. This positive distraction is welcomed at this time.”

Gardening

Gardening, growing foods for sustenance, helps meet the most basic of human needs: hunger. Its origins date back to Egypt more than 4,000 years ago, spreading to Europe and elsewhere, where imported and native plants were raised.

Dr. Joe Masabni, a horticulturalist with the Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension in College Station, Texas, has been busy lately, responding to a barrage of emails from people interested in vegetable gardening.

He’s not surprised.

“Vegetable gardening is always popular with middle-aged and older populations,” he said. “In times of uncertainties, it is even more popular as people worry about having enough food and resort to growing their own.”

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In addition to growing your own food, there are other benefits. Something Masabni says many people overlook is that gardening is a form of exercise and is very labor intensive.

“The most important benefit for gardening is that it is the exercise that people do and continue to do for the longest time in their lifetime,” he said. “Some people run for 20 years, swim for 40 years, but gardening has been shown to be the longest.”

People worried about food supplies are taking up vegetable gardening, Texas A&M University says.

For those new to the hobby, he suggests doing a lot of research. Check with master gardeners in your area, scour the internet for reliable information on what works — and won’t work — in your area, test your soil and get educated on good and bad insects.

“Gardening is a skill that takes years to master,” Masabni said. “Preparation is key to success. Success in gardening is 50 percent preparation and 50 percent regular, daily activities. Expect huge successes and big failures, even if you did everything right. It happens. Learn from it and try something else.”

Cooking

Roasting meat over a fire is believed to be the earliest form of cooking. Over time, it progressed, involving dishes mixed with crude utensils and cooked in earthenware. The first cookbook, “Hedypatheia” (“Pleasant Living”), dates back to 350 BC.

With many restaurants closed or only offering takeout and delivery, many families are cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner — plus snacks — at home.

Jack Bishop, creative director for “America’s Test Kitchen,” says that’s led more people to sign up for online classes, search for recipes and buy new kitchen gadgets.

“We’re seeing tremendous interest,” Bishop told USA TODAY. “Everybody’s cooking way more. They may have cooked X times a week and now they’re cooking 2X, 3X or even 4X times a week.”

Initially, with many grocers stripped bare, the focus was on making whatever you could with what was already in your home. Now that most stores have been able to restock most items, Bishop says home chefs are getting more creative.

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Searches for recipes for comfort foods have been especially strong, with people wanting to make dishes such as lasagna, baked ziti and pizzas, as well as baked goods such as banana bread and croissants.

Interest in breakfast dishes is high as well.

“Nobody cares about breakfast generally because no one has time,” Bishop said. “Now you can make breakfast because you’re not commuting. People are like, ‘Let’s make breakfast an event, an activity. Instant oatmeal may have been fine two months ago, but let’s make real oatmeal or pancakes instead — and not out of a box.’ “

For those who aren’t used to cooking regularly, Bishop has some advice: “Work on a repertoire. The key to being successful in a kitchen is to make the same dish more than once. Build some core skills.

With many restaurants closed, Jack Bishop says enrollment in 'America's Test Kitchen' online courses is up as people cook at home instead.

“I’m not saying you need to have meatloaf every Tuesday night, but that second and third time you make something you learn a lot of skills and feel more comfortable customizing.”

Stephen Roberts is taking classes through the “America’s Test Kitchen” website, lately focusing on improving his baking skills.

“For nearly 30 years I was a traveling consultant on an expense account who had the opportunity to eat in some of the best restaurants in the world,” he said. “When I came off the road, I missed the fine-dining creations that I had in the past consumed, and decided that I could probably learn if given an opportunity to create dishes like I had eaten. I quickly found out there was a huge difference between following a blueprint in the form of a recipe and the art of being a chef.”

Once the lockdown is lifted, he says he’ll continue to cook.

“I have learned that I can cook meals as good as those in many of the restaurants near my home, for much less expense and I can control the quality and healthiness of the meal,” Roberts said. “We have also been able to revive the weekly family meal, which we had not done for years. Instead of eating 10-15 meals a week out, we are — and will — eat 10-15 meals in.”

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