When Claire Conza’s grandmother taught her how to knit as a child, little did they know how much of an influence the craft would go on to have in Claire’s life. Knitting became the therapy that saved Claire, 35, from the brinks of depression, as well as a major component of the social enterprise, Make Give Live, that Claire runs today.
While the Whangaparoaoa-based mum-of-one admits she’s not the most accomplished knitter, she has always been creative and launched her own knitwear label in early 2000 after completing a Bachelor of Fashion Design. She showed two of her collections at New Zealand Fashion Week.
She wound up the business in 2008 and moved on to working in interior design, but knitting came back into her life seven years ago when she became pregnant with her little girl Chloe.
“Getting pregnant with Chloe marked the start of my difficulties,” Claire says.
Claire was extremely ill with hyperemesis throughout her pregnancy and halfway through she also developed prenatal depression.
“It all compounded,” she recalls. “The depression affected me worse than the sickness. I had this intense urge to want to get out of my body and sometimes I just used to pace around.
"It sounds crazy but I used to try and walk out of my body. I felt trapped by my thoughts and there was no escape."
“I was extremely tearful and emotional and not able to do very simple things - having a shower was a big deal and I remember one day just crying on the stairs because I couldn’t bring myself to make my lunch but I knew I needed to eat.
“I felt really confused about how people could just be getting on with those normal day-to-day things because I couldn’t. And so I lost a lot of myself in that and I remember one day shaking my husband and saying to him ‘don’t ever let me do this again’. And I still only have one child.”
The only things that made Claire feel better was being around people – and knitting.
“It was the repetition and being able to concentrate on that one thing; it just breaks the negative thought patterns. I found it extremely therapeutic."
As soon as Chloe was born the hyperemesis and depression stopped - Claire likens it to “flicking a switch”.
Overjoyed to feel well again, she put down her knitting needles and threw herself into motherhood. When Chloe was four months old she went into business with her sister and another business partner, launching a communications business.
But the depression came back.
Claire explains, “I had a very difficult client and I was driven to breaking point, where I was forced to stop and really think about what I was doing with my life and why. At the same time I realised that over this time period there had been a side of me that just wouldn’t shut up about me doing something creative.”
Claire found herself on a journey of self-discovery.
“I started watching a whole bunch of TED Talks and realised that we can all have a positive impact on the world. I wanted to figure out how I could use my creative side to do something meaningful – and then I discovered the movement Live Your Legend. Live Your Legend is all about helping people find and do work that they love, that feels meaningful.”
Claire embraced the philosophy and began running Live Your Legend meet-up events in Auckland. In the meantime she also attended a conference in which she heard Hip Operation Crew founder Billie Jordan speak, which she found hugely inspirational.
“That got me thinking about how many people in New Zealand feel really isolated, particularly older people; and I remembered how knitting and crochet had helped me through a really difficult time, and how being around people and knitting had really affected my mental health positively.”
That’s when she came up with her social enterprise concept, Make Give Live.
Make Give Live is a social enterprise that brings together groups of women to knit and crochet. Their knitwear is sold through the Make Give Live website and at markets, but partnerships have also been established with organisations such as Lifewise and Age Concern Auckland so that knitwear such as beanies can be donated to the elderly or homeless.
Make Give Live has knitting groups in several parts of Auckland, and there are plans to expand into Christchurch and other parts of New Zealand. Claire intends to support the NZ wool industry by creating yarns using wool sourced directly from our farmers.
One of the knitting groups in particular has formed very strong bonds, she says. “There’s a magical interaction between the generations, with older members enriched by being able to pass on their skills, and younger members empowered by learning these skills. These women celebrate their birthdays together and catch up outside of the group and rally around one another when someone is not well.”
In the meantime she feels proud to be part of a business movement focused on making change driven by business. “The government can’t solve all the problems, charity can’t solve all the problems but businesses can do good business with the purpose of easing social and environmental problems. And I think the consumer is so ready for this.”
While Claire will always battle depression, she now feels she is being true to herself and fulfilling her creative side, at the same time connecting others through business and craft.
Long walks in nature, avoiding work in the evenings and trimming pompoms for beanies also holds her in good stead.