Knitting out the Touch Hunger: A Research Project to Design the Overcoming of Post-Pandemic Emotional Fear of Touching

From Firenze University Press Journal: Fashion Highlight

University of Florence
4 min readJan 31, 2024

Martina Motta, Politecnico di Milano

Giovanni Maria Conti, Politecnico di Milano

Covid-19 pandemic brought heavy changes for multiple aspects of human life, going far beyond the immediate impacts on physical health. All the collateral circumstances impacted on our daily life, habits, the spaces we live in, our sense of freedom, the way we relate with others. Indeed, the isolation, the restrictions and the fear of contagion with which we became familiar altered so much the human attitudes that they end up in affecting common gestures. Hugs, kisses, hands shaking, all the human behaviors related to touching have been progressively abandoned, generating what scientists called “touch hunger” (Banerjee et al., 2021). To Ghilardi (2016) with touch we define ourselves as our form of being in the world: this highlights the pervasive importance of touching and the burden of touch deprivation on our daily-life as well as on our mental health. To Green and Moran (2020) we deal with complex “touch-related human and emotional costs” that make people today feel lost and distant, no longer able to resort to those ancestral gestures with which they used to know and recognize others at a primordial level. As designers, the authors of this article are particurarly inclined in observing people’s behavior, the way they interact and create bonds with others, objects and places. When the changes they were they were observing was confirmed by scientists, they asked themselves how design –textile design in particular– could help people get closer and gradually abandon the fear of contact.In textile design, the haptic dimension has always been central and is today decisively reaffirming its predominant role in the discussion on the digital transformation. Among the diverse branches of design, researchers found in the intrinsic features of textile and knitted structures a possible medium to guide people in rediscovering the gestures of touching, the relationship with the object –textile– and, not least, the interaction with other human beings. The article presents a research work that started with questioning whether and how design could have a positive impact in the possible recovery from this harmful situation, and that resulted in the use of textile and knitted structures as design tools to be experienced by the public in post-pandemic times.

BackgroundThe Touch HungerPandemics, natural disasters, or other crisis events are known to pose a threat to mental health and affect the cognitive well-being of individuals. Review studies concerning the Covid-19 pandemic (Perna et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020) have found its negative impact on mental health, resulting in stress, anxiety and depression. The pandemic itself, and the consequent isolation, produced a sense of fragility and uncertainty, and brought physiological and social changes (e.g., in the sleep-wake rhythm, physical activity, nutrition, exposure to sunlight) that have a direct impact on human emotional brain and dysregulate it.According to these studies, everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, had experienced bad sensations like insecurity, confusion, emotional isolation, fear of being marginalized and felt alone or distanced from others.The separation and segregation we experienced gave also rise to social touch deprivation: the most common gestures through which we connect with others like hugs, kisses, hands shaking, started to be perceived as dangerous and generate fear (Green & Moran, 2021). They have been progressively abandoned and rejected, generating what scientists called “touch hunger”. In their study, Banerjee et al. (2021, p. 2) state that “humans are neurobiologically wired for touch receptivity”, and “social touch is a common and mutual way of expressing affection, care, and intimacy”. Touch is used by humans to convey reassurance, comfort, support, and empathy (Hertenstein et al., 2006), and the extreme situations reveal the importance of touch as a measure of communication: indeed, “as the physical contact and intimacy have gradually decreased and abolished in some cases, ‘touch starvation’or ‘touch hunger’ has risen” (Banerjee et al., 2021, p. 2). The scientists start from what written by Field (2014) about touch as a form of emotional expression and as a conveyor of affection and positive feedback to the brain; going on discussing how touch deprivation “has shown to increase stress and compound trauma, disrupting psychological resilience and coping” (Banerjee et al., 2021, p. 4). Moreover, to von Mohr, Kirsch, and Fotopoulou (2021) touch deprivation is associated with higher anxiety and greater loneliness.Despite the opportunities to connect that we have with virtual communication technologies, we see how touch still has a biopsychosocial value that cannot be replaced by digital technologies. In this sense, the pandemic reminds the importance being physically together, of social proximity and expression through ‘touch’; it served to bring new attention and awareness to our emotional mechanisms and to the relation with others in everyday life.From these premises, the research presented here worked to relate scientific data and innovative design languages to design and develop a participatory emotional and sensorial journey that, thanks to the combination of up-to-date technologies, innovative materials, and tactile textile surfaces could guide participants in overcoming the fear of touching and finding new possible ways of being together.


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