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Diver Tom Daley shares how knitting helped him win gold in new book 'Made with Love'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For watchers of the Olympics, Tom Daley has never disappointed. In fact, he is the U.K.'s most decorated diver. The pandemic revealed a different side to Daley. With no fans in attendance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the camera often cut to Daley, sitting in the stands, knitting. Now, this was not just a gimmick. Daley says knitting helped him win the gold that year. He spoke about that with NPR's Elissa Nadworny - also about knitting and crochet tips, tricks and patterns in his new book, "Made With Love."

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: So knitting helped you win the gold in Tokyo? How?

TOM DALEY: Yes. Honestly, it was - when I first started knitting, I had no idea of the impact that it was going to have.

NADWORNY: Sure.

DALEY: Initially, it was because my coach said that I'm terrible at sitting still and resting and recovering, and I need to find something where I can just sit still. So then it was my husband that suggested that I try knitting because he's a filmmaker. And people on set, while they're waiting, they sometimes do some knitting. So I was like, you know what? I'll give it a go. And it just turned into my mindfulness, my meditation, my calm and my way to escape the stresses of everyday life and, in particular, going into an Olympics.

NADWORNY: Huh. Can you take us back to that, like, first piece you ever made? What was the moment that you started to be like, oh, this is going to work for me?

DALEY: Well, actually, the first piece I ever made was a scarf for my mum. And I - initially, I found it extremely difficult, like, just to be able to have the patience and the concentration. But once I learned, it kind of, like, went flying from there, honestly. And the whole reason that "Made With Love" started was because, when I was finished the scarf, I wanted to sew something into it that my mum could know that I had made it.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

DALEY: So I went online to order some of the labels that normally you can sew into, like, clothes that - like, personalized ones. And I had to order a stock of 50 of them.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

DALEY: So I thought, I need to get something where I - it actually makes it worth getting them. So I was like, you know what? I'm going to put made with love by Tom Daley. So that was where it came from. And I learned from YouTube. So learning - I'm, like, self-taught, really.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

DALEY: And every project, I learned a new stitch or new skill, and then I learned how to crochet. And then after that, I started designing my own things. And before I knew it, it was something that I was completely obsessed with. Every moment that I had to myself, I was able just to be able to switch off and get my knitting needles out. And it just takes me to a place where - of, like, complete calm and tranquility, honestly.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Do you have tips for how people can make knitting and crocheting get them to that peace and tranquility - that practice of mindfulness?

DALEY: Yeah. It gets to a point where, like, once you learn the basics and know what you're doing, you can either follow patterns or you can make squares, or you can make blankets or take it to the next level and start designing your own things. But honestly, once you learn the basics of knitting, it's basically pulling loops through other loops with one piece of string. So once you know the basics of it, it just becomes very mindful, and you get this kind of, like, pitter-patter of the knitting needles. And you just get the flow, and you can pass hours. Honestly, I now look forward to traveling, or I look forward to moments where I can - like, I'm never bored.

NADWORNY: What are some of the most meaningful patterns or projects in the book for you?

DALEY: For me, there's lots of different things in there. There's lots of sustainability things, too - being able to reuse your old T-shirts, cutting it up and making yarn out of that and then creating something new out of it, being able to upcycle your old clothes - basically with techniques about embroidery and duplicate stitching. But some of my favorite ones in there are just some of the very basic scarves that are, you know, using mohair so that they look really - like, they feel and look, like, quite, like, expensive, but you've made it yourself, and you've done it. And then there's also the - some of the tank tops in there and the jumpers.

It's also one of those things that sometimes, with knitting, it has this expectation of being for older people and a little bit fuddy-duddy, and you get these things. But all of these patterns in there I like to think are, like - are things that you'll actually wear, and you'll look forward to getting out there. And, like, for example, if you were to get the book for a grandparent - like, your grandparents or your parents or whatever it may be - they might actually starting knitting you things you'll actually wear...

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

DALEY: ...Or you can actually start making things for yourself.

NADWORNY: And you guys have kids now - right? - so there are some kid patterns in there.

DALEY: Yes. So there's a couple of the jumpers I designed for kids and adults, and there's also even a dog hat in there. And there's also, like, homewares. So there's blankets and cushions - plant pots, even.

NADWORNY: Wow.

DALEY: So you name it - there's something in there for everyone.

NADWORNY: "Made With Love" is - it's not just the book title, right? You also kind of made a business from this, right?

DALEY: Yeah, exactly. So right after the Olympics, very quickly, we set up something where I could pass on my passion and my designs for other people to be able to make. So on bytomdaley.com, you can get kits where I sell the yarn, the needles and the pattern and everything you need in order to be able to make your own jumper, your own scarf, your own hat and all of the designs that I've made. So now it's kind of taking it to the next level with the book, for people to be able to start using all kinds of different yarns. But it's - yeah, it's been something that I've been so passionate about and excited about - being able to pass on that passion that I have and hopefully be able to get other people being mindful with their knitting as well.

NADWORNY: It feels kind of wild because, like, you're a diver. Like, did you ever think that you would be, like, running a knitting business?

DALEY: If somebody had told me five years ago that I would have even known how to knit, I would've probably laughed in their faces.

NADWORNY: (Laughter) Yeah.

DALEY: So the fact that it is now, like, my next passion - like, I feel so lucky to have found a second passion away from diving. And now, knitwear, design and fashion are, like, the things that I am, like, most passionate about.

NADWORNY: Hmm. What are you making right now? Any special gifts for the holidays?

DALEY: So I've been making all kinds of things, actually, and I'm trying to make, like, a little bit more out-there, editorial things. And I've just recently made - you have to, like, bear with me here. There's two things that I've made. There's one, like, kind of chainmail-esque, very, like, meshy-type knit, with crystal balls...

NADWORNY: Ooh (laughter).

DALEY: ...And disco ball kind of vibe, which is quite - it's a lot. And then I also made, like, a balaclava which was, like, hot pink with sleeves...

NADWORNY: Wow.

DALEY: ...And spikes all over. So - and it's - and that's very - yes, it's very weird and hard to picture, but I just love the fact that you can just be totally creative with it. And if you think of something, you can make it. And that's the beauty of it, really.

NADWORNY: Yeah. OK, so I'm not a knitter, but what is the first thing that I should make? Like, what - and what gear should I get?

DALEY: You know, the easiest thing to make and the best place to start is with, like, a scarf because, you know, you're going to be going in a straight line. You just have to learn one stitch, and off you go.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

DALEY: And honestly, all you really need to get is some yarn, some knitting needles, and you'll be able to make a scarf by the end of it.

NADWORNY: Yeah. How do you know if you're a crochet person or a knitter?

DALEY: That is a good question. And honestly, I think it's whatever you're drawn to. Whatever you look at for a pattern and you see first, and you're like, oh, that looks really fun. I want to try that. Then try it. And at the end of the day, what I did initially is I learned how to knit first. And then, once you know how to do one, you can actually transfer into the other quite easily and seamlessly. They are very different. But at the same time, once you start getting the hang of it and picking it up, I think you'll be able to do both.

NADWORNY: Yeah. So what's next for you? Are you going to return to diving?

DALEY: That is a good question, and I wish I knew myself, honestly. I'm in that period right now where I haven't set foot on a diving board since Tokyo. But at the same time, I've been really enjoying this second passion. But I also don't want to say, oh, I'm not diving anymore, and then do the Spice Girls 10-year comeback reunion kind of thing.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

DALEY: So I'm just, like, playing it by ear right now and just seeing where life takes me.

KELLY: That was Tom Daley speaking with NPR's Elissa Nadworny. His new book is called "Made With Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.