Purl-y enjoyable

Kanuga conference blends knitting and prayer into one fabric
April 30, 2006

A common pastime proved a pathway for spiritual growth early this year when more than 30 knitters from six states gathered at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of western North Carolina for a weekend where “knit one, purl two” quickly blended into prayer, worship and sharing.

Unusual patterns for projects from sweaters to scarves to shawls took center stage at times. The more experienced explained and demonstrated the tougher stitches. Novices watched closely, sometimes emulating the experts. While knitting was the reason for the conference, discovering one’s spiritual center quickly became the treasured memory many participants took home.

Once one “enters into the rhythm of knitting, it is sort of Zen-like,” said Varian Brandon of Atlanta, conference coordinator.

She said she really didn’t know exactly what would emerge when she suggested the conference to Kanuga’s staff last summer. Registration was slow, but 19 people had signed up by the week before Christmas. When registration reached 27, Brandon began to worry, wondering if she could handle so large a group.

But things went well as the weekend unfolded, and slowly she began to relax. “It dawned on me that I wasn’t there to teach them anything,” Brandon said. “I was the knitting pusher. To me it was to help them grow.”

Surging interest

Once relegated to grandmothers and a handful of serious students of the sewing arts, there has been a surge in knitting’s popularity. Men knit. Younger women knit. People knit in groups, specializing in knitting at liturgical arts conferences and writing entire books about knitting as a form of meditation and spiritual quest.

Among recent books relating knitting to faith and spirituality are: Knitting into the Mystery: The Shawl-Knitting Ministry by Susan S. Jorgenson and Susan S. Izard and The Knitting Way: A Guide to Spiritual Self-Discovery by Linda Skolnik and Janice MacDaniels.

The latter brings together a Jew and a Christian who see knitting as a path to spiritual transformation, whatever one’s religion. “In the beginning of the 21st century, it appears from all accounts that knitting has emerged as a powerful symbol that can put us back in touch with the harmony of life,” the authors write in the book’s introduction.

Many knitters find that taking needles to yarn stills their minds and hearts, becoming a form of prayer. Connecting to God at a deeper level is one of the reasons Boykin Exum of Columbia, S.C., knits. A teacher for the Kanuga knitting conference, Exum said conversations with fellow knitters helped her put into words some of what she has felt while knitting.

“I find it easier to be more open to God. Knitting helps me with discernment and sometimes gives me a better understanding of things I have heard or read,” she said. “When I am knitting something for someone else, I tend to pray (sort of ) for the person who is to receive it, as well as praying for other people and situations that concern me. God has to remind me continually that many of these simply need to be turned over to him.”

A prayerful framework

On hand for the Kanuga weekend were knitters ranging in age from their 30s to their early 70s. The Rev. Charlotte Dudle Cleghorn, conference chaplain, worked with Brandon to blend morning and evening worship into the conference’s rhythmic, free-flowing style. Celtic music and patterns of prayer helped set a quiet and often joyful theme.

“Our chaplain expressed concern in the beginning about how knitting and spiritual growth could fit together -- it was amazing how they did,” said Shawnee Irwin, a Brevard, N.C., knitter who attended. “The whole conference came together visually for me when I first sat down for evening prayer and there was a beautiful hand-knit purple stole draped around our worship space -- God was at work!”

Diane Laughlin of Pittsburgh was taught to knit by her mother. She, in turn, taught her daughter and daughter-in-law. The intergenerational “connectedness” of knitting enriches one’s joy, “passing the skill from one generation to the next,” Laughlin said. At Kanuga, she said, “I began to experience knitting as a creative process. And we, because we are made in God’s image, are creative beings.”

Kanuga plans to hold another conference next year. The theme seems a natural for Kanuga, said Meredith Calhoun, Kanuga director of program. As she and Brandon planned this year’s event, they shared ideas of what would happen. “We both had a vision of knitters sitting around a roaring fire, creating beautiful pieces that would provide warmth and comfort to another,” Calhoun said, “and that is exactly what happened.”

To find about future knitting conferences, contact Kanuga at http://www.kanuga.org/, or call 828-692-9136.

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