Spirituality in stitchery

Books on quilting and sewing ministries explore faith through handicrafts
September 30, 2006

Books espousing the Zen-like benefits of knitting, crocheting and quilting abound as enthusiasts for the sewing arts praise their similarity to prayer and meditation.

The new titles highlight a growing movement linking faith and the sewing arts, one offering practitioners the opportunity to bring spirituality out of houses of worship into everyday life.

“This ministry brings quiet comfort to people’s lives,” said Kimberly Winston, a California-based journalist and author of a new book, Fabric of Faith: A Guide to the Prayer Quilt Ministry, that explores quilting across Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faith traditions.

Researching the book, she heard “story after story after story” of people “facing the darkest times in their lives.” Getting a quilt helped each recipient cope, while the prayer quilters who made them reported “feeling almost guilty” about what they got out of volunteering for the ministry.

“Many say they feel so much closer to God through their work in this ministry, especially during the quiet time they spend sewing,” said Winston, who wrote at length about the Prayers & Squares quilting ministry that has more than 435 chapters across the United States and Canada.

These quilting and sewing ministries capitalize on growing interest nationwide in crafts projects, from assembling scrapbooks full of family history to crocheting shawls for a friend going through a divorce. A recent survey by the Craft Organization Directors Association revealed a $13.8 billion industry, almost half the size of the nation’s $29.8 billion toy industry. A different survey found that there are more than 16 million U.S. households in which at least one person quilts.

Bonding among knitters

Last winter, knitting was the drawing card for 30 people from six states for a knitting conference at Kanuga Conference Center, an Episcopal center in the mountains of western North Carolina. Knitting was the reason for the conference -- the first of its kind at Kanuga -- but finding one’s spiritual center bonded participants in prayer, worship and sharing.

“It wasn’t just that we were there, but that God was there with us,” said Diane Laughlin, a knitter from Pittsburgh. “There were more than just a few tears shed as we experienced his presence while we were knitting, while we were worshiping, while we were walking the labyrinth, while we were sharing the Eucharist.”

Other recent titles linking the sewing arts to diverse faiths include: The Knitting Sutra: Craft as a Spiritual Practice by Susan Gordon Lydon; Zen and the Art of Knitting: Exploring the Links Between Knitting, Spirituality and Creativity by Bernadette Murphy; and Knitting Into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry by Susan S. Izard. In addition, there is The Knitting Way: A Guide to Spiritual Self-Discovery by Linda Skolnik and Janice MacDaniels and the soon-to-be released The Quilting Path: A Guide to Spiritual Discovery through Fabric, Thread and Kabbalah by Louise Silk.

Often the books’ authors are experienced artisans like Silk, who has quilted professionally for more than 30 years. In her book, she uses her quilting journey to direct readers on theirs. Each chapter introduces a universal human attribute organized according to the path of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. It then connects the attribute to one’s personal life and shows how to apply it to a quilt project.

Contemplation or collaboration

The books on knitting follow related themes, likening the quiet click of the needles to the rhythms of prayers and worship. Done alone, knitting can provide a period of peaceful contemplation, even a ritual of self-discovery. Done in a group, knitting easily links the knitters.

“It is one way to express the creativity that God gives and can help clear one’s mind of daily challenges, which can make praying or meditating easier and less distracted,” said Boykin Exum of Columbia, S.C., who has knitted for many years and helped teach a regional retreat for knitters earlier this year.

Skolnik, co-author of The Knitting Way, suggests that the renaissance of knitting signals a significant upswing in feminine spirituality. “In the beginning of the 21st century, it appears from all accounts that knitting has emerged as a powerful female symbol that can put us back in touch with the harmony of life,” she said.

Like other creative pastimes, quilting, knitting and similar pursuits draw from a rich mythology and offer multiple possibilities for individual and group projects. Some people are attracted by the textures and colors of yarn and fabric. Some long to put their talents to work through service. Others yearn for a break from a fast-paced, technology-driven world and seek quiet solace or the sense of community in a group of handcrafters.

Practitioners celebrate this newfound spiritual connection in all sorts of places, from religious retreats to small groups who meet in churches and synagogues to make prayer shawls for the bereaved. Some enthusiasts work separately but combine their energies to turn out large numbers of mittens and caps for the homeless.

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