some people go to church to worship. On Saturday, some go to church to knit.
"We are knitting prayers into shawls to bless those who will receive them," said Julie Tampa, one of 40 women who show up, knitting needles in hand, to spend two hours each weekend knitting and praying at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in the Great Valley in Paoli, Penn. "It is a time to become aware of God's presence and God's grace."
Tampa and perhaps thousands
of others are participants in what has come to be known as The
Shawl Ministry, a new way the faithful serve the less fortunate by knitting
or crocheting warm, colorful shawls they hope will literally wrap them in
As with other
crafting-for-charity programs, like those that make blankets for Afghans, chemo
caps for cancer patients, or toys for premature babies, the Shawl Knitting
Ministry works to help people in crisis—such as unwed mothers, migrant
workers, and victims of domestic violence. But there is something else going on
"There is another
element to it," said Vicki Galo, co-founder of the ministry, which has
needles clicking from Maine to California and in a handful of groups overseas.
"Somehow, it benefits the knitter or the crocheter, too."
The women involved are
discovering that in the process of helping others, they are helping
themselves—spiritually. Knitters say the click of the needles, the tension of
the yarn and the sight of the colors winds them into a meditation-like state.
For Galo and many others, the combination of craft with contemplation was an
"You mean I can pray
when I am doing this?" Galo said knitters asked. "It was a very new
concept for women. And yet it is an old concept known by Tibetan monks and
Melanie Fahey, a shawl
knitter at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Houston, put it this way:
"When I am working on a shawl, I am far more at peace in my own life.
Everything gets done without leaving me feeling frazzled."
Galo, a Catholic, founded
The Shawl Knitting Ministry about five years ago with Janet Bristow, a
Congregationalist. Both live in Connecticut and had been students at the
Women’s Leadership Institute at Hartford Theological Seminary where they
delved into a study of the divine feminine. A teacher there encouraged them to
combine their passion for knitting with their interest in women’s
“I was frustrated with
women being dismissive of their craft," Galo said. “For me, it came with
prayer. I was trying to get sacred with my hands."
Initially Galo knit a shawl
for a female friend going through a divorce. She showed it to Bristow, who made
some suggestions–a touch of fringe here, a few charms and beads there. The
pair then took the shawl to members of their women’s group, who each wrapped
themselves in it and blessed it before handing it over to the recipient.
Soon, everyone in the group
wanted to knit shawls for people they knew who were ill or were grieving or
about to enter a new stage of life, like motherhood. Before long, the pair began
crafting prayers, blessings and rituals for each part of the knitting
process–prayers for casting on, for the beginning of each row, and for the
There are now shawl knitting
ministries in Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Catholic
and evangelical Christian churches across the United States.
Susan S. Jorgensen and Susan
S. Izard, two knitters who brought the ministry to their own Connecticut
churches, have written "Knitting Into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl
Knitting Ministry." It offers guidelines for knitters, from the highly
practical, like how many skeins make a good length shawl, to the deeply
subjective, like what prayers to say before giving away a shawl. "May God's
grace be upon this shawl," begins one prayer. "May the one who
receives this shawl be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and
wrapped in love."
Even the stitches can be
imbued with religious significance. Knit in sets of three–three knits, three
purls–authors Jorgensen and Izard invoke a variety of spiritual ideas
including the Christian trinity, the unity of mind, body and spirit and the
cycle of past, present and future.
"The pattern is very
meditative," Izard said. "You can sit there and knit without thinking
about it. It becomes a mantra, a very meditative prayer. It is a very
Combining knitting and
religion is not limited to the Christian community. Marci Greenberg, a marine
biologist and conservative Jew, wanted to see if she could connect her beliefs
with her love of knitting. The result is "Knitting by Torah," a class
she teaches to Jewish high schoolers in Seattle.
Greenberg links the color of
the yarns the students use with lessons from the Torah. A day knitting red yarn
becomes an opportunity to learn about the prophesy of the red heiffer; a day
knitting blue yarn leads to a discussion of the symbolic blue thread in tallit,
or prayer shawls, required in Leviticus.
The students gradually move
on to knit items for charity–a chance to teach them the Jewish principle of
tzedakah, or caring for others.
"This is showing them
that their Jewish identity doesn't have to be something separate from their
other identities" as sons, daughters, and high school students, Greenberg
said. "It shows them that they can do anything and connect it to their core
Publishers have been quick
to pick up on the interest in knitting and spirituality. In addition to
"Knitting Into the Mystery" there is "Zen and the Art of
Knitting" by Bernadette Murphy, the "The Knitting Sutra" by Susan
G. Lydon, and The Knitting Goddess by Deborah Bergman.
"I think these books
are tapping into American pragmatism about spirituality," said Lynn
Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly magazine, who has noted a small
boomlet in religion-and-craft books. "Americans want their spirituality to
be practical, to be part of their everyday lives, they want it to be applicable
to their daily activities."
Knitting is finding a home
in some seminaries and theology schools as well. Calvin Theological Seminary, a
Christian Reformed Church school in Grand Rapids, Mich. drew 29 students of both
sexes to a class called "Knitting: Handcraft as a Window into Domestic
Culture and Religious Practice." It was co-taught by a knitting theologian
and a wool-spinning librarian.
But this hands-on
spirituality isn't limited to knitting. Groups of quilters, beaders and even
breadmakers have taken a contemplative turn in houses of worship nationwide.
Prayers and Squares began in
a San Diego Methodist church when quilters began making knotted quilts for
people in crisis, "tying" prayers into each knot they made to hold the
layers of fabric together. There are now more than 200 Prayers and Squares
chapters throughout the U.S. and Australia.
The Church of Craft, which
"maintains no dogma or doctrine beyond what every member believes for
themselves" is a loose affiliation of groups who meet in cafes and members'
homes to knit, crochet, bead, sew – whatever – now has eight
"congregations" including those in New York, San Francisco, Montreal
Kimberly Winston is a freelance writer based in Northern California.
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