Time for full disclosure: I am not a quilter. I have dabbled here and there - made the odd patchwork square and even took a class once, though I have never actually completed a quilt. But I am a committed crafter who finds the time to work every single day in some medium, whether knitting, beading, needlepoint, or papercrafts. Working with my hands to create something I consider beautiful is, for me, as necessary as food, sleep, or love. It’s something that I simply cannot imagine not doing. And when I’m crafting, that’s the time I find myself most open and alert to discovering God moving in mystery through my life. When I take up a needle, I feel myself tapping into something divine inside of me.
What is it about crafting that brings me to such a special, sacred awareness? I think it’s the fact that when I’m crafting I feel most rooted and connected to my past. When I hold a needle, I’m aware of a line like a thread that runs from me back through the generations to all other women who came before me in the craft. For someone who’s moved from place to place most of her life and whose family tree is more like a family stick, this is a very powerful feeling. Practicing traditional crafts like quilting can bring a rootedness in tradition—the same thing that many of us find in our religious practices and in our churches. That sense of rootedness is not something easily found in fast-paced, technology-driven times.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. Untold numbers of crafters, many of them quilters, before me have discovered that there’s something about working with your hands that can bring a deeper understanding of God and of our purpose in God’s universe. Perhaps it’s because when we’re making something, we’re engaging in an act of creation—an act that we, then, share with God, our Creator. Our creations are extensions of God’s creations. And, when we craft, we’re using talents, skills, and abilities that came to us from the hand of God. To me, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that the use of these abilities can be a link to the Mystery that originally gave them to us. I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. All that I know is that when I am crafting I feel more alive and more involved in my inner spiritual life than at any other time.
More people are joining in this discovery. In the past decade, there has been a huge resurgence of interest in the traditional handicrafts: quilting, knitting, crocheting, and sewing. At the same time, many people are rethinking what they want from their religious faith. No longer satisfied with just sitting in a house of worship for an hour or so a week, many are seeking a connection to the divine in their daily lives—at work, at home, outdoors, even in the car. They’re seeking what author Sue Bender calls the "everyday sacred"—the ability to turn the most ordinary tasks and experiences into an opportunity for spiritual exploration. Many people – women and men alike – are finding that the traditional handicrafts lend themselves beautifully to both the practice and expression of faith. There are now religion-based quilting, knitting, and scrapbooking retreats around the country, where participants routinely blend prayer, meditation, and worship with their cutting, stitching, and pasting. Coleges and seminaries of every stripe offer courses on religion and crafts. Books on blending the two, books like this one, abound.
Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi is a quilter, quilt historian, and quilt curator at the forefront of the move to recognize and value the spiritual qualities of the craft. She is founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network and one of her quilts is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. To her, it is impossible to quilt without endowing the fabric with her faith in a benign, loving, all-knowing God.
"For me, as an artist, there is no separation between art and religion," Carolyn says. "To me, art is worship because both art and religion deal with man's self-understanding. Both spring forth from the spirit of humanity. There is a godly connection at work. You cannot create unless you are guided by the Spirit. That is the target of the finished product and that is the target of the soul"
For Carolyn, it is no leap of faith to believe that a quilt crafted with prayer and soul is not only made with sacredness, but can also be endowed with the power to heal. "Oh my Lord, yes," she says. "I put so much of myself in the creation of that quilt that it takes on the energy that I put in it, the energy that springs forth from my spirit. I believe it is anointed with God's energy because that is what is guiding the artist. Through that belief in your creation, the quilt is very powerful."
The act of praying while quilting endows the fabric with a gift and a power, Carolyn says. "When you are working on a quilt, you have a meditative process going on. You have time to talk to God. That is imbued in the quilt. It is. And, too, it serves a purpose, and that purpose is greater than the artist's purpose. The purpose is God's purpose." Kathy Cueva, president of the Prayer Quilt Ministry, also believes the energy of prayer can be transferred into fabric. Many times, she reports, she's found that a quilt she's working on becomes "almost too hot" to hand-stitch. An emergency room nurse, she once attended a conference on alternative medicine when she heard something that helps explain this to her. The presenter "was talking about quantum physics and the energy field created by healing touch," she said. "Some call it karma, some call it quantum physics, but we all have it. We can inject this into a quilt. The quilt then becomes a channel of grace and sacrament because of the spirit entering it."
It isn't only the recipient of the quilt who benefits from the prayers said in its making. In the intensity of the creative spirit, the quilter, too, will find his or her relationship to God is tightened with every stitch. "The creation of the work raises the quilter closer to the divine," Carolyn says. "It opens up your heart and lifts you up . . . I know this is strange to say, but when I am working [on a quilt] I can feel the power of my work and it is a feeling I can't describe. I know I am in a different place and my feet aren't planted on the ground because I can feel my spirit soaring."
Tara writes that a basic tenet of Buddhism is that we should work to relieve the suffering of others. We can do that when we make a quilt or another handmade item to give to someone in crisis. Such an item and the work it takes to produce it, she said, connects us to all human beings because it "connect us to the suffering world. Suffering is what it means to be human. It is the only thing all human beings have in common. But they also have the antidote in common, which is love and good will.”
Tara also says the impact of such an item can go way beyond the person it is intended to comfort. "I believe that when one chooses to do something positive towards the alleviation of suffering, it multiplies in the world in ways you may not even be aware of," she explains. "Just think about what that teddy bear or that blanket can do for a child on the other side of the world, what a gift can do to change things. Someone may be inspired to do the same thing by seeing your project. That potential is truly inspiring. The teeniest contribution can have magnificent repercussions and if we can get more people to think that way we can get the world to shift to a more enlightened place."
If a quilt can change the world, think of what it can do for the one small person it is made for. Perhaps she is sick. Perhaps she is alone. Perhaps she is facing great uncertainty and feeling enormous fear. For each of these people, a prayer quilt can be a lifeline, a link to what makes them feel safe and part of a larger family. Carolyn has made many quilts for hospice and AIDS patients and has seen this happen repeatedly. "When you put your soulful energy into a quilt, your prayerful energy, you cannot help but transfer that to the recipient," she says. "And when recipients see that, they will know that you love them because it was not so easy turning out that work. They will know you took so much time, put so much of yourself into that work, so much of your prayerfulness."
"They will know it is special," she says, beginning to break into tears. "When they feel it, they will know it is special."
The prayer quilters at Foothills Presbyterian Church in La Mesa, California know this, too. When they gathered for a sewing circle, talk about the power their prayers gave the fabric turned mystical. "I don't feel the prayer quilt is just material," says Jo Ann Long. "When I'm making the quilt, I'm thinking that whoever gets this quilt, I want it to guide and protect them. That's an attitude of prayer and I feel that makes the prayer quilt a living thing." Dorothy Dunhouse, another La Mesa prayer quilter, agrees. "The energy of our prayers goes into the minds of the person who receives the prayer quilt," she said. "They get strength and courage and hope. The strength of that—especially of the hope—is very powerful. And if they're not going to survive, our prayers can give them the courage to face that."
So, as you sit to make a prayer quilt, know that you are doing so much more than joining fabric and bits of thread. You are building a link to the past, to the present and to the future: the past is there in quilting's history as a traditional craft; the present is there in your desire to ease another's current situation; and the future is there in the hope you are building into every stitch and every prayer of the quilt.