"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 prayer.
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 here.
"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 awakening.
"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 Native Americans."
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."
"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 binding off.
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 contemplative experience."
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 beliefs."
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 and Stockholm.
In addition to its shawl outreach, Paramount Terrace Christian Church in Amarillo, Tex. has taken contemplative crafting another step with a scrapbooking ministry, focusing each scrapbooker's work on a single scripture passage for the week. But Clarice Cassada, director of the church's women's ministry, says the 85 shawls the church has given away as part of its shawl knitting ministry hold a special place in the church's collective heart.
"The shawls are a tangible reminder to each hurting person that they have been covered in God's love through prayer, comfort and compassion," she said.