I’m fond of saying that knitting is part of my religion, and I’m not kidding when I say this.
People who know me well know that I knit daily and usually have a project with me wherever I go. Stuck in line or stuck waiting for an appointment is less of a problem if I can get a few rows done.
I say knitting is part of my religion because for me spiritual practice and hand crafts have often gone together.
As a very young child, my parents gave me their religion, which became an early container for my spiritual focus. I also learned to knit at an early age, around six or seven. My mother (and her mother) were master knitters. Unfortunately, they passed on little of their great skill to me. What my mother did frequently was to get a project started on the needles and then have me and my sister practice our knitting by actually making the stitches. We were more like factory workers than students. I didn’t learn early how to start or finish or fix a project, let alone how to design one. But the practice of hands moving with needles, starting when those hands were so tiny, steeped into my bones, never to be forgotten. As a physical activity, knitting is more natural to me than writing by hand, let alone drawing or doing anything athletic.
By the time I was beginning to practice meditation, needlecraft was a helpful adjunct. I still did the occasional knitting production work for my mother. Starting in 9th grade, I also took sewing every semester throughout high school. I got my own sewing machine when I was 15 and started making most of my clothes.
I found, both with knitting and sewing, that I could coordinate my breath with a silent mantra and the repetitive hand work. I was by then doing a daily set of yoga practices and meditation in the early morning, and I could supplement the state of concentration with hours of needle work later in the day.
When I was 17, my then-boyfriend gave me a needlepoint kit for my birthday. From there I went whole-hog with needlecrafts. I added embroidery to shirts. I learned to crochet and made doilies out of white cotton thread. I taught myself how to knit hats and sweaters. I also had a steady supply of fabric scraps, so, of course, I took up patchwork, applique and quilting. By my early 20s, I would spend many hours sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting, often working on multiple projects in a single day. I showed a few pieces at the county fair. I had a lavish wardrobe of handmade clothes.
But then by my mid-20s, this came to a stop. I had become a full-time political activist and journalist and thought I had little time for crafts. I remember looking at my fabric collection and thinking that I would now become a patch-worker of facts and words. I deliberately put aside my love affair with needlecrafts at the same time as I abandoned spiritual practice, thinking there was some sort of contradiction between politics, spirituality and personal enjoyment. This erroneous thinking was the biggest mistake of my life.
I’d still knit an occasional hat or baby blanket, but I gave up my obsession with thread and yarn and needles. Giving that up, I also gave up much of what needlecrafts are about. I withdrew my fascination with color and texture and rhythm. Needlecraft is so much more than just stress reduction. It’s about sensuality. It’s about dreaming a pile of fiber into something of beauty and utility.
I wandered off the spiritual path for about a decade, gratefully returning 20 plus years ago.
Then, about six years ago–and probably just because I lived blocks from a great knit shop–I took up the knitting needles again, this time with a zeal I hadn’t had before about this one craft.
Go into any yarn shop, or even a multi-craft chain store like Joann’s, and watch people in a sort of mesmerized state as they pick out their materials and fantasize about their next project, and the next and the next.
There is plenty of research, reported occasionally in the media, to the effect that knitting and other handcrafts do wonders for one’s state of mind, cognitive function, and even the joint health of one’s hands. (A book I’m aware of and haven’t read yet –too busy knitting — is Carrie and Alton Barron’s “The Creativity Cure: Building Happiness With Your Own Two Hands.”) The social worker at my local cancer center tells me of some research that working with one’s hands during chemotherapy can prevent patients from developing neuropathy. It can certainly soothe anxiety during treatment.
I don’t think the good-for-you reasons explain how consuming it is to be a devotee of any of the handcrafts.
I believe making things is a primal human need, not as absolutely necessary as eating, sleeping, walking and procreating, but pretty high up there. The human hand evolved to make and use tools. We now live in a way in which many of us have few opportunities to use our hands, except to type, drive and use remote control devices.
The hands want to work and they want to work in coordination with the brain and the senses. They want to make beauty and usefulness. While the hands and eyes work, the mind and heart have a silent place to rest.
Cross-culturally, when people have finished their most pressing work tasks, they often turn to handcrafts, from weaving, wood working, pottery, you name it. In most of the world, hand crafts are not the luxury hobbies they are for me and others who are well off. People must weave and sew and do wood and metal work to make things needed to survive. They also make music together with instruments made by hand. Meeting survival needs and creating beauty and joy are not mutually exclusive.
Post cancer, I find myself returning to that which provides me the most comfort. About a year ago I started day dreaming about sewing again, after 30 years. Unlike knitting which is portable and can be done in short spurts, sewing is a commitment of time and space. It requires a room for a table, machine, ironing board. Gradually, I’ve been transforming a spare bedroom into a place to sew. My 40-year-old sewing machine was broken down beyond repair. For my birthday, I bought a new one and began taking sewing classes at a local fiber arts shop.
It is like getting back on a bicycle after many years. The skills and passion for fabric I left behind so long ago are coming back.
Last week, I sat down to do some hand sewing to finish the trim on a little fold-over snap purse. I hadn’t done this particular task in decades, and I’d been putting it off. Squinting now to thread the fine needle, I began, making my stitches as invisible as possible while holding down the hand-made bias tape we made in class. Round and round curves, my work was mostly excellent with a few imperfections I’m choosing to leave be, to remind myself that I am a beginner again.
During the hour I spent stitching the trim in place, I entered into that blissful state of concentration and rhythmic breath that I have been so familiar with and drawn to in this lifetime, and I remembered that there is no other place I’d rather be.