Handcrafting · Of The Cloth · Social Action · Textile Stories

Rethinking The Prayer Shawl

I’ve known about prayer shawls for some time now, its a simple idea, knit a shawl while praying for a person, then give the shawl to the person and let the prayers and blessings you prayed into the shawl continue to bless.

I heard that a local church held regular prayer shawl groups and I went along to see what it was like in practice.

The group meets once a fortnight at the church and were very welcoming, It’s very much like any other knitting group but where everyone is knitting the same item and there’s a lot less gossip!

They showed me a book that lists every person who has received a shawl (or scarf) and the centre of the small room had a table with recently finished shawls.

There were tales of people who had been given shawls and were pleased with the gift, tales of whole groups who’ve benefited, a Christian football team who had each been knitted a scarf in their team colours and a choir who each were given a scarf.

At the end of the knitting we held a short ceremony, a candle was lit, a prayer was jointly read and the prayer shawl ministry had ended.

As I came away I felt pleased that I’d seen the ministry in action, but something was nigiling me, something didn’t sit right and it wasn’t until later, when I was at my local knitting group describing the meeting that it started to become clear.

Actually, when I started putting it all down on paper I realised there were a few questions about the ministry. I hope to expand of each of these in seperate blog posts, but here’s a few of my thoughts.


Are we giving out best?

The shawls are made using the thickest, cheapest acrylic yarn, using thick needles (perhaps to knit up quicker).

For a long time I’ve believed the church see non-musical arts as a poorer relation and this was apparent in the choice of yarn used. Why spend £5 on a 50g ball of merino wool when you can buy a 100g ball of squeaky acrylic from the pound shop?

No reason at all if you’re not able to afford the £5 ball, but a church that has a grand piano isn’t scrimping on other creative ministries so why go cheap when giving a knitted gift?

It also makes me ask whether this is our best for God? Again, if your best is cheaper yarn then that is as acceptable to God as Vicuña (named the cloth of kings). This question of being the best for God leads me to my next question.

Are we mass-producing the blessing?

As I looked at the seemingly endless list of people who’ve received a gift from the group and heard about the groups who’ve each received a scarf I questioned how a small group could accomplish so much. Then I was shown a small knitted square, a pocket shawl to carry around when you can’t take your shawl with you.

There was something uneasy about the seemingly mass-production of the whole thing. Using thick yarn and chunky needles means you can churn out these things in no time and suddenly it no longer feels like a personal ministry blessing one person at a time. It feels like a trip to Jerusalem and the need to bring back an olive tree cross for everyone. It seems more about the mass production than the slow process of making and thinking of one person.

We knitters know the huge challenge of making something for someone, we are careful about colour, yarn, pattern, its a process that takes time and we need to know a bit about the person to be able to get it right. That’s why hand knitting can never be a mass produced business. It’s slow and personal.


Who is it for?

There is a whole jar of worms about knitting gifts for someone. For the knitter, we’ve put so much of ourselves into the gift, time, money and passion. 

The whole idea of giving that precious gift away is full of worries about whether the person wants what we’re making, do they like the colour?

Every time I leave my mums house I pass a cupboard with a small shawl in it, something I knitted for her some time ago but she’s never worn and most likely she never will. I’m not upset about it, it was my choice of colour and she isn’t the scarf/shawl wearing type of person. I often wonder whether I should just take it back and make something else.

When we’re making a prayer shawl, are we knitting for ourselves? Improving our skill, using up our yarn stash? Or are we giving ourselves wholly to the idea that this is a gift for someone else? A gift that they might not receive as we want them to?

What is it for?

Once the shawl has been given, what is our expectation?

Partly I ask this thinking about the choir, the thirty plus people who each received a hand knitted acrylic scarf. How many of those people liked the colour? How many liked the feel of the acrylic enough to wear it and make use of it?

Are we expecting people to use these items in their prayer life? And if so, How?

Are we expecting the scarf/shawl to heal? 
I know I’ve brought more questions than answers, but I hope to go into more detail later and perhaps come up with some possible answers.

If you’ve make a prayer shawl or received one I’d love to hear about it.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking The Prayer Shawl

  1. Not a knitter, but I have made quilts by hand (no machine work) for Project Linus which provides quilts to children who are sick or in crisis. I’ve had questions much like yours and never came up with an answer. If everyone hand quilted there wouldn’t be many children we could provide blankets for. Fleece blankets with tied fringe are much easier to mass produce and don’t require special skills. They are also a way to get older children and teenagers involved. We are able to serve more children with these. I’m not sure there is an answer.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, I’ve heard of Project Linus and have a similar project making quilts for vulnerable women. It takes a long time I know and there is always the question of blessing many poorly or few richly (as a friend put it to me).
      But I think there could be some answers, especially when it comes to the quality of our work and the church. It concerns me that often creativity in church is seen as something to keep the kids quiet or the old ladies busy, yet I believe there is a value in creative ministry. I’ve written a second blog post since this morning, it just had to be written and posted. It might make my thoughts a bit clearer from a church ministry point of view.

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