A Question of Blessing

It’s been a while since I mentioned the quilts of hope project, it had to be put on a back burner while I finished my degree. But it was something that I was so passionate about I knew I’d return to it at some point.

Well, for those who are new to the blog and those who’ve forgotten what the quilts were about, here is a recap…

The quilts of hope project combined two thoughts; What happens when people craft together and How does a fabric become a spiritual object.

Although the idea of making a quilt with messages on was one I thought of in my first year at university it wasn’t until the end of my second year that I got to sit down with a group of students and hand sew a quilt.

What I found fascinating wasn’t the skill needed, in fact the quilting process is a very simple in and out stitch that is quick and easy to learn. It was the community that I found interesting.

Folk who knit in groups might know what I’m on about when I talk about the comradery of crafting together. I used to go to a knitting group where was sat in a group knitting our own projects, but the conversation was what brought us together. I think those fellow knitters knew more about me than my GP did!

There’s been a long tradition of community crafting, from waulking cloth and singing songs in time with the process to the modern day yarn bombing. There’s some connection to sitting around and working together and chatting together that is perhaps as therapeutic as a psychotherapy session.

As I worked with the students, all at least a decade younger than I, sitting around a quilt and sewing the very simple stitch we began to chat together, then sing from the radio (ABBA songs seem to be good for all generations) then our conversation turned into this magical therapeutic atmosphere where no subject was off guard and we moved away from sharing niceties to discussing the truth of our lives. Depression, eating disorders, suicide, stress… subjects that perhaps would only be shared after a long period of friendship were suddenly being discussed openly, with no worry or fear.

There was no feeling of being embarrassed or as though you were sharing something that would trigger some uncontrollable emotional situation, in a sense our conversation, though quite deep, had an air of lightness and refreshment.

I’ve experienced counselling and quite often, when a heavy subject has been discussed, it can leave a sense of dread for quite a while after. Here though there was none of the heavy after-thoughts of sharing.

Perhaps it was simply that we had something else to do.

Maybe, that barrier that stops us from being open, or the inner voice that tells us we’ll be misunderstood or judged as unacceptable, had been removed. The simple act of distraction by our hands working, whether knitting or the simple stitch of quilting, has the power to free us from self-discrimination.

If churches really wanted to reach their community what better way of doing so than a community group that had the ability to really get to know its participants. Imagine the folk around the church area, coming together for a crafting purpose and whilst crafting, talking together about the issues that really matter.

The second thought came through a long term relationship with a local charity.

The Joanna project works in the red light area, going out at night to meet the women as they work and pray, feed and care for them. During the day they also have a safe house where the women can come and eat, shower and see a number of professionals to get help to change their lives for the better.

Sometimes, when you get to know a woman who has suffered from unspeakable abuse, there’s a feeling that you just want to reach out and hug them.

When you think about a hug, this act of holding onto someone and not letting go because you think it makes them feel safe. It might work for some, but when working with someone who knows what it’s like to be forced against their will, it can feel like being trapped all over again.

Speaking personally, because it’s all I can do, I know what it’s like to be trapped. To be in a position where someone has you pinned down, you’re not free to wriggle out or step away. I know the fear of being held against my will and when someone comes to hug me, there’s often the same feeling.

I know that most people are hugging you as a sign of love, but for those who know entrapment, a hug isn’t that different. Quite often it’s a spontaneous act that’s done without asking permission. I was reminded of the fear that comes with a hug last week when I was at a workshop on poverty. I was speaking about mental illness and was saying something rather difficult and filled with emotion. A woman I didn’t know jumped up and came quickly behind me and hugged me.

I understand that she was doing something she thought was a nice gesture, but I’ve experienced people coming behind me and putting their arms around me, only it wasn’t done out of kindness.

How do you hug someone, when a hug can do more harm than good?

And that’s how the Quilts of Hope project was born.

Imagine a quilt, hand stitched with messages of love and hope, sewn together by people at community quilting workshops, where folk from all backgrounds come together, sit around a quilting frame and stitch together. Pouring their love of vulnerable women into squares which are turned into a physical textile ‘hug’.

In one sense, a community of people, gathering for an evening in a church hall, learning the basics of quilting, and experiencing a place where they are free to talk openly about their lives in an atmosphere of acceptance. Where church folk can start the process of making real friends and connections with folk in the community.

But then, what is made from these workshops, a quilt given to a women’s shelter.

Where, at a woman’s most vulnerable moment, when a physical hug can cause pain, she can wrap herself in the quilt, giving herself total freedom of movement, can rest beneath the quilt, read the messages of love, and feel safe and loved knowing there are hundreds of women behind the quilt, all praying for and loving her.

Finally, the first quilt has been finished and the next question for me begins.

How does a piece of cloth become a spiritual object?

Behind the Quilts of Hope is a belief that our prayers can go with the quilt to the women we do not know. I don’t know who will use the quilt, I don’t know the needs of the people who will bury themselves underneath it, so all I have is the prayers I pray for the unknown women, that’s something only God knows.

I’ve always thought that I’d like some sort of blessing said over a quilt before it’s sent off, perhaps five minutes of a church service where the church pray for the women who will use the quilt and perhaps where those who’ve worked on the quilt can come and see off their square once it’s been joined to the whole.

Yet, now that time has come, it feels somewhat silly (again, that inner voice of self-doubt) Does it matter that a church has had a final prayer? Aren’t the silent prayers of the individual quilters enough? Well, of course they are, but somehow, I want a final… well, a final blessing. Does that sound crazy?

I remember as a child, our Sunday School got a new piano, well new to us!

I remember clearly listening to the Sunday school leader talking about the piano having a history, pointing out a ring stain left from perhaps a pint of beer, and the question that maybe once, this piano had a very different life. Then I remember praying for the piano, and it’s new life being used for God.

I remember too, a collection of brass instruments being donated and sent to Africa where they were needed, and I remember the instruments being laid on the mercy seat and praying over them.

So it’s certainly not a new idea, and I wonder whether this is something that God is putting on my heart because He also thinks it’s an important part of the quilt process.

My next question is this, What would that blessing look like?

And here’s where I need your thoughts, please comment or email your thoughts on this.

How do we hand over the quilt? Do we invite a staff member from the joanna project to come and be handed the quilt? Do we lay the quilt at the front of church for people to lay a hand on it? Do I just ask for prayers or do I spend a couple of minutes explaining the ideas behind the project?

I really look forward to hearing what people think about this.

In the meantime I start on the next quilt. This time for the Salvation Army’s human trafficking unit. I have no idea where this one will end up, except that it’ll be used for people who’ve experienced being trafficked in the U.K.

I’m thinking, perhaps the people who will need this quilt won’t have English as a first language, so I’ve been asking for squares with hearts on… a universal sign of love. However, messages are welcome too!

I’m still a few squares short, so if you want to make a square email me for details. Also (a little pitch here) if you want the quilts of hope project to come to your church or community group, please get in touch. I can only make these quilts if people invite me to come and make them with you.

Inspirational Yarn – Betty’s Doll Wool

Over the past seven days I’ve introduced you to seven names that make up the seven skin tones of my doll wool.

Last year I was obsessively making dolls for my final university project, these Northern Folk dolls were a challenge to me, a doll maker, in whether I could produce a doll that was locally sourced, naturally made and inspired by local folk.

The main part of the dolls was the yarn that I used to crochet them with, at the time I used an acrylic wool. This is pretty much what 99.9% of knitted and crochet dolls are made up of.

The only skin tones I could find was a few browns and the only lighter skin tone was Sirdar Hayfield which is a budget acrylic yarn.

Over the last few years, and with the introduction of amigurumi, crochet doll making has increased in popularity and yet the shades of yarn remained the same.

I think one of the problems was yarn manufacturers thinking only in terms of clothing and in reality, who wants a flesh coloured jumper?

Another problem was the use of acrylic, I’m not a yarn snob, not at all, but we’re in a situation where we need to take a serious look at plastic and it’s effect on the world.

It seems crazy that the Media seem obsessed with our use of plastic straws and yet celebrate Christmas jumper day, a day when we all buy a new acrylic ugly jumper which we’ll wear only a handful of times before discarding.

So, It had to be done, I had to make a wool yarn in skin tones, just for my final university project, and I admit, at the time I had the intention of continuing to use acrylic after university because, well, not only am I not a yarn snob, but I am very much against yarn snobbery.

After months of testing dyes and wools and turning my kitchen into a dyers studio I found seven tones that I liked.

I chose the Cheviot sheep as a breed for the wool, being a Northern sheep breed, I might not be a yarn snob, but I’m certainly passionate about Northern quality.

I found a family run mill helping me keep big fat-cat companies as far away from the project as possible, and a local small dye company with a similar family feel. I can’t trace my wool back to the sheep, but pretty close. The farmers take the wool to Bradford, it’s spun in Huddersfield and using dyes from Sheffield I create the wool in Leeds. Even the pipe cleaners I used for the armatures came from a small factory in Huddersfield.

local craftspeople doing what they do best

It seems a shame to keep such a great wool all to myself, so after university was over, and I spent some time sorting out my health (for those who don’t know, I’ve done all this whilst being quite ill – No they still don’t know what’s wrong, but the last time I saw the Cardiologist they were thinking about heart failure, but don’t worry, I’m on the up!) I decided to manufacture the wool.

Naming the wool

As many knitters will know, yarn comes in colours and each colour had a name. So, I spent a long time trying to work out what to name the tones (I call them tones rather than colours because they are skin tones and it keeps us thinking we’re all equal in tones rather than separate as colours).

I saw tones named after food (strawberry, chocolate, honey) and tones named after drinks (Latte, Coffee) but it didn’t seem right, in fact it felt wrong.

Related image

The above tone chart comes from Windsor and Newtons felt tip range… Putty! Who on Earth wants to describe themselves as Putty? Isn’t putty that off-white stuff you use on windows?

Then there was my personal feelings about dolls and doll making. There was so much research about the effects of dolls on children and I decided the whole doll making process had to be one of inspiration.

I can’t remember the day it happened, but after weeks and weeks of searching for tone names and looking at images of people from across the world. I decided on using names of people for skin tones. Each person had to be a woman of that skin tone who could be an inspiration to doll makers, doll collectors and most importantly players of dolls.

It was important that when a child held a doll  of a darker skin tone, they knew that there was no limits to who they could be in life. People like Mae Jemison, who had dreams of going into space as a child, tell the young children of today that their dreams can become reality, that no one has the right to quash the dreams of the young.

No one can stop a plus sized young girl like Shelby from being an athlete. Sports companies might not make plus sized athletic wear, thinner people might try their best to body shame larger children into dieting, but size doesn’t matter in our dreams and Shelby, with her Princess attitude proves just that.

Coming from wealth or coming from poverty, having two parents or none, having the best paid education, attending funded courses or learning later in life makes no difference in getting where you want to be in life.

I have the privilege of being a doll maker, it’s a magical job where I have the power to inspire the next generation simply by making the dolls that will inspire their dreams.

So here is the wool, ready to buy and inspire…

The seven shades will be available on my Etsy shop and on the shop on this website.

The wool comes in 100g skeins, plenty enough for one of my Crochet dolls which are 15″ tall. It’s a thicker side of DK weight yarn but works with 3mm-4mm needles to create a tighter fabric to help avoid stuffing showing through, this is vital for those who make dolls to sell since it’s a requirement of the EU safety laws.

So far only two tones (Shelby and Malala) have been tested to EN71 safety, making it safe for doll and toy making. and it passes the doll flammability tests. It’s going to cost a couple hundred pounds to have all the wools tested so I want to see if it’s popular before spending so much money on testing.

I’m going to boast here…

It’s the only wool of its kind in the world (I searched high and low but perhaps there’s another wool out there) which is made especially for doll making, produced fully in the UK (and apart from the sheep themselves) is produced in Yorkshire.

It’s currently priced at £18/100g although I will do an introductory price and wool shade cards for retail and large orders will be available very soon.

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Inspirational Yarn – Viola

woolviola

Viola Davis, the first black actor to have won an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award in acting, named the Triple Crown of Acting…

…but more importantly, the name of our 7th and final yarn tone!

Born into poverty, with an activist mother in the civil rights movement, Viola knew the struggle of class, wealth and race. Much of her arts training came from state funded programmes.

But despite her poor upbringing, she managed to reach her dream and is now an actress and producer of some amazing films that tell of histories otherwise unknown.

‘Dream Big and Dream Fierce.’

Viola Davis – Actress and Producer

Her knowledge of growing up in poverty and learning through government funded schemes led her to be an activist against childhood hunger and free healthcare.

It seems shocking in both the US and the UK, where so many have so much, where we have laws preventing cruelty to animals and where activists will break the law to stop mistreatment of animals that we have so many children going hungry and yet I’ve still to see an activist breaking the law to feed a child.

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Meet the dolls 4 – The Coal Miner

The final doll in my final university project. I planned on seven, but really, when it came down to it, my obsession to the little details just took the time and I think I’d rather do four dolls really well, than rush seven.

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The coal miner is more modern and I’ve named him not after a Yorkshire coal miner, but one from Spennymoor in County Durham. Norman Cornish, a coal miner from the age of 14, who took advantage of art classes for miners and became an artist in his 40s. (www.normancornish.com)

I’ve even used some modern technologies, sewable electronics to make a working head lamp.

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I’m sure many folk are thinking why have I made a coal miner when I’m making dolls that represent traditional crafts, and at first the coal miner was the doll I was going to leave until last. Then a few weeks ago I was with my parents and a programme was on the TV which showed a clip about the Lofthouse colliery disaster from 1973, I’d have been 1 years old (yep, I’m sticking with 35 being my current age). My mum looked up and said, ‘oh, your dad was there’.

No, my dad wasn’t a coal miner, although he was a Bevin boy in the war. He was a Salvation Army officer and spent a lot of time providing support to the men during the search for survivors. It reminded me also of a time when years later, as a young Salvation Army member I was collecting money door to door in a nice middle class Lancashire area. It was during the time of the miners strikes. I remember one door opening and a man telling me he wouldn’t give to the Army because we gave to the miners. I didn’t get it being so young, but as I remember the story I decided the miner had to be made.

The dolls represent traditions that are dying out or how I sometimes feel about knitting, becoming only for the privileged. When I was young, people made their own clothes because they couldn’t afford to buy ready made. Now we’re in a place where poorer folk shop at Primark and the wealthy go on sewing classes or extravagant knitting holidays.

I was talking to a lady in the cafe at the National Coal Mining museum a few days ago about crafting. She told me she was a quilter and began quilting to use up all the scraps that she had left over from dress making. But then her husband spoke – describing what she does. He said she buys a yard of fabric, cuts it into pieces and sews the pieces back together to make a quilt. Quilting was once, using up your left over fabric, doll making was using up your left over wool. Now though, there is a worry that crafting is moving from the working classes to an expensive and privileged hobby.

It’s not wrong though (to be a wealthy crafter) and perhaps my gripes should be for another post.

The coal mining industry is another craft (because it is incredibly skilled) that has been lost and although the dolls have been made as a celebration of Yorkshire life and craftsmanship, I wonder if, in the future they’ll be seen as a look into a forgotten past.

 

Saturday 21st April 2018

I’m writing this on Sunday since I didn’t finish my knitting till 3am and wanted to show it here.

I visited the Scarborough maritime heritage centre today.

Each doll is going to be linked to a place that represents the character of the doll and I chose this heritage centre for personal reasons over than popularity.

When I asked people to recommend a place that represented Ganseys in Yorkshire I had a lot of suggestions of commercial places in Whitby and Filey. I’m not opposed to linking with a commercial business, in fact the next doll is linked to a shop, but where I can I want to highlight some of the lesser known tourist centres.

I chose Scarborough for my own links to the area, it’s where my grandparents lived and I’ve a lot of lovely memories of the town.

As I’ve been around the town I’ve also noticed the friendliness of people. I’m staying in the Grand, it’s one of those places you look at as a kid and think it’s only for the posh people. It’s a ‘grand’ building and the staff are wonderful, but the building is not being looked after (my bedroom window was kept shut with gaffer tape).

It’s a shame that British seasides often have the reputation they do, but there are signs that Scarborough is fighting back. Looking for toilets yesterday I found the indoor market, it’s not the bustling place I remember, but new artisan businesses are popping up and although perhaps not as much use to the locals as it once was, for tourists it’s a must visit place.

The heritage centre has a small shop space but is packed of interesting things to see. The volunteers are extremely knowledgeable and friendly and I had a good chat about Ganseys.

One glaring ‘mistake’ Gansey knitters will spot on my Gansey is that it isn’t a Scarborough one, it’s a blend of Scarborough and Whitby styles. The traditional Scarborough top half is more a moss stitch, but I chose to add cables instead as a more interesting pattern. I explained this and was told that the Scarborough Gansey is older and perhaps the reason for the lack of details is that cables hadn’t reached us from Aran. Well, who knows.

We chatted about the myths of Ganseys, whether it’s true that the styles of jumpers were to help you be identified and relocated to your fishing village if you drowned at sea. If you read Penelope Hemingway’s book on River Ganseys you might agree with her (and me) that this was a myth.

As well as Penelope’s book, I’ve also spoken to the owner of Propagansey who is extremely knowledgable about Ganseys.

If you think about the Gansey in a more realistic way, since patterns were not written down at the time, the pattern was passed down through family, as the family married the pattern spread through the village. It wasn’t an identification system, just a local pattern being taught through family generations.

But it’s a nice story.

I also found out that a black Gansey represented death, so was not a good idea to make whereas White meant you’ve been married less than 5 years.

A few years ago I went to the in the loop conference and listened to Annemor Sundbø (https://annemor.com/english/) who studies traditional Norwegian jumpers. A lot of the styles have a similarity to the Gansey in that the bottom half of the pattern is different to the top half.

These jumpers have a black and white pattern on the top half and a plain white non patterned bottom half. Annemor suggested it was simply that white wool was less expensive than black wool and since the men tucked the jumpers into their trousers is was a way of using cheaper wool for parts of the jumper not seen.

A bit like how my mum used to only iron the front of my dad’s shirts because when he wore his jacket no one saw the un-ironed back!

Could this be why some Ganseys are plain on the bottom half? Why put all that effort into the part of the jumper not seen?

I also still have a family mystery to solve!

Some time ago I found an image in a book, The boats of the Somerset levels by Mike Smylie, I have very little information on my dad’s family so anything helps.

The image shows my granddad, beside the river on Salmon parade in Bridgwater, Somerset. He was a salmon fisherman and the last in a line of boat builders.

I’ve also found this painting on Bridgwater’s council website. Somewhere I remember reading the painting dated 1902 and shows Pocock boat business on the river, the white cottages on the right of the river were where dad’s family lived.

And that is all I have to prove that my dad’s family existed!

I was interested in the fishing net used by William Pocock and had searched the internet for information but found only one similar item in a museum in America!

https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/human-origins-and-cultural-halls/northwest-coast-hall/tlingit/tlingit-collection/fishing-and-hunting/scoop-net-of-whale-sinew

I showed the image to the people at the heritage centre, but they’ve never seen one like the one in my grandads image.

So I’ve emailed the museum in America and the Blake museum in Bridgwater to see if they have any information.

Why? Because despite my lack of woodworking skills I’ve been trying to make a miniature version of the net!

And so, with miniatures in mind, I’ve a few last images.

I’m making a doll to represent the terrible knitters of Dent, terrible as in, they were terribly good at knitting!

With a knitting gauge of 5 stitches per centimetre and 1.5mm needles I set myself up in the hotel coffee lounge to set about making a version on the Dent gloves.

There is a good book about dales knitters, recently republished by Penelope Hemingway (https://theknittinggenie.com) which includes a pattern for some Dent gloves.

This image of a pair of Dent gloves comes from her blog page and is the pair I took a bit of free licence with!

I didn’t manage the fringe at the bottom, although… nah! Too fiddly.

I managed a date, which took up a lot of space and some of the pattern. The plan was to make mittens, thinking it would just be crazy to attempt gloves, but as I reached that part of the gloves I thought what the hell!

I also only made 1 glove since I wanted the doll to be midway knitting the second one, although I might just make the second one.

So finally… without further ado… my version of the Dent gloves…

Wednesday 18th April

I’ve two dolls finished so far, many more to do.

I took them to a meeting this morning at the request of a friend who wanted to see them in person.

The question came up about making and selling dolls. I’ve long believed, as many crafters do, that people don’t want to pay for the time it takes to hand make items. My dolls can take up to 3 days to make, that’s 3 days non stop. Even at minimum wage the dolls would be out of the price range of most folk.

I also believe that the fun in doll making would soon disappear if I had to make dolls constantly. It’s something I enjoy, but I could go insane if I had to make them day in, day out!

Plus I’d miss the fun of hearing from people trying to make their own doll. I sell the doll pattern on Etsy and Ravelry (search for my little crochet doll), it’s not the cheapest doll pattern, but my website (www.bettyvirago.com) and Ravelry have several free outfit patterns for additional outfits.

I enjoy sharing the techniques of doll making and even though not every doll made is the same as mine, they’re all lovely.

The dolls are based around Yorkshire people, so another part of my research has been drawing people in public. That’s quite an achievement for me, since I’m a little shy at getting out my drawing book in public!

Today I found an Italian cafe opposite a very busy bus stop and spent some time drawing people waiting for the bus. It gave me a little bit longer than I’ve usually had when I’ve been trying to catch passers by.

One guy took my attention partly because of how he was standing.

Legs wide apart, arms in pockets, shoulder length shaggy hair. Knee length boots and trousers, no not trousers. What are they called? They stopped at the top of his boots.

He wore a flat cap on his head. It got me thinking. For him, the flat cap was a fashion statement. I noted that it was like the gentrification of the working mans clothing. Making the poor look fashionable.

This evening I spent some time on YouTube, looking at how other people draw and paint people. I found this interesting video on drawing people in different perspectives.

Drawing people

Tonight was also my weekly knitting group. I knitted the skirt for my third doll, the knitter, then measured it against a doll only to find it was too tight and I had to start knitting it all over again. Skirt done, but so much more to do if I’m going to have the number of dolls that I’d like.

I’m heading to Scarborough this weekend to take photos of the fisherman doll ‘on location’. Each doll will have a charity or business that they represent, I’m hoping it will highlight some of the smaller, lesser advertised places on the map.

I’m wanting to link the fisherman to the Scarborough Maritime heritage centre.

Finding your Social mission

Why do you do what you do?

What makes you tick? What is at the very heart of your passion?

These are the questions I’ve been asking in order to find my Social Mission, the deepest Why? Of my business.

Keep asking “Why?”

Recently I was told if I want to get to the root of why I’m here I need to keep asking Why?

I’m looking at a business where my profits go towards running craft and art classes for homeless people

Why?

Because I want to build confidence in homeless people

Why?

Because I don’t think they see their value. I don’t think others see that they have a value.

Why?

Because living on the streets makes you feel worthless

(Some Whys can be more specific – you might need a critical friend for this)

Why homeless people?

Because everyone else has something of their own

(If you hit a wall try backtracking)

Why art and craft?

Because it’s what I know…

…because everyone can draw or make something…

Why?

Because people appreciate art & crafts
When you’ve been beaten down its hard to accept love for yourself, it’s easier to accept appreciation for what you do rather than who you are.

Maybe learning to be appreciated for what you make is the first step towards accepting appreciation for who you are. 

Why is it important to accept appreciation?

Because maybe, if you can accept that others love and appreciate you, the next step is loving and appreciating yourself.

Why is that important?

Because, can we really change for the better if we don’t love ourselves?

Because I know what damage hating yourself can do.

I believe change comes from a belief in self worth.

I believe that art & crafts can be learnt by everyone.

I believe that creating space for arts and crafts can be the starting point.

In my own situation, life started to change when I met people who believed in me, but it was only when I learned to believe in myself that life changed permanently.

I believe if I can create an art space where everyone is accepted then lives can begin to change.

If I can show people who feel worthless, their value, I can begin to turn the tide of lives wasted.

If I can begin to change a few lives, we can change the world.

Meaning in the cloth – rethinking the prayer shawl

I used to read the story of Cain and Abel and wonder what was Gods problem.

In case you don’t know the story here’s a little summary…

Cain was a farmer while Abel, his brother, was a shepherd. Both brothers came to God with a sacrifice. Cain brought some of his grown produce while Abel brought his best first-born lambs. Now God liked Abels offering of lambs, but, well… not too fussed with the veggies. The rest of the story can be read in Genesis chapter 4.


As a kid I didn’t get it, two guys brought a gift to God and God was a wee bit picky. 

Being British we’re raised with the ability to smile and look pleased whatever the gift, but God obviously isn’t British (where were his manners?).

Shouldn’t he be grateful that he’s getting something?

It’s not for me to argue with God about his reactions though, He wants the best, the first fruits and first borns. God wants to be the first thought on our minds and have the first portion of our gifts. In everything we do God wants first place.

I don’t think it was about making sure they gave 10% and perhaps it wasn’t even that the carrots weren’t the biggest. The meaning behind the gift is what riled God. You can imagine Abel looking over his flock, inspecting every animal for flaws and size, then picking the best of the best, as though this gift was for his beloved. Cain, watching Abels fussiness, laughed to himself while throwing a handful of the nearest veg into a basket, “that’ll do” he thinks.

You might know that feeling at Christmas when you give a gift that you’ve chosen especially and being aware that the real excitement is in the giving. Was Abel thinking of Gods face lighting up at the sight of God looking at his gift and seeing that most beautiful of lambs?

Similarly we might also know the feeling of giving a gift in politeness, those folk at the bottom of the Christmas card list who get whichever card is next in the box of 100. Who cares what the card looks like, its giving for the tradition and politeness rather than the Joy. That, I suspect is what riled God that day. He didn’t want a gift out of politeness but out of love.
When thinking about a prayer shawl what is our first thoughts?

Learning a new technique? Wondering how quickly you can get it finished? 

Do you have any thoughts on the reasons why you make the shawl? 

I know what its like to make something with royalty in mind (yep, I’ve kept quiet about that!). I chose yarn from a Yorkshire mill that could promise British only fleeces. I spent a couple of days hand dying the yarn myself. Every little bit of the item was made as thought the Queen herself would see it, no detail was missed, the stuffing wasn’t your average polyester, it was British wool, even the pipe cleaner arms that would never be seen were chosen by hand from a local pipe cleaner factory. The item was to be my very best work.

If clothing the naked and feeding the hungry is the same as clothing and feeding God then each prayer shawl should be made as though God himself was the recipient. Similarly, if each recipient is to see the shawl as a gift from God, then each shawl should be made with our best effort as though God himself had commissioned the gift.

Therefore, making a prayer shawl no longer becomes a second rate ministry but a valuable resource in the church.

Say what you like about the value of a church band, but someone in need has to come to church to hear the band play, they need to know the words to the tune and understand the poetry in the song. A prayer shawl is one of the few gifts that go beyond the church walls, beyond the boundaries of language and country. Giving a gift that has been made with so much thought and love, then given to be used when encouragement is needed is one of life’s most beautiful pleasures.

After the band have played the last note, the choir have sat down, the sermon done, the Amen said… the prayer shawl continues on and travels with the person in need.

The prayer shawl though, isn’t a magic cure. It isn’t a vessel to carry healing, and touching the shawl won’t turn around test results, if healing comes it comes through Gods choosing. It’d be romantic to imagine a physical prayer soaking into cloth, but the shawl, at it’s basic level remains simply a shawl. 

However, it still has something magical about it. In those moments when pain comes, when bereavement is unbearable, when loneliness surrounds, being able to wrap ourselves in a piece of cloth made by someone who thought of nothing but us in the making allows us to temporarily dwell in the presence of comfort, hope and fellowship.

I have two small toy bean bag cats in my home, financially worthless and commercially made, but given to me some years ago by a couple at church. Brian and Cathy were there in my darkest times, if I told you what they did for me, well, this blog post would never end.

Cathy died a few years ago from cancer and Brian has retired and moved away. There is nothing magical about the toy cats, but everytime I see them I’m taken back to a world where they are with me. I’m reminded that there is someone out there who loves me unconditionally, someone who values me as I am. I’m reminded of the many times Brian helped me quit drinking, of the times he let me sleep it off in his office. The years Cathy spent counselling me as a messed up young person, of the Joy in their faces at my baptism, the comfort when I lost my job, the worry when I moved to Leeds and the celebration when I went to University.

As I write this the tears flow and my heart hurts, but its a joyful cry and a blessed pain. Few people know unconditional love like that couple gave me and that is a real shame. As an alcoholic I accept the lifelong fight of sobriety, but I have two weapons, two soft toy cats that I look at and remember those who stand with me and I remind myself that this fight is worth it.

Nothing magical in the toys and yet something very magical.


A prayer shawl at its root is simply a strand of yarn looped together to form a piece of cloth. It is something that someone has taken hours to make and think about, but it is more than something to do with your time, more than a way of using up your yarn stash and more than a way to make something when you simply don’t know what to do.

To be called to the prayer shawl ministry is a powerful calling, it is listening to Gods commissioning, his choice of recipient perhaps without knowing why we are making the item. Being able to put our best work into a piece then hand it over without finanancial reward, personal acknowledgement perhaps even without knowing the outcome. Trusting wholly in the gift of giving for loves sake.

As I continue to look at this unique ministry I hope more and more people will begin to take up the call of this powerful ministry. I hope more and more churches begin to see the true value of a creative ministry in their church.

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.

The camaraderie of crafting

I’m in Birmingham, a place I’ve only ever passed through (well, okay a very short stay here as a baby). I’m here because tomorrow morning I’m running a workshop on electronics in textiles. 

After a sleep in my hotel room to catch up on several disturbed nights, due to my new neighbours dog trying to settle in back home, I come down to the hotel lobby, it’s almost 7pm, I expect most guests will be in their rooms, out at a theatre or restaurant, but no! The lobby has two sofas, both filled with people, to my right is a small bar area with around 20 more people gathering around tables. 

I find an empty table that seats four and take a seat, then as I do whenever I’m seated I pull out my knitting and… well.. I knit.

Within minutes I’m joined by Barbara, there seems nothing strange about our meeting, I don’t need to ask her name. Barbara is one of the hardworking volunteers at the knitting and crochet archive. We chat for a few minutes before she excuses herself and goes to other tables to chat. 

I turn around and see an older woman sitting just outside of a table group. I ask her to join me even though I’ve never met her. She sits for a moment then says she’s left something in her room and goes off to get it, leaving her bag next to me – a stranger.

By this point the number of people gathering in the lounge has grown to around 30 and growing. Nothing seems odd, no one is looking out of place. People who’ve never met are chatting and sharing almost instantly… and yet, it seems to be the most natural thing in the world.


Of course, I’m at the national Knitting and Crochet guild conference, we’re all knitters and crocheters. 

Yesterday I was at an interview, I was talking about crafting as a business and explaining the benefits of crafting in groups. It’s sometimes hard to put into words the instant friendships that can be created through something so simple as a craft group. 

On Wednesday I started a new knitting and crochet group in my local area, seven of us turned up with more people sitting on the sidelines watching. We talked, laughed and consoled while at the same time learning a new, valuable skill. As we meet regularly we’ll find out more about each other, our similarities and differences, we might find we disagree on religion or politics, but we’ll still meet, still share and still look at each other as friends.

This camaraderie is something I’ve been trying to put into words, with much difficulty. On Friday I sat in front of a panel of 10 business people and tried to get across why a social enterprise based on offering affordable and free craft groups was important. It’s hard to describe, but as I sit here in this lobby, with strangers I consider friends I’m realising this isn’t something that can be put into words.

I have friends who belong to a church which celebrates community, I stayed there recently in their community home. If it weren’t for the church my friend and I perhaps would never have met. Her accent often reveals a very privileged background but she met me when I was begging on the streets of London (a very long time ago) and we’ve been friends ever since. Her church often talks about the walls that come down through the church. Rich and poor, old and young… 

Her church experience though isn’t often shown in other churches. I go to a church that I consider friendly, very friendly in fact, but the camaraderie isn’t there. In two years of attending I feel I’ve made one good friend who’s close enough to know me and I her. Two years and still there’s a sense that the majority of people wouldn’t feel safe leaving their bag with me to return to their hotel room. 

It hit home recently when I was down to my last bit of money. I was still a week away from getting any money and I was owed money from the university. I had some food in the cupboard, but not enough to make a meal out of unless that meal was pasta, fish fingers and custard.

My gas and electricity were both down to their last pound and a recent leg ulcer has left me in agony. I was in pain and couldn’t even afford a packet of paracetamol.

Yet, as I sat there, trying to think of a way to get help, going through my list of friends who would console me, there was only one name from church that I could go to. Out of all the 50-60 people at church, there was 1 in two years that had developed a relationship with me enough to be there in my hour of need. That, my friends, is not real church.

It’s a shame, that the crafting community is doing what the churches seem unable to do, but it’s something that is very powerful. 

I see it in the quilting project, where young students begin talking openly about mental health and the effect exam pressure is having on their health. I see it on a Wednesday night when my fellow knitter, Helen, fills her car with folk so no one has to walk home alone, even though it means driving right across town and back again. I saw it on Wednesday as I listened to people begin the process of getting to know each other and I see it here in the hotel lobby.

I’ve been hearing it recently in stories of hospitals taking on a resident knitter to encourage parents to knit whilst their child is in hospital, I’ve heard nurses mention how powerful a neo-natal knitting group has been, and even my friend Helen has shown it by taking her spinning wheel to our hospital.

Where once the church used to be, crafting is coming.