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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.

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A Bible study flag!

I’ve been looking at flags recently and the stories behind their creation.

At school we’re taught about our Union Jack flag and the joining of four countries in the symbolism (apparently the Welsh dragon, Yorkshire rose and Lancashire rose is just hidden from view!

The Salvation Army flag has significance in the trinity with the Yellow star being the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Red – the blood of Jesus and the blue – the purity of God.

One of my favourite flags is the Indian flag with the wheel in the centre. It’s was originally going to be a spinning wheel and hints at a time when we British were being idiots with someone else’s country and the wheel represented India breaking free and the fight over woven cloth, the story of Ghandhi spinning cloth as a protest is well worth a search and read.

Flags and banners are important pieces of fabric with meaning and pride behind them. 

I’ve been looking too at Tibetan prayer flags and think there is something in making a personal prayer flag or a series of flags. Each one with symbolic meaning, remembering a time of importance or pushing us towards a greater glory.

I sketch and doodle a lot, especially during sermons and lectures. It’s how I keep my mind focused. Recently I began showing some of the sketches to people and decided to take them a step further.

What if I turned these sketches, doodles and notes into textile flags, similar in size to a prayer flag?

Last week our church began a new Bible study titles Jesus at the centre. I went along and took my sketch book. This time, instead of simply doodling I would think about what I hear and try to put the message into a flag.

This is the result.


Part of me feels I shouldn’t explain it, people should ‘get it’ or not get it.

So I will simply explain how I made it.

It’s a piece of canvas, the type you use for tote bags.

I used Inktense sticks and water to paint the background, I saw something on YouTube about how the sticks can be used as a fabric paint if you iron it once dry.

In the centre I hand embroidered in gold thread the Hebrew word Yeshua, which is the Hebrew name for Jesus, this took quite a while and the gold thread was a wee bit difficult.

Since everyone says I have neat handwriting I hand painted descriptive words for emotions around the edge.

I painted a small piece of ribbon with the words Lord of All, a reference to something said during the study and sewed this in place.

Then I frayed the edges, stiffened the top and punched two eyelets so the flag can be hung on a wall or joined to another with ribbon.

As for the meaning, I suppose it means whatever you believe it means. Perhaps you recognise an emotion around the edge and recognise a need to hand it over. Or perhaps you recognise that Jesus came as a man and experienced all these emotions so He truly understands us. Perhaps you see something totally different and it’d be interesting if you wanted to share that in the comments.

Either way, I’m looking forward to the next Bible study.

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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.

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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.