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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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Of the Cloth – My Uniform and Me

I seem to be heading into a series of posts called “of the cloth”. The idea of textiles in spirituality is interesting to me both as a textile student and a member of the Salvation Army. 

I feel I have a love/hate relationship with my church, but one that is certain, I don’t like the uniform. Never have.

I started by looking into the uniform, why we wear it, why we pay so much for it, what the Christian message behind it might be, but then I thought about other churches, then other beliefs. What is the relationship between a belief system and textiles?

I don’t mean wearing a hijab or a what a Mormon wears for underwear. Too much is said on that, but the precious textiles like altar cloths, ceremony robes, cloths to wrap text in, prayer mats. What makes a textile sacred?

I always knew that church windows contained pictures from a time when many people were illiterate, but didn’t know altar cloths and church textiles did the same, and in this multi-cultural world we live in, how valuable that is now to have textiles that tell local stories in a pictorial language we all understand.

Then I interviewed a member of my denomination who doesn’t wear a uniform and found an feeling of inequality I think the church would be embarrassed about. I have plans to interview people with different views, I want to see the whole picture. What turned a church uniform from a makeshift, logo on a shirt, handmade item into an look-a-like profit making scheme. What turned a play on the phrase war with the devil into a military style denomination we have today.

Of course I have always had my own opinion and my experience, that I planned to keep till the end. I wanted to get the rest of the stories written, But I started wondering whether I shouldn’t tell my story first. This is who I am, this is why I believe what I do. Many times through the telling of others stories I input from my experience, and perhaps understanding my own experience will help others understand that my strong feelings are not really just about a piece of cloth.

So here is my story, my relationship with my Salvation Army uniform.

My parents are retired now, but spent most of their lives as Salvation Army officers, managing men’s hostels in Yorkshire and Lancashire. I wore a church uniform from the age of seven and it was uncomfortable, I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to wear it, I don’t remember going to church without wearing it, and I don’t know why I wore it. Wearing it though did one thing… It allowed me to sing in the children’s choir and eventually play in the childrens band. I didn’t want to join the band, but my mother told me since all other children played in the band I wouldn’t make friends unless I did too, so I learned to play the cornet.

Later I started high school and uniform wearing became a full time job, Monday to Friday, school uniform, Sunday, Army uniform. Saturday’s at least I could wear what I wanted, but is one day a week enough to allow a child to develop their own sense of style? Their own tribal instinct of who they are? Our clothing often distinguishes our music and friend tastes and  perhaps my lack of ability to find my own style is why I became a goth.

Oh, how much I hate this photo. You can almost see right up my skirt.

As a young teenager I was told I could wear knee-high socks or tights on Sunday’s, but I wore ankle socks. Tights, to me, seem an unnecessary form of torture for women, similar to high heel shoes, which I never took to. If men spent a week wearing tights and heels they’d soon realise the pain from shoes and the frustration in trying to pull up tights in a tiny toilet cubicle. Maybe even scrap the wearing of skirts for women.

We had short church services in the hostel where we also lived (back then hostel managers lived in the hostel with their family, perhaps to give a family feeling to the residents). I sat there with my little uniform on amongst the homeless men and felt out of place, but worse, when my parents were shaking hands at the end of the service I was often approached by one man, a sexual predator, who told me how sexy I looked in my uniform. 

Yep, sexual abuse happened because I grew up in a Salvation Army men’s hostel. That was bad enough, but to have a church outfit that made me a sexual object at the age of 8 was vile, and it wasn’t just in the hostel. 

At 13 I had a friends dad who would grab my bum in church, I once turned and told him to “Fuck off” but he told me I shouldn’t speak like that because my parents were officers. If I wasn’t a shy abused kid I might have told him he shouldn’t be touching my arse, but I was unintentionally raised to believe the uniform is a sexual object, so I didn’t have a leg to stand on.

I was 20 when I started doing pubs, going from pub to pub selling the Army paper. Going into places that I’d grown up being told was a sin to enter, to get money from people doing something that was considered a sin. I had numerous hands feeling my legs, wondering whether I was wearing suspenders under my skirt. I felt as though I was being prostituted out in order to raise a few drunken donations all because we loved Jesus. Wolfwhistled at? If only it just stayed at a few whistles.

A few years later I was in a different situation, living in London, finding it hard to make friends, one friend offered me an alcoholic drink, I was young, naive, curious, I took a few sips, didn’t like it.

But oh, the shame. Alcohol was a sin. The Bible didn’t say so, but my Army upbringing did. I went to my local Salvation Army that Sunday, the one on Oxford street. During the service I broke down in tears. I talked to the assistant officer, a young minister just out of college. I say talked, but there wasn’t much conversation, no asking for a reason, no discussion. I was told I couldn’t wear my uniform anymore and that was it. Removed of my uniform like Mr Banks, a disgrace, not worthy of wearing the gang colours. 

The following Sunday I was approached by a church woman who asked if she could meet me to talk. She said she was an alcohol and drug counsellor, sent by the young minister to talk to me. One sip and I’m seen in need of counselling.

I never put on the uniform again, for several years.

When life really became tough I was working for the Slavation Army in Notting Hill. I went out one evening and was raped, I was told I wasn’t spiritual enough for the church and asked to leave. I became homeless. I went to Bible college, but the shame of being raped, of having the church tell me it had been my fault, that I wasn’t spiritual enough, that I should leave. Becoming homeless because my home came with my job. I started drinking. 

If only I could have gone to my church for help, but I knew what happened when I took one sip, what would happen when I told them I was sleeping on the streets, working as a prostitute, an alcoholic and drug user? There would be no help for someone like me.

Me, in 1997

Roll on twenty years, I’m back in Leeds. Doing fine, free from addictions for over 10 years and building my life again.

I go to a local Salvation Army in the centre of Leeds, I went here as a kid. I called it home but trouble never seems far from me. I’m called in to speak to the minister, someone (I’m never allowed to know who) reported me as a prostitute. Nope, not me, I haven’t worked like that for years. I work with prostitutes, but I don’t work as one of them. It happens again. No, still not me. Either tell the person to stop gossiping or tell me who it is.

The third time it comes with a throwaway, inside family joke. A printed Facebook page of a post from me, “I have now ‘acquired’ a uniform”. That’s the proof. How can someone on benefits afford a uniform? Surely this is proof that I’m up to no good. How else would I have a uniform.

I leave.

I have my uniform in the cupboard under the stairs. It hangs with other textiles from my life, my reflexology uniforms, my bikers jacket, clothing I might never wear again.

Every so often I get the uniform out and go to try it on, but the tears come. The pain of being forced to wear an outfit that still feels like I’m being made to sexualise myself for God. I’d never wear a skirt, yet in order to sing in the church choir, or take a role in the church leadership, or even play in the band is out of reach unless I return to that feeling of helplessness. That shameful place where men can look, call me sexy and feel my bum with no comeback from me, check for a suspended belt.

I still go to church (yep, a Salvation Army church) the people are lovely, but will I ever be fully accepted unless I lower myself to my dark past? The uniform isn’t something to aspire to for me. 

I have other questions about it too.

Why a church started for the poor now charges so much for the uniform of membership that the poor cannot join?

Why when the Bible speaks of instant forgiveness does the church then punish you further in a Mary Poppins style humiliation? As though saying, “Well, we know you’re sorry, and Jesus forgives you, but we just want to humiliate you for six months”.


In searching for the answers to spirituality and textiles I am also searching perhaps for my own peace, my own freedom from the failure the church did to me. So that now, as a church member who wants to be so much more, can one day put on some kind of outfit that makes me seen as an equal.