Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I pick up my needles and I prepare to knit.  The yarn is soft, the color is soothing, the pattern is easy to work.  Knitting quietly, alone or among my friends, I let the peace, the quiet, the calm settle into my stitches.  I think about the comfort the recipient will feel as they wrap themselves in the hug I am knitting.  Maybe I'll know them, probably I won't.  It is not about the who, it is about the unconditional gift of comfort and care to someone who is probably facing hard times.  And the process of making it is a gift of peace I give to myself.  Stitch by stitch, thought by thought, row by row, a Prayer Shawl is created.

In my last Post I discussed the idea of knitting for charity, any charity, and presented two books that described a wide variety of opportunities for those in need of some comfort such as soldiers, refugees, premature babies, adults and children who have become sick or who have been traumatized in some way...even organizations that collect items for animals in shelters.  Listed in both books was a charity that is dear to me - The Prayer Shawl Ministry .  The Ministry was formed in 1998 by two Connecticut women who took a class together in women's spirituality at the Hartford Seminary's Women's Leadership Institute: Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo.  They developed the idea of knitting shawls as a way to provide a little peace and comfort to others who might be suffering a hardship--no specifics--just someone who could use some uplifting and comfort and the knowledge that they are not alone. Prayerful thoughts and blessings knit into each make it a Prayer Shawl. The desire to bring comfort and peace to others must be pretty strong because what started as a grass-roots movement with one shawl here in Connecticut has grown by leaps and bounds with groups working on them internationally by the thousands.

Prayer Shawls (as known as "Peace" or "Comfort" Shawls) are what drew my interest back to knitting after many years of exploring other crafts.  It happened when one of my colleagues was busy working on Prayer Shawls for her church.  She was not able to put the fringe on and would bring them in to work for another colleague to attach the fringe pieces she had cut and ready for attaching.  These shawls were so pretty and so soft - I would eyeball them every time she brought one in.  My life at the time was in upheaval and the thought of quietly knitting (knitters always look so content!), combined with the fact that I might be able to craft something that would bring joy and comfort to another when I was having difficulty finding it for myself was appealing.  I told my colleague that I might be interested in making one but that I hadn't knitted in years (...years).  Lo and behold and never a fool, the next day she brought me a pair of needles and a skein of beautifully colored, incredibly soft, yarn.  "Here," she said "cast on 60 stitches and knit three, purl three.  It is easy."  Uh oh, I thought, but inside I was excited.  The rest is history. I haven't stopped knitting since!

The shawls I usually knit use a simple "knit 3, purl 3" repeat over 57 stitches which creates a modified seed stitch pattern. I like the rippled effect.


This shawl is still being worked on, but here is how the pattern looks bigger.

The pattern that the group my friend knits for uses the same "knit 3, purl 3" repeat, but over 60 stitches which creates a ribbed pattern.

My sister used that pattern to make this shawl when I taught her to knit.

Most of the shawls I have seen are made with Lion Brand's Homespun Yarn which is very soft and comes in lovely colors (although I have found that it has a tendency to split which makes it a little tricky for beginners to use.)  But any yarn and any pattern can be used and most community groups will gratefully accept any shawl contributed to their Prayer Shawl collection.  There is never a shortage of those who could benefit from receiving one.

Having only seen the shawl patterns described above, I was amazed by the number of different patterns and project styles available in the books I discovered while researching for this blog.  One book that I came across that I particularly liked was compiled by the The Prayer Shawl Ministry co-founders:

by Janet Bristow & Victoria A. Cole-Galo

The authors preface their book with the story of how the Ministry came to be and the creation of the first Prayer Shawl.  The book is offered as a piece of inspiration for those interested in knitting Prayer Shawls.  As such, a number of stories from those who have created shawls, as well as some from those who have received them, are sprinkled throughout as are a number of blessings and reflective prayers for those who would like to work them into their knitting.  Helpful guidelines are provided for interested community groups as to the proper way to craft, bless, package and deliver Prayer Shawls and an appendix addresses how to start a Prayer Shawl Ministry group in your community.

The information in one of the Appendices came as a bit of a surprise for me - a Color and Symbology chart.  I can't remember seeing this in any other knitting book. This neat little chart was included to help the knitter make their own design choices based on the meaning of a color, a number, or the addition of certain shapes or symbols.  For example, by choosing to use the color Aqua, according to the chart you are sending messages of courage, balance, harmony and stability.  I have always thought of Black as a foreboding color, but according to this chart it symbolizes self-confidence, strength, mature wisdom, harmony, and absorbs negativity.  Huh!  The symbolism can be through the choice of yarn colors, or any embellishments that might be added, such as the color or number of beads or tassels used.

The Prayer Shawl Companion provides 38  patterns from the contributions of a number of different designers, including some who are well known to knitters such as Kaffe Fassett and Nicky Epstein.  All the patterns are clearly written and accompanied by good photographs of the finished piece.  Each designer introduces their pattern with a brief description of what it means to them and why they chose that particular stitch or design.  What surprised me was the variety of patterns and styles.  Most are shawls but there are also patterns for neck-warmers, baptism blankets, lap blankets, a tallis, even a wedding capelet.  What unifies the projects is the joy and comfort they are meant to bring to the recipient. 

I have several acquaintances who have undergone a mastectomy so I was particularly surprised by and drawn to a pattern in the book called the "Heart Warmer," by designer Wren Ross.  This is a shrug-type piece that wraps the shoulders and upper body of the person wearing it in a comforting knit embrace.  I didn't have the yarn used by the designer but I did have some pink Homespun so I gave it a try.  After casting on and knitting a few rows, the pattern calls for increases at the beginning and end of each row and working in a seed stitch until a certain length is reached.  A few rows of garter stitch completes the top edge.  This creates an elongated triangle.

Once the triangle is complete, the ends are folded over and tacked in place.  The addition of a button under the v-neck is a finishing touch that completes the piece.

The authors have also published a similar book for those who are interested in making prayer shawls but prefer to crochet:

by Janet Bristow & Victoria A. Cole-Galo

According to the Shawl Ministy website, the authors are currently working on collecting designs for their next book.  Their website has further shawl information and stories, clicking here will link you to their site.

The act of knitting has been found to be a great stress reliever - if you knit or crochet (or think you might like to learn) why not give a Prayer Shawl a try?  You and the recipient will both benefit!   

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