The knitting saint: craft and the path to holiness

Julia Meszaros

 Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in  Bright Star  (2009)

Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Bright Star (2009)

The 2009 film Bright Star – a tale of the love story between the English poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne – begins with a close-up of Fanny sewing. The sensual movement of finger and needle runs through the film as a poetic thread complementary to and perhaps even rivalling the high art of Keats’ poetry. As has been argued elsewhere, Fanny’s craft serves ‘as a metaphor for an interior subjectivity’, a form of feminine self-expression that – contrary to common conceptions of traditionally female crafts – manifests not the powerlessness of domesticity but a genuinely empowering creativity and reality.

 As such, the film is indicative of a wider trend. While even a decade or two ago, most educated women (not to mention men) would dismiss crafts such as knitting or sewing as mind- and meaningless activities of a patriarchal past, we now hear needles clicking on our trains and see craft groups popping up in public and private spaces. In our largely disembodied world of virtual realities, the ancient crafts (which include also pottery, gardening, food preservation, to name but some) are taking on new significance. By affirming the value of creativity, beauty and attention to detail, the crafts correspond with, and perhaps even school us in, three distinctly Christian principles: the call to become God’s co-creators, to foster and delight in the beauty of God’s creation, and to transform even the simplest tasks into works of love.

Our consumerist world continually jeopardizes human creativity. Surrounded by machine-made end-products, we become detached from the act of creating. The patience and humility required by a craft such as knitting runs counter to this. The slow and gentle weaving together of simple, natural materials enlivens our sense for the relationship between creator and creation. We become lovingly invested in our own creation, and have a greater regard for the cost and value of objects made either by ourselves or by those we love. This may renew our appreciation for the way in which we ourselves are created in love, and for the preciousness of the natural world that we are called to watch over. As such, it may deepen our relationship with our own Creator who, as Genesis puts it, crafted us from clay, and with His creation.

 Handquilting

Handquilting

Where our countless distractions and occupations stand in the way of perceiving the beauty of the ordinary and every-day, the crafts also gently ground us in the here and now. As one crafter testifies,[1] they ‘attune us to the beauty of the world’, as well as teaching us the beauty and fruitfulness of discipline and perseverance. Focusing our energies on a concrete physical act that concerns a material reality and engages the senses, they also put our wandering mind to rest and put us in touch with the body and its unique skillfulness. Although often dismissed as inferior to high art, the crafts moreover combine usefulness and beauty and thus challenge both an empty aestheticism and a hollow utilitarianism.

 'Knitting Bonds' found on www.livingprinciples.org

'Knitting Bonds' found on www.livingprinciples.org

Visibly and invisibly, the crafts are also a school and means of love. As illustrated by the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, the thoroughly democratic and inter-generational practice of a craft such as quilting can be a powerful and empowering instrument of material, social and spiritual solidarity, and thus a cathartic means of processing trauma and resisting exploitation. On a more interior, even private level, craft-making provides us with an opportunity to practice the invisible art of putting love into the humblest of tasks. Mother Theresa famously insisted that, at the doors of heaven, we will not be asked 'How many good things have you done in your life?' but 'How much love did you put into what you did?' The slow creation of a simple quilt or blanket trains us in thus sanctifying the ordinary. 

[1] Anna Fisk, ‘”To Make and Make Again’”: Feminism, Craft and Spirituality’ in Feminist Theology Vol. 20, Nr. 2, 160-174.