Juli Cragg Hilliard

A fabric of faith

A handmade quilt can be both functional and beautiful. Or it can be purely decorative. But can it be a source of spirituality to both maker and recipient?

Two new books say that's the case. At least two groups of Southwest Florida quilters hold membership in religious craft movements.

Kimberly Winston, author of "A Fabric of Faith: A Guide to the Prayer Quilt Ministry" (Morehouse Publishing), says all traditional crafts have surged in recent years. One possible explanation is Sept. 11. She explains that after the attacks on the United States in 2001, many stories emerged about people not traveling and, instead, investing time and money on nesting -- including a revival of handicrafts.

"I think there's some truth to that, but it is not the only thing," says Winston, a freelance religion journalist and fervent crafter (mostly knitting) near San Francisco. She believes part of what is at work is a reaction to the way society and our daily lives have become increasingly technological: "If you're spending your whole life wired or turned on, there comes a time when you want something much simpler, much more in your control."

For Winston herself, not a day goes by that she doesn't do some sort of craft. It's a refuge. "My blood pressure drops; my heartbeat slows. If I have a headache, it subsides. I feel myself becoming much more calm, much more still, more centered."

In crafts, she communes with her idea of God. "It is prayer in the sense that I am very calm, I'm in a listening attitude, and I don't feel alone."

Talking to people for "A Fabric of Faith," she says she heard repeatedly that quilters got started because they wanted to do something for others -- but then found that it also benefited themselves.

Quilting has been around since ancient Egypt, Winston recounts, and the Puritans and Pilgrims brought it to America. Throughout early American history, quilting bees were held for weddings, new houses or babies as a way a community showed caring for others.

"What is new -- and it isn't happening only in quilting, it's happening in every other craft -- is doing the craft with an attitude of prayer," Winston says.

Prayers & Squares

Her book focuses on Prayers & Squares International, a prayer ministry with more than 500 chapters that mostly meet in churches. Winston expects it will spread to Judaism, too.

A chapter has been active for more than a year at Bradenton's First Church of God. Coordinator Wendy Jo Lowe, a paralegal with a Sarasota law firm, started the chapter after seeing an ad for a Prayers & Squares video. She said it looked like a way to "put shoe leather onto our faith."

The group has 20-some members and has given away more than 20 quilts as a gesture of comfort. Recipients have included premature babies, a woman moving into a nursing home, a man with drug problems, a little boy facing surgery, and a former youth pastor for the church who was entering service as a U.S. Air Force chaplain.

Sometimes the quilts incorporate religious symbols, such as cross themes. The quilters begin and end their meetings with prayer. In a quilt's final steps, congregation members at a Sunday service are invited to pray as they tie the knots that hold together the quilt top, the batting and the backing.

A cupboard stocks a supply of quilts that the church's ministers can take to patients in the hospital. "It's something that you can do when there's nothing else you can do," Lowe says.

The quilting path

Quilt artist Louise Silk grew up a "cultural Jew," the daughter of nonreligious parents who were ardent supporters of Israel. "I always had a kind of a spiritual longing," she says.

Now a self-described unaffiliated Jew who has studied Kabbalah and Buddhism, she considers quilting her spiritual practice.

It gives her inspiration, spiritual healing and an understanding of the universe and her place in it. "I'm happiest when I'm stitching," she says.

The Pittsburgh resident ties it all together in her book "The Quilting Path: A Guide to Spiritual Discovery Through Fabric, Thread and Kabbalah," scheduled for release in October from Skylight Paths.

"For a long time, I thought that Jews didn't quilt, and quilters weren't Jewish," Silk says.

Jews immigrating to the United States around the turn of the 1900s practiced such needle arts as knitting and crochet, and were unfamiliar with the quilting that had flourished in colonial America, she says. For Jewish women to move into quilting in America is part of the assimilation story.

Silk says quilting and other traditional American crafts made a big comeback in 1976, the nation's bicentennial, after a hiatus that had been introduced by automation. But Silk already was on the quilting path, after reading a 1972 article in Ms. Magazine about quilting as a woman's art.

This craft takes little skill, she says. If you can operate a sewing machine, or use a needle and thread, you can do it. She makes both functional quilts and pieces of art, including Memory Quilts, designed to memorialize people (or events) by using materials that belonged to them, such as old clothing.

Silk says quilting can be a way to bring people together, from different cultures and religions. Quilting for world peace -- why not?

Pomegranate Guild

Susan Kohnstam wouldn't define herself as particularly spiritual. But listen to the way quilting makes her feel, and hear the stories of the quilts:

"I think I like the fact that when you're done with all this, that somebody has something beautiful they can use," Kohnstam says. "I'm able to give a piece of myself to others, and they can enjoy it."

She is president and co-founder of a chapter of the international Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework that meets at the Jewish Center of Venice. Of the 15 chapter members, about eight are quilters. Kohnstam also belongs to the much larger Venice Area Quilt Guild.

In Judaism, acts of practical charity are a central tenet. The 5-year-old Pomegranate chapter in Venice has made quilts for victims of terrorism being treated in Israel's Hadassah Hospital, and for local Hospice patients.

For the Jewish Center's ark -- the cabinet that holds its Torah scrolls -- Kohnstam made a quilted covering that shows a scene of Jerusalem. She sewed other quilts for the center's walls.

Her son married in 2002; "I wanted them surrounded by loving hands," she says. So, she traced the hands of loved ones -- including her own -- and appliquéd them on a quilt she designed as the huppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy.

When a woman she knew through an online quilt group died, Kohnstam finished her quilts. When another quilter's vision deteriorated before she could complete a project for her granddaughter, Kohnstam stepped in to get the job done.

"Should I die, I would like somebody who knows what they are doing to continue," she says.

Quilting offers connection -- of quilters working together, of makers to recipients, of past to present, of fabric to fabric, of sewer to something beyond self.

And connection itself is spiritual.

Selected Works

Articles
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Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 22, 2006
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