By Julie Cicora
Publisher: Morehouse Publishing, 2021
Available through contemplativeknitting.com
Knitting has been around for centuries, but it may be more popular than ever after the COVID-19 pandemic spurred widespread lockdowns in most of the world over the past year. Even former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has taken up some knitting needles.
“Over the course of this quarantine I have knitted a blanket, like five scarves, three halter tops, a couple hats for Barack, and I just finished a pair of mittens for Malia,” she told a talk show host last year.
For those who have spent lockdowns untangling skeins of wool, ordering knitting needles online or watching YouTube videos on how to stitch, a new book by an Episcopal priest offers a way to turn the hobby into a spiritual practice.
Contemplative Knitting is the project of the Rev. Julie Cicora, a priest in the diocese of Rochester, N.Y. Cicora writes that she had long struggled to develop a private prayer practice, but realized her hobby could be a way of incorporating a time of silent prayer into her day.
The first sections of the book detail how to start and sustain a contemplative knitting practice, with asides that fill in the history of both knitting and contemplative prayer. Like many prayer tools (rosaries, for instance, or the Jesus Prayer), knitting, Cicora says, harnesses the “spirituality of repetition,” as a series of repeating loops are formed to create fabric. “Repetition acts as a change agent,” she writes, “but only when we are intentional about how we practice repetition. Repetitive motion can either cause tendonitis or stronger muscles.”
Helpfully, the book delves into practicalities intended to help build these “muscles”—from choosing yarn and finding a time and place to knit, to understanding one’s “knitting style” (are you a “yarn collector”? “Finish avoider”? “Project du jour knitter”?) and creating sustainable goals.
The book’s scope broadens in its final part, with sections devoted to contemplative knitting in various contexts: for other people, during Advent, through a time of grief, with music—even as a form of evangelism.
While Contemplative Knitting is not a knitting instruction or pattern book, it does offer some helpful tips, and Cicora’s methods seem flexible and applicable to knitters at any stage. (She does recommend less intricate projects for prayer knitting, which requires less focused attention on the yarn itself—and presumably results in fewer mistakes, dropped stitches and less, um, unspiritual language.)
Cicora’s love for the craft of knitting is evidenced by her rapturous descriptions of different yarns and patterns, and she draws spiritual lessons out of her experiences: the powerful sense of connection experienced when gifting a prayer shawl; the perseverance learned through making a difficult pattern—and the patience in overcoming setbacks necessitated by the puppy who happily tears apart a half-finished knitting project.
The book is structured in three parts which are in turn divided into chapters and sections. It flows naturally when read cover to cover, though may be harder to use for reference.
Each section ends with reflection questions about the reader’s spiritual life and knitting practice, providing an enjoyable interactive element. There is also a loose pattern for a spiritual knitting project: a 40-inch (102 cm) Lenten cowl knit over 40 days.