What’s A Prayer Shawl? (And Do You Have to Literally Pray Over Each Stitch to Make One?)

One of my favorite spiritual practices is to knit prayer shawls.  I love to sit quietly and not think, letting my mind rest while I simply make loop after loop with my hands and two bamboo sticks.  When I donate my work to my local church, I feel something like a sense of relief.  The thoughts and concerns that worked themselves out during the knitting of a large project come to an end, given over to a higher purpose. 

I have been known to sit and knit during church services.  I knit in the early morning silence of my meditation and prayer time.  But I also knit while watching TV with my family, in the school pick-up line, and while waiting for doctor appointments.  So I’ve wondered, what exactly makes a knitting project a “prayer shawl”?

For me, it’s all about intent.  Some knitting projects are for specific people for specific purposes – a hat for my husband, a winter scarf for my son, a tote bag for my daughter, a sweater for myself.  But for me, prayer shawls are for someone I likely will never know or meet.

In donating a prayer shawl, I’m giving up to God an investment of my time – usually several weeks’ worth of knitting on a daily basis.  I use soft yarns I hope will provide comfort to someone going through a hard time.  Sometimes I choose peaceful, calming colors for my prayer shawls.  Other times, I choose cheerful, peppy colors I hope will provide a cheerful, upbeat presence in someone’s life.  Sometimes I have in mind a female recipient and knit in pinks and reds and pastels.  Other times, I have a male recipient in mind and knit a prayer shawl a guy wouldn’t mind draped over a favorite chair.  I’ve knitted prayer shawls large enough to serve as a blanket on a nursing home bed.  Others are triangular and meant to wrap around someone’s shoulders.

In any case, the purpose of the project is to share love, comfort, and peace with someone in need.  Occasionally, I know someone who has had surgery, has cancer, or is at the end of life.  When I knit these shawls, I very intentionally think about the person for whom I’m knitting and for their struggles.  But usually, I don’t know where my prayer shawl will end up.  And that’s part of the spirituality of the task – putting forth your best efforts, sharing a gift of love, and trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit to get your work where it needs to go. 

So while knitting a prayer shawl is a form of meditation at many points in the making of it, it’s more about the general intention of the whole project.  It’s about a gift of my own peacefulness, sending the finished project out into the world to serve as a visible, tangible reminder of the peace, love, and comfort that can be found in Christian fellowship – even if I never meet the person I find myself connected to with my gift. 

Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us.”  She is currently at work on a series of short stories about prayer shawls and those who knit or receive them. 

Recommended Reading:

Peggy Rosenthal, Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting (An excellent, succinct little book that covers lots of topics related to knitting-as-prayer)

Clara Parkes, The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting (Great light reading, a nice memoir that pleasantly meanders along at a calm pace)