The Spiritual Gifts of Handwork
The spiritual gifts of handwork
My journey of teaching handwork began with a fascination with knitting. I could not explain the draw I had to knitting. My children and I were taught to knit by a woman from the Ukraine, Maria, who could not speak English. That year, I was working as a seamstress in a bridal shop with Maria. We spent an evening at her home with her entire family, and I remember her warm hands, her smiling eyes, her easy laughter, and the way she gently guided our hands as we learned to knit. While we enjoyed our evening, my confidence to knit waned a bit and I did not take it up as a practice right then.
Through these past twenty years of devotion to the practice of the hand arts, I have learned how very important it is to work with our hands, to have something that was lost along the way.
There is a spirit behind everything we do. In our world today, we often forget that spirit as we keep our minds focused on the next thing, on achieving the goals and outcomes we have set for us in our jobs and personal lives. This creates a rushed feeling of disconnection, and this disconnected feeling is actually important to help us cope with the pressures of modern life. But it does not have to take us from who we are, and as human beings we are meant to be connected. This spirit of connectedness, of finding the spirit of life, can be found in the practice of handwork.
The act of making something with your hands is a revolutionary act. Today, we can go to the store and buy a new item of clothing off the rack, often for a very cheap price. We have no idea who made our clothing. We often have little awareness of HOW it is made or the steps taken to get that piece of clothing into the store. Often, the people who make our clothes have a vastly different standard of living than we do. This standard of living, set within the exploitative hungers of modern globalization and neoliberalism, mimics slavery. Furthermore, the clothing industry is wasteful and environmentally unsound. “Globally, humans consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, which is 400% more than the amount we consumed just 20 years ago. With the rise of consumption comes an alarming rate of discarded clothing. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste annually, totaling more than 11 million tons. In addition, the textile industry is the 2nd largest polluter on the planet followed by oil. The harsh chemicals released during industrial dyeing damages aquatic systems and make drinking water dangerous.” (http://anchalproject.org/pages/what-we-do)
Any child who works with their hands learns something of themselves and the world. Often, we highlight the benefits of knitting and the hand arts in relationship to how they reinforce concepts in numeracy, capacities that build literacy, and encourage rhythmic self-regulation. These are all wonderful aspects of how handwork can enhance a child’s education. Deeper than that are the gifts of spirit and connection with others. Children are learning the art of practice, and are practicing capacities of soul that help shape them as compassionate human beings in the world.
The following are soul capacities I’ve observed arising out of the practice of handwork:
Holding materials in your hands that are from nature awakens one’s thoughts of the natural world. We connect with these materials that come from the earth, and in entering the creative process, we learn to have a dialogue of sorts with these materials, through using our hands to transform them. In rubbing wood on stones to shape a knitting needle, we are taking the gifts of the natural world and transforming them into something useful for ourselves or others. In feeling the sheep’s wool, or the cotton boll, we are touching the gifts of the earth. When we are exposed to these things, aware of them, we feel ourselves as part of a whole. We feel that the world provides us with so many good things. We feel cared for. This whole includes other human beings, with the same needs and wishes as ourselves.
Practicing the hand arts means you will most certainly bump into yourself. You will get angry, frustrated, and struggle mightily. I remember one boy who taught me much about grace. As a teacher, I have to discern when to step in and assist and when to simply allow the learning process. One boy was in tears over his handwork as he struggled repeatedly with something. I offered to help move him to the next level and he said “No, I need to figure this out.” And he did figure it out. This is the learning of grace-that our struggles have meaning, and we can work through them out of our own capacities. We can trust ourselves. We also have plenty of helpers in the form of teachers and fellow students to support us in moving through any struggle.
Mistakes are a frequent part of any hand arts practice. Soon, you realize that your materials are forgiving, perhaps more forgiving than you are of yourself. It you make a knitting mistake you can’t fix using any of those clever teacher tricks, you can rip it out and the worse]t thing that can happen is that you have to knit or stitch it again. Second chances are in grand supply.
Sometimes a piece cannot be salvaged. This, too, is forgiveness, for when you let go of something that bears disorganization, holes, or is too representative of failure, it is a good thing. Learning when something can be transformed is important. Most of the time, forgiveness is found in being flexible enough to make a “failed” project into something else. This letting go and flexibility encourages creativity and a curiosity of spirit. How can we transform things that don’t fit into our original vision? Oh, we must forgive everything and try again. Practicing this capacity deepens invention and improvisation.
The art of practice is something that doesn’t quite fit into our busy day and age. Yet in practicing something repetitive, that both soothes and awakens our feeling life in so many ways, we are building ourselves. We learn how to breathe in and breathe out. We learn how to try and try again until we have made it even more beautiful. We gain a sense of beauty and how we bring ourselves to beauty.
In practicing something, one also gains a sense of the time it takes to gain mastery and accomplishment. Most things in handwork take a long time to make. This, too, is outside of what our culture-at-large values. We often want things that are instant, or that save us time. Many people say to me, “Oh, I don’t have the patience for knitting.” It is foreign to some to think that taking a long time to practice and accomplish something is valuable. Think about what practicing something teaches us: that we can handle it. That we can take on things that seem impossible to US. That we are capable and able. That we can work through confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed. We learn how to be present to what we are doing by accepting the magnitude of the task.
Care for others:
In craft circles, people celebrate each other’s accomplishments. In the classes I teach, children will sing a song to a fellow student who has finished their project. After all, it IS such the accomplishment. In class, students learn how to deal with their struggles and also the struggles of others. When I was working in the bridal shop, my manager said something to me I will never forget. She said, “You need to ask more questions. No one should have to sit in a corner struggling alone.” I took that to heart. In handwork class, no one struggles alone unless they really need to. There are always friendly and supportive helpers. Knowledge of skill is shared freely. Learning to trust, help, support, and affirm each other creates a positive social atmosphere. It pulls us out of egocentricity and into experiencing ourselves as part of a whole. From there, we recognize that we have something to offer to the other.
The work of our hands is important for many reasons that teach us how to be a human being, and how to connect with nature, each other, and the spirit that underlies all things. Besides a feeling for beauty, the development of a strong will, and a sense of artistry, handwork brings us into the flow of life.
It is through our hands that we touch something of ourselves and each other, and the creative spirit that imbues all life.