Anvil journal of theology and mission
Knitting as a means of sharing the good news
by Christine Dutton
Magda Sayeg, the textile artist whose work includes placing knitted pieces around lamp posts and bollards in New York City, says of yarn bombing: “I may have started it but I don’t own it.”
Her TED talk speaks of her desire to transform the urban space. She began to notice similar expressions of public displays of knitting elsewhere across the globe.  For those of us in the church who are called to pioneer, to instigate, to provoke and to create, we can co-work with God to transform the communities we live in. We may be the catalysts for experiments, building new communities and planting churches, but as the Holy Spirit works in and through projects and gatherings, we no longer own or control them. My research on the emerging church has led me to believe that listening to those at the grassroots and allowing the organic shaping of communities to occur happens at a much slower pace than targets or programmes in church growth might dictate.
In this regard knitting (and crocheting) has much to teach us. Knitting has the ability to combine contemplation and activism; it slows down our pace, and reconnects us with God’s rhythm – the three-mile-an- hour God of Kosuke Koyama.  When, in addition, we use knitting as a tool for evangelism, sending knitted garments and objects out into the wider world often combined with messages of hope or assurance of prayer, we echo Saveg’s hope for transformation. This article seeks to explore how a resurgence in knitting is being reclaimed as a way of sharing the gospel story with communities. This is nothing new – Hana Kageye, a Ugandan woman introduced to the Christian faith in 1901 through Ruth Hurditch, a woman who worked for the Church Missionary Society, used handicrafts as a natural starter for sharing the faith with the young women: “She taught them knitting, and in so doing she introduced them to Jesus.”  Steve Taylor, who has been researching Christian craftivism, suggests that craftivism can be seen as a contemporary embodiment of this Christian witness.  It appears this overlooked skill, this “granny hobby”, is being rediscovered for transforming the lives of individuals and communities in small, emerging but significant ways.
As part of my doctoral research into exploring fresh expressions of church in the Methodist Church, I engaged with a Knit and Natter group in a housing estate on the edge of Ellesmere Port, near Chester. I accompanied 60 women for two years, knitting alongside them, listening to and recording their stories, and examined how these women, many without previous church connections, were birthing new Christian communities centred around knitting. 
Knitting in the public space
As the yarn bombing trend continues, churches and Christian communities can join in with this trend and use it to share the gospel of hope into communities that are often hopeless. As aspects of our common lives are unravelling, not least the political, knitting items that are given away is both countercultural and subversive. These should be hallmarks, I would suggest, of the Christian community. Knitting has been reclaimed for political purposes too as the “pussy hats” for the Women’s March in Washington DC in March 2017 illustrated.  The online knitting community Ravelry made the news earlier this year by denouncing white supremacy in a prophetic way, banning posts supporting the Trump administration.  This raising of the profile of knitting is witness to the renaissance of the craft and the move towards outward expressions of public knitted art. Civic and religious expressions of remembrance and commemoration of the centenary of the ending of the First World War have brought together communities and churches in creating cascades of knitted poppies on public buildings.
This visibility gives an insight into the ways that Christian knitting groups are reclaiming public space to witness and share the gospel message. They suggest ways knitting can be used as a tool to seek to connect with the wider community, beyond the more traditional form of gifting garments as an expression of Christian care and symbolic of prayers.
The British Methodist Conference of 2018 reaffirmed “Our Calling”, a connexional mission statement that claims that:
The calling of the Methodist Church is to respond to gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission through worship, learning and caring, service and evangelism.  This emphasis has kindled experiments within traditional and emerging church communities, combining knitting and evangelism.  The two current projects outlined below illustrate examples of those who are developing their knitting to reach out into their communities with the good news of Christ.
At 6 a.m. on 22 December 2018, eight of us gathered at Wesley Church Centre in Chester to pray before taking out 365 knitted, crocheted and crafted angels and placing them around the city walls, each with an invitation to be taken away. Each individual angel had a tag attached with a message of hope, peace or joy and a hashtag for social media and a website link so that anyone who found an angel could follow up the story and connect with others. By lunchtime most of them had been “found”, and on Christmas Eve I walked the walls again, praying for the homes into which the angels had found their way.
These angels were beautifully created by members of churches across the city, with community groups and the local wool shop taking part. The project originated in the work of a Methodist pioneer in Edinburgh. David Wynd and Rob Wylie, the superintendent and circuit mission worker in the North Shields and Whitley Bay circuit, developed the idea, interpreting the gift of sharing the unexpected good news that the angels bring in the Nativity stories with the contemporary phenomenon of yarn bombing. Wynd and Wylie were emphatic that the angels they distributed were an expression of God’s unconditional love. They were clear that the tags accompanying their angels did not have a “condition” of attending worship or requiring a response.
Those knitting the angels individually or in groups reported using the project to slow down before and during Advent, creating a time to reflect on the angels’ message. For those who receive the gift of the angel, there is the opportunity to receive the words of peace and hope the angels bring. Responses to this shared via social media have encouraged the knitters who have taken this step to share their faith.  The Christmas Angels project offers local churches the opportunity to articulate their faith in a demonstrable way, first praying for their communities as they create the angels and then to physically engage in evangelism as they go out and share the good news of the coming of Christ into a world in need of God’s love.
Prayer shawl knitting
This is a combined spiritual practice and prayerful ministry whereby shawls are knitted or crocheted to be given away to provide comfort in times of illness or grief, or to celebrate a new birth or a new stage in life. Prayers and blessings are said throughout the knitting of the shawl, and then, often, shawls are dedicated before being sent or passed on.
Janet Bristow and Victoria Cole-Galo, whose work in applied feminist spirituality at the Hartford Seminary gave birth to the practice of creating prayer shawls, encourage others to “buy some yarn and start”.  Shawls can be knitted with an individual in mind – for example, someone who is recovering from an operation at home, or has just had a new baby. Susan Jorgensen and Susan Izard wove stories of those who have knitted and received shawls in their book Knitting into the Mystery. This guide combined practical knitting instructions and reflections on the process of knitting with prayers to use during knitting as well as when dedicating shawls.  Whether the knitting has a specific intercessory focus or not, the attention to the individual stitches are accompanied by vocal or silent prayer enabling the knitter to achieve a slower pace over a period of time. Joanne Turney situates this slower action of knitting in context: “Knitting, in recent years… offers ‘time out’, an alternative to mass consumerism and a means of slowing down the pace of life and absorbing oneself in a tactile occupation, connecting the self with the object under construction.” 
The relaxation and calm frame of mind that knitting brings has been documented by Bernadette Murphy, and more recently by the work of Betsan Corkhill at the University of Cardiff.  Corkhill looked specifically at the therapeutic benefits of knitting.  Prayer shawl knitting therefore offers the opportunity for the knitter to engage in a rhythm of prayer (which in itself can bring a healing rhythm) and, in the giving of the shawl, to surround another with a symbol of God’s enveloping love.
Peggy Rosenthal, whose research witnesses to bereaved women using knitting privately to cope with and reflect on their grief as well as those who might join a knitting group to overcome their isolation, says: “Knitting became my vehicle for this reconnection with life. It became a way of sitting with people and just being with them.”  Rosenthal also explores the therapeutic need to work on something both repetitive and simple that requires no thought, and then the need to attempt a more difficult pattern that might require the help of others as a way of learning to ask for help. Prayer shawls given away to those who are recently bereaved are accompanied with a prayer or passage of Scripture. Prayer shawls can be given on a pastoral visit, bringing the comfort of Christ. The shawls gifted and accompanied by an invitation to worship, a small group or a knitting circle can be a gentle way of evangelism.
As can be seen from the two examples above, knitting is being used by individuals and groups as a means by which the good news of the gospel is shared. The #xmasangels project brings the birth narratives of Jesus through the words of the angels into the public space, in an unexpected and joyful way. The message of hope and the words “Do not fear” and “I bring Good News” who have taken the angels. The prayerful practice of prayer shawl knitting is a more personal way of sharing the comfort and peace of Christ with those in stages of transition in their lives. The care and prayers woven into the knitting of shawls over weeks and months continue to assure others that they are not alone, but surrounded and covered by God’s love in the symbolic act of placing the prayer shawl around them. In both of these simple acts, the knitters and those who receive the angels and shawls have encountered and drawn closer to God, discovering more of God’s good news for the world.
About the author
The Revd Dr Christine Dutton is a follower of Jesus, currently serving as a Methodist minister in the North Cheshire Circuit and as PhD tutor at the Urban Theology Union in Sheffield, a constituent college of Luther King House, Manchester.
More from this issue
 Magda Sayeg, “How yarn bombing grew into a worldwide movement,” TED Talks, November 2015, accessed July 23, 2019, www.ted.com/talks/magda_sayeg_how_yarn_bombing_grew_into_a_worldwide_movement.
 Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God (London: SCM Press, 1979).
 Brian Stanley, “Great Omissions from the Great Commission,” sermon preached on 5 April 2011 in the chapel of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, Faith & Leadership, 18 July 2011, accessed July 23, 2019, www.faithandleadership.com/brian-stanley-great-omissions-the-great-commission.
 Steve Taylor, “When #christmasangels tread: craftivism as a missiology of making,” paper presented at the 2019 ANZATS conference at Carey Baptist College, Auckland, New Zealand, 1–3 July 2019.
 Christine Dutton, “Unpicking Knit and Natter: Researching an Emerging Christian Community,” Ecclesial Practices 1:1 (2014): 31–50.
 Reuters in Los Angeles, “Casting off Trump: the women who can’t stop knitting ‘pussy hats’,” The Guardian, 15 January 2017, accessed 23 July, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/15/casting-off-trump-the-women-who-cant-stop-knitting-pussy-hats.
 “New Policy: Do Not Post In Support of Trump or his Administration,” Ravelry, 23 June 2019, accessed 29 July 2019, https://www.ravelry.com/content/no-trump.
 “Reaffirming Our Calling: the future call of the Methodist Church,” The Methodist Church, accessed 23 July 2019, https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/the-methodist-church/our-calling/.
 St George’s URC Hartlepool have knitted biblical scenes that they loan out for exhibitions; see “The Knitted Bible,” St. Georges URC Hartlepool, accessed 23 July 2019, http://www.stgeorgesurc.co.uk/the-knitted-bible/.
 The story of the project can be found at Christmas Angel, accessed 23 July 2019, http://www.christmasangel.net/.
 Posts on the Helsby Methodist Church Facebook group such as https://www.facebook.com/groups/664467533629251/permalink/2005523212857003/ with photographs of the knitted angels were the encouragement for the knitters at the church’s weekly drop-in to consider the project for next year. (Interviews at Helsby Methodist Church, 5 April 2019.)
 Janet E. Bristow and Victoria A. Cole-Galo, accessed 23 July 2019, “Introducing the Prayer Shawl Companion,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W302tI3P1bc.
 Susan S. Jorgensen and Susan S. Izard, Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry (Harrisburg, PA; Morehouse Publishing, 2003).
 Joanne Turney, The Culture of Knitting (Oxford: Berg, 2009), 104.  Bernadette Murphy, Zen and the Art of Knitting: Exploring the Links between Knitting, Spirituality, and Creativity (Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 2002), 85–109.
 Betsan Corkhill, Knit for Health & Wellness: How to Knit a Flexible Mind and More… (Bath: FlatBear Publishing, 2014).
 Peggy Rosenthal, Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011), 82.