Spirituality of Sewing

In March 2021 I took a class on Traditions of Christian Spirituality. As part of the class, I could choose to do a project (and write about the project) or write a longer paper. I decided to deal with my scrap pile (mostly from DfG scraps, but some from other projects) by using a scrap therapy guide a pastor and quilter friend of mine gave out during a quitting retreat she led a few years ago. I was hoping to piece together all of the different blog posts about sewing and spirituality into some nice neat thing… but that didn’t happen… maybe later. So the following is the paper I turned in and after that are pictures of the project.


“Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”[1]

For the last 60 or so weeks, I’ve been living mostly in my cell, my sewing room turned home office.  Each week I’ve written a Psalm reflection for worship and finding the study of these psalms personally meaningful.  In my cell, I find myself not able to do everything I used to do for work/call/vocation and found myself reflecting on what is it that I am called to do.  I’ve reread some of my old blog posts, started a podcast for prayer, and attended webinars and virtual continuing education events to try to find something spiritually meaningful in this weird pandemic life and to find meaning and focus on the ministry I’m called to do.  My blog is the place I’ve been publicly journaling while trying to figure out a sense of call “Period Pastor: Menstruant, Feminist, Theologian”.  The opening episode of my podcast begins, “My name is Karie Charlton, and I’m the period pastor. I menstruate, I care about women’s issues, and I believe in God. Sometimes, it’s hard to be all of those things at once. But I feel called to connect faith and feminism.”  The podcast and the blog are really just fragmented pieces of ideas, projects, reflections, sermons, and journaling that almost fit together into something meaningful.  They are scraps of my call that are too important to throw out but haven’t quite been sewn together in an intentional way either.  Also in my cell, is a literal scrap heap of fabric that I intended to do something meaningful with.  A while ago I sorted the scraps by color thinking that would make them easier to work with.  Below is a list of blog posts that feel connected or at least the same color scheme but I don’t have a meaningful way to put them together, much like the pile of red fabric in my sewing room.  I don’t expect you to read them, they are mostly linked here so I at least have a pile of things that I would like to connect someday into something meaningful… like my art project for this class.  I’ve chosen red fabrics as I work out the symbols that feel meaningful in my ministry: blood, water, and sewing.  Blood symbolizing menstruation and being a woman somewhere between menarche and menopause navigating a world that doesn’t know how to manage the blood.  Water symbolizing baptism, prayer, sense of call, and noticing that women are sometimes associated with water and healing.  Sewing symbolizing the work of theology, of piecing together these findings about God and self into something spiritually meaningful.  

Sewing Room as Prayer Metaphor

Seem Ripping is my Spiritual Discipline

Great Cloud of Witness Rains – this one I wrote about a silent reflection time in this class

Gifts of Women Sunday: Black Madonna

Lenten Spiritual Discipline: Remembering the Women

Another Period Sermon

Feminine Leadership

Tabitha: The Disciple who loved to Sew

Molly’s Days for Girls Apron

Quality Control As Love for Neighbor

Pastor Molly: American Girl Doll Clergy Apparel: How to adapt AGD Patterns

In the Red Liturgically speaking

From Menarche to Menopause:  All of the Love and Laughter In between

Where is my Hope now that my Heroes are gone?

Be a Good Neighbor

It’s Important to understand why

Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Pittsburgh Women’s Community Corrections Center in Shadyside and the Lady in the Basement

Nothing but the Blood of Jesus

The first Drop

Description of the Project:

  1. Scrap therapy[2]
    1. With a rotary cutter and quilting rulers cut fabric into the following sizes
      1. 2 ½” x 2 ½”
      1. 2 ½” x 4 ½”
      1. 2 ½” x 6 ½”
      1. 6 ½” square
    1. Iron and use Magic Sizing or some other spray starch-ish stuff to help smooth and ready the fabric
    1. Cut (as much as possible) with the grain of the fabric.  Start with the largest size and work your way to the smallest
    1. Use rulers the exact size you are cutting
    1. Keep strings and strips that don’t quite “measure up” that you can set aside for a scrappy foundation/paper piecing or string quilt.
    1. Don’t save anything less than 1 inch wide
  • Piecing the fragments
    • I did a project one like this before (at the quilting retreat where I learned about scrap therapy) and pieced the fragments together in 12” x 12” squares.  Those squares were pieced together with black sashing and binding.  The back of the quilt was made out of light weight upholstery fabric found in the Third Presbyterian Church sewing room.  The quilt now hangs in the social hall.  Members recognize the fabric from the quilting/sewing group from 30+ years ago and from the start of the Days for Girls Pittsburgh Chapter.  This time I made one 12” x12” red square with the hopes of someday doing this same process with another dozen colors and making a second quilt for the social hall.  
    • I underestimated how wonky the fabric would get after it was larger than 12” x 12”.  I also realized a little too late that while I wanted to piece to be sew in interesting angles, I needed to have a straight edge on each piece to attach the next.  So, after sewing creatively, I had to cut and trim again to get bigger pieces together.  I learned a lot about what “rules” I had to follow even though this was a fragmented quilt.  If I cut against the grain or on the bias the fabric stretched into an odd shape instead of a stiff square which made some of the piecing challenging and seem-ripping necessary.  
    • Thanks to the scrap therapy, I had lots of traditional shapes, but maybe not enough scraps to make even a small quilt out of the pieces that didn’t quite measure up.  I will need to buy fabric for the border as well as the backing.  
  • Traditional Organized piecing
    • This quilt should go together quickly.  The pieces were cut with the grain and I used starch spray when ironing to help keep everything flat and smoothed when cutting.  I am happy with the results of the scrap therapy.
    • I will need to lay out the pieces to determine the pattern and size of the finished quilt.  It’s possible that I will have to purchase other fabric or decide to save these pieces to be used with other colors that will be cut later.

What will happen to this project?  

My home church (Sharon Community Presbyterian Church) has a quilting group (that my Mom participates in) that sews for the Linus Project.  They make quilts that can be lap blankets for older folks in assisted living or rehab.  They make tiny quilts for babies or quilts as large as a twin bed to give to children at the hospital.  The description for the sizes I received: smallest size 36” x36” or crib sized 40” x 60” or as large as a twin bed.  I’m hoping to complete the top of the quilt (the piecing) for this class (it will be a nice picture).  Before I hand it over to mom, I hope to have the quilt sandwiched, meaning the top, batting, and backing put together.  They have special quilting machines at the church that will do a nicer job than my machine with a walking foot.  The scraps that  cannot be used will be given to a friend who knows a place to recycle fabric into insulation.  (Update: I needed up quilting it myself because their group wasn’t meeting so I’ll be giving it to them finished when they start up again).

Incorporating reflection, medication, and prayer into the project:

My favorite way to incorporate a spiritual discipline into sewing is to read something and then spend some time doing scrap therapy while thinking and reflecting on what I just read.  I started doing this for our quiet times in class which allowed me to reflect on what we learned or to further contemplate why I was even taking spiritual formation classes and to argue with God and sometimes even to simply sit in God’s loving presence while keeping my hands busy.  I’ve read the Desert Father’s book completely twice and a few marked favorites multiple times.  I like that these are short but meaningful.  After our class ended, I read and scrap therapy-ed with Sarah Bessey’s “A Rhythm of Prayer”, Joan Chittister’s “Songs of the Heart, Reflections on Psalms” and “The Breath of the Soul”, and Nan Merrill’s “Psalms for Praying”.   I have bookmarks in all of those books, none of them are completed just yet. I enjoyed having something for my hands to do while I thought about what I read.  Something about that movement kept me busy reflecting.  Sometimes if I journal as a reflection, I try to work the journal into something I can use for church.  Sometimes sitting quietly is uncomfortable because I feel the need to be productive and feel guilty for sitting quietly doing nothing.  I know that I don’t have to be productive all the time and I know that reflection and meditation is indeed doing something but the “not enough” monster is alive and well in my head making sure I’m seeking perfection instead of beauty and productivity instead of divine rest.  Although, I wish I had journaled a little more, it would have made this next part of the paper easier to remember and to write.

Desert Fathers CXXXIX (Page 76):

An elder was asked by a certain soldier if God would forgive a sinner.  And he said to him: Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is torn, will you throw it away?  The soldier replied and said: No.  I will mend it and put it back on.  The elder said to him: If you take care of your cloak, will God not be merciful to His own image?

This is my favorite quote.  There is something loving about mending.  It is better than buying new in some ways.  It’s giving dignity and love.  

My husband remembers the first time I put a hem back in his dress pants.  He would have taped or stapled it on his way to work.  I stitched the fallen hem back in giving him more confidence in his appearance than if he was worried about someone seeing the staples and mending the hem gave more permanence to the repair.  I love him, I want him to feel good and look good and selfishly (or maybe lovingly) I want him to have a little bit of me with him, even if it is only in the hem of his pants.  Somehow my love is more present with him at work than before the repair.  

I remember visiting the holocaust museum in DC years ago.  There were examples of the stripped prison clothing on display. One of them had a patch on the knee and I could tell that whoever sewed the patch did it in a way that the stripes lined up nearly perfectly.  Dignity and Love were present (as is a loving God) even in the most horrific times.

My little brother loved to run and then slide on his knees across any shinny floor he encountered.  Brave or stupid?  Maybe a little of both mixed with the sheer joy of being a little boy.  Mom patched a lot of pants, sometimes multiple times.  We always had “good clothes” and “play clothes” and the play was the most important part.  We didn’t have to be careful because mom could fix it well enough for us to play again.  There is a lot of love in that memory.

God forgiving a sinner is like mending.  The repair means “I love you enough to take the time to repair”.  Some sins or emotional hurts take longer to repair than others.  But mending is about restoring to righteousness with dignity and love.  Mending is the work of God.

I was able to recall those reflections on the Dessert Father quote because in class we journaled ordinary blessings once.  One of the blessings I wrote that day was: Bless little boys who slide and wear holes in already patched knees.  In their joy and in her mending their mother sees love.

I really liked the practice of writing ordinary blessings too.  I wish I had written more of them down (maybe I will later).  The other one I wrote: Bless the hands that press and the iron that burns.  Bless the ointment that cures and the hug that heals.  Obviously, I wrote that one after burning myself, again.  Sewing and healing go together like water and healing miracles; both are associated with women.  I’ve really thought a lot about the interwoven themes of Holy Spirt, praise, living water, and healing that seem to come up again and again with women saints and mystics.  I marked a few places I noticed that in “Thirsty for God”.  And while sewing I reflected on how I’ve seen that play out in my life.  It seems that the women I’ve sewn with talk around similar subjects when we are in an all women group, of course the usual ones like periods and childbirth and menopause symptoms.  But they also talk about healing and renewing too; how to stop bleeding (wounds or periods), how to mend relationships, and alternative medicine healing as simple as warm milk before bed or the b.r.a.t. diet for diarrhea or lotions and oils (which remind me of modern witchcraft or healing ointments).  Fun Fact from the quilting retreat: Your spit will wash away your blood.  Bless the pin that holds, the pin that pricks and thank God my blood is removed by my spit.  And seriously, it sounds like unlikely, but it works.  I’ve never met a woman who tried and couldn’t get her blood out with her spit.  I think there is a deep God-designed connection between blood and spit (water) and that is why blood and water feature so prominently in our religious understandings.  

Speaking of blood, women have been using rags and fabric scraps to manage menstrual blood for generations.  Women pass down this idea of saving and salvaging clothing by mending and repairing as well as saving fabric that is clean but otherwise unusable to make menstrual pads.  As someone who has used and washed reusable pads and menstrual cups, I have to say that there is something powerful in that cleansing ritual.  I love that my current call includes making reusable menstrual pads.  The using and reusing of what would be considered fabric scrap (rejected) to improve a woman’s life has tones of resurrection, renewal, and even baptism.  

Blood and water are both life-giving.  And yet, too much blood leaving the body and too much water leaving or entering the body is life-taking.  I must admit that the symbolism of mixing Holy water with the blood of Christ in Roman Catholic Mass is deeply appealing.    

I chose the red scraps for what by now are obvious symbolic reasons.  I choose to make this quilt out of scraps to also have a chance to think about the relationship between repurposing and redeeming.  The pieces of fabric represent pieces of life.  Some are beautiful and some are not.  None of them the same shape or size.  The fabric reminds me of what was made first or what was intended to be made.  Some of the fabric I’ve inherited.  As the scrap bin overflows, in the sewing room and in life, I wonder what changes are necessary to create less waste to lose less material to the bin, and what can be come out of the trash heap that was rejected from the “good” project to become something purposeful and beautiful.  What pieces of my broken past are redeemable?  Can all mistakes and sins be mended?  What makes something or someone “good as new”?  Perhaps there is room for repair and room for a new process (so there’s less waste) and perhaps that new process is formed in spiritual formation classes.  In piecing together this quilt, I am piecing together my spiritual autobiography (yes for the previous class) and piecing together my sense of spirituality and my sense of call.  

At the end of this project, I will have a quilt or two made of pieces of me.  My love, prayers, meditations, blood (spit wiped out) and tears (which are really prayers too, just ask St. Teresa of Availa) are sewn into every piece.  This chaotic and beautiful mosaic of repurposed fabric and redeemed parts of my soul will provide comfort and warmth not only to its maker but to its recipient.  I love that about handmade gifts.  I have some that were given to me that I cherish and some that I’ve given to others that I know they cherish but this gift will be different; I won’t know the recipient and the recipient wont’ know me.  And yet, it feels like somehow me might.  Because the sewing room is my cell, a physical room in my house and it is a spiritual room in my heart.  And maybe, the sewing room is a place in the kin-dom of God.  So, there is a chance that the menstruant who gets the pads I made or the person who will enjoy this quilt have entered into this holy place too.  The kin-dom of God is not something that I wait for but is something I am cocreating with God here and now, and perhaps the outflowing from my own sewing room creates a buttonhole where someone else might find their way into the kin-dom.  

In the sewing room, I make things and then let them go, they leave when their finished. When a prayer is finished, I let it go. Give it to God like it’s not my problem to take care of anymore. Or I give the finished product to someone else. Prayer is action and giving. Prayer is a loving gift.  Prayer is a quilt for the cold or those in need of comfort.  Prayer is a patch in the pants and ointment on the skinned knee.  Prayer is a drink for the thirsty.  Prayer is clothing for the naked.  Prayer is a place to sew, to learn, to tell stories, to heal, to be in the presence of God.

Some things need to be fixed or seem ripped to be fixed later. Prayer is a process. Construction, deconstruction, reformed. Sewn, seem ripped, repaired. And most of the time, I can’t do it all in one day or one sitting or one prayer. Maybe a cycle of prayers over a period. Maybe prayers are my own or inherited but sewn together differently than before.

Some things can’t be fixed (or not now, or maybe not by me). Maybe God can fix it later. Or maybe its ok if it doesn’t get fixed.  Maybe the scraps can be redeemed to be knee patches, menstrual pads, and scrappy quilts.  And maybe they will be recycled into fabric insulation. 

There are always UFOs (unfinished objects). There is always something to do or something left undone. Sometimes I circle back to those unfinished projects.  But unfinished projects and unfinished people are all part of the sewing room.  They are safe here.  They belong here.  They can be healed here.  They will be redeemed here.

Sometimes an item is made and remade and finally perfected or finally let go unfinished. When a project is started, there is a plan, but sometimes in sewing, in art, in prayer, things go a different direction, not according to the pattern or the prayer. Altered.

I am altered.  I am a work in progress.  I am redeemable, reusable, and re-love-able.  

I’ve been knitted in my mother’s womb, hemmed in by love, repaired, redeemed and sewn in with God.


[1] XIII p. 30 Desert Fathers (“The Wisdom of the Desert Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the 4th Century” Translated by Thomas Merton.)

[2] Adapted from Brenda Barnes quilting retreat handout


This is the 12×12 block that might be part of a larger quilt later
Done! This size can be used for a small child or for a lap quilt for an older adult.

1 thought on “Spirituality of Sewing

  1. The scraps are quite beautiful. I wouldn’t have thought to see them into a quilt.

    Like

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