Many who craft — whether knitting,crocheting, sewing, needlepoint or otherwise — call it a meditative experience. In fact, many books and articles have been written on the topic, including “The Knitting Sutra: Craft As Spiritual Practice” (Potter Craft), a 1997 book by Susan G. Lydon.
Crocheters make prayer shawls to comfort the sick and the grieving, while cross-stitchers bring warmth to a new home with personalized samplers, and knitters make hats for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units.
All of these things have a deeply spiritual element for both the crafter and the recipient, while seeming like mere objects to the observer. A new book aims to take that idea just one step further.
“Jewish Threads: A Hands-On Guide To Stitching Spiritual Intention Into Jewish Fabric Crafts” (Jewish Lights Publishing) features 30 projects rooted deeply within Judaism. Some of these are traditional, like the Torah mantles for Sukkot and Shavuot, while others are merely fun, like the “Dancing Hamantaschen” costumes for Purim.
Author Diana Drew, a reporter and book editor, as well as co-president of the National Council of Jewish Women section in West Morris, N.J., says that she got the idea to write “Jewish Threads” about eight years ago while working on a quilted chuppah with her chapter — a project that took the group of women two years to complete.
“I found that I was getting an awful lot of craft manuscripts to edit,” she says. “And the two kind of came together. I kept coming back to the idea of writing a book about Jewish fabric crafts.”
Laura Kruger, curator of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York, praised “Jewish Threads” for “rethink[ing] categories, concepts and tradition to break new ground in the field of textile art.”
Drew tackled this task with her husband, Robert Grayson, who wrote the openings for each section, telling the tales of Jewish history and tradition. Drew said she chose a range of projects that were relatively simple to make, so that anyone who wanted to create one would be able to learn, and featured sewing, quilting, needlepoint, crochet, needle felting, embroidery and knitting.
While most of the designers are women, there is one man whose project is featured in the book: Julian M. Brook, who shares a simple pattern for making a tallit — one that he’s used as part of his mission to make himself one tallit for each parshah, a goal that he’s been hard at work to complete for nearly 30 years. It’s stories like these that Drew sought out when collecting designs to feature in her book, a process that took two years to finish.
The criteria for the selected projects were that they had to have some kind of spiritual intention and a story behind them.
“One of the really important aspects of the book was finding out the stories behind the crafts,” says Grayson. “I think that was an emphasis that we wanted to really put into the book — what motivated people to do these crafts and how they drew upon their spirituality in creating the designs for these crafts. … I think we found that no two artisans had the same story.”
Many of the crafts were created in the hopes of becoming family heirlooms.
“We found that each of these crafts meant something to the people who made them,” says Grayson, “and that was something that we really wanted to get across to the readers.”
Drew says the reason why each project features a long introduction with the designer’s intents and ideas is because when she was editing craft books “that was the most important and interesting part to me.”
Not all of the crafts require trained eyes and trained fingers. In fact, with the Purim Puppets project, there is a “Mommy and Me” component to allow for family crafting time.
“That’s something that we wanted to encourage, things that parents and children, or grandparents and grandchildren, can do together,” says Drew.
Ultimately, though the crafts are Jewish in nature, it is still the crafting itself that draws the most spiritual connection. “It’s interesting. When you make something by hand, you often feel that when you’re stitching it, you’re stitching your own spirituality into it,” says Drew.
Adds Grayson: “[Crafting] gives you a lot of freedom to express your spirituality that you might not get in other ways. It gives you that opportunity to express your beliefs in these pieces and what you really feel is your connection to Judaism.”
The designers in the book undoubtedly feel different connections toward Judaism, but know there is a connection nonetheless. This is expressed in the stories each one tells prior to the pattern details for each project.
“It’s an interesting book also because I feel it gives you a patchwork view of Judaism today,” says Drew. “What people are doing that reflects their own Jewish faith and Jewish inspiration.”