Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Peggy Rosenthal's 'Knit One, Purl a Prayer'

Little did I know what an enrichment knitting would become
for my own life: how it would help me in sickness and in heath,
in times of tranquility and times of stress—how knitting would
become a means of prayer.
~ Peggy Rosenthal

It is not often that I read a book straight through, and even rarer that I read straight through a book with a word like "knit" in its title. Still, when I picked up a copy of Peggy Rosenthal's Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting (Paraclete Press, November 2011), I read it in its entirety, in a single sitting, and came away thinking I should take up knitting. 

Rosenthal's is a lovely, well-researched, and personal book, from its appealing cover design of a pile of warm-colored knitwear to its beautifully composed writing and organization. Set in well-spaced, easy-on-the-eyes type, the book comprises just six chapters, each turning on the well-known phrase "knit one, purl two". In the Preface we first learn how Rosenthal came to regard knitting "as something like praying with prayer beads" but then, as she got more involved with the craft, came to see how "my spirit engaged in a new way." We  are shown over the course of the book that it is possible not only to knit a prayer but also to purl pain.

In Knit One we learn how the rhythmic movement of needles and yarn through the hands can be "an aid to settling the mind and spirit into deep repose"; how, wherever it's done, knitting invariably creates community, even as each individual knitter necessarily follows a pattern unique to the picture in her own mind; how the working of yarn into loops and stitches is a series of steps that can be model or guide, followed or broken, a metaphor for the steps, and missteps, we take in daily life; how, when life is filled with pain and grief, knitting, as both singular and communal act of creation, can be healing, requiring no words. By the concluding chapter, when we come full circle, we are able to link appreciation of the handcraft taken up by so many people the world over with understanding that what happens after those first intentional stitches and rows are made opens us up to something spiritually nourishing and sustaining. As Rosenthal relates in a final and moving personal story of how she came to own a blue prayer shawl, there is much more to knitting than can be imagined from browsing through a craft book or stepping into a store to purchase the simple tools of needles and yarns. 

Noteworthy are Rosenthal's inclusion in each chapter of one or more meditations that reinforce discoveries about the practice of knitting — as means of prayer, as meditative tool, as stress reliever, as problem-solver, as creative act — suggested activities, and a particularly generous helping of other knitters' voices. It is through the latter, these expressive, articulate, insightful, and often witty voices, that Rosenthal gives credence to her own narrative and meaning to a second definition of the word "purl". For purl is not only the knitting stitch that we create and can see; it embodies, through its definitional sense of motion and sound, a force that is invisible and works upon us. And, to our benefit, it is articulated again and again in the pages of Knit One. In sharing the many voices she has collected in her book, Rosenthal makes it possible to visualize the power of many knitting needles moving together with intention, sometimes at odds, sometimes in silence, but always with what Rosenthal describes as "astonished gratitude as a beautiful and useful object is created" through the work of the hands. "Making," the author repeatedly affirms, "is part of the essence of our humanity."

A bonus that should not be overlooked: At the end of each chapter Rosenthal includes a knitting pattern (with supply list and instructions) that addresses that chapter's theme.

And one suggestion: While reading, you might want to keep a highlighter ready to underline or star the numerous knitting-related Websites that Rosenthal mentions and the names of poets, professional writers, and bloggers whose wonderful stories and quotes about knitting she shares. 

Daily knitter Peggy Rosenthal, Ph.D., is the director of Poetry Retreats and the author of The Poets' Jesus (Oxford University Press), Praying the Gospels Through Poetry: Lent to Easter (St. Anthony Messenger Press), and Praying Through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (St. Anthony Messenger Press), among other books. She blogs on spirituality and the arts at Image Journal's Good Letters blog.

Paraclete Press Page on Knit One, Purl a Prayer (Book discussion and knitters' groups should note that Paraclete Press offers quantity pricing for multiple-copy orders. I can imagine many wonderful discussions centered around this book.)


Louise Gallagher said...

I have knit many a sweater (long ago) -- your post inspires me to maybe.... take it up again. It most definitely has inspired me to buy her book!

and I'm going to go buy a hard copy as I received a gift card for Chapters and this is the perfect book to buy with it!


Beverly Diehl said...

Darn it, another great book for my TBR list. And this one, not for the Kindle.

Knitting is its own special craft, even more so than say, needlepoint or scrapbooking, though those have their fine points, too.

Peggy said...

Louise, I'm so glad that Maureen's beautiful words about my book have inspired you to buy it! I hope you'll enjoy it.
--Peggy Rosenthal

S. Etole said...

I'm not a knitter, but this sounds enticing.

Anonymous said...

sounds like peggy put a good one together...

Michael Ann said...

Sounds like a great book, and a great gift for the knitters I know. Thank you!

Basque-Land said...

I love to knit and knit with groups of wonderful women and on occasion a man. I am excited to read this book from your review. I knit for people I love and think of them as I knit. Yep, it just settles the soul!