The Knitting Sutra:
Craft as a Spiritual Practice

by Susan Gordon Lydon
1997, Harper San Francisco
Reviewed by Amy Lenzo


This perfect gem of a book allows us to accompany the author on a very personal journey—through the emotional pain of heartbreak and the physical injury of a broken arm—into wholeness and health via, of all things, knitting. Using conscious application and dedicated effort, and evoking the magic of creating things with one’s own hands, this amazing tale of one woman’s literal and psychic travels manages to tell a universal story for us all.

Lydon starts with the recognition of knitting as an age-old textile art, rooted in the natural world of sheep and wool and spinning and weaving; "Handicrafts belong to an earlier world. The slower pace of pre-industrial life where one had the leisure to sink deeply and profoundly into the rhythms of nature within and without and to feel a connection with the earth as a living spiritual entity." Her understanding of the spiritual purpose offered by the practice of her craft is also clear. "Handcrafts throughout history have often been fashioned with the aid of prayer," she reminds us, "one prayer for each bead or each stitch..."

Knitting is traditionally a woman’s art, and it is as a woman that the author finds and applies the secrets of this ancient craft. Knitting in the still moments of a menopause that has left her both fatigued and insomniac, the repetitious meditative activity helped Lydon "think about what I wanted from life, what qualities would now become important to me and hopefully replace the ones I was losing."

This search for meaning and qualities of lasting value—along with the quest for a silver button to complete the set on a turquoise chenille sweater she was knitting as therapy to help leal a broken bone—led Susan to a Navajo reservation in Arizona. There, she was struck by what she saw as a dignified ‘presence’ and almost physical sense of stability and security in the women there. She attributed this quality to the women’s innate sense of ‘belonging’ in a specific geographical place: "It was something that I wished I could learn from them and that I had tried to cultivate in myself through the practice of crafts. I was looking for a kind of rooted-ness, an interconnectedness with the earth, a way of being at home."

Living and knitting among the Navajo women brought Lydon many revelations, including recognition of the strength and breadth of her own cultural inheritance. Guy Manybeads, a Navajo medicine man, had told Susan that her broken arm indicated that she had "…fallen out of harmony with the natural world." By taking this time to reconnect with her culture and history—as a Jew, as an individual on the spirit-path, and as a knitter—she began to reconnect with her own health, and link to a sense of inner harmony and place on the earth.

This ongoing journey of internal and external discovery continued, to the reclaiming of Lydon’s birthright as a woman and the inherent female link to nature: "…somewhere inside myself I crave more deeply a communion with nature, with palpable works that emanate from the hands of God. I am a woman. Like old-time nuns embroidering priests’ vestments in the convents of Belgium or Navajo women weaving blankets in their hogans, I know how to pray with my hands, and I need those prayers to connect me with the earth."

Susan’s ongoing spiritual practice took her still deeper, to the Sufi tradition, where through the devotional movements of zhikr, she understood the pagan power of rhythm, and recognized it within the practice of her handcraft. "Rhythm is paramount in producing the psychic serenity that usually accompanies knitting, Just as a shaman will ride a drumbeat out of his body and into the spirit world, a knitter will trail the soothing rhythm of the clicking needles into the quiet recesses of her mind."

Towards the end of the book, the object of the author’s heart’s desire becomes visible, and the wisdom she has harvested along her journey apparent, as she contemplates the links of people, place and circumstance that brought her to this place, the here and now. And finally, our heroine enjoys the peace of having arrived at the end of a long and fruitful journey, connected to the earth and the beauty inside her, in the results of her labors and in the world she contemplates around her;

"Knitting grounds me in the realness of the physical world. The feel of the yarn in my fingers, the steady growth of the fabric, the soothing click of the needles, the attention required to stay on course all help to hold me close to terra firms. Though mind and spirit travel in the cosmos, beyond the moon and stars, my body stays rooted in comfortable solidity. I’ve come to appreciate solidity in these last few years, to value strength, an unshakeable core.

Some days I luxuriate in solitude like a cat basking in the sun, I’ve fallen in love with the whole of creation, the redwood trees, the fingers of fog, raptors tracing circles in the sky. I’m living a life that I always imagined but never knew how to find."

Susan Lydon writes a weekly column for the Oakland Tribune, and teaches knitting workshops at Esalen and other locations around the bay area.