Title: Zen and the Art of Knitting
Author: Bernadette Murphy
Format: softcover book
Publication: Adams Media Corporation 2002
Retail price: $10.95
I stumbled upon “Zen and the Art of Knitting” at a used book fundraiser sale and thought it looked like an interesting read for the quarter that it cost me. I have been drawn to learn to knit as a way to keep my hands busy and for the love of making things from scratch. At the time I read this I was not yet a knitter.
Each chapter in this small book is a stand alone essay. This is easy reading, relaxing reading, the type that is perfect to read before going to sleep and is light yet interesting enough for airplane or beach reading.
First I will address the fact that this is not a book about Buddhism, something that others assumed about the book, which was the reason that one Christian knitter refused to be interviewed and featured in the book. The author practices no religion, although her aunt is a nun.
Murphy uses knitting as a way to center and calm herself, as a meditative activity. Knitting helps Murphy slow down, sit down, and think. I found that so interesting because the first knitters I was exposed to in my adulthood were mothers whose toddlers or preschoolers were no longer clamoring to be in their arms, they wanted something to do with their hands. I had been around so many mothers, mainly through La Leche League, who, after being so busy caring for babies and children, could not bear to sit still in administrative meetings or lectures—so they knitted while they listened and talked. Now I find myself in situations where just sitting still and listening is unbearable and I clamor for something to do with my hands. Not always wanting to take notes, doodle or sketch while others watch, I’d feel more comfortable knitting, I think.
On the idea of knitting to keep the hands busy versus knitting to slow us down, I found this passage from page 174 intersting. When interviewing a knitter named Lizbeth Upitis, Lizbeth says,
"...the tools of knitting provide this mental health break while fitting within the Western mentality of production, the idea that we must always be productive? She says she found her way to meditation through knitting. "Idle hands are devil's work," she quotes the old saying. "Meditation is a valid part of my life; it's not selfish. But it's taken me a long time to realize that."
In the book Murphy interviews knitters about what they do and why. Although some knit for crafting pleasure, others knit to meditate and others knit their way through recovering from injuries or illness, as a sort of therapy for the mind while the body heals. One doctor knits as a way to reduce on-the-job stress, specifically that caused by the death of a patient. There is talk about tapping into a different level of consciousness in various places in the book. What I wanted the author to realize is what is being described is the ‘flow experience’. For more information on that, read the books by Mihaly Csikszentmihal.
Murphy interviews her aunt, a nun, who knits items to be used by those living in poverty, so the aspect of knitting for others as an act of charity is touched upon. Another interview is with a Jewish woman. A Buddhist is interviewed as well. As you can see the author was trying to research how people of different faiths feel their knitting intersects with their religious and/or spiritual life.
She also has a chapter about a Waldorf handcraft teacher who discuses the Waldorf education outlook on handcrafts and working with natural fibers and anthro views on wool yarn and natural materials being real while acrylic yarns are not real and help teach the child to know the difference between the real and not real. I do need to state that the statement about acrylic yarn not being natural is not true as it is made from petroleum and petroleum byproducts which are all natural materials. A more accurate way to describe the difference between acrylic yarns and the wool yarn used in the Waldorf schools would have been more honest and appreciated by at least this reader.
A fun chapter explored the reason that Clare Crespo began making her now famous three dimensional crocheted representations of food items, sold as sculptural art pieces.
More serious, deeper thoughts are touched upon throughout the book as well. I found the discussion of knitting and feminism interesting to ponder as well. A knitter named Karen shares that when she began knitting it was product based, knitting to have a finished product and that after she entered her 40s knitting became more spiritual and less product focused.
"That's the difficult thing, sometimes: getting women to just give in to the process of knitting and not focus so much on the product." She relates this to the larger issue of the women's movement. "A lot of women between forty-five and sixty were taught that they can do it all. Women's lib, entering the workforce and so on. They think it's self-indulgent to do something simply because you want to do it. They're project-motivated, making huge committments and trying to do everything perfectly."
In a nutshell this is an entertaining read for anyone who has an interest in knitting. The book is a combination of deep thoughts and ponderings written in a light way that makes for fast and easy reading, but to get the most pleasure out of this book, I advise reading it slowly one chapter per sitting to savor it.
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