Embroidery As Prayer

It was a surprise—my adventure in crewel embroidery. It started as a gesture to heal the loss of our pet hamster, Henry. My daughter had trained him to rub noses and shake hands. As she did her homework, he often fell asleep on her lap with all four pink paws straight up in the air. When he died, it was a heavy loss.

To help heal her sorrow, I embroidered a small composition with Lily of the Valley and his name. I used leftover drapery fabric and some cotton embroidery floss my sister gave me. Designing the composition was easy—controlling the threads was an ordeal. The threads kept knotting. The satin stitch was difficult to shape—those threads don’t lie parallel unless you’re very careful. I thought to myself, “This is a major discipline!”

My next piece was an experiment on silk fabric using cotton embroidery floss. I made a grand leap in composition size to about 2′ x 2′. With a limited palette, I began to master the satin stitch. The composition was a simple ivy vine surrounding a Hebrew phrase rendered in letters from a tenth century alphabet. The quotation was from the Hebrew prayer book, in the evening service just before the Sh’ma. In translation, it read, “Mayest thou never take Thy love away from us.”

The work that followed has become my lifetime project, “Prayers for the Earth.” As I embroidered the suites, I came to realize that I was indulging in prayer of my own making. Each suite’s Hebrew quotation is from the siddur. The alphabet calligraphy is the same as the calligraphy found in the Torah scroll. The act of embroidering the motifs became a form of meditation and single focus. As I stretched each thread across the silk fabric, I recognized that my work connected me to a spiritual realm—a place where I could connect to the divine Unity. I knew, deep within my being, that working with thread is an experience of the sacred.

I would learn that thread is wrapped up in the web of life. In human consciousness, thread is sacred. Trailing back to primordial times, the goddess was the Eternal Weaver, whose womb was thought to contain the pattern (web) of life. In North America, the Pueblo Indians’ creation tradition speaks of Spider Woman. She is the creatress who, with her spun thread, fixed the four corners East and West, North and South. After she created the directions, she created the sun, moon, stars and the people of earth. A delicate thread at the top of the head of every person connects to her. It is this thread that connects us to the web of life that is her wisdom.

Thread forms the fabric of the cycles of life. The sinew of life—the umbilical cord—connects the fetus to the mother. Newborns are swaddled in cloth to remind them of their safe haven, the womb. The nipple releases thin strands of sweet milk for the infant to suckle. We knit and crochet garments for children and grandchildren. We embroider cloth for commemorative occasions.

Thread is an important element in traditional Jewish prayer. As youth and adults, Jewish men wrap themselves in prayer shawls. Many contemporaries (men and women) wear hand loomed-fabrics, hand-decorated and fringed. Traditionally, the prayer shawl, or tallis, is a woven fabric with long knotted fringes attached to the four corners and knotted fringes along the bottom edge.

The prayer shawl has a trail that threads back to goddess imagery. In ancient cultures around the world, the sacredness of thread was invoked by the goddess. The Egyptian goddesses Neith, Net and Isis wove the world on their looms. Scandinavia’s Frigga spun golden threads and wove all the clouds. The Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal was the patron of weavers. Net’s name may stem from the root netet, meaning to weave. Isis invented spinning. Her knots were sacred and symbolized the womb. Knots were a magic symbol of the protection of the goddess; crossed thread represented sexual union. The fringe denoted female sexuality and the power of the goddess. The emblematic image of a bearded elder Jew wrapped in a prayer shawl, in essence, reveals the goddess embracing him with all her symbols—woven fabric, knots and fringes.

When one goes deeply into a prayerful meditative state, one can experience a sense of timelessness. One can transcend the boundaries of the material world, and can experience a transformation that can be pure harmony and joy. In deep prayer, one can lose the sense of self and unite with the divine One. With the simple single-focused meditative act of embroidery, one can make a sacred connection to the web of life, the Wisdom of the universe.

Needle artist Kay Faye Fialkoff  lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. She is currently working on four suites on the meadowlands theme. Her e-mail address is fialkoff@cyberwar.com.