Communicating Jesus Through Cloth
People integrate their beliefs, perceptions, hopes and dreams into the things they make, and specifically the cloth they weave.
I’ve always enjoyed making things. A friend once introduced me to a retired Wycliffe missionary who taught me to weave and allowed me to borrow a small four-shaft table loom.
I didn’t weave again for years. Then in 2015 I did a special project as part of ethnographic research in the Solomon Islands: the banana-fiber weaving of the Natqgu-speaking people of Santa Cruz Island was about to become extinct, with only one remaining weaver. My aim was to document the craft for the sake of conservation.
That experience exploded into a passion for weaving and an MA thesis. The courses I took for my MA were crafted around worldview studies. As I researched weaving, I found that scholarly research from all over the world consistently showed that people integrate their beliefs, perceptions, hopes and dreams into the things they make, and specifically the cloth they weave.
Weaving case studies
For my thesis research, I elected to investigate case studies from a single culture of each continent. I chose the Quechua of Peru (South America), the Yoruba of Nigeria (Africa), the Navajo (North America), Albanians (Eastern Europe), the Tboli of the Philippines and the Natqgu (Oceania). I could have chosen different indigenous groups and the results would have indicated the same conclusions. The beliefs of these cultures differed from each other, or they intersected, but in each case, whatever the beliefs, weavers told the stories of their cultures, their lives and their deeply-held convictions through the cloth they wove. The careful observance of taboos is woven into ritual or practical cloths, perhaps in gendered ways, so that the final product will be appropriate for its purpose. For example, the Yoruba have two different kinds of looms. One is used by men outdoors in public, and the cloth they weave is generally utilitarian. The women, however, use a different kind of loom, and must weave indoors in private, observing a strict diet, not weaving during their menses and avoiding sexual contact. The cloth they weave is for ritual or ceremonial purposes, and taken to a spiritual practitioner for it to be “blessed” for its intended use. The fact that the women weave privately has misled researchers to conclude that they do not weave.
My own woven story
During the lockdown of 2020, I took two online courses called “Weaving A Story.” The internationally-renowned instructor, Anastasia Azure, developed a practical method that allows weavers to move beyond techniques and venture into artistic weaving. Using a variety of techniques, I produced two shawls that told two separate stories.
The first shawl told a conceptual story inspired by the lyrics of Darlene Zschech’s song, “Kiss of Heaven.” In my mind’s eye, I saw my life as a field of white, my sins forgiven. The white, though, was not smooth and perfect, but textured, with mistakes and holes. I used white yarns, remnants of previous projects. At the other end of the shawl was a riot of color – heaven reaching down as my life reached up toward it. At each juncture where the white met the color, I included a crystal bead to represent the “kiss” of heaven. Every description of heaven I have read or heard always speaks of color, so it was important that the colored threads be new, unused materials.
This shawl was difficult to make, plagued by tension problems of the materials and the loom as I combined textures. The finished product indicates the struggle forward – broken threads, changed decisions and general complications of getting it done. This was the reality I wanted to express, and apparently it was necessary to experience it again for the shawl to communicate what God wanted to say through my hands.
The second shawl tells a narrative of my husband’s experience in 2015. He had a heart attack. In the hospital, he left his body and found himself in a “garden” at night, talking with Jesus. A moment later, he and Jesus were flying through space toward heaven. He saw colors and formations he likened to photos taken by the Hubble telescope. As they raced toward heaven, my husband felt as if he had a choice between continuing or returning home. He told Jesus he needed to come back because he hadn’t kept his promise to me. (He was referring to widow’s benefits. The VA requires that the disabled veteran and spouse be married for a certain amount of time before the surviving spouse is eligible to receive benefits and we had not been married long enough.)
Jesus told him he could return, but it would hurt. My husband replied that he knew, but he had to keep his word. A moment later he was back in his body in the hospital room, still intubated and unable to speak.
When I arrived at the hospital, he motioned for something to write. I gave him a pen and he scrawled the word “miracle”. I asked if he’d witnessed a miracle and he nodded yes. I asked if he had seen Jesus. Yes nod. I asked if Jesus was in the room with us right then. Yes nod. I immediately thanked Jesus for staying with my husband and sustaining him.
For this shawl, I used black for the warp: wool, cotton, viscose, some mystery yarn…some of it metallic, some with sequins. At one end, a small field of blue and green represent the earth. I used a bit of bright green to represent the aurora borealis my husband saw as he looked back at the earth over his shoulder.
I added one line of silver metallic embroidery floss and paired it with one line of gold metallic embroidery floss and warped them together in a single heddle. The gold represents Jesus, while the silver represents my husband. He also saw flashes of light that were other people leaving earth at the same time. I represented these with small pearlescent beads and silver threads, according to Ecclesiastes 12:6. Though tiny, the key feature of the shawl is the point where the silver thread makes a U-turn and returns to the earth.
A new generation of artists
These experiences enable me to continue to explore when I weave, uninhibited by perceived technicalities. I have so much to be thankful for. As I took the online weaving course, I realized that with all of my previous weaving experience targeting academic pursuits, I hadn’t considered the most obvious mission field: other weavers. I began to meet people who struggled to tell their stories in their cloth and shared my own woven testimonies with them, so that they could know the hope I have found in Jesus. Now, I have started teaching a new generation of artists at Dallas International University who want to learn to weave their stories and share them with the world.