Shawls are usually draped over the shoulders or head for warmth or style. But for some, they are heavenly hugs.
A group of women from Calvary Lutheran Church in Northwood meets regularly to knit, crochet, or sew shawls that they give away to people as a symbol of "God's unconditional, enveloping love," said Christine Hampton.
The retired accounting clerk from Northwood helped organize the church's prayer shawl ministry about a year and a half ago and said 7 to 10 women participate regularly.
Mrs. Hampshire and other members of Calvary Lutheran's prayer shawl ministry will hold a workshop June 16 to offer guidance for other churches and individuals interested in starting similar outreaches.
Churches with established prayer shawl ministries are invited to attend and share their stories, procedures, and patterns.
"We wanted to share with other groups about the processes you might want to go through," Mrs. Hampshire said. "There are things you need to be aware of, like copyright laws. Crocheters and knitters tend to copy patterns and pass them around and that's a real no-no!"
On the other hand, free patterns are available if you know where to look, she said.
Prayer shawl ministries have become popular in churches throughout North America, with one Web site, www.shawlministry.com, listing churches by state as well as offering tips and resources.
Most prayer shawls are knit or crocheted from yarn, but some are sewn, quilted, or made with cut and tied felt, Mrs. Hampshire said. People who are not skilled at these crafts may participate by tying fringe or knots, contributing materials, or distributing shawls where needed.
The repetitive motion of knitting or crocheting is conducive to prayer and reflection as one makes the shawl, Mrs. Hampshire said. The women in her group pray that the unknown recipient will be comforted or uplifted in some way.
The average knitted or crocheted shawl measures about 20 inches by 60 inches and takes about 40 hours to make, but some simpler patterns can take as few as 20 hours.
As with any craft, some of the artisans are more efficient than others.
"Some of our ladies can really whip them out!" Mrs. Hampshire said. "Some people totally amaze me. And they come up with the most beautiful things."
Calvary Lutheran has given away about 80 shawls since the ministry began in February, 2006.
The church women also created 400 "pocket shawls," just two or three inches square, that were shipped to U.S. servicemen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and an Army hospital in Germany, Mrs. Hampshire said.
After the members of Calvary Lutheran finish making a shawl, the completed item is blessed or dedicated and placed in a bin at the church. There also is a book in the bin where people write the names of the recipients, to keep track of the numbers of prayer shawls given out and to avoid duplication, Mrs. Hampshire said.
Some people who are given shawls are celebrating the birth of a child or a new marriage, while others are going through struggles such as illness or the loss of a loved one.
They don't all want to reveal their situations, Mrs. Hampshire said.
"I've had people come up to me and say, 'Can I buy one?' I say, 'No, these aren't for sale. They're to be given away.' Then I realized that they wanted it for themselves, that they had something going on in their lives that they didn't want to share. So I say, 'I would be happy to present one to you.' I've had that happen a number of times."
Mrs. Hampshire said she was taught to knit as a child by an older aunt from England.
"It gives you a good feeling when you give someone a prayer shawl," she said. "But the feeling the people get when they receive them is even more wonderful. It's like, 'OK, somebody thought about me and cared enough about me to do this.' We get some of the most beautiful thank you cards."
A Prayer Shawl Ministry Workshop will start at 1 p.m. June 16 at Calvary Lutheran Church, corner of Bradner and Woodville roads in Northwood. There is no fee and registration is not required; interested parties can call Christine Hampshire at 419-698-0241.