Report from the Mindful Knitting Retreat

With Tara Jon Manning

Highlands Lodge
Greensboro, Vermont

March 9-12, 2006

the meditation altar, with a completed baby hat

I’ve attended large casual fiber gatherings, I’ve attended equally large but formally structured educational events, and I’ve even been responsible for the Knitter’s Review retreats with 70-some attendees and an agenda spanning the educational and informal.

But this was the first time I've attended an extremely small event with a hybrid focus on knitting and wellness. By extremely small I mean there were 13 attendees, including myself, plus four facilitators.

Now in its second year, the Mindful Knitting Retreat was a delicate blend of knitting and wellness through meditation, yoga, and massage. It attracted a varied group of women, curious and interested to explore the connection further.

Who better to organize such an event than Tara Jon Manning, author of Mindful Knitting and its recent sequel, Compassionate Knitting. Tara is a seasoned knitwear designer and author, but she is also a self-titled "dharma brat" who has been deeply involved in Tibetan Buddhism meditation since an early age. She is very interested in studying the role knitting can play in spirituality.

Getting There
On Thursday afternoon the snow was heavy and driving perilous as everybody made their way to the Highland Lodge in Greensboro, a small lakeside summer community less than an hour from Montpelier, Vermont.

The road took us over dramatic frost heaves and past bucolic farms. Signs clearly indicated that we were leaving city life behind.

tractor crossing

People stayed either in the lodge itself—a typical New England farmhouse—or in one of several cabins tucked in the hillside behind the lodge. Snow, ice, and slush had made the road to the cabins impassible by car, so the lodge owner drove us up there in his jeep and most of us walked back and forth for the duration of the weekend.

the Highland Lodge

Our private dining area in the lodge was suitably decked out with yarns. One of the waitresses, who had a hand-dyed yarn business with her mother, had set up a display in one corner of the room.

In another corner, Margaret Klein Wilson had her Mostly Merino yarns and garments on display (shown at right). In another corner, Tara had a mini-trunk show of garments from her books. And in the final corner, we had a beautiful heap of yarns from the on-site masseuse, who also raised sheep.

Mostly Merino on display

What We Did
On Friday morning after breakfast we trekked uphill to a large cabin for our first session. Tara began with a basic introduction to meditation and then showed how we could incorporate knitting to practice what she calls "mindful knitting."

Tara talks to us before the meditation begins

After a brief break, we were treated to an optional yoga session.

one corner of the yoga room

I skipped yoga the first day in favor of a massage. Another cabin had been converted into a makeshift massage room. A local massage practitioner offered her services for two solid days.

the massage room

You could tell who had just had a massage because of the blissed-out look on their faces and because they’d be glistening with oil. (The masseuse followed an ayurvedic practice involving copious amounts of sesame oil for the body and coconut oil for the face.)

I missed lunch because of my massage, and when I finally made it back down to the lodge I discovered staff had been holding lunch for me. I sat alone in the sunny room and watched birds feed on the feeder outside.

birds on the lodge birdfeeder

Despite the thoughtful attention to programming, I confess that one of the most memorable parts of this event had nothing to do with knitting whatsoever—it was the meals. They were copious, homemade and delicious.

Afternoons were free for exploration. Some people went snowshoeing, while others took walks down to the lake or visited the town of Greensboro. Yet others, myself included, relaxed in the lodge and knit together.

knitting over tea

We gathered at 4pm for tea and fresh-from-the-oven cookies. That's when we finally made our formal introductions, which helped chip away at the last bit of nervousness in the group.

knitting our hats and sipping tea

To help anchor the spiritual element of the weekend, Tara presented us with a knitting challenge: to knit adorable little baby hats that would be donated to a local women's shelter. Using Green Mountain Spinnery's Cotton Comfort yarn we followed an original pattern from Manning's forthcoming book, Nature Babies.

Tara teaches us

While we sipped our tea, Tara led a technical session on how to read her pattern chart, how to turn a cable (with and without a cable needle), and how to seam up the hat edge.

And then, having had our last food contact only two hours prior, it was time for dinner and an early bedtime.

The next morning we added a walking meditation to our practice. We must've made quite a peculiar sight as we left the lodge and began our slow, meditative walk uphill to our cabin. A passer-by joked, "Guess we don't need our slow-motion cameras!"

the walking meditation

The morning was spent in another meditation and mindful knitting session and optional yoga, capped off by another delicious lunch.

I couldn't resist photographing this!

In the afternoon over tea, Margaret Klein-Wilson led a workshop on how to keep a knitting journal.

Margaret holds up her knitting journal

Saturday evening, having spent 48 hours in fairly close quarters, we were finally starting to warm up. The volume in the dining room reached near-yell levels. Laughter was everywhere. A pile of completed hats was already growing on one of the tables, and we were reminded of how good it feels to knit something and give it away.

the ever-growing pile of finished baby hats

It's a Small World After All
With every conversation, people began to discover odd coincidences. At one meal I was chatting with the husband of an attendee, only to discover that his cousin lives less than a mile away from me in my tiny Maine town. Two women realized that their husbands were faculty in the same small university department. Another woman discovered that her daughter was dating one woman's best friend's son. And so it went, making connection after connection, in a truly remarkable fashion.

Even in a small group of disparate people—piano professors, 2nd-grade teachers, mystery novelists, information technology professionals, literary agents, acquisitions editors, and humble knitting publishers, to name a few—you can discover deep commonalities.

I didn't realize until after I'd left how much of an impact these people had on me. Their voices, their laughter, their stories were with me still as I ventured back into civilization.

Which makes me realize that the real value of these gatherings often may have nothing to do with the structure or agenda or itinerary—it's in simply giving disparate like-spirited people a chance to meet and connect.

A Master of Mindfulness?
Did I come away with a grasp of what Tara means by mindful knitting? I think so, but it's one of those things that you need time to practice and figure out for yourself. You can't possibly master it in a brief weekend, nor was anybody asserting that you could.

But the connection between spirituality and knitting is one that most knitters sense intuitively as a powerful reality. Events like this can help us harness this connection and deepen our experience of knitting in the process.

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