Brother Aidan Owen got into knitting because he needed a "winter sport."
A monk at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York, Brother Aidan joined the order when he was 28 and immediately jumped into flower gardening as a way to contribute to his new community. But when cold weather forced him indoors for a season, he found himself antsy for another creative outlet.
Though some may imagine monks as figures from a bygone era, now-33-year-old Brother Aidan became a knitter the way many people his age do: through the internet. Brother Aidan relied on YouTube to help him build on the basic skills he'd been taught by a roommate in seminary, found himself connecting with fellow enthusiasts on Instagram and generally fell into what he calls the "black hole of knitting online." Finding Brooklyn Tweed, a company known for contemporary, "not-your-granny's" knitting patterns, helped seal the deal.
"I just fell in love," Brother Aidan says during my visit to his office at Holy Cross, where part of a cable knit-sweater he made is framed and hanging on the wall alongside a crucifix fashioned from reclaimed wood and a painted icon of the Virgin Mary.
"It connected so many of these various threads in my life because I was really plugging into the ecological aspects of spirituality," he explains. "I had my Christian spirituality, I had the ecological stuff, and then I had creativity and making things. And it all came together in knitting because you're literally clothing yourself with stuff from the earth."
Knitting soon became a gateway to all manner of fiber arts, from plant-based natural dyeing to sewing, as Brother Aidan delved deeper into the conversation around apparel production and sought to create a wardrobe for himself that was "sustainable, personal, ecologically sound and well made." Hearing him talk about material sourcing — comparing the value of organic cotton, linen, locally-sourced wool or waste materials — it's clear that he'd fit right in in most ethical fashion spaces, though he's never formally worked in the industry.
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For Brother Aidan, the slow fashion movement's emphases on treating people and planet with care have a direct connection to his understanding of what it means to live a life in pursuit of the God he believes created the world. But there's also something about laboring over his own garments that has changed the way he values clothing even beyond the environmental aspect.
"You realize the amount of labor that goes into something. I value those pieces in a totally different way than I would something store-bought," he says. "There's an awareness and gratitude that develops for the clothing I have. And there's an appreciation of beauty — I think that's a hallmark of any kind of authentic spirituality."
This incorporation of beauty into one's journey toward the Divine is something that makes intuitive sense to Thomas Roach, a textile artist from Vancouver, Canada. Roach's work, which includes liturgical vestments worn by priests and community sewing projects hung in cathedrals, flows from the idea that art can aid worship. Though technically a layperson, Roach jokes that he's a "classic clergy spouse" in that his husband's an Anglican rector and Roach handles the creative arts offerings for their parish.
"The Anglican church is particularly good, in my view, for celebrating beauty in worship," Roach says on the phone. "There's long been a sense that making things celebrates the glory of God in creation... cathedrals were created to provide people with a little taste of heaven. Textiles have always been part of that."
For Roach, that means creating community projects like quilts and wool-based installation pieces that allow him to teach parishioners to spin or sew or screen-print, then hanging the final collaborative products in church spaces. It's also meant creating vestments for clergy to wear while conducting church services.
Though Roach asserts that he's "not really oriented to the fashion world," these wearable pieces have come to represent a significant part of his art practice, which has also been displayed in more traditional gallery settings. In many ways, he sees the vestments as an extension of interior decor, almost like set pieces for a play.
"I have a background in theater," he explains. "I see church as kind of the same thing: you're creating a transformative experience that taps into something deep. I think there's a certain amount of pageantry that's associated with it, not from a negative point of view, but from a sense that something important is happening... It's set apart and it helps us pay more attention to it."
Vestments in particular are used to communicate something about the people leading the services, Roach says. While some of the most famous churches in the world are led by charismatic personalities who have become celebrities in their own right (and who may be known for their hypebeast tastes and expensive sneakers), the kinds of churches Roach is commissioned by use vestments to create a somewhat opposite effect.
"The first vestment is meant to make them all look alike so that the individuality kind of disappears. It's about the role that you're playing in framing the liturgy, not you as an individual," Roach says. "And color signifies where we are in the church calendar — what season we're in, what's the mood and tone."
Though Roach asserts that he's not super in tune with the broader "ethical fashion" community, he does resonate with the way that so many modern sewists and knitters and natural dyers emphasize moving slowly. That attitude invites mindfulness into the process of creating, he says, rendering the making as potentially worshipful and meditative as the final product will be once it ends up in a sacred space.
Sister Catherine Grace, a member of the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, NY, agrees that the act of making can itself be a gateway to spiritual experience. A longtime knitter, sewer, weaver and spinner, Sister Catherine Grace says the repetitive motion required for those tasks are rhythmic in a way that pairs naturally with meditation. It's akin, perhaps, to the way that many Catholics use rosary beads to help them pray — there's something about keeping one's hands busy that can actually allow the mind to slow down and focus.
At age 73, Sister Catherine Grace comes from a different generation of textile artists than Brother Aidan — she learned to sew and knit at 4-H and a neighbor rather than from the internet. The fact that she's been an Episcopalian sister for 29 years means she's also witnessed plenty of change in how religious orders approach clothing.
"When I came in we were wearing full habits and veils," she explains on the phone. "It was a really traditional religious order. Once we started farming and were doing all the farming ourselves, it wasn't practical to wear a habit... Now I'm sitting here in leggings. It's not the way it was before. But you know, I think the most important thing is to learn how to live the best life you can live. And then when it's time to let go, just let go."
The forgiving way Sister Catherine Grace talks about change mirrors the forgiving nature of textile arts themselves. If you make a mistake while painting or sculpting, you may need to scrap the whole project and start over. But a sweater with a mistake can be unraveled and its materials used again without the yarn going to waste. An embroidery can be unpicked and the textile it adorned will still be intact. A seam can be taken in and let out again to account for a body whose shape fluctuates over time.
It's not hard to see the appeal for people who have built their lives around the idea of a gracious God who is endlessly willing to forgive and mend brokenness.
"Constantly things are being taken apart and put back together in a new way. Things come, they go. That whole creative loop, I think it's echoed when you are working with your hands," Sister Catherine Grace says. "I think there's maybe a more imminent feel of holiness, awareness of sacredness in creating because that's what's happening in the divine world and in the universe."
Themes of creativity, connection to the environment and using beauty to mark spiritual significance are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these three people's ideas about God, fiber arts and slow fashion. And for all of the ways they're unique individuals, they're also carrying on an artistic and spiritual lineage that goes back centuries.
Roach points out that some of the best natural dye experts were making tapestries for Medieval churches, using plants and minerals to create pieces that still display vibrant hues hundreds of years later — providing a compelling counterpoint to those who argue that (often toxic) synthetic dyes are needed to make clothing that's truly colorfast. Brother Aidan notes that monasteries have historically been centers of clothing production due to their emphasis on arts and self-sufficiency, reminding us even in the face of modern globalization that truly localized economies are in fact possible.
And for Sister Catherine Grace, it all points back to the idea that spirituality shouldn't be treated as something utterly separate from life on a material plane, but that the two should be deeply intertwined with one another. A sister's knit socks or a clergy spouse's embroidered vestments or a monk's self-sown deadstock pants can function, in their own little ways, as artistic assertions that human beings exist as the unity of soul and body, and that a life of faith should honor and attend to both aspects of existence.
"There's something about being directly, physically involved with the matter part of the universe, because it's connected so deeply to the energy part as well," Sister Catherine says. "I think it takes those two things for the holy to be made manifest."
Homepage photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista