Sew Contemplative

Place your mind on the needle dipping in and out of the fabric, says Cyndi Lee. If you space out, the stitches will go crooked, and that will wake you up.

Cyndi Lee
22 June 2021
Photo © VisualSpectrum / Stocksy United

Five years ago I began preparations to receive jukai. This is a Zen ritual in which I would commit to live by the Buddhist precepts and formally step into the lineage that I’d been part of at Upaya Zen Center, under the guidance of Roshi Joan Halifax.

Most people who enter this path take a year to complete all the prerequisites, but because of the scheduling of my request and the date set for the jukai service, I had only one month to complete everything. This included hand-sewing my rakusu, a small bib-like garment that represents the robe of the Buddha. This task elicited no small amount of dread and drama in many of my cohort.

Everything I know about sewing nearly matches what I know about meditation and yoga.

But I wasn’t nervous at all. I’d been sewing my whole life, and just thinking about making my rakusu filled me with happy childhood memories. Every Friday my mom got paid, and after she cashed her paycheck and bought the family groceries, we zoomed off to our favorite place—the fabric store! Full of anticipation, we speed-walked through the mall. But the moment we stepped inside the door, we paused. As if we were entering a magical garden, we naturally took a breath or two to simply bask in the colors, patterns, and textures.

Our weekly ritual continued as we walked slowly through the aisles with our arms extended, fingers lightly touching the bolts of fabric stacked on our right and left. Velvet, satin, dotted Swiss, linen—when I liked the feel of something, I stopped and unfurled the fabric to see how it draped. I was comforted by the corduroy ridges between my fingers and excited by the grown-up possibilities of the cool silk and satin flowing across my arms.

Nobody taught me that the way to choose fabric was by tapping into my senses and trusting my intuition. Nobody taught me that the whole process of making a garment, from cutting out the pattern to sewing on the last button, was a practice of concentration, creativity, and community. But years later, I realize that everything I know about sewing nearly matches what I know about meditation and yoga. As I see it, here are the four most important instructions for contemplative sewing.

1. Get Familiar

All practices—whether mindfulness, asana, breath work, or loving-kindness—are ways to become familiar with something. In sewing, we start by getting familiar with our materials. This might mean that you take the time to prewash and preshrink the fabric and iron it when it comes out of the dryer. This helps you understand how the fabric will behave after you make something with it.

As you learn more about the material—how it feels, looks, and will behave—you can decide if you want the thread to be thin or thick, matching or contrasting. What purpose will this garment serve? You will use different stitches for a patch on the seat of your jeans than for a silk scarf for your neck.

For my rakusu, I chose the simplest, plainest black cotton. Doing this helped me get familiar with how good it feels to express my ordinariness. What a relief it is to not have to be special and, instead, to feel part of a larger circle, a lineage that has gone on for centuries!

2. Place Your Mind

In mindfulness meditation, we use the sensation of the breath as the home base for our wandering mind. When sewing, you can place your mind on the feeling of the needle dipping in and out of the fabric. When your mind strays, bring it back to the active sensation of sewing. And, if you do space out, the stitches will start to go crooked and that will wake you up.

When I was a teenager, I floored the pedal on my sewing machine so hard that it made the whole table shake. I had no patience and just wanted to finish a new dress! To make sewing a practice means that we can feel excited about the completion of our project, but also be present with it every stitch of the way.

This approach transforms boring, necessary tasks such as mending a shirt or repairing a skirt hem into a walking meditation with your hands. When teaching walking meditation, the great Vietnamese meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Arrive with each step.” For sewing, we can adapt this and other traditional walking meditation instructions. We can “arrive with every stitch.”

3. Sit with What Comes Up

The Sanskrit word for physical yoga is asana, which translates as “to sit with what comes up.” It is an invitation to sit upright and notice what comes up inside you, whether impatience, curiosity, or delight. Like the full-body/mind practice of zazen meditation, the practice of sewing is also an embodied experience of being fully present and awake. The instructions in our jukai book say, “The whole of our lives is in the sewing of a rakusu: the hilarity, joy, clumsiness, struggle, and beauty.”

Find a well-lit place to do your sewing, whether by hand or using your machine. Sit in a chair with good lumbar support or place a pillow behind your low back. I love sitting cross-legged on the floor or the couch, but after years of doing that I have finally admitted that I get the best sewing results when I sit at a table. This is also a more sustainable position for your arms, hips, back, and shoulders.

Hozan Alan Senauke, vice abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center, told me that he asked his teacher what he was doing when he was meditating. His teacher replied, “I am correcting my posture.” Whenever you notice that you are slumping, take a breath and refresh your posture.

This will help you refresh your energy and enthusiasm for your sewing project.

4. The Interdependence of Sewing

The slow fashion movement invites us to consider where our materials came from: Where did this cotton grow? Who picked it? Who drove the truck? Who ran the loom? Is it organic? Who am I harming or supporting by buying this yard of cotton?

This kind of contemplation reminds us that our actions matter. Sustainable living requires that we reconsider our old habits of overbuying clothes, undervaluing the earth’s resources, and ignoring unethical manufacturing practices. Instead of tossing away our worn-out jeans, we can make an elegant patch that expresses appreciation for our clothes and reminds us to care for them. After all, caring for our clothes is a way of caring for all those who made it possible for our clothes to come into our home. This is how the practice of mindfulness can lead to the practice of “mendfulness,” the purposeful act of hand sewing with care and attention.

Our relationship with our clothing often seems to just be about necessity, but by thoughtfully considering what we wear, how we make it, and how we can repair it, we open to all the ways we can also sustain and repair our world.

Cyndi Lee

Cyndi Lee

Founder of the world-renowned OM yoga Center in NYC (1998-2012), Cyndi is known for her contemplative classes and soulful teachings. She is the author of 5 books, including Yoga Body, Buddha Mind: A Complete Manual for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, and the New York Times critically acclaimed May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind. In 2019, she launched a new online course, “Taking Refuge In Your Body,” available from Lion’s Roar.