Back ground on Fair Linens

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Background on Fair Linens

This past Sunday, everything was supposed to be back to green for a few weeks before heading into Lent.  Upon arrival at an early hour for church, I noticed the hangings were still white! Panic struck! The altar guild members were supposed to arrive soon, but time was tight, and the clock was ticking. I was supposed to be taking photos of several groups for a church directory, but the colors were wrong. My spouse and I headed to the sacristy, and the Pastor started to remove the fair linen. It took a few moments before everything was properly set up in the color of the day. While putting the final altar linens in place, I noticed the sad condition of our fair linen.

Linen Ornaments of the Church by Percy Dearmer
Linen Ornaments of the Church by Percy Dearmer

The fair linen, which is the final linen placed on the top of the altar,  is defined by Percy Dearmer in his book “Linen Ornaments of the Church” as follows:



Since it looks better for the fair linen not to hang over the front of the holy table, besides being cleaner as well as more by tradition, this cloth should be exactly the same width as the mensa, and with none of it hanging over the frontlet. It hangs better and has a more dignified appearance if it is rather long, to reach within about six inches from the ground (see Frontispiece). [Illustrated in Plates 2, 24, 27, 28, 34, of the Parson’s Handbook, 11th ed., 1928. Hierurgia Anglicana (for example of 1668), 1903, Pt. II, Plate V. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the fair linen was spread in different ways, sometimes as here described, hanging all around the altar. The latter method is not so frequent in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century examples. See, e.g., those in Joseph Braun, Der christliche Altar, 1924.] It should be of good heavy linen, firmly hemmed; the hem along the sides may be 1 1/2 inches broad, and the ends will hang all the better if they are wider, say about 3 or 4 inches. The fair linen is generally marked for its special use by one, four, or five devices in white, red, or blue. These devices may be of any kind; crosses are easy to make, but not essential.

According to later custom, the fair linen should only be put on the altar at the time of the Ministration (this was the English tradition before the Oxford Movement, it is also still the tradition in certain places abroad); though for convenience, when an altar is frequently used, it is often kept on it. [This is also the Eastern custom. In the West, it was once the custom to keep the clothes on the altar out of service time, as we learn from Gregory of Tours and other sources. From Isidore of Seville, Hrabanus Maurus, and others we learn that in the seventh century, it was the custom to strip the altar of its cloths only from Maundy Thursday till Easter Even. According to Schmid and Doering, Der christliche Altar, 1928, it was still common in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to keep altars covered except at this time.] In this latter case, it should be washed once a month. If it is rolled on a roller and kept in a drawer, the expense of washing will be much reduced, especially in towns; but nothing should escape washing in Holy Week.

Percy Dearmer Perspective

It is always interesting to go back and read an older source about Liturgical Items. Percy Dearmer was a well-known author on many subjects relating to church furnishing.  In Percy Dearmer’s day, the above information about linens would translate as follows for an altar that is 6 feet long, 24 inches wide, and 39 inches tall:

The fair linen, when hemmed would be the exact width of 24″, and it would be the length of 33″ hanging on one end, 72″ in the middle, and 33″ hanging on the opposite end, for a total length of 138″.   Now, there may very well be churches and altars out there that still follow this rule of thumb, having the ends of the fair linen fall down to within 6″ of the ground on the sides.

When I was checking with a friend about making fair linens, the rule of thumb she advised me to follow was to have the fair linen extend on the ends the same distance as the Superfrontal, if one is used either alone or in combination with a Full Frontal.  Most Superfrontals used in combination with Full Frontals are between 9″ and 12″ long. So, again, using the above altar measurements, the fair linen would be 24″ wide x 90″ long, or 24″ wide x 96″ long, similar to the photo below.

Frontal with Fair linen
Frontal with Fairlinen

Many books discuss the topic of making linens for use in the church, and there may be other rules of thumb regarding the length to leave hanging over the edge.  Select a noted resource, and follow that guideline.  Perhaps your church has a catalog from a vestment maker. Those often have a guide for measuring an altar for linen. The CM Almy Catalog has nice instructions on measurements for altar linens.

Fair Linen

In theory, fair linens are such a simple item to make. But, there are a few issues that might make one hesitate before jumping into the project. The first is working with Linen, and more exactly, 100% Linen.  Fear not!  Linen is such a lovely fabric, perfectly designed for the Lord’s Altar. And, believe it or not, sometimes it is even easier to press than the “easy press” alternatives.  Once linen is pressed, it stays neat and crisp-looking. The linen “look-alike” falls limp; they have no character. A nice fair linen that is well cared for can last for many years. It becomes a wise investment.

Hemming and Mitered Corners: A Simple Gude

Another fear with using linen is hemming, and mitering corners. Again, this is easily resolved, and simple to do. The hems feature folded mitered corners (no cutting, so no fear of mistakes), allowing for hand-stitching, hemstitching, or sewing the hem using a tiny slip stitch. Using a fine thread helps keep the stitches nearly invisible by working a slip stitch.

Finalizing Fair Linens

The final glitch in fair linen construction is the crosses in the four corners, and one cross in the exact center on the top of the linen.  One could purchase crosses and couch them in place; or select a simple design and hand embroidery the crosses. I have seen one with the crosses glued in place (not something I would recommend). Today, the use of white is predominant, but in times past, the colors red, blue, and green were not uncommon for use on altar linens.  I’ll play it safe, and stay with white, perhaps with a hint of cream, or ecru for contrast.

In a brief moment of panic and the hurried switching of hanging this past Sunday, I really “saw” our fair linen made from a linen look-alike material that is intended for clothing use. It was made at a time when the church budget was tight. It was made with care by a wonderful member of the congregation. The more it is washed, the limper it becomes. No amount of pressing with bring that fabric back to life. It has only been in service for 3 or 4 years. But sadly, it is in dire need of being replaced with something more appropriate……..  yet another Church Linen project to add to the list of items needing replacement.

Solo Dei Gloria

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Hand Embroidery Design for Altar Linens


1 Comment »

  1. Thank you! That answered a question I had about the size of fair linens when a full altar frontal is used. and, yes, amazingly, in the process of investigating the contents of our sacristy closet, I too discovered that our fair linen, and other items, were in need of replacement. Not to mention the continual and mysterious shortage of purificators.

    One congregation I knew left the fair linen in place on the altar year round, except Maundy Thursday to Easter Vigil, and covered it with a white cotton dust cover when the altar was not in use during services. The dust cover was exactly the width of the fair linen, and just a few inches longer on each side, and had been made from a bed sheet!