Can Altar Linens and Church Vestments be Made by Laity?
This little book (founded on a series of articles on Church Embroidery written for the ‘Treasury’) is intended for the use of those who are desirous of learning by practical experiment how to make the best use of such time and skill as they have at their command; and who, while they are unable to go through the long courses of instruction which are generally indispensable to the attainment of perfection are yet anxious to devote their ‘labour of love’ to the service of the Church. – Hinda Hands (Hands, 1907, p. 1)
After a long summer of travels and weekends away, many of us return to the church and notice something amiss………..It’s not something blaring, and in our face (or maybe it is!).
More often than not, it may be a look of things lacking freshness, or looking a little more worn, tattered, or faded from the summer sun. The fall return to the sacristy can bring gasps of horror when the realization hits that the purificators have taken a summer vacation, and have yet to return. And that fringe on pastor’s stole that should hold out till advent finally decided to unravel! Yes, fall can be a bit of a shock to the head of the altar guild, or even to those of us sitting in the pews. Noticing that vestments have gone “a muck” can be a wonderful opportunity offer help to the altar guild.
Is it possible to make lovely altar hangings and vestments for use in our churches today? The answer is, yes! There is much that can be done today, even with a limited budget, to add beauty to our churches and our worship life.
Noticing a problem is the first step in working toward a solution. And while there may be many more hurdles along the course, let’s try to take them one at a time. Whenever something needs replacing or repair within the church, one of the first questions to surface has to deal with money. It is a dreaded word which can stop a project dead in its tracks fast. The money question can take one of two paths: a purchase from a vestment house, or a DIY (Do it yourself – as in within the church) project. That sounds to difficult and scary, you may be thinking……………
It all begins with excellent designs and quality craftsmanship, and of course, knowledge. While it may take years or even a lifetime to develop these skills, it can begin with something as simple as a stole, or an altar linen. That is where I began this journey almost 30 years ago. When acquiring a new skill, one can not expect the first attempt to be a work of art. (After all, who of us learn to make chocolate mousse the first time we entered the kitchen?) So let’s relax, and take a step back.
“How should I proceed?” one may ask. Plan to give yourself the chance to learn a new skill. Rather than making a first vestment piece intended for use, make a “practice” piece. In fashion design, we refer to the practice piece as a “muslin” or a “fit sample.” A sample piece allows the opportunity to work out design and construction techniques on another fabric prior to using more expensive liturgical fabric. Remember the old adage – “practice makes perfect?” Making one or two or even several practice vestments, such as a stole, helps develop techniques, as well as understanding. It allows the time to make mistakes which will pay a thousand fold in the understanding gained. The same holds true when making many other vestments. While home sewers may not make a sample garment every time they start something new, in industry, we never go into production without approving a sample, be it a garment sample to check quality, color, fit or style, or an item of hard furnishings to check for quality and safety issues. In industry, production begins after samples are approved.
For those with some understanding of sewing, a good vestment book is very helpful, but there is the caveat. Most books written on the topic of making church vestments assume a level of understanding. They are not written in a “cookbook” style with step-by-step instructions. Reading more than one source may help.
Where you find existing vestment pieces, take the opportunity for study. A good place to start is with those pastoral stoles. Look at the front and back side, and note how the stole was constructed. What looks good, and how might it be improved? Are there obvious problems? Can the lining be seen from the front side? Is the stole too flimsy? Does it bubble or hang crocked? Is the neck too bulky? How is the bottom edge finished? How is fringe or tassels applied? Much can be learned by examining existing vestment pieces.
Looking back on that first pastoral stole I made 30 years ago, my workmanship was good, but the pattern I used was poor. There was limited access to proper materials. The stole was usable, but not perfect. And yet, my Pastor wore that stole on many occasions. Making mistakes, and realizing that there was a problem lead to wondering, searching and studying of techniques and materials, and of course, designs. There were no mentors, and the internet was not around. Today, thanks to the internet, I have a vast library at my disposal. I have been able to do some travel to see historic vestments, and to visit monasteries where vestments are made. My collection of vintage vestment pieces is slowly starting to grow.
Over the past few months, new vestment patterns have been developed, and many more vestment patterns are in the works. The plan? Admittedly, it is a work in progress that may take years. I hope to share with you a line of patterns and instructions, along with beautiful fabrics for making vestments. Where possible, references will be made to works in my collection, sharing information about the designers, the techniques, and the patterns used and updated for making church vestments today. A launch date is not yet set, but with any luck it will be by the end of the year. So please keep checking back for updates.
Solo Dei Gloria
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Hands, H. (1907). Church Needlework. London. G. J. Palmer & Sons