Altar Linens: Descriptions and Sizes
Church Linens and Altar Linens
As the summer months move along, many of you may be traveling and spending time away from your churches. Summer months during the church year are referred to as ordinary times. It is the long season of green – as is the great out-of-doors for those living in the northern hemisphere. While the summer days may seem to last for ever, (or in my case, disappear in the blink of an eye) it is a good time for reflection and contemplation. I like to think about where my skills are with making church vestments, and how I might continue to challenge and grow my skills. Summer is also a great time to start thinking about and considering questions such as: “What shape is the sacristy in while everyone is away for the summer months? Is anyone keeping an eye on the purificators, or do we need to replenish small altar linens before Advent, and the Christmas Holidays?” Preparing now for future needs will save a great deal of anxiety and stress during the busy Christmas Season. The last thing anyone on the altar guild wants to hear is the panicked voice on the end of the phone gasping in dismay, “We have no purficators in the sacristy for use on Sunday morning!”
Thoughts of replacing existing small altar linens are being contemplated within my church. My church has been using cotton altar linens for at least the past ten years, in addition to yarn dyed brocade and other liturgical fabrics, partly because of a perceived cost savings, and partly because of a misconception that cotton is easier to care for than real linen. The problem with cotton altar linens is that they are – cotton. The cotton does not absorb anything. It only “smears” things around. And the cotton is a challenge to press. Change is always slow in coming. Thankfully, there are members of the altar guild that are now open to trying real linen for the small altar linens. For those of you who would like to follow along with the project, it might be helpful to review the types and descriptions of altar linens.
The Fair Linen
The Fair Linen is a large linen used to cover an altar during the Celebration of Holy Communion. The Fair Linen covers the entire top of the altar and hangs down on the sides. We will talk more about the Fair Linen in a future post, including details on hems and the amount of hang on each end, as well as hand embroidery for a Fair Linen.
The Linen Corporal
The Linen Corporal is a small square linen placed on the altar on top of the Fair Linen. This is the linen cloth upon which the communion vessels are placed. The size of the corporal may vary from 18″ to 24″ in finished size. The size of a corporal depends on several things such as the depth of the altar, and the size of the communion pieces. Linen Corporals are laundered frequently and should be made from a medium weight linen. It is helpful to have a minimum of three corporals for a church. The hem size for corporals varies from 1/2″ to 1″. Corporals should be hand hemmed. Hem stitching is a nice finish for use on corporals as well.
The Linen Pall is a square linen stiffened with either cardboard or plexiglass. It is placed over the chalice during Holy Communion. The size of the Linen Pall is determined by the size of the chalice. The most common sizes for Palls are 6 to 7″ square. (Linen is also used to cover the underside of the Pall).
The Purificator is a small square linen used to wipe the communion vessels during the sacrament. They are also used to dry the vessels in some churches. (The use will vary by denomination). Because Purificators are used for this purpose during communion, they will require laundering after each service. The size of Purificators will vary, again, depending on the size of the chalice. The most common size range is from 10″ to 15″ square.
The Lavabo Towel
The Lavabo Towel (there are two correct pronunciations of this word) is usually a rectangular towel used by the priest to dry his hands before consecrating the elements for Holy Communion. The size of Lavabo Towels may vary from 12″ x 18″ to 12″ x 20″ or other sizes as determined by the needs of a specific altar and communion vessels.
The Credence Cloth
In some, but not all churches, there is a table or cupboard on the right side of the altar used for communion items prior to the beginning of the Celebration of Holy Communion or when they are not being used for the Eucharist. This side table has a simple linen cover referred to as the Credence Cloth. The Credence Cloth or Cover should be made from the same quality of linen as the other altar linens.
The Post Communion Chalice Veil
The Post Communion Chalice Veil is made from a very fine, light linen lawn. This is used to cover the chalice after the Celebration of Holy Communion. The size of the Post Communion Chalice Veil varies from a 24″ square to a size as large as 33″ or 42″ square. The size will be determined by the size and items that need to be veiled for a particular church. Some churches may also use trays of individual cups which may be veiled.
The Cere Cloth
The Cere Cloth (pronounced [seer]) is a cloth that has been waxed. This waxed linen is used on stone altars as a means of protecting the Fair Linen and other linens from dampness. The Cere Cloth is cut to the exact size of the altar top with no hem.
The Dust Cloth or The Protector
A beautifully hand embroidered and hemmed Fairlinen should be protected between use by a Dust Cloth or Protector Cloth. The most simple version is a plain white linen cloth neatly hemmed. This cloth may also be of blue or green linen. An additional consideration is a Brown Holland Linen Cover used to protect the Altar and Linens when the church is being cleaned.
The Linen Sick Call Set or Private Communion Set
This is a set of small altar linens used for communion shut-ins, those in a hospital, or on other circumstances where the Celebration of Holy Communion is done on an individual basis outside the church. The same linens are used, but in smaller sizes, depending on the size of the traveling set. The Corporal may by 15″ square, the Pall may be 3″ square, the Purificator 6″ square and made from the same linen as the altar linens. Linen lawn may be used for a Chalice Veil made at 9″ square.
There are a few other linen items used within a church that have not been covered in this article which include a baptismal towel and amice. Those items will be save for a future post.
When preparing to make new linens for use in your church, take stock of what is there, noting the size dimensions, and paying special attention as to how the current linen sizes work within your church. If the communion vessels have changed, older altar linens may no longer be the correct size. While it may be a little intimidating to contemplate making an entire set of altar linens and fair linens for your parish, consider starting out with a simple sampler – such as the making of one linen purificator. Purificators are an altar linen item that is easy to go “MIL” (missing in laundry), and they need frequent replacement. In the next few weeks, with the launch of the new website, Ecclesiastical Sewing will have small linen available for purchase. This will include purificators, corporals, and labavos, along with other altar linens that are pre-shrunk, cut, and ready for hemming so you can see how easy it is to make small altar linens.
Solo Dei Gloria
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Mackrille, L.V. (undated). A Handbook for Altar Guilds. Washington, D.C. The Cathedral Studio.
Harris, K. (undated). Church Needlework I Altar Linen. London: The Embroiderer’s Guild.
Webb, A. (1982). Sewing Church Linens. Self Published.
Hands, Hinda. (1929). Church Needlework. London: The Faith Press.
Hall, Maud. (1901). English Church Needlework. London. Grant Richards.