ALTAR SHAPES AND SIZES: I have one of those cute signs hanging in my kitchen that says: ‘Those who think you know everything are annoying to those of us who do.’ As I come up on my 77th birthday, I find that I have less and less patience with being tactful. This piece is addressed to the clergy and church architects who redesign church sanctuaries. I’m going into my ‘teaching mode’ here:
Doing what I do for 30 years means that I’m aware of ‘trends’. In the past 10 years, I am aware of a ‘trend’ toward designing new large altars for our sanctuaries. I’ve recently prepared fair linen for two altars 54 inches in width/depth, one 60 inches and another that is 60 inches IN DIAMETER! I’m just finishing the preparation of a 48 inch wide fair linen. I’m quite out of patience with this! These very wide altars are simply unacceptable.
The symbolism of the altar is of Jesus immanent – Emmanuel; our Lord present among us when two or three are gathered together in His name. We use linen on the altar recalling Joseph of Arimathea’s gift of his own burial shroud in which to wrap our Lord’s poor broken Body when He was taken from His Cross. In tending the altars of our parishes, sacristans live with the reality of this symbolism.
It is the ministry of our sacristans to tend our altars with the same care we give to our husbands, wives and children. If we take seriously the symbolism of the altar, this depth of concern is required of us. The single most important consideration is that altar linens be clean, fresh and crisply ironed – at all times – not just Easter and Christmas.
The rectangular portion of an ironing board is 36 inches in width. It is unreasonable to expect anyone to properly iron a fair linen that won’t fit on an ironing board. Seeing that a fair linen is somewhat wrinkled or has a bit of wax on it, it’s all too easy to say, “Oh, it will be ok for another week.”
When our clergy – or church architects – design large altars, they literally doom the altar to being poorly cared for. If you’re going to design large altars, at least have the decency to provide a proper ironing surface for your sacristans!
I would also mention this: I received a request for a fair linen 60 inches in width/depth. Along with the request was a photograph of the altar, taken from the middle pew. It was not possible to see the 60 inch depth of the altar! The congregation has no concept of the depth of that altar. Only the clergy, standing right next to that altar are able to perceive the 60 inch depth. And I cannot imagine that it is possible to reach across a 60 inch altar! While the vessels are usually passed directly from hand to hand, there are times when a chalice or paten is passed from the back of the altar to the front – or front to back. This cannot be done on a wide altar; the ‘wings’ of the chasuble will drag across the altar top – endangering the vessels containing consecrated Bread and Wine. Vessels can only be transferred hand to hand, which makes for unnecessary business around the altar rather than the gracefulness of efficiency.
Round altars sound like a wonderful idea. They’re not. The edges, being curved rather than straight, change the placement configuration of the corporal, chalice, paten and cruets/flagons. Clergy who celebrate regularly at a round altar accustom themselves to this different configuration. Clergy unfamiliar with this peculiarity (the Bishop, for instance) find the awkwardness disconcerting and disruptive; wine spills are more frequent. Visiting clergy must be warned about to expect this awkwardness.
Designing an altar is not like choosing a piece of furniture – a sofa or sideboard. Bigger is not necessarily better. Prayers from larger altars are not louder in God’s ear! I have it on good authority that Our lord hears prayers from smaller altars just fine! As well, once an altar is consecrated, it’s forever; there’s no setting it aside because ‘it didn’t work out’!
End of sermon.
This medallion was done on the back of a white linen chasuble circa 1915. Still in good condition!
By the middle of the last century the craft of sewing our own church linens had become nearly extinct. During the same time period, ready-made linens became extremely costly. It is a privilege and pleasure to have been involved in the revival of the graceful and grace-filled craft of sewing church linens.
I import the linen I offer from Belgium. I’ve been purchasing the same weight linen from the same manufacturer for 25 years. The linen is the perfect weight and quality for our fair linens, Mass linens, Communion veils, altar cloths, credence covers, tabernacle hangings – for all liturgical purposes that require the use of fine linen.
If you wish to see samples, I am happy to provide them. Email me your address at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll receive one sample to be kept as it is and another to wash, shrink and iron out – so you can compare.
Remember as you compare my sample to the linens in your sacristy, elderly linens become sheer over time. They were heavier when they were new.
Linen has three characteristics that should be of interest to you: quality, weight and density. These characteristics help you evaluate the suitability of a particular type of linen for your project.
Quality is not determined by weight. Linen of substantial weight may be very high quality. Linen that is sheer may be of low quality.
Weight and density are related characteristics. Batiste (sometimes called handkerchief linen) isn’t just lighter in weight because its threads are slimmer; the weave is less dense. (‘Batiste’ is the name we give to sheer linen. ‘Cambric’ is the name we give to sheer cotton.)
My linen contains 141 threads per square inch and weighs 4.4 ounces.
This piece of embroidery is at least 50 years old but is perfectly fresh. While it was intended to be used as a chalice pall, it was never made into up. The padding of the satin stitch is very deep and the detail perfection is remarkable.
All linen yardage comes to you cut along a drawn thread – both ends.
Any time you order linen from me, I will supply you with the shrinkage factors for the linen – both across the width and along the length. Using these two factors you can determine the amount of extra fabric you need in order to allow for shrinkage. If you know exactly how much the linen will shrink, shrinking before cutting is not a necessity – which makes laying out and construction much easier!
Just for your information, the shrinkage factors on my previous bolt were: Width: 1.06, Length: 1.o5. If you want to cut a corporal that is 22 inches square (before hemming), do this:
Width: 22 X 1.06 = 23.32 Round this off to 23 1/4 inches
Length: 22 X 1.05 = 23.1 Round this off to 23 inches
You would measure the corporal to be 23 1/4 inches along the width of the fabric and 23 inches across the length of the fabric. When you shrink the piece, it will be 22 inches square.
Note that, even for a linen as large as a corporal, the amount of shrinkage difference between length and width is so small as to be negligible.
Because it’s so much easier to work with linen while the size is still in it, knowing the amount of shrinkage to expect is very helpful. You need to shrink the piece before hemming, however. If you don’t, your stitches will be loose after shrinking.
Note: I’m building a linen at this moment for a priest who has required that the hems ‘reach the floor’. This is a very bad idea, I’m doing it under protest. And, I have decided that, in the future, I will refuse to do this again. BECAUSE: We’re not dealing with wood or steel or even paper here. If you cut wood or steel or paper to a length, it’s going to stay the length you cut it (wood may swell). Linen is a lively natural fiber; it’s length and width will vary. The dimensions may vary depending on which direction you iron it. The dimensions may vary with humidity. The dimensions may vary as it sags a bit under its own weight. Unfortunately, I believe this linen will come back to me because the ends crush on the floor – and I’ll be asked to re-cut it. As the embroidery will be in place, both ends will have to be shortened. The process of re-cutting fair linen hems is extremely difficult because of the mitered corners. Once a miter is set, it does not want to be re-cut! Conclusion: The falls on fair linens should not be longer than 6 inches from the floor.
Purificators – 13″ square – $5.50 each
Lavabo Towels – 13″ x 18″ – $7.00 each
Corporals – 21″ square – $14.00 each
Note: While the pre-cuts will never be smaller than these dimensions, they are sometimes larger.
I will also cut custom sizes. Please feel free to ask for prices on custom cuts.
Preparation of fair linens involves four steps:
The major difference between preparing our small linens and fair linens is not the size of the linen, it’s the size of our work surface. Preparing a large linen on a small work surface is very awkward.
The length of fair linens varies from 2 yards to 6 yards. Fair linens can be cut on the dining room table and the hems folded in your lap. The process is MUCH easier when done on a large, padded work table because you can pin to it and iron on it. I use a 2 foot Golden Ruler to put up the hems on small linens and a 4 foot Golden Ruler for the larger linens.
Few of us have the opportunity to make more than three or four fair linens in our lifetimes, we don’t have the opportunity to practice often enough to feel fluent in the process. Few of us have a large, padded surface to work on. And yet, it seems a shame to deny ourselves the pleasure of sewing fair linens just because we haven’t the time, the equipment or the type of work surface we need. I do.
I’ll do your preparation for you. Of course, I charge for this service. The cost is $50 for the first two yards (which is 4 yards of side hems, the width of the both end hems and all four corner miters) and $12 for each additional yard or portion thereof. Plus the cost of the linen required.
Preparation includes cutting the linen to size (including allowance for shrinkage), turning the hems, mitering the corners and basting. The linen comes to you ready to shrink, stitch and embroider. (Instructions for the shrinking process are included.)
I also prepare credence cloths. The minimum preparation charge is $45.
We now have access to an embroideress: Sue Newman. Sue does the most astounding machine embroidery!
I’ve been watching the quality of machine embroidery work for at least 15 years. There was a long time when I didn’t think machine embroidery would ever be of a quality suitable for our linens and vestments. Sue has proven me wrong! The first thing she did for me was this embroidery – the pall is serving happily at the Cathedral of All Saints.
Please note: This particular pall was improperly constructed. First, the seam allowances should have been turned to the back. Second, the linen was shrunk PRIOR to the embroidery being done – therefore, the pall is not as tight as it should be. Linen used to construct chalice palls is shrunk AFTER it has been sewn onto the Plexiglas – that’s what makes the linen fit so tightly.
Here’s a photograph of Sue’s embroidery placed above the end hems of a fair linen.
This embroidery is a custom design that copies an historic and much loved credence cloth worked years ago by a beloved Altar Guild member. Sue has an excellent digitizer who does this kind of work.
Here’s another of Sue’s designs:
Sue and I are not ‘in business together’; we work parallel – and I feel blessed to count her as a most valued friend (we tend to get into trouble together. I thank God that she lives three hours away from me or we’d never get ANYTHING done!)
Anyway, Sue is a very great resource for us!
I used to offer pall kits that included the Plexiglas insert. It’s not necessary for me to offer pall kits anymore because inserts are readily available, cut to your size, from Pat Crane: email@example.com
The instructions for constructing palls are in my book, ‘ Sewing Church Linens’. (The ‘trick’ for making nice tight palls is not to shrink the linen until after you’ve completed the pall.)
Linen sufficient for a 9 inch pall is $10.
While many of my customers are able to work satin stitch, many more cannot. Here are two patterns done in finely worked chain stitch (about 10 stitches/inch). Both of these are chalice palls but I’ve used these patterns on fair linens many times. Both patterns are given in my book, Sewing Church Linens – $18.
This is a must-have item for constructing small linens – purificators, lavabo towels, corporals.
I want to tell you the story of the Golden Ruler. If you’re interested in making linens, it will make you chuckle.
When I was just starting to teach, I didn’t know how to make linens; I had to teach myself first. And, as I made my first purificators, I discovered that turning up those little hems by hand was TEDIOUS!! And, getting those little hems straight was impossible. And, I thought to myself: “Women have been hemming linen for 10,000 years. Women are too smart not to have figured out a better way than this!” So, I began researching. I looked in my local library. I looked in specialized libraries. I contacted textile museums. Although I knew there had to be a helpful method for turning up hems on linen, I could find nothing.
Our sacristy has a set of vestment drawers. The bottom drawer always made a loud scraping sound whenever it was opened. One day, I pulled the drawer all the way out, lay down flat on the floor and reached way back in there. I felt some paper lapped over the back edge of the drawer. When I pulled it out, I discovered that it was a pamphlet, published in 1945 by The Spool Cotton Company. I remember sitting there on the sacristy floor with the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows, reading that pamphlet and thinking: “Thank you, Holy Spirit!”
The technique that makes the Golden Ruler work was in that pamphlet!
What I think happened is this: Linen used to be a commonly used fabric – just like cotton. Women knew how to work with linen – how to fold hems and turn-unders quickly and straight-ly. In fact, the technique for folding linen hems was so basic that it was passed experientially from generation to generation; nobody thought it necessary to write it down. That old pamphlet is the only place I have ever seen an explanation of this method for turning hems on linen. Thank you, Holy Spirit!
The Golden Ruler comes with our usual hem depths pre-marked and it’s long enough to lay out the hems on a 24 inch corporal all at once. All instructions included.
A couple of year ago, I did a small linen workshop for a Lutheran parish in Grand Island, NY. When I had finished showing the ladies how to use the Golden Ruler, there was quite a bit of comment about how well it worked – except for one lady, who sat there staring at the sample she had just completed. I finally asked her if anything was wrong? Was there something she had not understood?
She looked up at me and said: I’ve been making the linens for my church for 35 years. Where has this Golden Ruler been all that time?
I recently recommended the Golden Ruler to a customer who resisted purchasing it because she’d been making the linens for her parish for many years and felt comfortable. But, I prevailed and she bought the Golden Ruler. A couple of weeks later, she called to tell me: “The Golden Ruler is not a ‘product’; it’s a public service!”
The Golden Ruler not only measures small linen hems to a correct depth, it makes the hem creases. All you have to do is fold and pin and they’re ready for stitching. Furthermore, the hems are straight! What a concept! Easy, efficient, excellent! A ‘must have’ item!
I need to tell you about this! In October I had a ‘bolt from the blue’ (thank you, Holy Spirit!) I was just standing there, working at my worktable and ZAP! A whole new idea about narrow hems! I sat right down and worked it out and it works just fine! I’ll never make narrow hems any other way! Essentially, this broadens the use of the Golden Ruler to include a more efficient method for constructing narrow hems (scant 1/4 inch) for small linens. The method is an adaptation of the method used for rolled hems. But, rolled hems can only be done on batiste – this adaptation works on mid-weight linen. My daughter and I worked up the instructions using color pictures. Because pamphlets containing pictures are so expensive to reproduce, I send these instructions to you as an attachment. You can print them out if you want or, just keep them on your computer. I also have to tell you that this method makes me laugh every time I do it. You won’t understand this until you do it yourself. When I showed it to Kelly, she burst out laughing!
Look in your local store before ordering. This is Coats Extra Fine cotton-wrapped poly. It’s a very high quality thread; you’ll feel it when you use it. And, it’s the equivalent of #100. It has a hot pink label on the end. You can probably get it right there in your own town.
Needles – $3.50 per packet – #10 and #12.
These are embroidery/crewel needles – you can actually see the eye, so threading is easy! Well, I take that back. It’s easy to thread the #10. But, even the very fine cotton/poly thread above is tricky to get through the #12. Order in size #10 or #12 (The #12 is VERY slim!).
This is your basic DMC floss. You can probably get it at your local sewing store.
I’ve offered these pins for years because they have not been available locally. Just recently, I’m seeing them in my Wal-Mart and JoAnn’s. They’re made by W.H. Collins, Inc. They are wonderful for use with this linen because they slip right through those little stacked corners without distortion. I wouldn’t use anything else. If you can’t find them elsewhere, you can order them from me.
In the event that your parish prefers to purchase their linens ready-made, may I suggest that you purchase them from St. Margaret’s Convent. These linens are constructed by Haitian women and your purchase helps support St. Margaret’s ministries to children and aged women in Haiti. I recommend these linens to you as being beautifully constructed and embroidered using the same quality linen that is offered here.
Please keep in mind that Haiti has undergone – and continues to undergo – severe trials and tribulations. You order will mean a lot to them. Please be patient; it may take a bit longer than usual for your order to be filled.
To place an order, write: St. Margaret’s Convent, 17 Highland Park St., Boston, MA, 02119 or call: 781-934-9477. Ask to speak to Sister Claire Marie and please tell her that Bunny says ‘Hi’.
I would like to draw your attention to a wonderful supplier called Lacis. Lacis carries EVERYTHING to do with fiber crafts. I recommend that you visit this link and that you acquire their catalogue – fascinating reading and you’ll want to keep it around as a useful resource. The people at Lacis are a joy to work with. If you are one of those rare people who are actually capable of doing satin stitch, Lacis supplies all weights of floche. If you’ve been trying to learn how to do satin stitch and wondered why it is so difficult, try using floche rather than the 6 strand embroidery floss. Floche may not solve all your difficulties but, it will help.
Back when I was still attending the conventions of the National Altar Guild Association, there was a lady named Hattie from one of our Florida diocese. Hattie worked primarily in shadow work embroidery on batiste. She made the most lovely chalice veils. (Chalice veils are used instead of the burse and veil. At the offertory, the chalice is brought to the altar vested in purificator, paten and pall with the chalice veil folded on top. The chalice veil is set aside until after Communion. After Communion, the chalice is covered with the chalice veil as an indication to the Altar Guild that the chalice requires tending. The chalice veil is made large enough to cover the chalice completely, with some soft crushing around the hems. The antique linen would be wonderful used with shadow work!
I have an old stole protector with a small cross at the center done in shadow work. I’ve sometimes used this same little cross on purificators. It’s simple to work and very light and lovely. It’s a four-petaled floral cross. On the front, the outline of the petals are tiny stitches. On the back, are the characteristic criss-cross threads that give the ‘shadow’ effect. I must get that out and put it up here for you.
I wish I were a more professional photographer for you! Both of these embroideries are exquisitely done. The one on the left is a pall. The work is highly skilled and highly sophisticated. The one on the right is a corporal. The work is also highly skilled but delightfully unsophisticated. These two embroideries hang on the wall over my desk. I can’t decide which I love more!
Throughout my 30 years of enjoying this ministry, a major, driving concern has been that we should not lose these crafts. I’ve always had that concern. Years and years ago, I taught myself to spin – not so much because I wanted to make my own yarn (although that’s wonderful!) but because I could not bear the thought that we might lose the knowledge of how to use these lovely and fascinating machines – spinning wheels! (Of course, now-a-days, the craft of spinning is alive and well without any help from me!) (And, because I didn’t have anyone to teach me the ‘finer points’, to this day, I still spin backwards – but, my yarn works just the same. So, that’s ok.)
The people I’ve worked with all these years have, from time to time, been kind enough to pay me the compliment of saying that I’m so ‘artistic’ or that, I’m so ‘creative’. I’m uncomfortable with those kind complements because I know, for sure, that I am neither artistic nor creative. And then, I realized that the Holy Spirit – all those years ago – wasn’t looking for someone who was artistic and creative – that would come later. The Holy Spirit clearly wanted these crafts revived. At that time, He didn’t need someone who was artistic and creative; He needed someone who is a competent artisan and wildly inventive. And, that’s me! Show me something that can’t be done and, I’m your girl!
But, that work is done now. Today, we have the lovely linen we need; we’ve found the beautiful patterns again; we’ve reclaimed the techniques and methods. Now we’re ready for the creative artists!
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!