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Liturgical Linens

Baptismal, Altar Cloths, Fair Linens, Linens for the Mass and Ordination, Purificators, Lavabo Towels, Corporals, Chalice Palls, Chalice and Ciborium Veils, Tabernacle Linens, Credence Cloths


Good Sacristy Practice

It is useful to have a list of linen sizes that are ‘standard’ for your sacristy.  Parishes that have been purchasing their small altar linens ready-made (purificators, lavabo towels and corporals) usually have linens of various sizes.  While there’s nothing wrong with purificators in an assortment of sizes, standardized linen sizes are better.  I have a list of linen sizes taped up on the inside of one of the sacristy cabinet doors.  The list gives the finished size, the size to cut (including hem allowances) and an amount added for shrinkage.  As well, I keep a supply of cut linens on hand, rolled onto tube rollers and covered in a mid-weight plastic.  When we need a few more purificators, they’re right to hand on the roller, ready to be done up.

Along with my list and the linens cut ahead, I have drawn up lay-out plans for our small linens.  I have a lay-out that cuts 1 dozen purificators (of the size we use) with a minimum of waste.  Same with lavabo towels and corporals.  I know that I can cut 1 dozen purificators out of a 44 inch length of linen – with very little waste.  I know that I can cut 2 corporals and 3 each lavabo towels and purificators out of 46 inches of linen – with very little waste.

Our Cathedral of All Saints has 7 altars – each with it’s own credence and service table.  I have a list of all those sizes taped up inside another sacristy cabinet door.  These little things comprise good sacristy practice.

If this is something that appeals to you, you also need to know:

  1. Shrinking linen before working it is not necessary
  2. Drawing a thread does not ensure straightness – there is a second step

All this information is available to you.  If you’re ready to make the linens for your parish, let me know.

About Linen

In the first paragraph on my home page, I begin to explain that I intend my website, Church Linens, to be different from other websites that sell church linens and vestments.  After all these years of doing what I do, it was only at the 2016 seminar in Iowa that I realized that what I thought I was doing was only a part of what I’m really doing.  I’ve thought I was teaching you how to make altar linens – and I do that.  What I’m really doing, however, is teaching you how to ‘manage’ linen.

Part of managing linen is planning projects so there is as little waste as possible; we call this ‘best use of fabric’.  Seeing to it that you waste as little linen as possible is important to me – it’s part of proper ‘management’.  I’m working now with a girl who has made two attempts to purchase an amount of linen from me.  I haven’t sold it to her yet because she doesn’t have a plan and I know, without a plan, she will waste linen.

Linen is a unique fabric with characteristics all its own – of which shrinkage is only one.  Knowing what these characteristics are and how to utilize them, requires management.  That’s what I’m about – management.  While I wrote the book, Sewing Church Linens, in 1992 and the second edition in 1997, I’ve learned a lot since then and have essentially written a second book that should be titled: Managing Linen.  All this information is available to you.  I recommend both Sewing Church Linens for the basics and then Managing Linen when you’re confident with the basics.

While shrinkage is only one of the unique characteristics of linen, it is extremely important because the amount that linen shrinks is substantial enough to make a significant difference in projects that require precision (the width of a fair line or credence cloth).

The skill of managing shrinkage efficiently is my major teaching goal.  

As I mention in the first paragraph of my Home Page, I don’t do shopping carts.  I also don’t do ‘social media’ – perhaps because, at 80 years old and being the only one here, it’s just TOO MUCH!!!  This means that everything is all right here – on this website.  If I have an opinion or something funny to share or want to tell you something I think it important, it’s here – on one of the pages of this website.  You won’t miss anything because I put it on Facebook or Twitter.

Of course, that makes my pages really, really long!  My webmaster has a fit about how long my pages are!  He threatens me that, in giving so much information on one page potential customers will give up in frustration!  That’s not my experience.  Being sensible and intelligent human beings, when you’ve had enough, you go do something else and come back to me when you’re ready for more!  Duh!

OK.  Let’s begin:

I import the linen I offer from Belgium.  I’ve been purchasing the same weight linen from the same manufacturer for 25 years.  Every few years, I do a review of the various linens that are ‘out there’.  I have always come back to the linen I’m offering here.  This linen is the perfect weight, density 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 good linen.

I recently brought in a very heavy weight of linen (luscious!) to use as under-cloths.  It is more than 3 times heavier.  If you wish to see samples, I am happy to provide them.  Go to the Message Box on the Ordering and Payment page, ask me to send samples – include your address.  Also see below for more information.

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.

Purchasing linen is difficult for you because there are so many choices and most people do not have the information they need in order to make such an important choice.  I have difficulty too – even though I know precisely what I want.  Once a year, the mill begins to weave from the new crop of flax.  At that time, I receive a group of samples from several different ‘runs’.  I test them all and choose the one with the characteristics we must have for altar linens.  Once I have identified the ‘run’ that best meets our needs, I purchase only from that run for the rest of the year.  I’m a good enough customer that the mill and our sales rep, Michael, is willing to work with me on this.

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 linen for your altar linens.

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.  The weight of my linen is 4.4 ounces per square yard.  The density of my linen is 144 threads per square inch (both warp and weft).  Here’s the strange thing:  Weight and density are BASIC linen information and – this information is almost never given to the customer!  And yet, this should be the first information you get.  You should be able to say, “I want to see linen that is about 4.4/144.”  Anybody who knows anything about linen should know instantly what you want – and show it to you.  After you have that information, you must decide about quality.

Let me prove to you how useful these numbers are to you:  My linen is 4.4/144.  The numbers for my new heavy linen are 14.7/40.  With just this small bit of information I’ve given you, you know instantly a great deal about my heavy linen!

Note: 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.)


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.

Heavy-Weight Linen

I mentioned that I have brought into inventory some heavy-weight linen.  I want to discuss this more fully.

There is a very strong tradition that requires 3 layers of linen on each altar.  There are two reasons behind this tradition:

  1. Absorbency: The 3 linens are sufficient to soak up any spilled consecrated wine – this is of crucial importance.
  2. Padding: To give sufficient padding so the chalice and other vessels do not go ‘clunk’ when the priest and acolytes set them down.

Over my many years, I have watched and seen how this tradition works – not very well.  The way it’s been done has been to stack 3 fair linens on top of each other.  The first negative aspect is that it’s very expensive – both in time spent and in cost.  This is especially true of a large or shaped altar.  I worked with a customer whose altar was 5 feet in diameter.  She made two sets of 3 linens each.  She pulled all the furniture out of her guest room and worked these linens on her knees, on the floor.  6 of them!  (I’ll tell you the rest too:  She ironed these 5 foot diameter linens.  She covered the interior of her station wagon with sheets, ironed the linens one at a time, laid each one carefully in her station wagon, drove the linen to the church, put it on the altar and went back for the next one.  While I don’t remember how much these linens cost in money spent, I’m deeply saddened by the time spent by this good and faithful servant.  I pray that there will be someone else to take up this ministry when she is no longer able.)

I know of one priest who handled the three layers of linen by using old fair linens – worn and stained – as under-cloths.  While it worked, this method of achieving both absorbency and padding offends my Altar Guild sensitivities.  Hence, heavy-weight linen.

This heavy-weight linen exceeds the traditional parameters: My regular linen weighs 4.4 ounces per square yard .  This heavy-weight linen weighs 14.7 ounces per square yard – more than 3 times the weight of my regular linen and, therefore MORE THAN 3 TIMES AS ABSORBENT.  My regular linen contains 144 threads per square inch (counted both ways).  The heavy-weight linen contains 40 threads per square inch.  This heavy-weight linen is lofty, thick and makes excellent padding!  The heavy-weight linen is 100% linen.

Because of its thickness, this heavy-weight linen requires different management.  The edges need to be secured against fraying by either zig-zagging or serging – as deeply as possible.  It may be preshrunk or by working from shrinkage factors.  Hemmed edges would be too thick; best to bind the edges with double-fold bias tape.

Cost:  54 inches wide, $35/yard

Purchasing Linen

The skill of managing shrinkage efficiently is my major teaching goal.  

As Yardage – $35 / yard – 60 inches wide.

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.

As Pre-cut Small Linens:

Square Purificators (Anglican) – 14″ square – $5.50 each

Rectangular Purificators (Catholic) – 14″ X 18″ – $7.00 each

Corporals – 22″ square – $14.00 each

Lavabo Towels – 14″ x 18″ – $7.00 each

Note: While the pre-cut linens 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.

As Prepared Fair Linens:

Preparation of fair linens involves four steps:

  1. Cutting to size – making allowance for shrinkage either by pre-shrinking or utilizing shrinkage factors.
  2. Turning the hems and turn-unders precisely.
  3. Mitering the corners.
  4. Basting the hems and miters into position, ready to hand stitch and then, embroider.

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 – bordering on the impossible.

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.

Linen Embroidery:

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.

Linen Embroidery

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.

Linen Embroidery

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:

Linen Embroidery

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!


Pall Kits:

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:

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.

Linen Embroidery           Linen Embroidery

The Golden Ruler and Other Notions:

The Golden Ruler – $20

I’m going to take some time with the Golden Ruler because it’s efficiency is so very important.  If you are going to work with linen, the Golden Ruler is a must-have tool.

Here’s the story of the Golden Ruler – 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!

A couple of year ago, I did a linen workshop for a Lutheran parish in Grand Island, NY. My hostess had invited participants from the local Episcopan and Roman Catholic churches to attend.  We had a lovely group!  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 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 didn’t want “Any new-fangled devices!”.  But, I prevailed and she bought the Golden Ruler.  A couple of weeks later, she emailed and said this: “The Golden Ruler is not a ‘product’; it’s a public service!”

The most frequent question I get about my Golden Ruler is, “Well, how does it work?”  Which is not a question that can be answered in three short sentences. And yet, this question is legitimate.  Any of us who sew acquire a large complement of rulers.  It makes sense to ask, “Why do I need one more ruler?  Can’t I just use my quilting ruler?”

I’m going to answer that question here, now.

Linen is a unique fabric; it has characteristics that make it unique.  One of those characteristics is bad news and good news.  The bad news is that linen wrinkles.  The good news is that linen takes and holds a crease (not as strongly as paper but more strongly than cotton).  The good news and the bad news are the same thing:  Linen, characteristically, will take and hold a crease.  The very heart and soul of true creativity is the ability to turn a disadvantage into an advantage – that’s what the Golden Ruler does.

Lay a ruler (or any straight edge) across a piece of paper on a resilient surface – like your ironing board.  Take a butter knife and crease along the edge of the ruler.  Fold along that crease.  Do you see how easily the fold follows the crease?  Same thing with linen.  If you crease a turn-under and then crease a hem, they will both fold readily along those creases.  Simple!

This technique probably goes back to the time of the Pharoahs.  We lost it because it was so commonly used that it was  taught experientially; nobody ever thought it necessary to write it down.  When we lost the craft after World War II, we lost this technique.  Here it is.  I offer it to you.

Next question: Why should I purchase a Golden Ruler for $20 plus $7 postage?  Can’t I just use my quilting ruler?  The answer is, Yes!  Sure!  But!  Quilt pieces are based upon 1/4 inch seam allowances.  Our small linens are basted upon 1/4 inch hems.  Our turn-unders must be a little less than 1/4 inch or the turn-under will disrupt the hem.

The Golden Ruler is marked to correspond directly to the the hem depths of our small altar linens (purificators, lavabo towels, corporals).  If you’re going to make quilts, it makes sense to own a ruler that corresponds directly to the requirements of quilts.  If you’re going to make church linens, it makes sense to own a ruler that corresponds directly to the requirements of our altar linens.

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.  Instructions included for the use of the Golden Ruler, for constructing small linens, for both squared corners and miters, pinning by centers and stay-pinning.

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!

Rolled Hems – $12

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!

Thread – $3

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!).

Embroidery Floss –$1 each

This is your basic DMC floss. You can probably get it at your local sewing store.

Pins – 25 for $1.50

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.

Ready-made Linens

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.

Shadow Work:

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!

 Linen Embroidery



Hems on Altar Linens

The old historical books, individual opinion and tradition quite aside; there is no ‘rule’ about altar linen hem depth.  The only thing that approaches being a ‘rule’ is that the hems of fair linen falls be 3 inches deep. (‘Falls’ – the portion of the linen that hangs down from the ends of the altar.) The reason is logical:  To give a bit of additional weight that helps the falls to hang straight.  Three inches seems to have become so ‘standard’ that it’s almost a rule.  (The exception to this ‘standard’ would be mensa linens.  [A ‘mensa linen covers only the altar top – the ‘mensa’ of the altar.]  Mensa linens have the same hem depth all the way around.  If the mensa linen has a front fall, the same hem depth would be maintained.)

The depth of the hems on our altar linens is determined primarily by the size of the linen – narrower hems on smaller items; wider hems on larger items.  We get to decide how deep the hems should be.

How to make that decision?  Read on:

The first purpose of hems on fabric is to seal the edges to prevent fraying.

The second purpose of hems on altar linens is to contribute stability to the piece.  Narrower hems are needed to secure the shape of smaller linens.  Larger linens require wider hems to secure the straightness of greater length and width.

The third purpose of hems on altar linens is to contribute a sense of visual balance.  A too wide hem on a small item will look awkward because such depth is unnecessary.  A too narrow hem on a large item will look skimpy and ungraceful.

The fourth purpose of altar linen hems may be to add beauty – embroidered or hem-stitched hems; the addition of lace either as an end finish or insertions (a whole topic in itself).  A plain, properly designed and sewn hem is  a beauty in itself.  I have heard it said and seen it written that ‘pretty frippery’ is not appropriate on our altars.

General reference – Be thinking ‘stability’ and ‘visual balance’ here:

Purificators and lavabo towels:  1/4 inch folded hems or the very narrow rolled hem.

Corporals, credence cloths, fair linens, chalice and ciborium veils: 1 – 2 inches depending entirely upon the size of the item and your own good judgement.  (The hems for a fair linen to fit an extremely large altar – 48 inches in width or more – could go to 3 inches.  The end falls (if any) would go to 4 inches.

Cere Cloths:

I notice that there has been a bit of a discussion lately about ‘cere cloths’ (pronounced ‘sear’).  The purpose and function of cere cloths goes back to a time when parish churches operated under different conditions than we enjoy today (specifically, central heating).  The purpose and function of cere cloths has become obscure and misunderstood.  As I am 50 years an Altar Guild member and spent most of my ‘formative years’ working with people who had been Altar Guild members for 40 years and whose mothers had been Altar Guild members for the prior 40 years, I can reach back into my memory banks for well over a full century – in some areas, 150 years!  Although I’m too young (at age 80!) to have ever tended an altar that needed a cere cloth, I know about the time when many of our altars needed cere cloths because I heard my elders speak of them.

Cere cloths were heavier weight. waxed, linen cloths that used to be placed underneath the fair linen on marble or stone altars.  Cere cloths were not necessary on wooden altars.

The word ‘cere’ means ‘wax’.  The term ‘waxed cere cloth’ would be a redundancy, in effect saying ‘waxed waxed cloth’.  It would make no sense, for instance to use the term cere cloth as a substitute for a cloth meant to serve as a light padding under the fair linen.

Unlike today, churches located in cold climates were heated with wood or coal furnaces that were fired up by the parish Sexton each Saturday morning so the church would be (fairly) warm for the Sunday service.  Cere cloths were a cold climate item.

Just as today, many altars were made of marble or stone.  Once they’re cold, marble and stone take a long, long time to warm up – to reach ambient temperature.  As the wood or coal furnace was allowed to go out after the Sunday service, it’s doubtful that, in so short a time, a marble or stone altar would be able to reach ambient temperature.

So, what happens when a cold thing is in a heated room – when you bring a glass or bowl out of the refrigerator?  Water condenses on the outside of the glass or bowl.  This is exactly what happened to the marble or stone altars as the nave was heated by the wood or coal furnace!  Water condensed on the cold marble or stone.  Yes?  So what?

The altars were covered with fair linens – made of linen and linen is highly absorbent.  The condensation was absorbed by the linen.  And then, the stove or furnace was allowed to go out, leaving the damp linen to sit – in the cold – until the Sexton lit the furnace on the following Saturday.

Think about it!  This is the perfect recipe for mildew!  And, that’s precisely what happened!  The fair linens used on marble or stone altars in cold climates mildewed – because of condensation.

Well!  Women, being endlessly creative, solved this problem by cutting linen cloths to fit the altar tops, underneath the fair linens, and WAXED them!  (Probably using the wax they put on top of their jelly jars.)  The waxed cloths prevented the condensation from dampening the fair linens.  These waxed cloths were called ‘cere cloths’ – literally, ‘waxed cloth’.

Well, that’s a nice bit of moderately interesting history.  Does it have any relevance to us today?  I cannot imagine that it would – because our churches are blessed with central heating (most of them, anyway).  Mildew caused by condensation is no longer an issue.  (Mildew from other causes remains a problem.)

However!  There is still talk about cere cloths as though they are something we ought to be using today.  As well, old cere cloths still can be found in some churches and there’s confusion as to what ought to be done with them and should they still be used?  (There are still cere cloths in my Cathedral of All Saints – that are still used on the altars!  Which makes me a little cranky because they are not just unnecessary, they’re nasty!)

Why are these old cere cloths nasty?  Well, think about a wax-impregnated piece of linen: Wax is kind of sticky; it’s going to pick up dirt.  And, those old wood and coal furnaces were dirty!  These old, old cere cloths are dark gray with accumulated carbon from the old furnace.  Back when these cere cloths were originally made, they would never have been allowed on the altars!  Undoubtedly, the cere cloths were completely washed each year and new, fresh wax applied – probably at Easter (just before jelly season began).

A cere cloth – if you happen to have one still in your church – is an historical oddity.  Possibly of historical interest but of no use whatever on the altar.

However!  Cere cloths served another purpose that IS relevant to us today: If the fair linen is laid directly on the altar top (whether stone, marble or wood), when the priest sets the chalice down, it will go clunk – which is ungraceful.  (The same thing happens if you lay your table linen directly on your dining table – which is why we use ‘sssshhh’ pads.)  Cere cloths, being made of a heavier weight linen, also served as padding.  And, we need padding for our altars today – so the vessels don’t go clunk when the priest sets them down.

Many of our Roman Catholic churches are returning to the tradition of 3 layers of linen on each altar.  This is a graceful tradition AND the three layers provide needed padding.

Those of us whose denominations do not have this tradition, may want to provide padding for our altars (and, these pads must be washable).  Let’s not call these pads ‘cere cloths’, ok?    I’m sure that, in short order, clergy will come along and give us a nice Latin name for them. Until then, let’s just call them ‘altar pads’.  I offer a nice padding weight of linen.  Contact me for that information.


Here’s a story for you –  I’ll make this as brief as possible but, it’s a big topic.

During the millennia prior to the end of World War II in 1945, we had four fabrics – silk, wool, cotton and linen (exceptions: animal skins and some local fibers that were woven into fabrics – hemp and such).  During WWII, we lost two of our fabrics – half of our fabrics.  The silk industry in Japan was destroyed by the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The linen industry in Europe was destroyed by the bombing; the flax fields were destroyed and the great weaving mills were destroyed.  (Exception: Because Ireland maintained neutrality during the War, Irish linen production remained intact.  Mary Moore built her linen business on Irish linen.)  It would be decades before the European linen industry would be back in production.

Through the millennia, the processes, techniques and methods of working the four fabrics became completely familiar to human beings – so familiar that it was unnecessary to write anything down.  The processes, techniques and methods were passed on experimentally – mother to daughter, father to son.  During the four decades during which virtually no linen was available, we lost the linen craft – completely.  

When I started out to reclaim the linen craft in 1985 (knowing NOTHING), I had nowhere to go to learn what I needed to know.  Keep in mind that we didn’t get the Internet until 1995 – I couldn’t put out a plea by computer as I would do today.

When I started out, I was working only for the Church in my own diocese of 120 parishes.  I served my Bishop, the Right Reverend David Standish Ball, as his Diocesan Altar Guild Directress.  I was under his direct guidance and supervision.  Bishop Ball set my ministry for me.  His instructions were these: “Too many of our parishes are functioning with linens and vestments that do not glorify God because they are worn and stained.  Many of our parishes cannot afford to buy new ready-made.  Teach our women to sew again.”

Well, that was fine except the linen processes, techniques and methods had been lost and I didn’t know them and had no way to find them!  No books because nothing substantive had been written down – experiential.  And so, I began.

The thing was this:  The Holy Spirit wanted this done – wanted us to be making the linens and vestments for our own parishes.  This is the way it used to be.  Every parish – or group of parishes – had a Sewing Group that made the linens and vestments.  We’d lost the Sewing Groups when we lost the needed materials – the silk damasks and the linen.  Because the Holy Spirit wanted this done, the information I needed came to me.  For instance: At 2 AM I received a call from an elderly women living in Tyler, Texas (I remember this almost 30 years later!).  She gave me invaluable information about rolled hems – and sent me an intricate sample with needle in place!  The story of finding the Golden Ruler technique for setting hems right in my own sacristy!  It was constantly like that!  Whatever I needed to know, was given to me.  This to the extent that, if the Holy Spirit was a bit slow in providing me with what I needed, I complained!  (Mea culpa, mea culpa.)

What we did – in our Diocese – was to offer our parishes pre-cut small linens and prepared fair linens at only slightly more than the cost of the linen.  Pre-cut purificators were $3 while ready-made purificators cost $20.  A fair linen that might have cost $400 ready-made, we provided for $75.  All the parish needed to do was find a seamstress to do the hand sewing.  And, they did!

You can imagine what happened!  Orders came in for more fair linens than I could possibly manage!

One of the few pieces of information that survived the 4 decades after the War was the information that linen shrinks – quite a bit.  Which means that you must completely shrink the linen prior to construction.  Shrinking is time-consuming!  (Three times through the washer and dryer, one more rinse, wrap in a towel, press out, leave to dry overnight, do the final pressing.)  This had to be done for each fair linen.  The alternative was to pre-shrink the entire bolt.  I couldn’t figure out how to do that to a 50 yard bolt?  Fifty yards of linen three times through my washer?  Press 50 yards of linen?  Wind up 50 yard of linen back on the bolt again?  I don’t think so!

In a flash of light!  I realized that the amount of shrinkage would be constant throughout the entire bolt.  If I could figure out how much the linen shrank along the width and along the length, I could figure out exactly how much to allow for shrinkage (in theory!).  (Hello?  Holy Spirit?  Is that You?)  And, the theory worked – and is still working for me 30 years later.  What a time saver!

Any time you order linen from me, I will give you the shrinkage factors from that particular bolt.  The shrinkage factors on bolt I’m using right now are 1.045 for the length and 1.055 for the width.  The next bolt will be slightly different.

With this information, I was able to fill the linen orders for 120 parishes.  And, this project was taken on by a girl living in Champlain and worshiping at Christ’s and St. Johns.  She built a worktable to fit on top of her husband’s billiard table.  I’d send her the orders, Elaine would call her best friend, Mary (a Presbyterian) and they’d spend a happy day preparing fair linens.  Elaine’s husband providing lunch and appropriate beverages.  Wonderful!  A very, very successful project – which saved our parishes a huge amount of money!  Great stewardship!

Too bad this ministry was terminated by the next episcopate – for reasons I’ve never understood.

And this bit of the story segues into a discussion of mensa linens.

While I don’t put much stock in titles, I am blessed to hold the title of The Cathedral Laundress (I love washing and ironing linens!).  Our Cathedral of All Saints has 7 altars (our National Cathedral has 12 altars; St. John the Divine has, I believe, 14 altars).  As most of our linens are very old, I’m replacing as well as washing and ironing.  Standing in front of our high altar (4 yards long with 36 inch falls) it occurred to me to wonder why we put falls on our linens?  Why not just mensa linens (linens that cover only the altar top – the mensa).  Much less linen needed, less hem yardage to stitch up, less ironing.  Made sense to me!  So, I made an mensa linen for our high altar.  What a mess!

Shrinkage factors can be counted on to give precision over a short distance – the width of the fair linen.  Over long distances – the length of the fair linen – the slightest variation will create a discrepancy.

Linen that have falls can absorb a discrepancy. A 1 – 4 inch discrepancy in length on a fair linen with falls doesn’t make any difference; it’s ok if the fall is 32 inches long rather than 30 inches long.  A mensa linen that is 1 inch too long is not acceptable.  Mensa linens are precision work.


  1. This is why we make our linens with falls; falls give us flexibility.
  2. Mensa linens require considerably more time than linens with falls because they must be worked from completely pre-shrunk linen.   As well, working with pre-shrunk linen is unpleasant because – it’s been shrunk!  The weave is now considerably tighter.  Pins do not slip through easily making setting the hems for basting awkward; the needle does not slip trough easily for basting; the needle does not slip through readily for hand stitching.

I just finished preparing a group of 5 linens – two of which were mensa linens.   Going from basting a mensa linen to basting one of the fresh linens was so different!  So much smoother!

End of story!

Note: Dritz offers a ‘Mark-B-Gone’ marking pen – a really good idea.  They allege that the marks can be removed with a damp cloth (I flood the marked areas with water).  However!  The marks tend to come back as brown/tan lines that cannot be removed by knuckle-rubbing with detergent, Oxy-Clean or Clorox.  HOWEVER!!!  These marks disappear in the presence of cream of tartar.  I have been told that cream of tartar is the universal rust remover.  I don’t know about that.  I do know that cream of tartar has a beneficial effect upon the ‘mystery stains’ that plague our altar linens.  I commit our altar linens to cream of tartar baths every few months – just on general principle.  Cream of tartar can be acquired less expensively from health food stores that sell their seeds and seasonings in bulk.  I keep a pint Mason jar of it next to my stove.  I ‘poach’ my linens in the solution, just below the simmer.  Linen loves hot water!

A chuckle for you:  This is Lucy – my quality control officer – watching as I iron out a fair linen.  Lucy knows that she is not to touch the Lord’s linens – she knows that!  However, being a cat………………….

IMG_0936    IMG_0937


She will put one little arm or one little paw right on the edge.

WAX SPOTS ON FAIR LINENS – Wax spots will come out by themselves over two or three washings.  Until the spots come out, a wax ‘shadow’ will remain.  While it is possible to remove wax from our altar linens, the removal process unduly stresses our valuable linen.  As in many things, nothing beats prevention.  But, the best laid plans of mice and men ……………….  Wax spots happen.  I, personally, allow wax spots to come out by themselves over a couple of washings – for  two reasons:  First, I really don’t think that God minds very much about wax shadows.  Second, I agree with something an experienced linen person told me last week, “Wax shadows are gentle, tactful reminders to our clergy that their acolytes need to review of their candle practices.”

Wax spots are caused by:

–  Extinguishing the candle by blowing on it – which extinguishes the candle nicely and also puffs molten wax over anything nearby (followed immediately by the statement, “Oh, the Altar Guild will take care of that.”)

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 78th 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 and my opinions are pretty strong:

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: One 54 X 60 and the other 60 inches IN DIAMETER!  I’m just finishing the preparation of a 48 inch wide fair linen.  I’m about to begin the preparation of two fair linens 63 inches square.  I’m really 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 linen 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 homes, 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 the acolytes have blown a chunk of fresh wax on it, it’s all too easy to say, “Oh, it will be ok for another week.” Or, “We’ll change it when the Bishop comes.”

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.  While I don’t know, I would imagine that the purpose of this new altar was to express the importance of the altar.  The purpose of the large size was emphasize the majesty of the celebration of Holy communion.

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 perspective was wrong!  You had to walk up several steps to get to the altar and the altar was 40 inches tall.  The altar top was at least 3 feet higher than the nave.  The altar could have been 30 inches wide for all the congregation could see.  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.

Aren’t church architects supposed to be fluent with perspective?

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.  Imagine having to ‘warn’ visiting clergy about the ‘strangeness’ of an altar!

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.


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!

That’s you!

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Related Pages: Antique Linens | Embroidery Patterns & Books