This Catholic Culture article seeks to provide insight into our sisters’ experience of making ecclesiastical embroidery and to provide links to other online resources for those who wish to learn more about giving new life to this old art.
Brief History of Ecclesiastical Embroidery
From the time of the ancient Hebrew priesthood and its vestments, there have been textiles, weavings and embroideries made exclusively for the service of God. Early Christian art and writings attest to the continuity of such liturgical vestments and the presence of ornate embroidery in the beginning of the Church.
“Ecclesiastical embroidery” refers to the fine stitch work executed exclusively for use in worship usually as a form of special ornamentation on altar linens, vestments, etc.
Few early Christian textiles and embroideries have survived since by their nature fabric easily corrupts through use and washing, as well as from the effects of mildew, moths, sun damage and time itself. (A particular exception to this can be found in the 4th and 5th century Coptic textiles which remained remarkably preserved in Egypt’s dry climate; the collection of Coptic textiles at the Met includes items ornamented with Roman pagan as well as Christian themes.)
Most of the earliest surviving ecclesiastical embroideries date from 10th-11th centuries. Catholic Encyclopedia (New Advent) provides some historical background to this art in their entry on ecclesiastical embroidery.
To see a wide variety of exquisite embroideries and textiles made for the glory of God over the past 500 years, see the search results for “chasuble” on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This reveals 173 historical vestments and detailed ecclesiastical textile and embroidery. Similarly, the search results for “ecclesiastical vestment” reveals stoles, paintings of vestments and other beautiful Catholic artwork.
Our Experience of Ecclesiastical Embroidery
Joining a long tradition of sisters who have made ecclesiastical embroidery to give glory to God, we also learn how to make and ornament linens and vestments destined for sacred use. Since few young women in our times come to the convent already knowing how to embroider, we pass on the foundations of this craft in our houses of formation during recreation and through workshops. Later in the missions, sisters may use this skill and meditative practice to beautify their convent chapels and parish churches.
Vestments for the IVE
Our sisters usually take on the duty of making the chasuble and stole which will vest a new IVE priest on the day of his ordination. As sisters in the Religious Family of the Incarnate Word, we are especially united to the priests of the IVE (the male branch) who serve as our chaplains, confessors, spiritual directors, and pastors of most of the mission parishes where we serve. It is even not uncommon for there to be brothers and sisters from the same family consecrated to God within the IVE and SSVM. Therefore, priestly ordinations are not only occasions to thank God for the gift of the priesthood and the outpouring of the sacramental life in the Church, but also “family moments” for all of us united by the same charism and twin constitutions.
The images to be embroidered are chosen by the transitional deacon who will be ordained to the priesthood. The project involves many sisters and becomes a beautiful prayer asking for the holiness and perseverance of the new priest who will become an Alter Christus (“Another Christ”) at the altar.
Techniques:Embroidery, Painting, Direct Appliques
In order to beautify the liturgy, our sisters make not only vestments but also altar linens and altar cloths. We usually first learn how to embroider simple monochrome images on linen or high-quality cotton for corporals, purificators and palls. Some sisters learn how to crochet cinctures and even make fine crochet lace. By studying old albs, two sisters learned how to make complex drawn-thread work and have taught many other sisters over the years how to do it too!
To produce the beautiful images for vestments we often do “thread painting” using synthetic silks on printed fabric images. These can be supplemented with bead-work or even painted faces and hands.
The branch of our cloistered contemplative sisters dedicates a significant part of their work time in a particular way to making vestments, altar cloths, and altar linens, as well as baptismal gowns, brown scapulars, rosaries, and sodality banners.
Commissioned work helps to provide income to support life in the monastery. There is a waiting time for commissioned work since the monastic schedule of prayer comes first and limits the daily work hours.
To order a vestment for a priest’s anniversary, a parish’s annual patronal feast, or for altar linens or baptismal gowns, please contact our sisters:
Monastery of St. Edith Stein
Attn: Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara
Monastery of the Precious Blood
5400 Fort Hamilton ParkwayBrooklyn, NY 11219
Finally, we wish to share with you a poem from the early 20th century which does capture something of the experience of offering time and stitches to honor God’s glory in the liturgy, above all in His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.
The Vestment Maker
Into the sanctuary, work of my hands,
Go, and be worthy!
There in the very Presence of God,
Before the Most Holy,
Gleam fairer, thou, than the lights
On the pale Altar.
Under the sun and the stars and the rain,
Grew, for thy weaving,
Flax, glowing slender and tall in the morn and the eve,
Lightly poised head, ready-crowned for the glory approaching;
But I, who have made thee—
These hands that have shaped thee, and fashioned the cross of redemption
On thy fair linen,
Red must they be in God’s sight—yet—go, thou, and be worthy.
Up to the very Altar, work of my heart,
Go—be thy message
Mute on the ears of man, heard of God:
Plead there for forgiveness…
Shine purer, thou, than the flowers
Strewn on the Altar.
“O send wisdom out of Thy holy place, that, being present, she may labour with us.”
This poem was published in Lucy Vaughn Hayden Mackrille’s book Church Embroidery and Church Vestments (1939, 2nd ed., Chevy Chase, MD)
To view a fairly academic “Embroidery reading list” (which including a subsection on ecclesiastical embroidery) offered by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, click here.
Royal School of Needlework (RSN) in London has a special exhibit “For Worship and Glory” on ecclesiastical embroidery. In particular they will be gathering together 12 embroidered depictions of the Marian titles of the Litany of Loreto.
For detailed photos of one of the pieces see this American embroidery blog page, “Needle’n’Thread”:
A good summary of the types of linens which can be embroidered is given on a refernce page of the Windstar sewing machine company website.