Silk is the queen of all fabrics. I did a
degree in constructed textiles at Brunel University, and wrote my
dissertation on silk - something I have had a passion for since I
was very young.
I wanted to study the history of this fabulous
fabric, and, in doing so, found that it was uniquely
bound to the Church.
Under the microscope, silk fibres act as
a prism to the light; so it has a wonderful sheen - a life of its
own. When it was first brought over from the Orient, people thought
it was extraordinary. And the fact that it's made by insects is
another extraordinary thing: you can't quite imagine that a worm
could make something so beautiful.
It's incredibly strong, and takes dye
beautifully. It was very expensive, and only the rich could afford
it; so it set them apart, and made them look very special - the
best that money could buy.
Silk isn't used very often by off-the-peg vestment
companies, because people want things they can wash
easily, and are more durable in a different sense. You have to keep
silk away from the light, make sure it's well pressed. But the flip
side is that polyester, and so on, will never look as good as silk.
That's why it's still in use.
I actively avoid any fabric that has a predominantly
man-made fibre. They just seem to be devoid of
A lot of clergy may not have the time or inclination to
have something extremely splendid, and it may well
not be appropriate in their particular church. But someone trying
to demonstrate a very special position requires something very
special, and it's disrespectful to God not to use the very best
that one can produce.
I was lucky enough to be commissioned by the Drapers'
Company, whilst still at university, to make a cope
for the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, for his inauguration as Bishop of
London in 1997. This seemed like a pretty firm start, and I set up
my own business shortly after that.
Each project provides its own
inspiration. I can't contemplate designing anything
for a building unless I've been to visit the space, and allowed it
to dictate to me what needs to be represented. I also rely on
conversations with the clergy attached to the building, who can
provide the message they would like me to incorporate.
Some buildings inspire more than others,
and I can have a moment of very clear inspiration. Other projects
take more time and require a great deal of thought and
I've always loved the work of the
Bauhaus, particularly Kandinsky and Paul Klee. But I
also love the more abstract rhythms and energy of Jackson Pollock.
As a complete contrast, I also love the mathematical beauty of
I like to make a more tailored cope,
which is simply a garment that has been shaped. The traditional
pattern for a cope, which has remained unchanged for hundreds of
years, is a semi-circle. It has a slightly cut-away section around
the neck, but otherwise it's a garment that relies on gravity to
keep it in place. If it's not very heavy, it will invariably slide
about on the shoulders, because there is nothing fitted about it.
Most shoulders are relatively similar in size, regardless of the
waistline; so as this is where the shaping will be on a cope, it
will help it stay in place better.
I think there is a difference in designing for women
clergy. They haven't been granted their own style of
vestment yet - I hope I may be able to do something about that in
the future - and the Synod's vote makes this a very good time to
talk about it. Women's bodies are different, and should be treated
accordingly. This may mean that the design work is more refined,
and the cut of the garments a little more delicate.
I've never really considered the day-to-day wear of
women clergy; my speciality is more formal robes. I
was asked to look at cassocks and albs and other bits and pieces,
but I chose not to do the ordinary daywear because vestments are
more exciting: there's a lot more to them. But I do think that
there ought to be a different option for women. I don't know if I'm
the right person, but someone should be considering an alternative
uniform. It's about time.
I'm very fond of a set of six banners
that I designed to commemorate the life of Bishop Bell for an
exhibition at Chichester Cathedral. Three of the banners represent
reconciliation and healing, the mainstay of Bishop Bell's work and
mission; and the other three are the antithesis, representing
disease and all that is undone. The healing banners now reside in
my parish church in Barnham, and the disease banners are at my
home.It's a pity that they cannot be displayed together, but each
one measures five metres long by a metre wide; so there are not
many spaces that can easily accommodate them.
My most recent commission has been entirely my own work
from start to finish, but this is getting more
unusual as I am getting busier. I have two embroiderers working for
I have to be very professional about my
work: it is my living, after all. But I do certainly
feel a spiritual element in the design stage. I'm frequently moved
by the buildings or the communities I visit, and that helps to
guide me towards a design. But, once I get to the physical making
and number-crunching reality, it is very much a normal job.
I love the great outdoors, and have
always loved my garden, and these are things that continue to
sustain and enrich me. I don't have any particular desire at the
moment for world travel, nor do I have my eye on any large material
objects. I have to be honest and say that I feel very blessed with
my life, my work, my family, and my home, as these are all I could
ever wish for.
I'm the middle child - I have an older
sister and younger brother - of an architect, and midwife and
infant-feeding specialist. I had a wonderful childhood in Sussex,
growing up in a house with my paternal grandparents, who were
book-collectors and keen gardeners. We had lots of space to run
about and be creative, and from the age of ten or so I was
beginning to dream of a house that my dad might design for me to
live in one day.
My husband and I have been married 20 years this
year, and we have very nearly finished this dream
house, designed by my dad and built by my husband. Building a house
has been a real test of endurance for us all, but particularly for
our children, who are now ten and 12. Still, it's definitely been
We bought an acre of derelict, smallholding land covered
in dilapidated greenhouses. We hewed and hacked and
sculpted the plot, and now it's a beautiful organic garden with the
house in the middle, having a view of the garden from every window.
It's an eco house, with all of the heat and hot water, and most of
the light, provided by the sun. The house is super-insulated,
designed for the site it's sitting on, and designed for us as a
family. Even down to the floors, which are extraordinary tiles made
of linseed oil and wheat called Marmoleum, with really fantastic
I love travelling within the British
Isles. I went backpacking to China when I was 17,
and was asked by someone when I was there to describe my country. I
had to confess I knew very little, so I have been trying to remedy
that ever since.
My favourite sound is birdsong.
My parents, my husband, and my children have been my
greatest influences, without a doubt.
I love reading biographies: real stories
about real people.
I pray for my husband and my family, and,
after them, all those in need of love.
I think I would like to meet St Peter. He
has watched every single person who has died pass through his gate,
and I bet he would have a story or two to tell.
Polly Meynell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.