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Polly Meynell, vestment designer

18 July 2014

'It's disrespectful to God not to use the very best that one can produce'

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 character.

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 experimentation.

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 Escher.

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 me part-time.

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 worth it. 

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 properties.

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. www.pollymeynell.com

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