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A stitch in time immemorial

01 July 2016

In the fourth part of our series looking at ecclesiastical vesture, Pat Ashworth finds traditional embroidery skills being put to contemporary effect

Paul Hurst

Like this: Helen Jenkins talking to visitors on a tour of Norwich cathedral broderers’ workshop

Like this: Helen Jenkins talking to visitors on a tour of Norwich cathedral broderers’ workshop

A GLANCE at the enthronement robes of the past four Archbishops of Canterbury is as good a guide as any to the story that vestments tell: the changing times in which the Church lives, and the new freedoms in worship which have come with the passage of the years. Robert Runcie’s enthrone­ment cope was designed and made by Jenny Boyd-Carpenter, who fam­ously also looked after his Berkshire pigs; the robes for his enthronement eucharist were commissioned from Beryl Dean, a leading exponent of modernist design in ecclesiastical embroidery.

She rejected the traditional Victorian style that had flourished since the Gothic revival, and saw no reason why a designer should not give free rein to individual expression in this as in any other field of textile design. Her book, Ecclesiastical Embroidery, pub­lished in 1958, was hugely influ­ential, as was the exhibition of contemporary ecclesiastical em­­broidery which she mounted in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1968, and from which sprang many a church and cathedral embroidery group.

Watts & Co, whose designs were at the fore­front of what was termed the “New Elizabethan” style, which followed the Festival of Britain in 1951 (it was their own Keith Murray who designed the copes made for the Queen’s coronation), tell a story about the enmity between Dean and Elizabeth Hoare, a great-niece of one of Watts’s founders.

Dean had joined the firm in the 1950s, and “brought a panache and style which had been missing before”, Richard Hawker, the com­pany’s retail manager, says. Hoare, who died in 2001, also had “a brilliant eye for colour, and often a very cutting tongue”, he says. Confronted on one occasion by a cathedral high-altar frontal designed by Dean, and asked for her opinion, she delivered a withering “I don’t comment on rubbish.”

Dean was awarded an MBE in 1975 for services to church embroidery; and in 1977 she produced the work for which she is perhaps most lauded: the stunning Jubilee Cope featuring St Paul’s and 73 London churches, embroidered entirely in metal thread.

In 1991, George Carey chose the designer Juliet Hemingray for his enthronement robes. Her design was based on the Compass Rose in the floor of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, depicting flames spreading out from the compass points to represent the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. Hand-couched Greek letters translate as “The truth will set you free.”

Wales showed its pride in a Welsh archbishop when Rowan Williams was enthroned in 2003: his exquisite robes of dark-gold silk, designed and made in Wales from Welsh materials, and paid for by an anonymous donation of £10,000, drew on the Celtic Christian tradition.

He wore them throughout his ten years as Archbishop, and then returned them to the Welsh people. They are now a leading exhibit in the National Museum of Wales, demon­strating Welsh craftsmanship.

For his enthronement in 2013, Justin Welby opted for simplicity: he resisted pressure to have special robes made, and chose instead to wear what had become known as the “Cundy cope” — the cope and mitre worn by the late Ian Cundy when he was Bishop of Peterborough.

Also designed by Juliet Hemingray, these depict the wedding at Cana. Blues and purples represent both the water changed into wine and the waters of baptism, with three golden fish on the mitre, represent­ing the Trinity, and symbolising the call for Christians to be fishers of men.

Archbishop Welby had been a student of Bishop Cundy’s at St John’s College, Durham, and at Cranmer Hall, which pre­sented the robes to Bishop Cundy as a leaving gift. His widow, Jo, offered the vest­ments to Archbishop Welby when he was appointed Bishop of Durham, and the Cundy family was de­lighted that they had found a new life, and that they fitted the new wearer perfectly. “It’s the most intricate cope that he has, and the one around the world that he is most recognised in,” his former chaplain the Revd Dr Jo Bailey Wells says. Overseas visits sometimes necessitate “a whole check-in suitcase, some­times one of everything”, she observes. “Where vestments are concerned, he will be guided by those hosting him, but his preference is always for simplicity.”


AS FOR the makers of textiles, convent work­rooms such as the Society of St Margaret (SSM) at East Grin­stead, founded in 1855, and its famous Lon­don branch, St Katharine’s School of Embroidery, pro­duced exquisite work as part of the Anglo-Catholic reviv­al. Many such work­rooms survived well into the 20th century, before they took a tumble in the period of mas­sive change in the Church in the 1960s and ’70s.

A large propor­tion of the making of vestments and asso­ciated church furnish­ings is still undertaken by long-established practitioners such as Wippells, and Watts & Co, where the big names over the past few years have been topped by David Gazeley, designer of the cope worn by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cam­bridge. But beautiful work continues to be produced by Broderers’ Guilds, which are thriv­ing again in many cathedrals, in an upturn that has seen demand increase. York Minster Broderers have made most of the cathedral’s textiles since the 1980s, and are “incredibly skilled people, whose work is phenomenal”, the Head of Collections, Vicky Harrison, says.

The textiles collection in a place such as York Minster might be expected to be particularly venerable. Not so: much was lost in a fire in 1829, and was not immediately re­­placed. Most of the vestments in use today date from the 1920s. After an influx of vest­ments in the 1970s, the Minster has one of the most important collections from that period. And there are oddities from the collection amassed by Eric Milner-White, Dean from 1941 to 1963, who, in fulfilment of his vision to return the Minster to its medieval glory, bought from elsewhere older pieces that had never been used in York.

”He bought a lot of re-used material, too, such as an Epiphany banner, in 1956, that had actually been adapted from a bedspread from Norway. . . And some Chinese robes, bought by him and used in an Epiphany procession; and a red high-mass set, given by the Emperor of China to Queen Victoria on her marriage to Albert, and re-purposed,” Ms Harrison says.

The star of the collection is probably a set of cloth-of-gold vestments given in 1909 by the 2nd Viscount Halifax, who was President of the English Church Union. They have just been retired: the surviving thread of gold is now too strong for the surrounding fabric.

The York Broderers have just finished the many pieces of a green high-mass set that — such is the intricacy of the work, and the fineness of the stitching — they have been working on for eight years. It is a glorious depiction of Creation, intended for Ordinary time, and Vicky Harrison describes it as “quite a piece”.

”In a space as big as York Minster, the biggest challenge is making something that can be seen,” she observes. “That’s why a lot of gold thread is used: it catches your eye as the light hits it, as does beadwork, which also tends to add texture. The design has to be centred, always drawing your eye into the middle and up to the cross.”


THE reputation of Norwich Broderers, led by Helen Jenkins, has spread beyond Norwich Cathedral, and they now undertake outside work as well as their own. The latest is a set of lay canons’ gowns for Chichester Cathedral, in burgundy wool with gold silk damask orphreys.

Some of Mrs Jenkins’s 17 volunteers have come from industry; others are keen hobby-sewers who have been embroidering and involved in other textiles crafts for many years. Temperament, good eyesight, dexterity, and — above all — innate ability are the particular skills they bring. The oldest volun­teer, Audrey Kinder, is in her nineties.

Eighteen years ago, when the group started, the work was predominantly repairs, altera­tions, and what Mrs Jenkins describes as small bits and pieces. “But the work developed, and we have done a considerable amount of new things, including copes and high-mass sets,” she says.

”Churches tend to root around, perhaps when a new vicar or churchwarden is ap­­pointed, and find what looks like a scruffy something or other in a dusty cupboard, or even a bin-liner, which was intended to be thrown out but never got as far as the tip.” In terms of cost, she says, the restoration of a beautiful piece of work such as an altar frontal and the creation of a new one work out “pretty much the same”.

Machine-embroidered vestments are still coming to Britain from Roman Catholic countries, but Britain preserves its reputation for imaginative and finely executed hand work. The Royal School of Needlework has trained many of the key embroiders in this country, and is renowned in particular for the teaching of godwork, something that goes back 1000 years. It uses a wide variety of metal threads, including gilt, copper, and silver, and can be combined with other techniques, such as silk-shading, to produce sumptuous effects.

Tracy Franklin, who leads the long-established Durham Cathedral Broderers, trained at the Royal School of Needlework, and still works independently with, and for, them. Her broderers completed their big­gest commission two years ago, when the Lenten array of frontals and vestments was dedicated on Ash Wednesday. Four years’ work went into the project: a design of the crown of thorns and the grasses of the wilderness.

”They were talking in terms of fairly traditional design at first, but I wanted to do something quite sensitive,” Ms Franklin re­­members. “The crown of thorns is in appliquéd gold and leather on unbleached linen fabric, but we put in some desert grasses to give colour and light and hope.”

Unseen except by those in the know, each blade carries the name of the embroiderer who sewed it. This is especially poignant, as two of them have since died. The 16 broderers are now working on three projects simul­taneously, including a cope with 16 panels depicting the life of St Cuthbert, which is a work in progress designed as an exhibit for Durham Cathedral’s “Open Treasures” exhibi­tion in July.


SOUTHWARK CATHEDRAL has had a Broderers Guild since 1987, and marked the Queen’s Jubilee with a new set of vestments from the designer Lisa Bilby. It was “a work of love”, the Broderers, who were joined by new members for the project, said.

Each of the lilies on the orphreys took 50 hours alone; and the copes incorporated flowers and other symbols associated with the diocese, including roses, lavender, and oak leaves. The robes were dedicated by the Bishop of Southwark on 21 November 2013, during a visit by the Queen.

Younger companies in the field of ecclesiastical outfitters have also been making their mark over the past couple of decades. Croft Design, based in Shropshire, began 25 years ago as the husband-and-wife team of Brendon and Julie Quinn; now they are a well-established supplier with staff and an appren­tice, Charlotte Tonks, who is just about to be taken on full-time. Their order books are full, and their work is extensive, from the vestments and furnishings for the Lambeth Conference in 2008 — “such a privilege”, Mr Quinn says — to the cloth work for the renovation of the St Thomas Canteloupe shrine at Hereford Cathedral.

There is work for churches and ministers wanting tiny sets of vestments for “miniature bishops” at schools. Church meets stage in commissioned ecclesiastical robes for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. The most elaborate robes that they have ever made have been not for a cathedral, but for All Saints’, Wokingham: a set of vestments speci­fied in a legacy, and two years in the planning with the Rector, the Revd David Hodgson.

“There were 15 chasubles, each a bespoke item based on a scriptural brief, and in every possible colour combination,” Mr Quinn says. “They had a flower festival the week after we delivered them, and it was just stunning. A dying trade? Absolutely not.”

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