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Obituary: Sylvia Hearn

06 November 2020

The Revd Simon Walsh writes:

SYLVIA HEARN was one of the most talented ecclesiastical seamstresses of her generation and worked for Watts & Co. for more than half a century. Remarkably, she spent almost her entire life in two London postcodes.

The first was where she was born and remained: NW1 — the Regents Park and Somers Town area, just north of Euston Road. The youngest of nine children, she attended the parish school of St Mary Magdalene’s, Munster Square, the local Anglo-Catholic church in which her family worshipped. After her brief wartime evacuation to Bedford, it was the home to which she returned and would live until her final days.

Her working life began in a clothes factory near by, but she soon moved to Faith Craft, in Westminster SW1, which had been founded during during the First World War to make affordable vestments and, in 1951, organised the Festival of Britain Exhibition of Church Art at Lambeth Palace. By the time the Society of the Faith closed Faith Craft in 1969, owing to rising costs and changing tastes, Sylvia had joined the iconic Watts & Co. a few floors down in Faith House.

Established in 1874, this venerable firm with noble lineage had been boosted in the 1950s by the arrival of Elizabeth “Betty” Hoare, great-granddaughter of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Running the firm solo from 1965, the redoubtable Mrs Hoare had declined to take part in the post-Vatican II polyester wars, knowing that long-lasting, classic designs were best. She was aided in this by a reliable and needle-skilled team of fabric and embroidery experts with a feel for the beauty of holiness. It was into this milieu that Sylvia settled naturally.

The Tufton Street shop with workroom behind was a whirl of sumptuous fabrics, high-quality vestments, and revived furnishings. Clergy of refinement would often appear for sherry and a chat. Mindful of history, the firm reproduced many archive patterns and painstakingly restored a constant stream of decent garments and frontals from the previous century. It was all continuity and quality; the reputation continues to this day.

A strong woman of faith, Sylvia also had practical church experience. She was the sacristan at Munster Square, itself a Tractarian parish with fine Victoriana, and, in the 1970s, moved across to Old St Pancras church to do the same. A regular mass-goer, be it on Sunday or weekdays, and never pious, she took her responsibilities seriously and was still setting up until the church was closed in March this year for lockdown.

She was a regular pilgrim, to destinations including the Holy Land, Turkey, Bruges, Oberammergau, and annually Walsingham. Parish trips were rarely missed, especially to the seaside with their promise of tea and an ice cream. She had lifelong friends in these parishes, too, and was often to be found with her neighbour and pal, Sylvia Brantingham (Gazette, 10 July), who worked at Church House. They would travel into Westminster together on the 24 bus.

Sylvia never truly retired, as she was still going into Watts twice a week until the national lockdown prevented her. Robert Hoare, the current managing director and Betty’s grandson, believes her to be the longest-serving employee in the firm’s history. “Sylvia was a real hard worker and totally dedicated. Though not a fan of working with velvet, she had a good eye and a loyal following. One priest recently called by, not having seen her for 40 years; she had made all his vestments throughout his whole vocation. We all miss her greatly.”

As a tribute, her former colleagues at Watts made a pall to adorn her coffin, and the incumbent, Fr James Elston, wore vestments at her requiem mass which she had made for the parish. She was constantly in demand among north London clergy and churches for commissions, and worked ad hoc with the ex-Watts director and old friend Donald Denham, who ran a small retirement service in Somerset until his death in March this year.

The loss of such friends, routine, and contact in both work and church were hard for Sylvia. She never married, but was cherished by her family, and loved being among people — particularly in church, where she was devout and the aspects of her life came together like the best combination of faith, fabric, and friends.

She died on 20 August, aged 86.

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