ELIZABETH BINGHAM, the author of Kneelers: The unsung folk art of England and Wales, published this month, says that her book is the product of decades. The inspiration came 30 years ago, while church-crawling in Cornwall with her husband. They found — in “church after church after church” — that the kneelers or hassocks were all crudely stitched from ready-made patterns that she dismisses as identical and “very boring”.
In earlier times, churchgoers had always designed and made their own, decorating them with references to local wildlife or history, buildings or people; but her experience in Cornwall showed that this tradition was now under threat. “I realised we were losing what used to be an absolute joy,” she says.
Mrs Bingham’s response was to set up a website (parishkneelers.co.uk) to showcase some of the treasures to be found in pews around the country. She hoped that her venture would provide inspiration for parishes, and also a practical resource by making clear the savings to be made by working to home-grown designs.
Today, she plays down her success — “a little website doesn’t work against commercial advertising, and so I never got anywhere” — but that is to underestimate the achievement of having catalogued about 5000 kneelers: a figure that, she thinks, represents one per cent of the total in existence.
The new book is the next step in bringing the art to a wider audience. It is also, incidentally, the successor to A Picture Book for Kneeler-Makers by Joan Edward, a lecturer in embroidery at the V&A, which came out in 1984 as a result of a letter to the Church Times asking for information and anecdotes from readers engaged in designing and making their own kneelers. Her appeal elicited 200 or so responses.
At their best, Mrs Bingham says, hassocks are local, original, and unique, and provide a rich and vivid record of the social history of past decades.
THE history of decorated church kneelers and seat cushions begins in the 17th century with what is known as “Turkey work”: a knotting technique similar to that used in carpet making.
Only skilled artisans could produce Turkey work. The development in the 19th century of “Berlin work” opened up the possibility of decorative needlework to amateur stitchers, and it was this — alongside the invention of Rexine, an artificial leather, in 1915 — that laid the foundation for modern hassocks.
Amanda WatersThe Royal Air Force church in the City of London, St Clement Danes, has rows of kneelers marked with the initials of each of those who died
But the first use of canvaswork to decorate ecclesiastical cushions — and therefore the birth of the church kneeler as we know it — was for the chapel in the Bishop’s Palace, Winchester, at the request of the then Bishop, the Rt Revd Theodore Woods, in 1931. The Dean of Winchester followed suit by commissioning a set for the cathedral’s choir stalls.
The two women at the heart of the Winchester project were Louisa Pesel, who instructed the team of stitchers, and Sybil Blunt (“a textile artist of genius”, Mrs Bingham says), who took inspiration for her designs from the history of Winchester, from King Arthur and the Round Table to modern times. It was a huge undertaking: the Broderers’ Scroll in the cathedral library is a four-metre illuminated record of the names of more than 800 people who took part (Features, 29 November 2019).
The project was completed in 1938 to great fanfare, and the practice of making hassocks and seat cushions for cathedrals and churches began to spread. After a hiatus during the Second World War, when decorative stitching gave way to more practical sewing, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth relaunched enthusiasm for kneeler-making in England and Wales.
Stitching was very much part of life in the 20th century, Mrs Bingham, who is 83, says. “I remember as a child, you never saw people sitting down in the evening, particularly the women, and not having a basket beside them that had socks to be darned or a hem that had to be let down. That went on for some time after the war. Austerity was quite severe.”
By the time King George VI died, people were a little richer. “We could do decorative embroidery — we didn’t have to go on darning socks — and people wanted to celebrate the Coronation.”
She refers to Chelsea Old Church as an example of a parish that launched a kneeler-making project in the 1950s, in celebration of its own rebirth after being bombed in the Blitz, as well as of the Coronation. “Its kneelers became famous and helped spur on the new countrywide enthusiasm for the craft,” she says. Other centres that pioneered the craft were Hereford Cathedral and Lancaster Priory.
Sebastian MortonSamuel Pepys (1633-1703) used the All Hallows tower to watch the Great Fire of London
Aspects of the Second World War were frequently depicted in designs, she says, including military insignia and memorials. At the time, approximately one third of stitchers were men. “There were a great number of men who had lost colleagues and friends, and who very much wanted to honour that memory and did not want to share the horrors of war, but they would share their regimental badge or whatever it might be.”
Otherwise, everything from tractors and trains to angels and archangels has been pictured, along with mythical beasts, plants, and wildlife, and favourite Bible stories. (“Kneelers and seat cushions are concerned with the cheerful: the solemn aspects of Christianity are not felt suitable for sitting on or for being kicked about on the floor,” she writes.)
Could the Coronation of King Charles perhaps inspire a revival? “I don’t think so,” she says. “People now watch screens and don’t sit stitching in the evenings. So few people now want to do cross stitch.” Nor, by and large, do people choose to kneel in church any more.
HER publishers describe Mrs Bingham as “a leading authority” on church kneelers — but she insists that she is an “ordinary person who likes stitching”. By profession, she is a former primary-school teacher.
So, how did she get started? In the late 1960s, inspired by some of the other churches undertaking kneeler projects, she suggested to the secretary of the Friends of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, in London, that they start one there. “I thought, well, if they can do it, why don’t we? In those days, people were happy to count; so we had pencilled-in patterns on graph paper, and you copied that — four stitches along from left to right, or two stitches up, eight stitches downwards, and so forth.”
The location of All Hallows’ and its history provided plenty of inspiration, from figures such as Samuel Pepys — who watched the Great Fire of London from the tower — to Sir Francis Chichester, who launched his yacht Gipsy Moth IV from neighbouring Tower Hill before sailing round the world.
Her second kneeler project, a decade or two later, was for the rural parish of St Cynog, Boughrood, in Radnorshire, in Wales, for which she attempted to illustrate the Benedicite. In all, she has made “over 100 but under 200” kneelers.
Rose DavidsonBuses helped to open the countryside to schoolchildren and shoppers. From St Peter’s, Tewin, Herts.
Mrs Bingham’s book is colourfully illustrated with some of her favourite examples, demonstrating the sheer variety of the designs used. Some are artistically “not that good”, she says; but many are spectacular.
“There was a retired headmaster in Suffolk who had never drawn or painted in his life. He’d never even sewn on a button,” she says. He had recently moved house. “There was a bit of wallpaper lying about, so he sketched what it looked like from his bedroom window on the back of a piece of paper.
“The altar-rail kneelers and the cushions that he then produced in the late 1970s are among the most beautiful I have come across.”
As well as a celebration of church kneelers, Mrs Bingham’s book is a rallying cry that they should be valued more highly. “I mean, one needs to point out that not every design that is local and unique is necessarily therefore interesting, but it’s the fact that people tried that is important.”
Kneelers often tell the story of a community: of houses in the village and the families that have lived there. “As I started putting together the book, I realised how much social history has been recorded on kneelers. For example, I remember — because I’m very old — fields being ploughed with a horse and a man behind.” Balance this against the kneeler illustrating a nuclear power plant, and you can’t but reflect on the dramatic changes of the past 70 years.
Did the enthusiasm for craft activities that burgeoned during the pandemic encompass kneelers? Mrs Bingham doubts it, unless we’re thinking about commercial kits. (“You can knock out a kneeler in a weekend, but the designs are breathtakingly boring,” she says.)
SHE does not believe that the Church appreciates the worth of kneelers. The removal of pews makes kneeling difficult. “Kneelers and kneeler-makers are becoming redundant,” she writes. “The Anglican Church protects its crockets and corbels, but only protests ecclesiastical textiles such as altar frontals and embroidered vestments. Canvaswork cushions and kneelers have no ecclesiastical purpose, and can be dumped at will by modernising pastors.”
She mentions Derby Cathedral, where 1500 kneelers are kept in store; and Winchester Cathedral, where, she says, some of Sybil Blunt’s work is locked away. “And, in many parish churches, fine folk-art kneelers have been put in storage or binned.”
She doesn’t regret this if the kneelers are made from commercial kits. “But I mourn the loss of kneelers made — often to humble and clumsy designs — by stitchers enchanted by local wildlife or activities or landmarks. And, of course, I’m sorry at the loss of folk and community art’s finer examples.”
These, she believes, need protection. She is hoping to get the director of the V&A, Dr Tristram Hunt, interested. “I mean, apart from the importance of the work, if all kneelers are going to get thrown away, they ought at least to be recorded. I very, very strongly feel that.”
Kneelers: The unsung folk art of England and Wales by Elizabeth Bingham is published by Chatto & Windus at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £16); 978-1-78474-396-3.