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Jane Austen kneeler completed for Winchester Cathedral

07 June 2024

The new design

The new design

A KNEELER representing the life and work of Jane Austen has been completed by the embroiderers of Winchester Cathedral, after a special request and donation from the bestselling author Tracy Chevalier.

The original watercolour design

Ninety years ago, two women, Louise Pesel and Sybil Blunt, became famous in the world of embroidery for their work at the cathedral. The pair had been commissioned to design and stitch hundreds of kneelers and cushions, initially for use in the 14th-century choir stalls, and subsequently elsewhere in the building. The embroidery and designs were said to be of such a high standard, and were so widely acclaimed in the 1930s, that Queen Mary visited Winchester for the sole purpose of seeing their work. Their design, now officially known as the “Winchester Style”, has been replicated in other cathedrals.

Ms Chevalier fictionalised their story in her 2019 novel, A Single Thread (Books, 29 November 2019).

In the annual magazine of the Friends of Winchester Cathedral at the time, she wrote: “There are many ways to consider a cathedral. . . You can admire its architecture, its stained glass, its sculpture, its bells. You can study the lives of its monks and bishops and deans. You can treat it as the social centrepiece of a city. But few stop to think about the cushions we sit on, the kneelers we pray on, and how they too might contribute literally and figuratively to the history of a cathedral.”

On a visit to the Friends shortly after the novel was published, Ms Chevalier viewed the complete set of the original drawings of the 1930s Pesel and Blunt cushion designs, including one that was never made, which depicted the names of three celebrated Hampshire women: Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Yonge.

The so-called “missing cushion” was immediately commissioned, with a significant donation from Ms Chevalier to cover the cost of the work. The present cathedral embroiderers have now finished the work, in a new design, in time for the 250th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth, next year. The cushion is to be assigned to a stall in the cathedral during a service later this year.

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